Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Narrative Structure

This is something that I've been thinking about for a while, and I think that it's important to say, particularly with regards to my audience who write blogs for the Fear mythos. In a blog, it is important to have a story.

This isn't meant to condescend to anyone, or to insult people for blogs that they've written. It's not to say that people don't understand the basics of this stuff already, because I'm sure that most of you do. But I'm going to start from the beginning so that you can follow my logic step-by-step and really understand what I'm trying to say.

So. Let's begin.

Stories are, broadly speaking, built from five parts, which make up the story's narrative structure. These are:

  • Exposition
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Denouement
But these five pieces of narrative structure are utilized in different ways in different types of stories. One of the earliest types of narrative structure is that used in Greek plays, of which the playwright Gustav Freytag wrote an in-depth analysis. He provided us with this view of the narrative structure:

Freytag's Pyramid
This is one of the simplest and most influential views of narrative structure in literature. As I said above, it's far from definitive, but it's the foundation upon which most other narrative analyses are built on, so it's important to understand this before moving on, particularly because, in the context of literary analysis, the terms listed above don't have the same meaning as they do in common parlance.

In the above picture, when we move from left to right, we're moving from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. When we move from the bottom to the top, we're increasing the amount of tension the reader feels (ideally, anyway; not all stories are well-written enough to get the audience invested).

Freytag defined the story's exposition as the introduction to the characters, setting, and central conflict of the story. Rising action is when, during the attempt to resolve the central conflict, further, smaller conflicts arise; in short, rising action is the introduction of obstacles to the protagonist's efforts. The climax is the narrative's turning point. If the story is a comedy (which, in the context of Greek plays, means that it has a happy ending), the "tide" of the conflict, previously firmly against the protagonist and in favor of the villain, will turn in favor of the protagonist. In the case of a tragedy, the tide will turn against the protagonist. Falling action continues the pattern established in the climax, bringing the story towards its inevitable conclusion. And, in the denouement, the conflicts of the story are resolved, bringing the story to a close.

Notice the difference between Freytag's usage of terms like "climax" and "denouement" from what you probably use them to mean. To most writers, the climax of the story would be what Freytag says is the denouement. But this is what I said above: Freytag's analysis is important to understand, but not definitive. It was created to analyze ancient Greek plays, which had fairly simplistic stories and could usually be summed up by labeling them as comedy or tragedy.

More recent narrative models are more complex. So let's look at the next one:

Narrative Structure

This should look a little more familiar to any of you who have studied literary structure at all. It's the simplest, most basic, and most common model of narrative structure out there, and for very good reason. Most stories can be modeled this way. 

On the surface, it looks very much like Freytag's pyramid. But it's not, and for more reason than that this model places the climax later in the story. In this model, the climax is the point when the central conflict of the story is resolved, the falling action is when any dangling sub-plots are resolved, and the denouement (resolution) is the ending scene, showing that the conflicts are indeed over with.

Without this basic structure, a story isn't a story. Without an introduction of some sort, we never get to know what it is that we're dealing with, which means that nothing that takes place afterwards has any meaning to us. Without rising action, nothing happens; a conflict is introduced and resolved immediately. Without a climax, the story never has any kind of resolution. Without falling action and a denouement, we're left with unresolved tension and dangling plot threads that nag at our minds. 

There are more complicated models of narrative structure than this, of course, but I'll touch on them later. For now, you know enough to understand the basics of how a story is built.

Take, for example, Terry Pratchett's novel Guards! Guards!. The book's introduction shows us the city of Ankh-Morpork, the cult trying to summon a dragon in order to take over said city, and the bumbling, universally-ignored Night Watch just trying to get by. The book's rising action has the brotherhood actually succeeding in summoning the dragon, which complicates the efforts of the Night Watch to just live a quiet existence without getting in trouble. The battle against and subsequent defeat of the dragon is the story's climax. The death of the cult's leader is the story's falling action. The scenes of the Night Watch enjoying a few drinks together are the denouement. 

Simple, right? 

Apparently not. This is a problem with a lot of blog stories, as well as horror stories in general. It's something that a lot of people in the Slenderverse don't seem to really understand. Most people in the Fear mythos get it, but I think that's largely because the Fear mythos is fairly small, and so isn't yet open to the sheer number of writers that populates the Slenderverse. 

See, the thing is that many Slenderverse works (and many works in general, including, I'm sure, some in the Fear mythos - I haven't read all the blogs) don't follow this narrative structure. In fact, they don't follow any narrative structure. They do not have a story.

Here's the thing: most Slenderblogs follow a very simple formula.
  1. Pointless posts about the "protagonist's" life that do nothing to advance the plot.
  2. Slendy appears.
  3. "Protagonist" flips out and starts raving about how they've found so much information about The Slender Man and ZOMG MURBLE HORNUTS WUT DO AH DOOOOO
  4. "Protagonist" gets stalked some more. Possible totheark ripoff appearances, account hacks, Masky expy appearances, etc.
  5. "Protagonist" dies.
Can you spot the problem? It's pretty simple: there is no conflict. The protagonist doesn't try to do anything. Slendy isn't an antagonist, because there's nothing that he's doing that the "protagonist" is actually trying to stop, because the "protagonist" (note the continued use of quotes) does nothing to try and stop Slendy. They aren't an actual character. They're a prop for the "story" to happen to, not a figure that stands at the center of things and actually tries to do something. 

Again, note the use of quotes. Unless the protagonist is trying to do something, there is no story. Simply sitting back and flipping out about ZUMG TEH SPLENDERMIN is not telling a story. It's sitting back and waiting for a foregone conclusion. Throwing in totheark and Masky ripoffs does not constitute a story. It's introducing more pointless plot threads when the main plot thread still hasn't gone anywhere.

It's not that the protagonist has to fight back against Slendy and win. It's enough to fight back and lose. Fighting back, attempting to find some way to defend yourself, studying the Slender Man and trying to unearth some sort of weakness, is enough, as long as it goes somewhere. Researching Slendy and finding one possible explanation for his backstory, then trying to use that against him. Anything. The critical point is that something has to happen that complicates what your protagonist is trying to do. Adding a totheark expy to post threatening videos is a bad idea ninety-nine percent of the time because adding a totheark expy does nothing to advance the plot. It only adds another pointless plot thread.

This is where we get into more complicated narrative structure models. See, the thing is that rising action is a series of complications to the protagonist's main conflict. Let's look at a slightly more detailed model to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

The Contemporary Freytag Model
Do you see the two added points on the map? The inciting incident is the first complication introduced, while the crisis is the largest complication which leads directly to the climax. Again returning to Guards! Guards!, the inciting incident would be the dragon killing a group of pickpockets and drawing the attention of the Night Watch, while the crisis would be Lady Ramkin being chained to a rock in the town square as a sacrifice to the beast.

Now, look at the average totheark or redlight expy. What do they actually complicate? Nothing. They don't add anything to the story. There's no point to their videos or comments. They don't advance the plot in any way. They're only there because people confuse adding more plot threads with adding complications. This is something that it's vital to understand when writing a story. 

Let's look at one of the most detailed models, then, for a more accurate look at how a story should be structured:

The Crisis Model
This is one of the best models of how narrative structure is supposed to work. See the multiple miniature peaks in the line? These are all different complications being added to the story. In Guards! Guards!, these are the dragon's first murders, Vimes' decision that he isn't going to sit back and let this murder go unsolved, the apparent slaying of the dragon, the imprisonment of the city's Patrician and crowning of the "champion", Vimes losing his badge, the dragon being crowned, Vimes being jailed, and so on. 

Again, compare this to the standard model of a Slenderverse blog. The protagonist isn't actually trying to accomplish anything. They're just freaking out while totheark and Masky and redlight and Slendy jump out and go "OOGABOOGA" over and over. There's no tension, because the protagonist isn't trying to do anything for Slendy and the rest to get in the way of. They're just sitting there and waiting to get slaughtered. There's no point. We don't wonder "will X get out of it alive?", because X isn't trying to get out of it alive. X is sitting there and crying in a corner while waiting to die.

Keep that in mind when writing your stories. Actually have a story. It'll make your writing much more fun to read.


  1. Thank you very much.

    This is why I sometimes have trouble writing my blogs - I start out without thinking things through enough, so my plots tend to waver. I do still try to follow the basic structure, mainly because I think a blog that goes nowhere is a, well, blog that goes nowhere. It has no suspense or tension.

    Of course, I am also often impeded by my laziness.

    1. Believe me, that's a problem that we all have.

  2. I've decided fuck it I'm using The announcer as my meta account as well...

    I really liked reading this. It has further cemented in my mind that TWTTE is my best written blog. Mostly in the first arc.

    (Spoilers if you haven't read it but just trying to be sure of myself)

    Exposition: Faceless's introduction and mention of Harold

    Inciting incident: Bar attack

    Rising action: everything from the bar attack to Sandy

    Crises: The reveal that Harold was behind the bar attack, Sandy's death,

    Climax: Finding out what Harold is and the challenge

    Falling action: The fight

    Denouement: Destroying the site of worship

    I'm pretty sure that it fulfills all the requirements. While on the other end of the spectrum some of the stories such as lights are failures (Although blaming it entirely on the lack of story structure is probably unfair)

  3. You know, I never thought of it in this way, but this makes some sense. I wonder how well Condemned will end up fitting this structure, but I can at least rest assured that it addresses/will address some of the points you made.

  4. Yeah, I spent way to much time before I got to my rising action, and it's already my biggest regret. But this is a good blog, I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing, so thanks for this.

  5. I'm glad everybody is getting so much use out of this. I'm flattered that I'm getting so many positive comments, really. I'll try and keep it up.

  6. I consider story structure, and plot overall, to be the biggest part of writing my stories. It's one of the many reasons I hate Jordan Eats Normally Now, as I wasn't sure what I was doing with it until the very end.

    This is why I hate how most people use immersion, actually-- people use immersion as an excuse to not have much of a plot. "Oh, it's supposed to be realistic, people don't actually go on these exciting quests and do exciting things!" Well, there comes a point where you have to decide between telling a super-immersive and realistic story and telling a good narrative. o_e

    1. Exactly (also, sorry for not replying to this immediately - I don't always remember to check the comments listing on this blog, since the interface is different than the one on ITSM and CTS for some reason). Why write a story if you're not going to... y'know. Have a story?