Be sure to read the first four parts of this essay:
- Part 1: Terminology and the Difference Between Narrative and Story
- Part 2: Taking a Closer Look at Story
- Part 3: Got Plot
- Part 4: Types of Plot
When it comes to talking about structure we need to be careful of our wording. The terms narrative structure, story structure, and plot structure seem to be intertwined and often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same (as we’ve learned with our previous exploration of terms). First, let’s look at the idea of structure alone. The Random House Dictionary defines structure as: “a mode of building, construction, or organization; arrangement of parts, or elements.” In addition, it says “structure is a complex system considered from the point of view of the whole rather than of any single part.” Here we have the two key elements of structure. First, it’s a mode of arrangement and organization, and second, it takes into consideration the whole. Chea explains that “in examining structure, we look for patterns, for the shape that the story as a whole possesses. Plot directs us to the story in motion, structure to the story at rest”(2). Meanwhile, film teacher Judy Lewis adds “structure is the term used to describe the organization of the story, including the order in which a story is told.”
When questions of linear vs. non-linear storytelling arise, it’s important to realize that plot is always linear. But non-linear storytelling can still have a plot, but the non-linear organization is a choice of structure. Ultimately, in a non-linear story the reader will piece together the plot to create the chronological relationships, as Lisa Cowgill states in her essay on non-linear narratives:
The unconventional structure doesn’t mean audiences understand film in a new way. Viewers understand by making cause-and-effect connections between the scenes. Each beat of information must relate to what comes before and after, even if a scene transcends the chronological order of time. In nonlinear films, relationships created between the various time segments form a specific meaning when taken all together.
Additionally, choices of organization and structure also have to do with authorial intent. “Structure is important for another reason: It provides a clue to a story’s meaning… paying attention to repeated elements and recurrent details … repetition signals important connections and relationships in the story” (Chea). After all, why would someone choose to tell a story out of sequence if not to lead the reader to make a connection between the scenes? Therefore structure is form (choices of organization, patterns) with specific intent (meaning) that can be observed as part of the whole.
Structure as authorial intent can also be taken a step further to reveal audience manipulation. Structural choices, as editor Cheryl Klein points out, is “the author orchestrating the emotion.” Author An Na refers to this emotional base as the root-line in her lecture on structuring stories. She elaborates:
It’s all that darker deeper stuff that works emotionally and unconsciously on the reader … I’m really talking about emotions. When I think about my root-line, it’s about what emotions I want to elicit from the reader. What is the story about at the heart? The root-line really comes from this other place, from the choices that we make in terms of structure and it should heighten the story to another level in an unconscious way.
As such, structures related to narrative should not be arbitrary, instead they should be created with audience emotion in mind, and that emotion should inform the choice of structure.
Now that we have an overview of structure, let’s break it down to be more specific.
Up Next: Part 6 – Defining Story Structure
** Full Bibliography will be provided at end of blog-post series.