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Be formulaic: The basic story structure that Hollywood movies, literary novels and the best web content all have in common

How to structure your stories for online audiences

Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we look at Kurt Vonnegut's famous story shapes and see how these basic principles for putting together literary stories can help you write better online content.


The shapes of stories

Kurt Vonnegut was a sui generis American writer. His writing is unclassifiable. Vonnegut was a humorist, a moralist, a screwball dystopian. He was in Dresden when the Americans fire-bombed the city, and wrote one of the best postwar novels about the surreality of war.

He was also writing at a time when writers got paid by the word and could still scrape by writing for magazines.

What that meant is Vonnegut's stories needed to sell if he wanted to eat. Which means Vonnegut's stories needed to be readable. How did Vonnegut deal with it?

He wrote stories people wanted to read.

“The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

Being interested in science, and being a wise guy, Vonnegut once proposed that because most stories followed set formulas there was no reason why, theoretically, a computer couldn't produce one. He called these formulas "shapes" and mapped them out on an X Y graph. X was beginning to end (time), Y was the sweep of a character's fortunes from good to bad or vice-versa. Characters' fates were maneuvered from the beginning of the story to the end as they fell and rose in their fortunes. 

Vonnegut was so into the idea of story shapes that he actually submitted a Master's thesis to the University of Chicago in 1946. It was rejected. Vonnegut suspected it was because it was "so simple and looked like too much fun". 

Here are three of Vonnegut's shapes. Look familiar?

The Shapes of Stories by Column Five

That's because most thrillers, action and horror movies fit the Man in Hole shape, while most romantic comedies fall into the Boy Meets Girl shape. 

You can see the ups and downs look like waves. Those waves have peaks and troughs. This is the natural motion of a story. When the protagonist moves up or down the Y axis in pursuit of what he wants or needs but can't get, we get tension. When the tension peaks, we get a climax. When that climax dies down and we get a return to order, we get a resolution.

That's a story.

Listen to Vonnegut describe it here.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

•••

No, formulas aren't always bad

Please don’t be a snob. The fact that most stories follow formulas should make you happy, not sad, angry or disillusioned. It doesn’t mean your stories need to read like Dan Brown, E.L. James or the latest vomit fest by James Paterson (and Bill Clinton). It doesn’t mean you have to consciously apply formulas to your writing while you’re writing. And it certainly doesn't mean that your stories will come out looking like they just rolled out of an Amazon fulfillment center (see more on this below).

What it means is this: It's not all that difficult to learn how to structure an engaging story.

Or relearn, as it were. Because story structure is something we were very familiar with as kids, and something adults too often dismiss without fulling understanding the implications of what they're dismissing. Einstein understood. When asked how teachers and parents could make their kids smart, he responded by saying that they should read them fairytales. 

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
— Albert Einstein

The fact is, story structure underpins most of our social communication in the adult world—from emails to happy hour conversations. Discursive narratives tend to put us to sleep. (Think of the friend who can never zero in on the actual point of a story, who highlights the wrong details and never ends up at the "aha" moment. Or the colleague who sends mile-long emails with the important stuff jumbled in with the rest.) 

Some formulas to stay away from. (Posters by Wing Agency for NYILFF)

What does this mean for your web writing?

A few things, but here are the essentials.

•••

Story essentials

A story, stripped down to its essence, is usually a character with some kind of a problem or conflict. As we've seen, how the character deals with the problem is what gives your story tension. Without that tension, your stories will have no momentum, and momentum is what pulls readers along.

Simply put, characters are a point of entry into your stories that readers need in order to be engaged.

That story doesn't have to be literary. The same goes for a lawyer's website, an article about the latest MacBook Pro redesign or a blog post about how to consolidate your debt.

That's because a problem doesn't have to involve a flesh-and-blood character. It could simply be something the reader wants to know and the text offers to answer.

Here are a few examples.

the payoff

What pulls readers along in the case of the article about the new MacBook design is their desire to find out what happened to the old Mac, and what they're potentially missing out on. The writer is aware of what you want. Otherwise, he'd have told you in the first four sentences. (Spoiler alert: he doesn't.) 

Introducing a problem but withholding the solution is basic storytelling technique. The writer is making a bet that the reader who clicked on his story (a Mac owner considering a new Mac, which is basically every Mac owner) will read on until they hit the payoff, which is the closest thing to a climax a tech writer writing about Mac redesigns for Gizmodo can aspire to. In the case, the payoff is the three or four tiny changes Apple has made to the MacBook Pro. 

“Simply put, characters are a point of entry into your stories that readers need in order to be engaged.”

YOU ARE THE MOST INTERESTING CHARACTER

If we're talking about a debt consolidation blog post, the character is you (if you clicked, you have debt issues, right?) and the problem is how to get out of them. The resolution, of course, is you without so much debt. 

And, though you won't admit it, you're secretly hoping the road map to that happy debt-free existence when you can start living your life again as a human being will be revealed to you in a sentence or two at the very end of the article, (not only so you can live debt-free, but so you can once again focus on the more interesting articles in Gizmodo.) When you're the character of the story, writers have a guaranteed audience. 

MAKE IT PERSONAL

Of course, readers always latch onto a juicy first-person story, like the guy with Amazon Prime troubles I read about this morning. So it never hurts to put a bit of yourself into your writing where you can. Failing that, you can always talk about the lousy luck of others.

Honestly, I don't even know why I would be interested in a guy who fell victim to Jeff Bezos' very lucrative scheme to mass addict whole swathes of first-world populations to his crappy cut-rate merchandise. But I think the key to my interest, and yours, lies in the idea of the "victim". We sympathize with victims and losers, even if they're not much of either. More to the point, we want to see the kinds of awful things that happen to them. 

If that victim is also kind of funny and self-deprecating, writes a great title like "I'm Starting to Have Serious Doubts About Amazon Prime", and a great first line (see below) that in itself is mysterious, you may just read on—even if young white guys spending too much money on Amazon is, realistically speaking, the least interesting or newsworthy thing in the world. 

My own personal amazon Prime day is in two weeks.

Confused? If things still haven't taken shape in your head, here's a recap of what we talked about. If you're all clear, scroll down to the end. There's a story there I think you'll want to hear.

•••

Your story ingredients

PROTAGONIST

Like every car that actually moves, every story that goes somewhere needs a main character. In fact, if you stripped stories down to their bare essentials—from Lascaux on up—you'd almost always find a character. That character doesn't have to be you (first person) and it doesn't even have to be a person. But, whether you're writing about Google Map's latest UI overhaul or your experiences mowing the lawn as a kid in New Jersey, the key to holding on to an audience boils down to how much they can relate to your characters and their predicaments. Can your readers step into the shoes of your characters and their problems? At the same time you're answering the question: Who am I writing this article for, you should also be thinking about that.

PROBLEM

When we say problem, we don't necessarily mean a deadly disease or a collapsing marriage, though those can work too. A problem can simply be something to figure out or a situation to get out of. It could be how to prepare a salmon tartar the right way or how Amazon Prime wrecked your creding rating. Problems are an ancient trick talking apes have been using for millenia to captivate audiences. They're so much a part of stories now that you can't afford not to include them in your shtick.

TENSION

Ever have a muscle tighten up on you? A good story is like a knotted muscle. It absorbs the stress of the plot until it reaches a breaking point, and you get a release. Otherwise, reading would be painful. If you've ever seen the movie Open Water, where two abandonded scuba divers float around for days in shark-infested waters, one with a bleeding cut, you'd feel this point. Tension is good. It reels rubbernecking voyeurs (your audience) in every time. But when you're sustaining narratives over distances, consider that readers appreciate tempo changes and little breaks to catch their breath.

CLIMAX

When the springs of a story get too wound up, you need a release. The climax is that release. It's usually the key moment in your story when everything comes to a head. In changes your perspective or awareness. It could have deep and residual meaning, or it could be the time you whipped up a bowl of pesto mayonnaise, ate it the second day and got salmonella and ended up in the hospital, where you met your future husband, who was in for the very same thing. Don't dismiss climaxes (and the next element, resolutions) as the stuff of literary stories. They're actually the stuff of any good barroom story you've ever heard or any email you've ever written that got a point across.

PEAKS & TROUGHS

These are the turning points in the story. When something good happens, you'll see a peak. When something bad happens, a trough. The space in between—the valleys—are the resolutions, or returns to normality. Unless you're writing a 10,000-word think piece for Rolling Stone or The New Yorker, usually one major peak or trough per story is enough.

RESOLUTION

Not every story has a resolution. There are plenty of stories with ambiguous endings that leave you hanging. If you haven't read Raymond Carver's The Neighbors, read it and see how powerful this technique can be. As a rule, though, web writing isn't going to leave you hanging. What you write for the web will usually have what we call a "payoff", and most readers, like you, will be looking for one. In many cases, the payoff will just be the information you promised to give your readers in the beginning. That's what they get in exchange for their time. Most web writing, in other words, will be resolved.

•••

Coda

When you use all of these elements in a text, you get something they call story arc in the writing business. If it sounds familiar, that's because story arc is just another way of saying story shape. Welcome to the Man in the Hole and Boy Meets Girl

If you do that in a way that sneaks your story past our knowledge and experience bank—and our expectations and prejudices—and fills an empty spot on our bookshelf we didn't even know was there, that's what we call a good story. While this isn't usually the goal of most web writing, it doesn't mean we can't aspire to it.

And because I'd like to give you a little something for making it all the way to the end of this post, here's an offbeat tale by the storyteller Steve Zimmer where it all comes together.

 Lost in the Supermarket by Steve Zimmer

Lost in the Supermarket by Steve Zimmer


Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: max@storylinecreatives.com.

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