Craft,  Revising and Editing

Why Story Structure is So Important

One of my favorite writing books is Story by Robert McKee. I love it because it is a heady, thorough, and challenging explanation of exactly how to tell a story. While it’s designed mostly for screenwriters, I imagine every novelist would find value in it. 

One of the most practical parts of this book, I’ve found, is his definitions of structure. On page 33, he writes. “Structure is a selection of events form the characters’ life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse the specific emotions and to express a specific view of life. 

“A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a  character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value.

“Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next. 

“For example alive/dead, love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, courage/cowardice, loyalty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, excitement/boredom and so on.”

As I develop my main character, I need to determine exactly what universal qualities I want them to demonstrate from the beginning. Then, while I also ponder their eye color and favorite flavor of ice cream, I should also put a lot of thought into how I will change them from positive to negative or from negative to positive. It’s this change that is the root of every other choice that I will make for my main character. If I were rewriting Cinderella, for example, I might start with slavery for her and move her into freedom, not just physical freedom, but emotional freedom too. After all, she has to forgive her step-mother and step-sisters. 

McKee goes on to say, (p. 34) “A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a  character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.” 

Aha! This means that everything my character does should be meaningful and should take a step in either a positive or a negative direction. If I really want Cinderella’s story to be rich and engaging, I should have every action, every thought, every song sung to her animal friends serve the purpose of meaningful change through conflict. If things are too easy for poor Cindy, no one will want to follow the story.

He goes on to say on page 35. “A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a story event.”

If I go through every one of the tangents I wrote for Cinderella, I need to brutally cut those that don’t move her “character life” one value either positively or negatively. Advocates for the writing-by-the-seat-of-the-pants method, take note: planning out your scenes, to establish a positive or negative degree, helps engage the reader. They will want to find out what happens next. 

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee is an indispensable resource for those who want to understand story better.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.