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Questioning the Traditional Story Structure

In today's excerpt from Words Overflown By Stars, author David Jauss discusses and questions the traditional story structure.


There’s nothing second-rate about a traditional story. Lots of people write great ones and millions of people love to read them. For some writers, though, the form itself may feel unnatural, not suited to portraying the complexities of a world marked by ambiguity and dislocation, chaos and incongruities, where answers are suspect and bizarre juxtapositions a part of daily life.

Do You Find a Traditional Story Structure Confining? Answer These Questions

  • Do you want to go beyond telling what happened and recreate the feeling?
  • Are you as interested in inner life as in outward action?
  • As a reader, are you as curious to find out what an author is going to say or think next as in what the character will do?
  • Do you take pleasure in what the narrator of Kafka's story “The Burrow” calls “the mind reveling in its own keenness”?
  • Do you pay attention to language itself and judge stories—including your own—not just on how they read on the page, but out loud?
  • Do you often discover what you’re writing about only in the process of writing?
  • Do you tend to order events by their emotional or psychological links rather than their chronology?
  • Do you think we can best approach Truth through intuition, through hints and suggestions, that Truth flees at any direct approach?

If you answered yes to many of these questions, you probably find traditional structure confining, an obstacle to expression instead of a helpful guide. You’re not alone. Consider some of the writers and readers who have questioned the premises many of us take for granted.

The traditional story revolves around a conflict—a requirement Ursula K. Le Guin disparages as the “gladiatorial view of fiction.” When we’re taught to focus our stories on a central struggle, we seem to choose by default to base all our plots on the clash of opposing forces. We limit our vision to a single aspect of existence and overlook much of the richness and complexity of our lives, just the stuff that makes a work of fiction memorable.

The movement of the story progresses from rising action to climax to the falling off of the denouement. Hmm, say the feminist literary critics. As poet Eloise Klein Healy pointed out to me, that sounds suspiciously like male sexual response. Which is not, she notes, the only way to satisfy a reader.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that only women will reject the standard progression. In a Paris Review interview, William Goyen compared his writing process to creating the individual medallions of a quilt—“all separate and perfect as I can make them.” For him, the challenge came in discovering the relationship of the parts without faking the connections, in “graft [ing] the living pieces to one another so that they finally become a living whole.” Kafka began The Metamorphosis with the most dramatic event: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” I can just imagine a modern-day workshop leader telling Kafka that this transformation must happen near the end. But Kafka—like many contemporary writers who wonder how ordinary life goes on after great trauma and what may be revealed about us and those close to us—is not concerned with the hows and whys of the unthinkable cataclysmic event, but rather its aftermath.

In modern fiction, it’s strange to talk about story climax anyway when so many stories offer a subtle realization or epiphany rather than rockets going off. As a result, the edgy juxtapositions and pulsing rhythms of an unconventional story may actually be more engaging to readers than the traditional structure in which, these days, the buildup often leads not to a bang but a whimper.

A main character must undergo a change. I like to imagine Kafka walking out of that imaginary workshop: “You want change?” he mutters. “All right, I’ll give you change!” My objection to this “rule” is that experience teaches us an equally dramatic (if frustrating) truth: In spite of conflict, confrontation and crisis, people often don’t, can’t, or won’t change.

Did you enjoy this excerpt? Read this article about the different types of story structure.

Buy Words Overflown By Stars now!

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