Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 14, 2023

Explore the Deep Structure of Story

By Leon Conrad

"We are made of stories" written on a napkin next to coffee cup and pen

We’ve been telling stories way before we started writing them down.

The structures they follow are embodied within us.

There’s much we can learn about story—and about ourselves—from analysing the patterns that stories follow.

But how?

Tracing the Path of Story

My approach is to trace the patterns that each character in a story follows. Characters experience events. The events are related and follow in chronological order. The events, when whittled down to their bare minimum, form sequences which are recognisable as story structures.

  1. To analyse the story structure(s) in a given character’s story line, I mark the opening of their story line with a mark of recursion (r) and identify the character in their initial situation using Spencer-Brown’s mark of indication (m) drawn from his Laws of Form (1969).
  2. I then reduce the events to a series of ‘bare bones’ events—the minimum number needed for the story to be meaningfully related and arrange them in chronological order.
  3. Following that, I map the events qualitatively according to whether they either impel or delay the character in their attempt to reach their goal using a forward barb (⇀) or a backward barb (↽) respectively.
  4. At the end of their story line, the mark of indication is again used to denote the character in their final situation (m) and the story’s close is symbolised using another mark of recursion (r).

Outline Example from Metamorphoses

Here’s the most compressed story structure I’ve found—which is also the most impressive. It’s the structure which the gods’ story lines typically follow in stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

A table outlining the Transformation structure as it appears in Minerva's story line in the story of Cornix from Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' in which six steps are outlined: 1-opening, 2-Minerva's character introduced, 3-hears her cry for help, 4-and transforms her, 5-Minerva remains unchanged; Cornix is now a crow, 6-and that story comes to a close.

At step 5, while Cornix undergoes a metamorphosis, Minerva remains unchanged.

The approach allows for almost indefinite expansion and contraction, following simple rules.

Common Sequences in Story

Illustration of how two backward barbs condense to a single backward barb and two forward barbs condense to a single forward barb.
Illustration of how a single backward barb expands to a pair of backward barbs and a single forward barb expands to a pair of forward barbs.

Sequences of different step types can expand and contract as follows:

Illustration of how a triple set of backward-forward-backword barbs condenses to a single backward barb and a triple set of forward-backward-forward barbs condenses to a single forward barb.
Illustration of how a single backward barb expands to a triple set of backward-forward-backword barbs and a single forward barb expands to a triple set of forward-backward-forward barbs.

Using Sequences to Produce a Transformational Twist in Story

Where an encounter between two characters involves (i) an active intention to dupe (ii) a comic outcome, or (iii) a surprising outcome (Huh?!), I use a double barb (⇌).

When one character intends to dupe another, they invariably have the tables turned on them—the dupe ends up tricking the trickster and the status quo is reset. When there’s a comic outcome, there’s often a transformational twist. And for every ‘Huh?!’ there’s usually a balancing ‘Ah!’

While double barbs tend to come in pairs, they only seem to expand and contract in a 1:3 or 3:1 proportion.

Illustration of how a triple set of double-backword-double barbs condenses to a single double barb.
Illustration of how a single double barb expands to a triple set of double-backward-double barbs.

The Quest Structure

A common structure is the Quest structure, which the three little pigs follow in the well-known story. The version below was collected by Hamish Henderson from Bella Higgins who heard it from her mother.

A table showing the Quest structure as it unfolds in the story line of the three pigs. 10 steps are shown: 1-opening, 2-characters introduced, 3-problem, 4-journey, 5-meeting, 6-with friend/helper, 7-meeting, 8-with enemy-hindrance, 9-final situation (outcome/resolution), 10-closing.

The two story structures depicted above can be compared and analysed. In the table below, step 3 in the Transformation structure symbolises a problematic (negative) 'transgression against the natural order'. It expands, giving rise to the first (positive) meeting (step 5 in the Quest structure) which will be with a friend or helper. The seed of the positive is contained within the negative. You can follow the implications of the expansion of step 4 in the Transformation structure yourself.

A table showing how the backward barb which forms step 3 in the Transformation structure expands to a problem-journey-meeting sequence in steps 3 to 5 in the Quest structure. The relationships between the two structures are worth exploring on a deep level.

Two Dynamic Story Structures

The two structures analysed above are linear structures. But how and why are the events in them linked? This is where I see dynamic structures coming in. Dynamic structures map the qualitative change in the relationship between knower and known in a character’s story line. They symbiotically underpin Linear story structures.

I’ve identified two dynamic story structures to date:

The Revelation Structure

The Revelation structure follows a ‘veni, vidi, vici’ pattern (I came, I saw, I conquered). It’s typically found in sequences which build suspense leading to a dénouement. Marie Louise von Franz sees this as a ‘1,2,3,Bang!’ sequence.

It’s mapped as follows:

A table showing the 3 steps of the Revelation structure: 1-doubt (veni), 2-verification: confirmation/refutation (vidi), 3-assertion/denial (statement or action which cancels doubt) (vici)

The Chinese Circular Structure

The Chinese Circular Structure, as I call it, is based on the interplay between yin and yang energies through the yearly cycle and the five-element system visualised in the Wu Xing arrangement.

A table showing how the 5 elements of the Chinese Circular Structure map to symbols, seasons, elements, cardinal points, yin-yang digrams, and the themes of 1-opening, 2-initiation/emergence, 3-division, 4-separation, 5-completion, and 6-reintegration/reformation/recentring. Steps 1 and 6 are where openings and closings meet at the centre of a circular diagram with four points around the circumference.
A diagram of five elements in the Chinese Wu Xing arrangement outlining the cycle of the four seasons, and the six themes of the Chinese Circular Structure: 1-opening, 2-initiation/emergence, 3-division, 4-separation, 5-completion, and 6-reintegration/reformation/recentring.

In Chapter 18 of Story and Structure, I describe how the Chinese Circular Structure can be seen underpinning every one of the linear story structures identified to date. The approaches are informed by close reading of early Chinese texts which clearly map to the structure.

Three Classifications of Story Structures

First event in the story line

The 18 structures I've identified to date (16 linear and 2 dynamic) can be classified in three ways relating to what happens at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of a story structure. The nature of the first event in a character’s story line gives rise to the following classification:

Table showing the classification of story structures according to the quality of the initial step in a given character's story line:
Mark of recursion: Revelation
Mark of cancellation: The Chinese Circular Structure
Backward barb: Quest, Transformation, Death & Rebirth, Trickster, Call and Response (2 variations), Trickster Variation, Dilemma, Voyage & Return, Perpetual Motion
Forward barb: Rags to Riches, Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, Open-Ended Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, Creation Myth
Double barb: Riddle, Koan

Middle Events in the Story Line

The ‘middle’ classification is based on whether or not a character crosses a threshold between transcendent (metaphysical or supernatural) and immanent (physical) dimensions of being. The Creation Myth structure straddles both conditions:

Table showing classification of story structures as threshold/non-threshold structures Threshold: Transformation, Trickster Variation, Death and Rebirth, Rags to Riches, Revelation, Call and Response (2 variations), Chinese Circular Structure, Koan Non-Threshold: Quest, Trickster, Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, Open-Ended Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, Dilemma, Riddle, Voyage & Return, Perpetual Motion Straddler: Creation Myth

Ending Events in the Story Line

And the ‘ending’ classification gives the following:

A table showing the classification of story structures according to endings.
Closed: Quest, Transformation, Rags to Riches, Death and Rebirth, Trickster, Trickster Variation, Call and Response (2 variations), Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, Voyage & Return
Open-Ended: Dilemma, Open-Ended Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu, Koan, Riddle
No clear ending: Perpetual Motion, Creation Myth

We can learn a lot by looking at story structures. We can’t avoid the metaphysical, the transcendent. Story gives rise to embodied story structures. Story has a sacred dimension (as language does—especially when used in sacred chant). It shows how these simple patterns tell a universal story: a quest to find balance and harmony individually and universally. It highlights the important of us finding balance and harmony in the larger cosmos of which we are a part. Isn’t this ultimately why we tell stories?

How do you use story structure to write a novel? Tell us your a-ha moments and how you have analysed your writing to improve it.

About Leon

Leon Conrad writing

Leon Conrad was born in London, UK, to a Polish father and Coptic Egyptian mother. He moved to Alexandria at age 6, and grew up in a multilingual environment there, among the souks and bazaars of Egypt. He is currently based out of London.

As a writer, Leon sees the written word as sound on the page. Why else do we call nouns and verbs 'parts of speech'? He has written plays, and have published articles, poetry, and books.

As an editor, he offers in-depth proofreading, editing and review of manuscripts, focusing on a work’s structure, the reader’s journey, the narrative presentation, the style of a work, the sound, rhythm, musicality and the flow of a piece of writing.

Find out about his various projects, awards, and services at his website: LeonConrad.com.

Want more information on his writing method? Download a free sample of his book below today.

covers of Story and Structure by Leon Conrad and prize badges

Story and Structure: What’s in it for YOU?

  • Be inspired
  • Learn new things about story that we’ve not realised despite the fact that we’ve literally been telling stories for millennia
  • Use what you learn to perform more effectively in your life and work
  • Improve your writing, storytelling, communication

In Story and Structure, I’ve outlined a new approach to story structure analysis inspired by six simple symbols drawn from George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form (1969).

I was Spencer-Brown’s last student and he guided me through the work himself. This is the first time his work (which has been successfully applied in both mathematics, computing, and logic) has been comprehensively applied to the analysis of story structure.

Download a sample from leonconrad.com/writer 

Copyright © Leon Conrad, July 2023. All rights reserved.
Leon Conrad has asserted his moral rights in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

10 comments on “Explore the Deep Structure of Story”

  1. Fascinating, but too distracting for me-and most learning writers, I think.

    I purchased a book (I won’t name) where the author demonstrated a process of plotting by use of line drawings. It looks similar to the method used for plotting sentences. It was also too distracting to use as a jumping off point, although still felt more intuitive than the method you describe.

    Every serious writer must read about and examine tools and methods that might help them achieve their goals, but not every tool or method works for everyone. So, I think this method is worth being familiar with, but mainly for use in post-draft evaluation. It is not intuitive enough, although perhaps it could be (better) applied to evaluating a story board/index card telling.

    1. Interesting comment, Jerold - I agree, some tools work well for some people and not for others. It's like finding the right pen or lead hardness of pencil that just allows your handwriting to flow. One thing I disagree with, however, is that it's 'not intuitive enough'. It's worth spending time with the dynamic structures - particularly the Chinese Circular Structure - and following the analyses in Chapter 13 of 'Story and Structure' in which it features, to really explore its potential as a means of liberating the imagination and inspiring intuitive approaches. What do you find works best for you?

  2. Thanks for this interesting approach, Leon. I do something similar but very simplified to analyze my story structure. I attempt to map how each scene impels or delays the character in her attempt to reach her goal I attempt to have a pattern of impel and delay that contributes to growing tension. I haven't thought about analyzing my own work in terms of the type of structure (ie: quest, revelation, circular, etc.) I'm always up for finding new ways to improve my writing so I'll be looking at how I can add this to my writer's toolbox.

    1. Sounds great, Lynette. I find the structures useful in releasing imaginative ideas when I'm stuck - one example is applying them to inanimate objects in a scene. Another is to apply them to the reader's journey or story line.

  3. Thank you for your detailed dive into story structure. This is a way I haven't looked at story structure before.

  4. What I most love about this method is the versatility and the acceptance that structure is not a one-size-fits-all! Thanks for sharing this!

    1. You're welcome, Lisa. I explore more applications on Substack (leonconrad.substack.com) and Medium (medium.com/@leon.conrad) if you are interested in going further.

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