Friday, February 27, 2009

Story Structure

I’m in the mood to talk about story structure. Every story has five elements, theme, plot, point of view, characters and setting. Some people say there are only four, leaving out point of view. If you leave it out, we can roll it up into either the characters, making the narrator a character, or into the setting, since our point of view determines how we perceive our setting. For this discussion, we’ll keep it separate.


In every story, the theme is the most important element. The theme or message is the backbone of the story. It gives the story purpose. This is true with all stories including that of a woman recounting her shopping trip to her husband.

I went to the first store and I found this skirt I liked, but I wasn’t sure about the color. I decided to look in another store. I would the same skirt in another store, but it cost more. I went back to the first store and they had already sold the skirt. I went back to the other store and bought the skirt.

What is the theme of this story? She wants to tell her husband I had a hard day shopping. She could have just said that and her husband would believe her, but he wouldn’t understand. She uses the story to help him understand.

When we tell a story to a friend, we usually know why we are telling the story before the first word comes out of our mouth. The same should be true when we write a novel. Our theme may be a heated religious or political statement may be something less debated, but if we don’t know what it is, we will likely be all over the map with the other elements. When this happens, our writing may appear preachy.

Think of theme as a statement that we must prove. Just the woman used the story of looking for a skirt to prove she had a difficult day shopping, the tale we tell attempts to prove or disprove our theme statement. The Romance genre often has the theme a woman’s life is better with a man. The stories prove this statement by showing the woman’s life before she meets Mr. Right, showing the problems they face coming together, showing that worse problems exist if they separate and then showing that it is possible to resolve the problems and live happily. Though we may not conclude that every woman’s life will be better with a man, we conclude that the theme is true for the woman in the story.


Plot is what happens, but we must go a step farther. Because we have selected the theme already, plot is what happens that helps to prove our theme statement. The woman with the shopping story above didn’t tell her husband that she met her best friend and they had lunch together. That seems like an important event, but it does nothing to prove that she had a hard day shopping. Just as she leaves that out of her story, we must leave out the things that are not related to the theme.

Notice that I didn’t say we must leave out things that do not support the theme. We must be careful that we consider the opposing views. I mentioned the Romance genre above. Often, romance novels begin with the protagonist doing okay. Perhaps she is a successful business woman. Her peers respect her and she lives in an upscale gated community. None of these supports the idea that her life would be better with a man. If anything, it seems to support the idea that she doesn’t need a man, but when she calls her best friend and her friend tells her she doesn’t have time to talk because her husband is taking her out to eat, we start to realize that something is missing. In our plot, we use events that show that even with the arguments against her needing a man, she needs one anyway.

Point of View

Point of view is the eyes through which we see the story unfold. Some people have the idea that third person limited is the only way to tell a story. We see the story through the eyes of the narrator. The narrator can be a part of the story, in which case the point of view will be either first person or third person objective. If the third person narrator knows the thoughts of one or more of the characters it is called third person omniscient. It only the thoughts of one character is known it is third person limited omniscient or third person limited for short.

We can also think of point of view in a more fluid way. An invisible narrator sitting in a corner of the room has a different view than one sitting between the protagonist and antagonist. We can think of point of view as a type of omniscient camera that can move around the room and get into people’s heads. It is up to us as writers to pick the right spot for that camera.

The theme helps us to pick the point of view. In the shopping story above, the first person point of view was necessary for the woman to convey her pain. He wouldn’t have gotten the same picture if the woman’s best friend had told about the woman’s day.


Characters are the people who live out the story. We want to use interesting characters, but we must also be careful that our characters fit with the plot and the theme. The woman telling about her shopping trip could have put a talking horse in her story, but what would be the point. Instead, she told the story with only her in it. The talking horse wouldn’t fit with her plot and theme.


The setting is where the story takes place. It too must fit with our plot and theme. We wouldn’t tell about a bank robbery taking place in the middle of the ocean. But we might have one in outer space, making the story sci-fi. We can do anything in outer space.


Of the five elements of a story, the theme is the most important, so pick a good one. Once the theme is chosen, the other elements begin to fall into place.