Why We Need Story Structure

We are drawn to structure in our stories simply because our lives have no discernable structure of their own


As we move through our lives, day to day, we are basically out of control. By that I mean we have little or no control over what is going to happen in the next minute, five minutes, hours, days, weeks or months.

We live in a state of constant naïveté, on the cusp (great word, "cusp") between the known (the past) and the unknown (the future). And, even as we attempt to wrangle the events of our lives into some kind of order, some kind of pattern that seems to make sense as we pursue our elusive goals, it is this living on the edge that makes our lives so exciting, rich and invigorating, whether we like it or not.

When we create stories, our goal is to place the reader or viewer on this cusp, in the moment of not knowing what’s coming next. This is where our best stories live, where we can truly share in the experiences of our characters, where the journey feels authentic and genuine, unique moments unfolding one after the other, a replication of our own, real and chaotic lives.

But there’s a problem. If our stories were to actually follow character events in real time, we would become mind-numbingly bored in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. So, as storytellers, we create structure. We construct the journey of our characters to move this story along at a good clip, to keep alive that "out of control" feeling that gives our lives vibrancy and texture.

How do we do this? We select highlights, compress time, create conflicts and arrange them into a roller-coaster ride we know will stimulate emotional responses in our listeners, readers, viewers. It’s not reality, only a replica of reality, an illusion of reality. But when done well, it feels real. And, perhaps more importantly, it feels safe, a luxury only illusion wrought by story allows.

And it is this safety, in the midst of uncertainty and chaos, that we crave.

We desire structure. We are drawn to structure in our stories simply because our lives have no discernable structure of their own. We live in constant chaos, on that cusp, and as we wrestle with our own hopes and fears, and all the inevitable twists and turns in our all-too-real lives, we find respite in the manufactured lives of fictional characters.

We create stories that are so finely structured (or so brilliantly defy an anticipated structure) that in the creation we find comfort, a sense of well-being, and we experience a sense of control. We tell our stories and through compression and expansion thereby imposing a structure that infuses each story with an emotional energy that seems to replicate our personal experience. And we listen to stories of others and feel embraced and secure by the presence of structure that will carry us on an inevitable journey.

We create, tell and receive stories in our never-ending search for meaning in our lives. Structure makes the creation possible, the telling enjoyable and the receiving meaningful.