You are a baby sitting in a high chair. Your parents, aunts, uncles, their friends are telling each other stories around the dinner table. Afterwards, you watch cartoons while the grownups chat some more. Later, your mom reads you a book (My fave: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein). You are absorbing it all. Story is becoming a part of your very being.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re “officially” a writer, we all tell stories. We innately understand the rhythm, the expectations, the characters, the timing and drama of story. You know that guy who took the spot you were aiming for in the grocery store parking lot? Yeah, that SOB! I’ll bet you can’t wait to vent about the nerve of that guy! Hell! I’d be on the cell phone the minute I stopped cursing! I can just hear the story building up and up, perhaps with a touch of exaggeration, (in my case, major gesticulation!), lots of details, until the tale naturally ends. Oh, you’ll get tons of sympathy for having gone through such an ordeal! What a creep he was! And your friends relate to it, because they’ve experienced the same injustice or a similar frustrating experience. The next thing you know they’re sharing their stories. You all start laughing or become outraged. And the stories continue to grow, to ebb and flow. (I know…tacky rhyme. Sometimes, I can’t help myself).
Even when we read books or short stories that take place way in the past or in the future, or the characters and plot are nothing we could possibly relate to in our own lives, we still get hooked in because the story brings us on an intriguing ride. We identify with the emotions and relationships. We’re learning something new. We want to know how it all turns out, so we keep going until we turn the last page. And if the story has done its job, we want more.
I learned the basics of story structure through improvisational theater. When you’re making up scenes, essentially stories, on the spot, you need a basic, shared understanding of where a story should go. That doesn’t mean you can’t vary it or play with it. It just needs good bones, a place to return to if it goes way off course—or not.
Though I haven’t read much in this style, I suspect many experimental pieces have an underlying structure of their own. However, I do read and write flash fiction. Often, in a longer flash story (750 – 1,000 words, perhaps 1,200), you can take it apart and define the structure. Even in a very short piece (500, 300, 150 words), that may seem like nothing more than a vignette, you’ll feel it moving, rising and falling. There’s a heartbeat pulsing throughout.
I don’t consciously think about structure when I write short stories or flash fiction. If you’ve read this far, you may have noticed! I just write and see where the story takes me. Usually, it finds its own structure in the process. Then comes revision, revision, revision and more revision and the structure reveals more of itself. I know people who write novels this way. Honestly, I didn’t even know I was structureless when I wrote until I got a “good” rejection letter from an editor of one of my favorite literary magazines. She said (I’m paraphrasing here) though they couldn’t use the story, she liked it and thought it was well-constructed. “It is?” I thought at the time. Who knew?
If you’re a fiction writer, take a look at theater and film, and see what you can learn from structure there. Go to plays and movies. Read the scripts. Not only will this help you think more visually in your writing, it will also refine your ear for dialogue, give you a feel for the beats in a scene and an overall sense of structure—all of which you can apply to writing fiction.