A Classic Storytelling Structure
How do you really set up the course of events in your in a captivating way? The author and writing teacher Kevin Marble shows you a classic storytelling structure for great stories.
M steam of the novels in recent decades have become bestsellers – Lord of the Rings , The Da Vinci Code, Stieg Larsson’s books and Coelho’s The Alchemist – are seemingly quite different, yet fundamental and crucial similarities. They are all part of something I would like to call adult stories.
According to Book Writing Inc, Adult tales are very similar to children’s tales, but above all they represent a narrative with a long tradition that can be followed all the way back to Aristotle’s poetics, especially what he said about the tragedy, and he in turn probably built on an even older tradition.
A cornerstone of Aristotle was that tragedy arises because of the hero’s virtues – not in spite of them. And just look at Shakespeare: The Hamlet character becomes tragic because he is a truth seeker. Romeo and Juliet because they fight for love. The examples are many.
What Aristotle wrote about comedy is unfortunately not preserved, but one can quite easily reverse the rule of tragedy: That a comedy ends happily depends on the hero’s virtues – for example, that he seeks the truth or continues to believe in love. (Note that comedy in the ancient Greek sense does not mean that something is humorous, but only that, unlike the tragedy, it has a happy ending.)
LET US THEN LOOK at the structure of history. It often begins in a similar way: A hero is given a mission (often reluctantly because the hero should appear humble and not too career-hungry or adventurous). The assignment is often mediated by an older person, a father figure (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings or the museum curator Jacques Saunière in the Da Vinci Code).
The mission always has a higher meaning – it is about revealing the truth, doing justice (Stieg Larsson), seeking a deeper meaning with life (The Alchemist ) or saving the world from evil (The Lord of the Rings ). The hero does not do it primarily for his own gain, but risks his life and his happiness for the freedom and happiness of others.
On his way to the goal, the hero is then exposed to various obstacles. It can be about everything from winning battles to seeing through lies and betrayal. His cunning, knowledge and loyalty – that is, his good qualities – are put to the test.
There is also a set of typical characters that appear in different variations in most of these novels. Either they are by the hero’s side from the beginning, or they appear on the road:
The older father figure. This is the person who gives the hero the task, not infrequently from the other side of the grave.
The traitor. A person who initially stands on the same side as the hero but who betrays. Often the traitors have had the same conditions as the hero, but then fallen (the ring ghosts in The Lord of the Rings). They are there to make the hero bigger, to show how difficult the mission is, and how difficult the temptations are to resist.
The villain’s henchman. It often takes until the end before the confrontation between the villain and the hero takes place. Before that, it is the villain’s accomplice that the hero gets to meet (the Albino monk in the Da Vinci Code).
The villain himself. It is not uncommon for the villain to be originally a father figure who succumbed to the dark side of the self and failed to defeat the evil or weak in himself (like Darth Vader in Star Wars).
THESE NOVELS usually end more or less happily. Admittedly, there can be severe tragedies along the way and great sacrifices made for the higher goal. Perhaps the hero is forced to abandon a love or say no to a happier future because of his mission. But when it’s over, this has happened: The world has been saved – or at least a slightly better place to live.
That these books have become so popular is simply because that kind of stories are so deep in us. We have read them since we were children, they are safe, and they tell of a world that is full of battles and adversity but where the good still wins in the end.
Of course, this does not mean that it is the only right way to tell a story, but only that it is a way of telling that we in the Western world have learned. Other cultures have different tales with different structures.
And just because the structure has been successful does not mean that it is a complete recipe for success – many have written adult saga after adult saga for years without success. Just like when cooking, it is about what ingredients and spices you add. What environment should the story take place in? What time and place? Who is the enemy? What higher goals are there to strive for?
If you find it right there, well then maybe you have a bestseller.