“One cannot solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem.”
– Albert Einstein
Many writers resist creating an outline because they fear it will limit their imagination and lead to formulaic writing. Story structure is not an equation designed to reduce your story to quantifiable parts. This misconception may be the result of structure frequently being taught by story analysts whose gifts lean more toward deconstructing existing stories than in exploring the process of creating magic. Story structure is not a formula — it is an immutable paradigm for transformation. It is a way to trace the experiential beats of your protagonist’s growth to a shift in perception. Transformation is an alchemical process. Through pressure or conflict, an organism is distilled to its essence, thus becoming its truest self.
Without three core elements, a story cannot satisfy its premise:
- Desire (A character wants something.)
- Surrender (A character lets go of the possibility of achieving their goal.)
- Transformation (A character reframes their goal, thus setting themselves free in some way.)
A misperception is that story-structure is “plotting.” Story structure has little to do with plot. In fact, the structure is the underlying theme that contains within it the DNA of your protagonist’s transformation. But what is a theme exactly, and how does working with it help you to build your story?
If you’ve been reading my newsletters you know that every character in your story wants the same thing . . . at nature. They are all functions of your dramatic question, therefore they all constellate around the central dilemma. And it is through this uniformity of want that conflict arises and we find meaning.
For example: Let’s say Bill and Sally are husband and wife and they both want freedom. Bill believes that freedom comes from making millions, while Sally believes it comes from giving up all material possessions. This central dilemma provides the premise for a compelling story. By noticing how your characters all want the same thing, at nature, you will begin to identify the true nature of their conflict.
In my 4-Week Outline Workshop we will do a deep dive into the relationship between your protagonist’s primal want and the key experiences that lead to their transformation. Making a story is a process of moving from the general to the specific. You begin with a basic sense of a story. Through inquiry, your imagination fills in the details of character and circumstance. If you hold too tightly to any story element, you prevent your story from moving in the direction of its most fully realized form.
And this is the challenge of the outline.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal book On Death and Dying illustrates five key experiences that one moves through in the grief process. In the same way, there are a series of experiences essential in tracing our protagonist’s arc leading to their transformation. Although the five stages of grief may overlap, they tend to move in a particular direction: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. When we look at these experiences, we likely sense a certain internal logic to the process. In fact, if we ponder them, eventually our imagination is likely to begin conjuring a story!
We all have an empathetic imagination that allows us to connect to our common humanity. Just as the five stages of grief are universal, so are the key experiential stages that lead to your protagonist’s transformation. Notice that the five stages of grief cannot exist without an individual wanting something. Without a desire to live, there is nothing to be in denial of, nothing to be angry about, nothing to bargain for, nothing to be depressed about, and nothing to accept because living never mattered in the first place. It is the same with story: your protagonist must want something, and the stakes must be life and death.
The goal of a well-written story is to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a reason Shakespeare’s plays have been around for hundreds of years. Aside from the beauty of the language, they are, by and large, fiercely well-structured stories that plumb the depths of human experience. This is not to say that a movie cannot be experimental. Or that we ought not to try new things. However, experimentation without an understanding of story structure is akin to finger-painting. We can fill up the whole page, but its value may be purely personal. Working with structure makes the personal universal.