Story Structure

This past weekend, Northwestern hosted an Arts Fest at which my literary magazine had a booth. The Fest was targeted towards children of the Evanston community, so each booth had activities for kids. Our activities were making bookmarks and adding a sentence to a story. You might think that the stories could spin out of control very quickly, but it turned out that kids have a pretty firm grasp on story structure.

1. Opening/Establishing the Scene

Once upon a time, the zebra was walking down the road, singing. It was a very sunny day.

2. Inciting Incident

And then he met a lion.

3. Rising Action

“I wanna eat ya!” said the lion. “Oh ya? I know Kung Fu! Haya!” said the zebra. And then, the lion went to Lou Malnatti’s for dinner.

4. Further complications

“Sorry, we only have vegetarian pizzas,” said Loud. “Drat” said the lion (his name is Leo). Leo then went to California Pizza Kitchen. And their Leo found balloon pizza. “Gross” said Leo and went to Domino’s.

Admittedly, there are problems in this story. The main conflict changes from being between the zebra and the lion to being between the lion and the pizza companies. The character of the zebra disappears after the beginning. And there is no climax and resolution (but let’s blame that on the fact that the fair ended before the kids could end the story).

Still, I think this mini-story has something many writers forget about: problems for the characters. As my fiction professor says, we need something to worry about. When a writer gets a new world or character in their head, often they spend pages just describing things or showing every day life because they want to get to know the characters like they would get to know people. But in stories, the readers need to be worried about something. In this example, we’re first concerned about what will happen to the zebra after he meets the lion. Then we’re concerned about whether the lion is going to get the pizza he wants. At every moment in the story, we’re concerned about what will happen next, and that is what keeps us reading, whether it is a story about lions going to pizza parlors or the Great American Novel.

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