| David Gane

Story Shapes

When I think about story, I think in terms of shape or structure.

Freytag's Pyramid

Some of you may often remember something like this from high school English class:

This is called Fryetag’s pyramid, attributed to Gustav Freytag and his theory of dramatic structure after studying Greek and Shakespearean dramas. It shows the protagonist’s struggle with a problem until he hits the climax (the peak at the centre) which changes the protagonist’s fate for better or worse.

Vonnegut's graphs

You may have also seen something like this:

Austin Kleon attributes it to Kurt Vonnegut. This shape can change depending on the type of story, but a typical story has movement towards good fortune, until they have a setback. This drops them back to where they began, until they are able to overcome their problem, rising to their highest point.

Mythic Circles

One I don’t see as frequently is the circle:

This shape is often connected to mythic or quest stories, where the hero journeys into an unknown world in order to obtain an object of desire, and then returning.

I don’t see this one used as much, except for Dan Harmon, creator of the TV show Community, who uses it in his own writing.

My Way

However, I see story only one way:

I really do love this shape.

For me, story divides into acts (in this case, four) and it follows the story beats I look for when building story—want, obstacle, action, response, and outcome (WOARO).

I also love that it connects so strongly to character. Our hero wants something but something stands in her way. Therefore, she takes an action, which gets a response, and she must continue taking actions until she gets to an outcome, whether its good or bad. Each stage of this process requires choices and those choices define her character. Is she willing to do an unlawful thing to take action? Is she willing to sacrifice herself for her goal? Each step reveals her whether she wants it to or not.

Lastly, the shape works so nicely building the story. You can work on the largest level, defining the big beats of story, but then it allows you to move to the lower level of an act, or section, or scene. Piece by piece, bird by bird, you fill in the blanks, shaping your story.

I often visualize each layer as a series of containers, and each one can hold further containers that hold the structure of WOARO:

Whatever story shape you use, you have to feel comfortable working with it, so that it becomes a part of you and you are able to move around your story with comfort and ease.

Tags: Process, Writing

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