How to Create a Story Structure to Die for

    Prose is architecture, not interior decorating.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

    A story works because of its architecture.  By “works” I mean it stands up.  It holds together.  It’s true.  Structure provides a framework for meaning.

    I wish I’d known that when I started writing.

    Twenty years ago, nothing stood between me and my Hollywood career except actors Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint.  My screenplay had beaten its way through 4000+ scripts to become a finalist in a prestigious L.A. screenwriting competition.

    Then, one of the judges—Jack or Eva—killed it.  My ending sucked.

    The verdict sent me back to my writing hut.  I was desperate to know why I failed.  After writing ten more screenplays and three novels, it dawned on me.  I discovered why fiction flops.  And more importantly, I learned how fiction works.
    Here’s what I learned:

    • A conventional story is actually Two Stories.
    • In the gap between the two lies the Heart of the Story.

    That’s structure, that’s architecture.  And one more thing:

    • In that dark heart of the story, the hero will experience a death.

    If Hemingway said so, would you believe me?

    “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.  And he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.”

    Desire destroys the protagonist.

    Stories depict heroes striving but failing.  And failure is just the start of a hero’s demise.  In good stories, protagonists suffer clear through to emptiness and despair.  The best heroes—the ones with staying power—are driven to a loss of faith in themselves.

    Protagonists will lose faith in who they are.

    Why would anyone want to read anything so depressing?  Hemingway asked the same question:

    “Why should anybody be interested in some old man who was a failure?”

    Except that Hem was being facetious.  The Old Man and the Sea won him the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Hemingway was saying that failure and disappointment are integral to fiction.  As they are in life.

    Failure and Story Structure

    I discovered that loss and disenchantment are central to a good story:

    • Story One comprises all the action leading to the hero’s disillusionment.
    • Story Two consists of everything on the other side of his waking up.
    • Between the failure and redemption lies the dark night known as the Story Heart.

    How simple is that!

    His super-simple story overview isn’t an invention.  It’s an observation.  I studied fiction to see how the best stories work.  Then I drew some conclusions.  About, for instance…

    Character and Story Structure

    A character doesn’t wander through the plot.  The protagonist is the plot.  The protagonist is inseparable from what he or she wants.  Story One concerns the character’s desire for something.  Because of this desire, she is an accident (story) waiting to happen.  For example:

    The Oscar-winner, “The Artist”

    A silent movie star watches in dismay as talking pictures become all the rage.  George Valentin finds himself with no job, no girl, no more adoring fans.  He takes up the bottle and slips into oblivion.  Most protagonists would straightaway fall into the dark heart of the story and wake-up to the facts of life.

    But not George.

    Our hero continues to believe in yesteryear, which lays himself open to more punishment.  The screenwriter pushes George to rage and all the way to self-loathing.  His beliefs are literally killing him.  It looks like George might actually commit suicide.

    That’s a story!

    In a conventional story, this is the time for the protagonist to release his grip on his way of seeing the world.  When forced by fate to surrender, a character sinks into the Heart of the Story. Here, he glimpses his higher nature.  Welcome to Story Two.

    Once again, here’s story structure to die for:

    • Story One—the chain of events that brings a hero to his knees.
    • Heart of the Story—death of the old belief system accompanied by insights into one’s higher nature.
    • Story Two—the far side of the crisis, where the hero demonstrates a new worldview.

    Structure—who needs it?

    Does every writer need a story theory to guide them?  No.  William Shakespeare, for example.  Or Haruki Murakami.  But then I suspect that they are geniuses.

    Do the rest of us need laws of fiction to write by?  No.  A story will take shape on its own. Structure will eventually have its way.  After enough rewrites, critiques, editors (and how many years?) we’ll wind up with a story that looks like a conventional story should.

    A story works because of its architecture.

    Story structure ensures that our heroes suffer enough to discover the truth about themselves.  That truth may lie at the heart of why readers read.  And why writers write!

    (That’s another idea I’m working on.)

    Good stories may prove to be more than just “food for thought”.  Truth, even in fiction, may be real nourishment.  Perhaps that’s why Hemingway once said:

    “All good books have one thing in common—they are truer than if they had really happened.”

    A story seeks structure in order to arrive at the truth.

    That’s the art of fiction.

    What are your thoughts on story structure?  How do you get a bird’s-eye view of your story?  Or maybe you’ve got more great quotes from the masters about “what makes a good story”.  Please share them in the “comments”.

    PJ Reece has been a full-time writer for twenty years.  He has just released a free eBook called, “Story Structure to Die for”.  You can download your copy  here.

    About the author

      PJ Reece

      "PJ Reece has been a professional writer for 25 years. His latest book,"Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story" is now available on Amazon."

    • DHC says:

      A very emotional read, P.J. My favorite parts – that help me understand my OWN story – the story of my own life:
      “Stories depict heroes striving but failing. And failure is just the start of a hero’s demise. In good stories, protagonists suffer clear through to emptiness and despair. The best heroes—the ones with staying power—are driven to a loss of faith in themselves.”

      “The protagonist is the plot. The protagonist is inseparable from what he or she wants … she is an accident (story) waiting to happen.”

      This explains why the heart can ache … and now onto Story #2. Thank you!

      • PJ Reece says:

        No date on your comment, DHC… did you just post it? Thanks, in any event. You sound like you might be entertained by my more recent book on story structure: STORY STRUCTURE EXPEDITION: Journey to the Heart of a Story. I’d love to get your reaction to it — it’s not your usual book on writing. Cheers. ~ PJ

    • This is a great post, PJ. This is such an integral aspect of fiction and so many words have been written about it. But this is clear and simple without dumbing down the concept.

      I would be interested to hear how you think this relates to the classic three-act structure. I have my own ideas, I’m just curious to see what you think?

    • Great writers may violate the rules. But, I think I’ll stick to them until I become one.

      • PJ Reece says:

        Jack… my sentiments exactly! I may write a blog post on that one.

    • PJ Reece says:

      AD… Thanks so much for your comments. I’m gratified by the response to my little eBook, and I’m especially happy to hear that it’s helping a memoirist. You’ve made my day. Cheers.

    • AD says:

      First of all I wish to say a huge thank you for your generosity in giving us your free ebook. I am not a writer, just an old person having a bash at trying to write a memoir. Your simple plan has helped enormously in formulating it.

      Having been forced into hell I can attest that once the slate has been wiped clean; from the depths of darkness emerges freedom and creativity and better pesrpectives on quality of life, loving and caring – the fundamentals of what was important before the hectic pace of living got in the way. I can now tell a story that I have been keeping to myself, but one that may help my future grandchildren in their time of need.

    • GP says:

      Thank you PJ – you’ve inspired me. Happy I’ve found your site – I was in one of those dark hours when I went hunting for inspiration on the web.

    • GP says:

      Do you think this structure applies to memoir?

      • PJ Reece says:

        I just knew someone would ask! Let me put it this way: if you did apply it to memoir, it would be a powerful memoir. Here’s another answer: a life worth memoirizing is probably a life noteworthy for its desire, struggle, failure, and triumph. I would look for the transformative moments in the life story and mine all your sources for the details of the subject’s darkest hours. I would avoid “the light” as much as possible and seek out the dark heart. Readers generally are nourished by failure-become-resurrection.

    • There might be something wrong with me as a writer. Yes, there are tragedies and depressions I put my characters too, but it is also supported by the good things that happen to them, the good things they make happen and the other stuff that happens to the other characters.
      I said there might be something wrong with me- as The Artist’s misery didn’t appeal to me at all. This is the same reason I can’t watch or rewatch Darren Aronofsky movies. I like to have at least a few escapist elements in the story. I like the occasional drama, but life is too short to make my ficitonal heroes to go to hell and not come back. My biggest pet peeve in a story is when I feel like a writer created an event for drama’s sake alone.

      • PJ Reece says:

        Pinar… I too get totally peeved when a writer interferes with the story. It happens when the writer is trying to fit the protagonist into the plot. The plot should evolve out of who the hero is — all her good and bad features. A protagonist should be responsible for everthing that happens to her, good and bad. When the action in a story follows from the decisions a character makes, then we as audience get very curious about what’s going to happen next.

        When you say, “life is too short to make my fictional heroes go to hell…” just make sure you’re not writing a story about “The Valley of the Happy Nice People”, which nobody wants to read. It’s very possible that we read stories exactly because the main character is forced into hell… and there and only there is she forced to recognize aspects of her higher nature. Life is too short NOT to risk seeing who we really could be. Is this the reason we read? It’s a theory I’m working on. Cheers.

        • I’m totally on board with your theory. I do make my characters go through hell each time, but I just don’t keep them there. I also try not to send them to the same hell over and over again:)

    • “A story works because of its architecture.” It seems almost too simple to need to be stated, but how often have I heard a writer say, “But my story has its own life, it rises beyond structure!” Perhaps in your own mind, but the very act of telling it requires you to convey it in a way I can process.

      Thanks for a great post, PJ.

    • Funny you shoud talk about story and structure via “The Artist.” I just wrote a post on this. I must have been one of the few who weren’t bowled over with that particular film. In fact, I found very little of redeeming value about it other than it was unique–I mean how many see a silent movie in this noisy, sound-effect-intensified era? Ironic (I don’t even agree it’s that) but Oscar-worthy? I do agree on why Old Man and the Sea is a classic, however, tho’ I dispute Hemingway ever knew women–His are all the male fantasy lacking in any real complexity……Here’s the post on “The Artist.”…http://biddybytes.com/?p=9959

      • PJ Reece says:

        Colleen… I just read your post on your blog. Discussing our reaction to movies and books is a highly worthwhile use of time, in my humble opinion. If stories are important to us — as I believe they are (real nourishment!) — then we should be “feeding-back” to the producers and writers of these stories. We should be letting them know what works. There seems to be a general consensus on my most stories, but when one gets “experimental”, then there’s a risk that it fails to nourish. But I’m all for experimentation. Cheers.

        • Dear PJ…You’ve given sound advice…Another of my most-widely-read posts was by about Clint Eastwood who’s come a very long way from his “Keep them doggies rollin'” Rawhide days. I agree with you. Folks want to read what we have to say on these films and who’s to say we can’t take the provocative approach of saying what I didn’t like about “The Artist.”

          Damn, that little doggie, Uggie, should have had an award!!! (and I’m not even one who owns one of the little creatures). Thanks, PJ…You and I can argue Hemingway’s merits on another day….

    • Thanks so much for making your book available, RJ. I am truly looking forward to reading it, as this is an area where I’m struggling right now (and I’ve already written three fully fleshed out books, one published already. I love learning though, and look forward to applying your principles. Best wishes to you in all your endeavors!

      • PJ Reece says:

        Joanna… thanks for your comment. You know, I’m trying to put a finger on what readers actually get out of consuming stories. When you think of all the crap we see on television, and all the second-rate fiction (including my own) that we gobble up, there must be nourishment in stories. I’m hoping that I’ve identified what it is — a protagonist opening to considerations that the busily functioning mind cannot see. Stories take us behind a blind spot in the human organism. So, keep exploring this yourself.. and let me know what you discover. All the best.

    • Julie says:

      Thanks for the article and the ebook. I’ll be linking to it as a resource at my site!

    • Paul Jun says:

      Wow, this was an incredible post — a side of writing that I never really took the time to look at. I learned a lot from this and will probably give it another good read. Also, I downloaded your newest eBook — thanks for being so generous and I’ll let you know when I’m finished and my thoughts. Again, excellent post.

      • PJ Reece says:

        Paul… I’d be interested in knowing if anything you read in my eBook can be applied to aspects of life beyond writing. I look forward to hearing from you.

    • I just downloaded and read your eBook “Story Structure to Die For” OMG! THANK YOU!

      I’ve been wrestling with my current WIP for months. I managed to slice and dice it into a “Hero’s Journey” structure but it still lacked the magic of my other two novels. Magic that I’d stumbled onto with multiple rewrites. Magic that can be improved upon with the new insight I gained from your book.

      Even the most inexperienced hacks know that external forces can’t rescue a protagonist; but I didn’t realize that external forces alone weren’t enough to drive her into the inmost cave.

      It’s not enough for the world to beat up my heroine. It has to be her own warped view of reality that plunges her into the darkest heart of the story. And to do that, she needs to have a pretty screwed up belief system before the story even begins … or maybe that’s the purpose of the first plot point? Smack her with something so devastating it warps her view of reality.

      I love the idea that the character is stunned past thinking. No internal dialogue during the moment of truth. Just total emotional nakedness. I’m guessing there’s not a whole lot of introspection afterwards either, just a decision to act according to their new reality?

      My muse is shouting at me to get back to work.

      I can’t thank you enough.

      Charlotte Abel

      • PJ Reece says:

        Charlotte… thank you so much for “totally getting it”. I have to tell you that I’m very surprised that my little idea is being so well received. Your comments make the whole endeavour worthwhile. Stay tuned to my blog — or we’ll meet again here on Write to Done – for more discussion of these intriguing matters. All the best.

    • As I read your article (loved the Hemingway quotes) I thought about the journey my protagonist takes as she struggles to find her child and to follow the principles she believes in. I believe I have story 1 and 2 and that I have found the HEART OF THE STORY. Thanks for a great article,


      • PJ Reece says:

        Beth… I just had an email from a reader who said he appreciated hearing about the “dark” nature of the heart. If I’ve put my finger on one unique thing, this might be it. The “Act II crisis” (as the “heart of the story” is known in screenplay jargon) takes a character into a mystical space. By definition, the mind cannot go there. The mind knows nada… and that’s why the heart is dark and scary and without any familiar coordinates. Writing manuals show us where the story turns, but they don’t speak about the importance of this moment to the whole storytelling experience…for the reader AND the writer. The heart IS mystical, and readers instinctively know that it’s the story’s source of nourishment. We all yearn to break free of our minds in order to move in directions true to our purpose. How’s that for a theory!

    • Elizabeth Kariuki says:

      An idea for a novel has been revolving in my mind for sometime now. I am really grateful for the ideas you have presented here. They will prove very useful in the rough road ahead.

    • Thank you for this. As well as showing me a different way to view structure, I found some gems in here immediately useful for the novel I am editing. I have downloaded your book too.

      • PJ Reece says:

        I’m gratified to find my little idea of some use. Please pass on the link to your other writerly friends if they’re in a position to reconsider “what makes a story”. Cheers.

    • I’ve written a short story where the protagonist surfaces to a greater understanding of her role in the demise of her relationships, but then she convinces herself that she was always right. It plays out like near lucidity. My intent was to take the readers on the journey with the protagonist, but I’ve made it so the revelation would be apparent to the reader and leave the protagonist in denial.

      Does that make sense?

      • PJ Reece says:

        Brina, I think that’s brilliant. If you know that the reader is anticipating the conventional wake up call… and then you veer away from that resolution… you’ve given your readers another level of engagement. You`ve respected your readers`intelligence. You’ve made your protagonist a kind of tragic figure, and we don’t get enough of that these days. Thanks for that comment.

    • candace says:

      what a great simple explanation of structure. Thank you!

    • What happens when an author abandons the conventions of storytelling? What if the story, instead of moving from darkness to light, goes from light to final darkness? Do readers experience this as bold and original or as upsetting?

      • PJ Reece says:

        Great question, Asad. I’ve already sketched out another blog post on “tragedy”. What is tragedy? We don’t encounter a lot of modern tragedy, these days. But the film “The Artist” almost was one. Consider how we’d have reacted if George Valentin would have shot his head off. His belief system would have prevailed over his will to live. That’s a tragedy. Some stories end on a dark note, such as Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. It’s left to the reader to decide how much of a change in worldview the protagonist has suffered. We can decided if he’s going to rise or descend into endless darkness. In this case, what I call “story two”, actually takes place after “The End”. There IS a “story two”… but the author hasn’t written it. I think that this can be equally as nourishing as a story taken to the conventionally happy ending. The important thing to deal with is the protagonist loss of his belief system.

        As for convention… I try to encourage new writers to write a few conventional stories before attempting to turn it on its head. But by all means, write in whatever direction you want. If your characters are behaving like real human beings, you can’t go too far wrong. All the best.

        • Great question and answer! I too have wondered about this. The premise for my next book leaves the reader wondering, not giving them exact answers. And yet, a great bang, surprise that hopefully will create conversation. I love the lesson that Story Structures has given me, PJ. And now that is my last job before I begin writing this next masterpiece… I must show the abyss for my protagonist. I’ve got some ideas and will complete this sorting out within the next few days.

          PJ, you have successfully given us writers a simple formula that we can use to wrap our complicated characters into and come out with a clean, crisp message. Thank you, thank you, (a third one) thank you.
          ~C. Michaels

          • PJ Reece says:

            Replies like yours, C. MIchaels, are music to my ears. Buena suerte!

    • April Mains says:

      Download links at http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress/story-structure-to-die-for-pj-reece/ don’t work. They result in the following error message: /home/pjreece/domains/pjreece.ca/public_html/blog/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/download-manager/cache/ must have to be writable!

      • PJ Reece says:

        April… Thanks for letting us know… it’s FIXED now. Thank heavens. Phew!

        • April Mains says:

          Thanks. It works like a charm now.

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