Story Structure

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Because I’ve already spoken on narrative structures, the title probably deserves clarification. For my purposes, narrative structure is the shape of the story – how it’s told. Story structure, by comparison, is the form of the story – what makes it a story. A story needs to be built around a narrative structure; any story can be analysed according to any story structure.

There are a potentially unlimited number of story structures, but the two most well-known structures are the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Three Act Structure.”  As had been previously stated, these are structures that can be applied to any story.  Therefore, a story structure is only valuable as an analytical tool. “A man goes to the fridge to get a beer” is a complete story. You can break down the actions, from him deciding he wants a beer all the way through him returning to the couch, into the Three Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey. I state this because many people think a story structure is a guideline to building a good story. Following a story structure, especially slavishly following a story structure, only guarantees that you have crafted a story. It is natural to tell stories, and one can instinctually tell whether a story exists. Story structures are good for analysis and interpretation – nothing more, nothing less.

As has been previously established in my musings on art, interpretation is key to experiencing art. Similarly, analysis is integral to forming a coherent interpretation. Therefore, story structures are quite useful – in their proper place.

The Hero’s Journey has been addressed by many people far more eloquent than I (banana), and I’m not sure I’m really qualified to add to the conversation, but the worst I can do is make a total ass of myself and be wrong on all counts. So on we go!

As you likely already know (especially if you read the links), the Hero’s Journey (AKA the Monomyth) was popularized by Joseph Campbell, breaking the story down into 17 distinct parts.  Dan Harmon cut it down to 8, because he’s twice as good as Joseph Campbell.

Many people get frustrated with the Hero’s Journey because, as already noted, it has a tendency to be used as scaffolding to build, rather than a tool to analyze. For the sake of absurdity, let us apply the 17 steps of the Monomyth to the guy getting a beer:

1. Call to Adventure – The guy is thirsty.

2. Refusal of the Call – If the guy wants a beer, he’ll have to get off the couch. The couch is comfortable. Besides, his show is on.

3. Supernatural Aid – A commercial comes on.

4. Crossing the First Threshold – The man gets up.

5. Belly of the Whale – The man steps away from the couch – it will now take effort to return.

6. The Road of Trials – The man’s kid left his toys all over the floor, the kitchen tiles are cold, and the beer’s hidden behind a watermelon.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess – The man grabs a beer.

8. Woman as Temptress – The beer needs a bottle opener. It might be easier to grab a swig of milk from the carton instead.

9. Atonement with the Father – Rifling through the drawer, the man seeks out the bottle opener.

10. Apotheosis – The bottle opener has been found, and the beer is liberated.

11. The Ultimate Boon – Still in the kitchen, the man tastes the sweet nectar, the fruits of his achievement.

12. Refusal of the Return – It’s not that bad standing in the kitchen. Besides, he has his beer.

13. The Magic Flight – Seeing as it’s 11 AM, it might be best to not be caught.

14. Rescue from Without – The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” shouts his wife.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold – The man returns to the couch, more aware of his kid’s toys.

16. Master of Two Worlds – The man is back at the couch, beer in hand, and the commercials are just ending.

17. Freedom to Live – Life is good.

While, in theory, my slavish adherence to the Monomyth has made a rather compelling version of “Guy goes to the fridge to get a beer,” it’s still about a guy getting a beer. Also, were all those steps really necessary? Do we care that the guy was comfortable on the couch watching his show? Did we need the ordeal of procuring the bottle opener? Arguably, the story was made worse by insistence on hitting every beat. Especially when equal time is given to each step.

In fairness, using the Hero’s Journey as a tool for analysis is itself fraught with peril. Taken to the extreme, the Hero’s Journey means that Everyone is Jesus in Purgatory(Warning: Link to TVTropes). This should not discourage the use of a valuable tool – it should be an admonition toward moderation. Any interpretation can be applied to any work of art – what matters is whether the interpretation fits. The Hero’s Journey is excellent at decoding allegory, as well as developing analogies. But it is only a tool. It is one way to connect the dots, but not the only way, and not the best way. The Hero’s Journey will connect every set of dots into a dog, but not every set of dots should be a dog.

The Three Act Structure is a more general approach, as are any X Act Structures. Arguably, the Monomyth is a 17 Act structure. Because it’s more general, it has more flexibility, but that also means it has a greater potential for abuse. When crafting from an act structure, the inclination is to separate everything into equal parts – the story suffers because the important stuff is crammed into a tight space, while boring and unimportant elements are stretched. Because three acts means three equal parts. While this may be mitigated by a theoretical perfect number of acts properly defined, it simply serves to reemphasise the point previously made – story structure is a tool for analysis, not for construction.

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Narrative Structures

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Time for a change in pace.  Narrative Structure, in the sense used in this post, refers to the flow and progression of the story.  Arguably, the narrative structures mentioned here are more prominent in interactive media, but they can just as easily appear in books or movies.

Linear

This is the simplest and most straightforward structure.  You start at the beginning and continue forward until you reach the end.  Strictly speaking, Linear structure tends to be the superstructure of any narrative, but there are rare cases where there is no sense of Linearity.

Branching

This is a slight variation from Linear.  In a Branching narrative, there are side paths, but they return to the core narrative while retaining the status quo.  A filler arc in a television show is a Branch.  A scene in a movie that provides no contribution to the plot is a Branch.  In dungeons in RPGs, Branches manifest as “go the wrong way for more treasure.”  Branches aren’t always bad; they aren’t always detrimental to the narrative.  For example, a Branch can provide characterization of other insights into the narrative or interpretation, without actually pushing the plot forward.  Arguably, Citizen Kane‘s narrative is a reporter trying to figure out what “Rosebud” means.  90% of the movie, then, is Branches.

Multipath

Another variation of linear.  Multipath is like branching, but the branch rejoins the story at a different point than the departure, allowing two routes through the narrative.  This is easier to see in video games, where one path takes you over the mountain, while another takes you through the mountain.  At the end, you’ve arrived at the same point, but you took different routes to get there.  Super Mario Bros. is on the surface Linear, but secret pipes, beanstalks, and warp zones reveal the hidden Multipath aspects.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan)(AKA The Lost Levels)  added reverse warp zones, making the narrative recursive, but still a Linear Multipath.

Forking

Unlike Branching and Multipath, a Forking structure never returns to the source.  Most Choose Your Own Adventure books used a Forking structure, with the occasional instance of Multipath.  The movie Clue was presented in theatres in a forking structure, with three different endings, randomly chosen.  The DVD version presents a choice at the beginning, between the theatrical random ending and the VHS all three endings.  Therefore, the DVD version actually has two Forks – one at the beginning, and one at the end of the former path.

Network

A Network is, in its purest sense, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Linear structure.  In a Networked narrative, there are several Nodes, or points of interest, and paths between the Nodes, connecting many – but not necessarily all – to each other.  There are few examples of a pure Network narrative, but, in fairness, there are few pure Linear narratives as well.  Memento is probably an effective example of a Network used in a non-interactive medium – there are several points of interest throughout the presentation, but they are not presented in a Linear manner.

Gated Network

A Gated Network is essentially a Network with a mild Linear superstructure.  There is something necessary to progress the plot forward, but there is no narrative compulsion to achieve that goal at any specific point.  The Legend of Zelda is a simple Gated Network – you have freedom of movement among nodes, but need some items to bypass obstacles (soft gates), and need to complete narrative goals to reach the final dungeon (hard gate).

Putting it Together

Any specific example is likely to use many of these structures in a nested format.  The Megaman series is a gated network with a hard gate (defeat all the robot masters) leading to a linear second half.  In the earlier games, the Network is a Linear Network, as each node can only be visited (completed) once.  Each node within the Network (as well as the post-Network levels) is itself a Linear narrative, generally with Branches and the occasional Multipath.  Later games even experiemented with Forks in the sub-nodes.  Mass Effect 2 presents Linear interpersonal narratives with Forks.  Each conversation is a combination of Linear Multipath and Linear Fork, as well.  This is all encapsulated in a Gated Network which is seeded with a few linear nodes.  And event hat comes off as an oversimplification.

Flags and Variables

Flags and Variables are not inherent to narrative structure, and largely only present in video games from a technical standpoint, but they are necessary in understanding and dissecting a narrative structure.  Branches, Forks, and Multipaths are occasionally presented as a direct choice, but they are often the result of flags and variables set by previous choices.  Flags are a binary value – it is true or it is false.  When an event triggers a flag, the flag is set to “true” or “false” or, in some circumstances, is toggled (i.e. switched from true to false or vice-versa).  Flags occasionally appeared in Choose Your Own Adventure books that included Branches or Multipath – “If you have the MacGuffin, turn to page 20.  If you do not have the MacGuffin, turn to page 127.”  Variables work in roughly the same way as Flags (i.e. as logic gates), but are incremental.  When an event triggers a variable, a number is added to or subtracted from the stored variable.  In a Choose Your Own Adventure book, they would be presented as “If you have five or more vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 63.  If you have fewer than four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 16.  If you have four vials of phlebotonium, turn to page 140.”  Returning to the Mass Effect 2 example, certain conversation options require a minimum variable (generally Paragon or Renegade value).  After the loyalty arc for any potential romantic partners, the “Interested in Romance” flag for that individual is set to “true,” and remains true until the wrong thing is said.  When the “Interested in Romance” flag is false, the characters have much less to say, though they may have new dialog due to the “loyalty” flag being true.