Building a good story
Essay | Like a sturdy house, stories need proper structure
by John R. Erickson
Posted 9/15/18, 12:40 pm
In 2009, Maverick Books published John R. Erickson’s Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog. With permission from the publisher, we’re posting in our Saturday Series a chapter each month through January. Here’s a chapter titled “Story Structure: Beauty, Justice, and Fun,” which starts with a quotation from Gene Edward Veith’s Reading Between the Lines: “Good books must be written according to the aesthetic laws that are part of the created order.” —Marvin Olasky
Story Structure: Beauty, Justice, and Fun
Those of us who grew up in Christian homes have been saturated in history and literature written between two and four thousand years ago, and time has not eroded their impact. One of the oldest pieces of written literature known to mankind, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” was recorded on clay tablets some five thousand years ago, yet when we read it today, the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu still resonates across the ages.
The telling and hearing of stories is part of our legacy as beings who were made in the image of God, “a little lower than the angels” and “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5). A good story ought to perform a service by making us better, stronger, wiser, or happier than we were before. It makes us laugh or cry. It imparts wisdom. It teaches lessons about human nature and our place in God’s creation. It addresses our need to find coherence in our lives. It gives us a sense of continuity within the overall stream of human experience.
That occurs when writers frame off a piece of experience and describe it well, following the intuitive blueprint inside the human soul that has responded to the craft of storytelling since the dawn of time.
During my apprentice years, no problem caused me more grief than story structure. What is it? Where does it come from? What does it do? Do we even need it? Is there some structure or pattern in human events? If not, writers don’t need to fret over story structure or pretend that there might be a difference between a novel and a telephone book. Whatever we scribble down is “a story,” and one person’s story is as good as the next.
Children see structure in the world around them. It provides coherence from one day to the next. It reveals beauty and meaning. They consider structure normal and take it for granted until, as adults, they are taught that it isn’t there. I could never accept that it wasn’t there.
At its simplest level, story structure is a frame that we build around experience. It separates certain words and events from all the other words and events in the world, and gives them special significance. Each sentence is built on a pattern, constructed of nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs that work together in a common purpose. When we diagram a sentence, it shows the structure of human speech and thought.
Words and events outside the frame might be chaotic and meaningless, but those inside are not.
In the 1980s, I studied William Foster-Harris’s book, The Basic Formulas of Fiction, in which he argued that most good stories can be reduced to one of four basic plot formulas. Foster-Harris taught a writing course at the University of Oklahoma and guided a number of writers toward successful careers, but I found his formula approach too confining.
Instead, I began imitating models that came from sources outside of literature: folk music and oral-tradition storytelling.
There is symmetry in a folk tune that follows a simple chord progression: G, C, D, and G, for example. G provides the introduction, C creates suspense, and D resolves the tune back to G. It forms a circle, a whole. It has structure. Something inside us responds to the geometry of tone and harmony, and even listeners who don’t read or write music can sense it.
Ninety-five percent of all the Anglo-American folksongs ever written (the only tradition I know) can be played with three chords. The remaining five percent add other chords, but the structure of the song remains the same. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t experiment with new chords and harmonies. As Francis Schaeffer said of Bach’s music, “There can be endless variety and diversity without chaos. There is variety yet resolution.” [Schaeffer 1976:92] But we should learn the rules before we try to break them.
Storytellers who operate in an oral tradition follow a pattern that is very similar to the one we find in a folksong, even though they might not be aware of it and probably didn’t learn it from a book. They use it because it works. Performing in front of a live audience, they can see how listeners respond to a story. If the audience doesn’t laugh, falls asleep, or walks out, something is wrong.
Someone who is skilled at telling jokes or stories understands that they are not random utterances. They follow a definite pattern, like a folksong or a sentence that you can diagram. If you follow the pattern, most of the time you get good results. If you ignore the pattern, the joke or story falls flat. The pattern requires movement and resolution.
A novelist who works in isolation doesn’t get immediate feedback, but the structure of a written story should contain those same three parts: a beginning or introduction, a period of tension that gives the story its motion, and then a resolution.
In most professions, structure is directly related to function. A good brick wall stands. A good coat fits. A good pot holds water. A good meal nourishes. The structure of a well-built house allows it to resist wind and water. A well-told story should reveal beauty and affirm justice in human experience.
“Beauty” is one of those words we use every day but seldom have to define. We see beauty in a sunset, in a forest, in the architecture of a church, in music, and in a human face. We may not have an exhaustive explanation of beauty, but one of the defining qualities seems to be structure.
For centuries, artists and writers considered structure to be a reflection of the meaningful order of God’s creation. “Every aspect of the world was created with a structure, a character, a norm. These underlying principles are God’s law—God’s design and purpose for creation.” [Pearcey, Fickett, and Colson 1999:297] C.S. Lewis said that writers should seek out that design and attempt to find “some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” [Lewis 1995:6]
Writers don’t invent that design or the beauty it reveals. It was here before we arrived and we merely discover it. In his essay on miracles, Lewis touched on this theme: “Nature is being lit up by a light from beyond Nature. Someone is speaking who knows more about her than can be known from inside her.” [Lewis 2002:409]
Modern scientists are not inclined to talk about “God’s design,” yet their observations often bear an uncanny resemblance to the descriptions of theologians and artists. Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose asked, “Is mathematics invention or discovery?” He concluded that mathematicians don’t invent truth, but uncover truths that are already there. [Davies 1992:143]
Many of the scientists who laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics and particle physics described their research as a process of following the beauty that was revealed through their equations. Physicist Paul Davies writes:
Time and again, this artistic taste has proved a fruitful guiding principle and led directly to new discoveries, even when it at first sight appears to contradict the observational facts. … Central to the physicist’s notion of beauty are harmony, simplicity, and symmetry. [Davies 1983:220-1]
Einstein spoke of his admiration for the beauty of order and harmony “which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly.” Paul Dirac said that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.” David Bohm wrote that “physics is a form of insight and as such it’s a form of art.” [Davies 1983:221-2]
Richard Feynman said that scientific knowledge “adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower” [Feynman 1999:2], and he even claimed that physicists “respect the arts more than the sciences.” [Feynman 1995:13] Roger Penrose believed that “a beautiful idea has a much greater chance of being a correct idea than an ugly one.” [Penrose 1987:421]
These scientists, all of whom worked in the environment that we often refer to as “pure science,” were guided by (quoting Paul Davies again) “arcane concepts of elegance in the belief that the universe is intrinsically beautiful.” [Davies 1983:221]
It is easy to scoff at writers who seek “beauty” and talk of “God’s design.” Mathematicians and theoretical physicists who find beauty in their equations make the scoffer’s job more difficult.
A structured story reveals beauty and also affirms meaning and purpose in human experience. In doing this, story structure becomes both the medium and the message, the repository of value. “What makes a work of art good as a work of art is its form. … In the hands of a great artist, form is intimately related to meaning.” [Veith 1991:42 and 44]
Meaning is revealed through the framed events inside the story, a tiny structured slice of experience where we explore the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, sanity and insanity, babble and poetry, order and chaos, courage and cowardice, civilized behavior and barbarism.
On an unconscious level, a structured story teaches that how we live our lives does matter and that the decisions we make do have consequences. As Foster-Harris put it, writers “furnish parables confirming the moralities taught by the clergy.” [Foster-Harris 1967:22-3]
The mere presence of story structure makes an important statement about moral order—that it exists—and the presence of moral order permits us to seek justice. A well-crafted story should leave the reader satisfied that the internal accounting has balanced and that justice has been done. The characters should get what they deserve. Tragedy or comedy, a story should resolve into justice.
In a world that is awash in sin and evil, it is sometimes hard to find justice, and the movie Fiddler on the Roof provides an example of that. At the end of the story, Tevye and his fellow Jews in the Russian village of Anatevka fall victim to a vicious pogrom and are forced to leave their homes. Their lives are shattered. Where is justice?
When the movie ends, our hearts belong to Tevye and his people. We admire their simple honesty, their sense of humor, their piety, their courage, and the beauty of their traditions, qualities of character that have remained intact. We know they will take their Torah scroll to another land and start their lives all over again.
Their response to evil doesn’t destroy evil, but evil doesn’t destroy them either. The experience leaves them stronger—and it leaves us stronger too. This beautiful movie makes a powerful statement about the triumph of goodness in the face of evil, and we can be sure that nobody will ever make a beautiful movie about the Russian constable who led the pogrom.
We’ve all read novels and watched movies that didn’t find justice. What do we say about them? I would say they’re bad stories. They might succeed as history, journalism, or sociology, but they fail as stories. The subject material was too big for the skills of the writer. The story-frame couldn’t hold the events inside.
Every subject isn’t worth writing about and everyone who scribbles words on a page isn’t gifted enough to transform words into a structured story.
A plumber must run a sewer line downhill, a carpenter must build a sturdy house, and writers must find justice in their stories. Structure grows around justice, like iron filings forming geometric patterns around the invisible force fields of a magnet. If we have no expectations of justice, there is no force that will tug events into a structured story.
In the Western world, our concept of justice has blossomed into an elegant system of law that describes how citizens and governments should behave, but justice is not merely a legal concept. How could it be?
Justice demands that we make distinctions between right and wrong behavior. Those are decisions of moral judgment that rest on something more substantial than the whim of a single individual or 51 percent of the voting public.
Our Western notion of justice owes something to the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, but the laws of the Jewish Decalogue from the hand of the Creator brought something new to human experience: the verifiable communication of divinely given law. Kugel notes that this created a unique legal system. “Elsewhere, to violate the law was a crime; in Israel it was also, explicitly, a sin.” [Kugel 2007:683] C.S. Lewis spoke of justice as “the continual hope of the Hebrews for judgment, the hope that some day, somehow, wrongs will be righted.” [Lewis 1967:165]
Christians inherited this unique concept and added to it, giving us four thousand years of wisdom and guidance that form the context in which the craft of storytelling operates. Story structure should affirm the truth and wisdom of that tradition. Remove storytelling from its transcendent source of justice—the God who gave us the Ten Commandments and created the universe described by theoretical physicists—and story structure has no foundation. It is a house built upon sand.
This is a matter of concern on two levels. On a strictly professional or business level, the absence of structure in writing destroys our ability to function as storytellers. The story-frame disintegrates. A story cannot exist in a moral vacuum. Tension and conflict, which give a story its sense of movement, require two poles. If there are no poles, there is no tension, conflict, or movement, and no hope of a just resolution.
Stories become banal, empty, and devoid of meaning. Without a reference point, they have nothing to teach, no wisdom to reveal, no justice to affirm. This amounts to a failure of craftsmanship. The storyteller has violated the trust of his audience and delivered a product that doesn’t function, the equivalent of a house that falls down.
The second level of concern is something we might call “Author’s Liability.” When a shoddy house falls down and maims the people inside, poor workmanship escalates into a moral and legal issue. The contractor can be sued.
Can a bad story damage the customer, and should writers bear any responsibility for the damage they cause? I think so, and we’ll look at that in the next chapter.
I’ve talked about the importance of beauty and justice in storytelling, but said nothing about the qualities that have been most apparent in my Hank the Cowdog stories: fun, joy, laughter, and nonsense. Physicist Richard Feynman often described scientific inquiry in whimsical terms, as fun and play, a quest for “the beauty and wonder of the world.” [Feynman 1999:185] Dr. Feynman recognized that physics is serious business, but he saw no reason for making it painful to his students.
I have followed a similar approach in my writing. When I take an analytical view of the structure in my Hank stories (something I don’t do very often), I see that they actually contain two kinds of movement. The first is the one we’ve been discussing, the trajectory of the story, but there’s another—a kind of circular motion that occurs inside the forward trajectory. We find the same two kinds of motion in a tornado: One is forward, the other circular. Both types of motion are part of the same system, but they have different functions.
In a Hank story, the spinning action is where we find much of the comedy: Hank and Drover carrying on loony conversations or Hank going off on one of his long rambles that doesn’t always make sense.
In the sixth Hank adventure, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, Hank is racing back to ranch headquarters to bark the alarm about some impending crisis, but on the way, he scares up a cottontail rabbit. He can’t pass up a chance to chase a rabbit and off he goes. But then he’s drilled by a flea and has to abandon the rabbit to scratch the flea.
By the time he has whacked the flea, he has forgotten the crisis that caused him to run back to the house in the first place. This little digression stopped the story … but nobody cares because we had fun laughing at Hank.
I’m not sure where I acquired the model for this type of story structure, but it might have come from watching the films of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers. Those masters of comedy understood that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, but what you do along the way might be just as important.
Nobody goes to a movie or buys a book to brood over its structure. As writers, we want to affirm moral and aesthetic principles, but if we don’t do it in an entertaining manner, we might end up talking to ourselves.
From Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog by John R. Erickson. © 2009. Published by Maverick Books. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.