The Powerful Story Part 1

Story structure and genre

Understanding what audiences want helps us understand how to structure our stories to avoid six month long train wrecks. Story structure is key.

What do audiences want? Most of the time simply to be entertained—have a break from real life. We need it. I’m as excited about a good story as any audience.

I don’t tell anyone how to write. All I can do is help them understand what makes a story more successful, from the point of view of many successful directors and advisors, critiquing hundreds of stories, and from seeing audience reactions in hundreds of focus groups.

Successful story development has been going on since 3000 BCE when the people of Ancient Sumer first inscribed The Epic Of Gilgamesh on clay tablets. The Greeks refined the story telling traditions in plays. The major change has been we no longer use a chorus in the background, although we still use music to set the mood.

Many writers will go up in flames in anger, and down in flames in failure, swearing that their way is better, and all I can say to those people is to quote Admiral Farragut: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Okay, I was once a Navy guy. I sailed a lot of dry land.  Strange things happen. Maybe doing it their way will produce a winner. Or maybe they will get torpedoed.

Entertaining sometimes is just action—bang, bang, shoot ’em up. This is especially true for the under age 40 audience. But there are deeper elements to most entertainment writing. Most people want something that has a satisfying resolution (ending) and is life affirming. Story structure and genre are basic things endemic to audience satisfaction.

One example of things audiences don’t want is to be intrigued by an adventure story but find out it’s Johnny’s coming of age story. Defying expectations makes people upset. They tattle on you so no one buys your story.

In contrast to the usual audience desire for entertainment are the tragedy and existential. In the tragedy the character has a flaw that leads to a terrible end. The audience’s mood is not lightened.

In existential it’s simply events, a slice of life with no meaning. Neither of these genres, tragedy and existential, are good sellers, so why write them?

An exception to darkness, tragedy, and meaninglessness is dark comedy. In dark comedy a topic that is generally taboo is made light of, or the bad guy wins as an antihero. I defy anyone to tell me that the dark comedies, “I Love You To Death,” “Catch 22,” “The War Of The Roses,” “Arsenic And Old Lace,” and “Death At A Funeral,” aren’t hilarious.

One example of pleasing an audience is the genre of comedy

Not that good comedy is easy to write. Most of the time it falls flat with poorly developed characters and situations. In movies and plays comedy works better when the writer and actor know each other well and have similar comedic affinity.

I’ve witnessed failure in TV pilots too numerous to count that never made it to the screen, and even in those that do make it which tragically end after a few episodes. I’ll focus on comedy structure for this week.

Romantic Comedy usually follows the same structure: Two people meet, animosity is palpable, but there is an underlying attraction. They battle it out until they realize they are in love, they lock lips, the future is a promising cuddle fest, then some horrid event sends them in opposite directions again. All is lost. But somehow they overcome the event and are rewarded with enduring love. Write this and people will come. Well, maybe. Possibly. Could happen.

What makes comedy so popular?

Comedy is commonly a light treatment of a serious topic. We want to laugh about the things that vex us in life. Romance is vexing, so romantic comedy sells well. Getting ahead in life is vexing, so we want to laugh, cry, and triumph with characters as we live through the battles they face. It’s soul stirring, it uses unexpected but humorous twists that makes situations palatable, and reminds us we have hope.

When Harry Meets Sally, by very popular writer, the late Nora Ephron, poses the premise that men and women can’t be friends because of sexual attraction. It’s very unique in that it’s very much a premise driven story. Both the unexpected and expected happen. The unexpected is the famous adlib scene in which Sally fakes an orgasm in public and another woman orders what she’s having. The expected is that in the end Harry and Sally marry. Life is safe again.

Big Bang Theory delivers very flawed characters that most of us can relate to. They embody the ambition to succeed, the need for acceptance and to mate, the need to stand up to others, and many other very human foibles and follies. The characters are put in awkward situations in which they squirm and make us laugh. But we’re laughing at ourselves.

The vulnerabilities of the characters on Big Bang Theory are numerous and very evident. The entire series has a well developed character transformation arc for the entire character set and 12 years of seasons. Somehow being flawed is okay and the characters win in the end. Life is safe again.

Keeping our lives safe from harm is vexing, so we want to laugh or cry about life, and see a satisfying resolution: something that helps us remember that things will work out well. Hope. In the 411 BCE Sex comedy, Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, women revolt against men and their endless, senseless wars, and withhold sex from them to get control of both the men and wars. Their world became safe again. The story structure is similar to modern comedies with a rising story arch followed by resolution.

We all make mistakes—that’s part of the human condition—and it’s better to have a farcical laugh than to cry, better to keep hope than feel hopeless and participate in disaster, better to see a character succeed. Writers have an inherent and profound responsibility to portray humanity in forms that get through our defenses and remind us there is hope. Comedy does it. To me comedy is the highest art.

What is another major benefit of structure? It can be a major leap forward from putting one word in front of another in which the result is in an endless stream of consciousness, drifting through several unrelated subjects, entombed in a twenty pound door stop that slips by both publication and readers. Success requires us to do better.

Story structure was promoted by screenwriter Syd Field. We knew each other and exchanged our books. And more recently story structure was the backbone of Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” series. (Sadly both men have passed.) Structured stories sell well and dependably. Hollywood, which has to risk $10 to 200 million in production and advertising, loves structured stories because they are a safe recipe for success.

I might have followed Syd’s trek had I been willing to live in LA. My wife threatened divorce if I chose LA so I chose love—great romantic comedy. I’m still laughing. But she also regularly threatens to divorce me over my sense of humor. Can’t win. But I learned a lot by working in development and critiquing, analyzing, and helping others with story development, and then writing about it.

Structured stories can feel predictable, which is why I try to steer people away from dogmatic structure, and emphasize story architecture. But there is a place for predictable structure and endings, just no place for being able to predict the events. Stories must be unique or they don’t sell.

In Teenage Bounty Hunters, a Netflix series, (I really like this series) two sisters become involved in tracking down and catching criminals because they are fleet of foot and cunning. Catching the criminals is humorous, but the bulk of the story is about their relationships and coming of age. There is definitely character transformation. So blends genres: action plus comedy plus coming of age.

Blending genres can be done, but it’s tricky or it’s a flop. It takes professional skill to do it well because it often defies audience expectations.

A career in writing means learning a lot, doing it well repeatedly, and making important contacts with people who can help you. The Masterclass by Blacklist (Scott Meyers) is one way of doing that, and I respect it above others. Buying endless books and courses is another. But candidly much about writing a popular story has been well know since before Aristophanes in 411 BCE.

Even The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ancient Sumer in ~3000 BCE, written with a stylus on a soft clay tablet, developed into a popular series of stories that had many great story elements. Or the Ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey from 1200 BCE that we still enjoy today. And we are flooded daily with stories, so we should instinctively know story format. So this series touches on basics but is more about professional writing skills.

Next week: The Powerful Story: Story Structure Part 2


No advice is 100% perfect or even 80%. Even doctors’ first diagnosis is less than 80%, and in story writing, someone will always arrange 300 words, start with the word “sex,” have a runaway best seller and a Hollywood deal. The best anyone can do is hand you the skeleton key to success to help you get into the 1% or less of those stories that are successful in the market.

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