All stories contain four elements that can determine structure: milieu, idea, character, and event. While each is present in every story, there is generally one that dominates the others.
Which one dominates? The one that the author cares about most. This is why the process of discovering the structure of a story is usually a process of self-discovery. Which aspect of the story matters most to you? That is the aspect that determines your story’s structure.
Let’s take each element in turn and look at the structure that would be required if that were to be the dominant element in your story.
Structure 1: The Milieu Story
The milieu is the world—the planet, the society, the weather, the family, all the elements that come up during your world-creation phase. Every story has a milieu, but when a story is structured around one, the milieu is the thing the storyteller cares about most. For instance, in Gulliver’s Travels, it mattered little to Jonathan Swift whether we came to care about Gulliver as a character. The whole point of the story was for the audience to see all the strange lands where Gulliver traveled and then compare the societies he found there with the society of England in Swift’s own day—and the societies of all the tale’s readers, in all times and places. So it would’ve been absurd to begin by writing much about Gulliver’s childhood and upbringing. The real story began the moment Gulliver got to the first of the book’s strange lands, and it ended when he came home.
Milieu stories always follow that structure. An observer who sees things the way we’d see them gets to the strange place, observes things that interest him, is transformed by what he sees, and then comes back a new person.
This structure is most common in science fiction and fantasy, but it also occurs in other types of novels. James Clavell’s Shogun, for instance, is a milieu story: It begins when the European hero is stranded in medieval Japan, and it ends when he leaves. He was transformed by his experiences in Japan, but he does not stay—he returns to his world. Other stories are told along the way—the story of the shogun, for instance—but regardless of how much we’re drawn into those events, the real closure we expect at the end of the story is the main character’s departure from Japan.
Likewise, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz doesn’t end when Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. It ends when Dorothy leaves Oz and goes home to Kansas.
As you conceive and write your own story, if you realize that what you care about most is having a character explore and discover the world you’ve created, chances are this structure is your best choice.
When writing a milieu story, your beginning point is obvious—when the character arrives—and the ending is just as plain: when she leaves (or, in a variant, when she decides not to leave, ending the question of going home).
Such stories are typically most effective when seen through the viewpoint of the arriving character, as she’ll be surprised by and interested in the same strange and marvelous (and terrible) things that engage the readers.
Structure 2: The Idea Story
Idea stories are about the process of seeking and discovering new information through the eyes of characters who are driven to make the discoveries. The structure is very simple: The idea story begins by raising a question; it ends when the question is answered.
Most mysteries follow this structure. The story begins when a crime takes place. The question we ask is, “who did it and why?” The story ends when the identity and motive of the criminal are revealed.
In speculative fiction, a similar structure is quite common. The story begins with a question: Why did this beautiful ancient civilization on a faraway planet come to an end? Why are all these people gone, when they were once so wise and their achievements so great? The answer, in Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” is that their sun went nova, making life impossible in their star system. And, ironically, it was the explosion of their star that the wise men saw as the sign of the birth of Christ. The story is told from the point of view of a Christian who believes that this must have been a deliberate act of God, to destroy a beautiful civilization for the sake of giving a sign to the magi.
When writing an idea story, begin as close as possible to the point where the question is first raised, and end as soon as possible after the question is answered.
Structure 3: The Character Story
Character stories focus on the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him. Sure, in one sense, stories are almost always “about” one or more characters. In most stories, though, the tale is not about the character’s character; that is, the story is not about who the character is.
Take, for example, the Indiana Jones movies. These are not character stories. The story is always about what Indiana Jones does, but never who he is. Jones faces many problems and adventures, but in the end, his role in society is exactly what it was before: part-time archaeology professor and full-time knight-errant.
By contrast, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding is about a young girl’s longing to change her role in the only community she knows—her household, her family. She determines that she wants to belong to her brother and his new wife; “they are the we of me,” she decides. In the effort to become part of their marriage, she is thwarted—but in the process, her role in the family and in the world at large is transformed, and at the end of the story she is not who she was when she first began. The Member of the Wedding is a classic example of a character story.
The structure of a character story is as simple as any of the others. The story begins at the moment when the main character becomes so unhappy, impatient, or angry in her present role that she begins the process of change; it ends when the character either settles into a new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not).
Structure 4: The Event Story
In the event story, something is wrong in the fabric of the universe; the world is out of order. In classic literature, this can include the appearance of a monster (Beowulf), the “unnatural” murder of a king by his brother (Hamlet) or of a guest by his host (Macbeth), the breaking of an oath (Havelock the Dane), the conquest of a Christian land by the infidel (King Horn), the birth of a child portent who some believe ought not to have been born (Dune), or the reappearance of a powerful ancient adversary who was thought to be dead (The Lord of the Rings). In all cases, a previous order—a “golden age”—has been disrupted and the world is in flux, a dangerous place.
The event story ends at the point when a new order is established or, more rarely, when the old order is restored or, rarest of all, when the world descends into chaos as the forces of order are destroyed. The story begins not at the point when the world becomes disordered, but rather at the point when the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle. Hamlet doesn’t begin with the murder of Hamlet’s father; it begins much later, when the ghost appears to Hamlet and involves him in the struggle to remove the usurper and reestablish the proper order of the kingdom.
Almost all fantasy and much—perhaps most—science fiction uses the event story structure. Nowhere is it better handled than in J.R.R. Tolkien’s great trilogy. The Lord of the Rings begins when Frodo discovers that the ring Bilbo gave him is the key to the overthrow of Sauron, the great adversary of the world’s order; it ends not with the destruction of Sauron, but with the complete reestablishment of the new order—which includes the departure of Frodo and all other magical people from Middle-earth.
Notice that Tolkien does not begin with a prologue recounting all the history of Middle-earth up to the point where Gandalf tells Frodo what the ring is. He begins, instead, by establishing Frodo’s domestic situation and then thrusting world events on him, explaining no more of the world than Frodo needs to know right at the beginning. We learn of the rest of the foregoing events bit by bit, only as the information is revealed to Frodo.
In other words, the viewpoint character, not the narrator, is our guide into the world situation. We start with the small part of the world that he knows and understands and see only as much of the disorder of the universe as he can. It takes many days—and many pages—before Frodo stands before the council of Elrond, the whole situation having been explained to him, and says, “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” By the time a lengthy explanation is given, we have already seen much of the disorder of the universe for ourselves—the Black Riders, the hoodlums in Bree, the barrow wights—and have met the true king, Aragorn, in his disguise as Strider. In other words, by the time we are given the full explanation of the world, we already care about the people involved in saving it.
Too many writers of event stories, especially epic fantasies, don’t learn this lesson from Tolkien. Instead, they imagine that their poor reader won’t be able to understand what’s going on if they don’t begin with a prologue showing the “world situation.” Alas, these prologues always fail. Because we aren’t emotionally involved with any characters, because we don’t yet care, the prologues are meaningless. They are also usually confusing, as a half-dozen names are thrown at us all at once. I have learned as a book reviewer that it’s usually best to skip the prologue and begin with the story—as the author also should have done. I have never—not once—found that by skipping the prologue I missed some information I needed to have in order to read the story; and when I have read the prologue first, I have never—not once—found it interesting, helpful, or even understandable.
In other words, writers of event stories, don’t write prologues. Homer didn’t need to summarize the whole Trojan War for us; he began the Iliad with the particular, the private wrath of Achilles. Learn from Homer—and Tolkien, and all the other writers who have handled the event story well. Begin small, and only gradually expand our vision to include the whole world. If you don’t let us know and care about the hero first, we won’t be around for the saving of the world. There’s plenty of time for us to learn the big picture.