Jon Franklin, Stan Grossfeld, and Nora Ephron
We’re going to talk about structure. Stories are like snowflakes in that they’re all alike, but they’re all different. They have certain elements in them that are universal, and they have certain elements in them that are particular.
We talk about narrative, and what narrative is is a little bit different than story. It’s a little bit more primitive than story. This happens and that happens, and the other happens and the other happens and the other happens. And all of our lives are narratives. And those narratives are usually pretty confusing.
But story is something else. Story is when you take some of this narrative that you selected for some reason and separate it out from the rest of the narrative and put it together in such a way that it has meaning. So this whole idea of meaning is intrinsic, is central to storytelling, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so cotton-picking difficult for those of us who get our early education in newsrooms to understand storytelling. Because meaning is something we’re not supposed to put in stories. For one thing, we mistake meaning with opinion. But by meaning, I really mean the shape of the story and what the shape of the story says. It’s not something that you bring to a story. It’s something you find in the story and extract from the story.
The narrative itself is just a chronology; it doesn’t have any shape. Put it in philosophical terms. It is “Shit happens.”
In a newsroom, people use story to mean something totally different than we’re talking about here. This is especially true in the last 20 years, when we’re in an age of deconstruction and post-structuralism, where it’s become cool to say that there is no meaning in life.
Let me put this in personal terms. I came into this business at just about the time structure was being abandoned. And so when I got to the point where I knew how to write hard news stories, and I could write a pretty good feature story just kind of by the seat of my pants, and I wanted to go beyond that, the whole idea of what’s a story and how do you find it just loomed so large. And there simply wasn’t an answer in the newsroom.
So there’s a whole problem of how do I find out how a story works and how I can find stories predictably enough and often enough to where I can at least partly feed the dragon and keep editors off my back while doing the thing that I want to do, which is write stories that have emotional impact. Because I want to write for emotion.
Another way to think about this is journalism as we know it now is relentlessly cognitive. It has to do with proving things, it has to do with factuality, and it has almost nothing to do with meaning, which is what actually we bring to it when we’re able to do that.
If the story is without a plot, it’s like an animal without a spine. So it becomes plodding. Structure becomes the first thing you really have to learn because that allows you to look at a story and say either “I’ve got it,” or “I don’t have it.” And if I don’t have it, then I better find it. And if I can’t find it, I better go on to another story. So there’s the idea that a story has an anatomy, that it’s sort of a living creature. And while they’re all different, they all have characteristic parts. Lots of variations, but they still have the characteristic parts.
The first guy to really come up with the anatomy of story was Anton Chekhov. And he came up with a craft definition of story meant to be very practical. And the reason that he did it was he got to the point of his career where suddenly he was very popular, and he was getting a lot of money for his stories, but they were taking him too long to do. So he was trying to figure out, okay, how can I formularize this in some way to where I can pump out more stories and make more money? It was that simple.
Chekhov defines it by those points of change. And that first point of change, which is the end of the beginning, is the complication. By that time, you have your character. Chekhov called it a character complication. It’s a point where your character runs into something that complicates his or her life. And let me say here that the word is complication and not conflict. Because about two-thirds of the writers I talk to walk out the door thinking conflict. Conflict is a whole different thing. There’s this concept of story as conflict— man against man, man against nature, that kind of thing.
The idea of a character complication is simply something that makes a character exert an effort. Now, this often is a conflict, especially in the literature of western cultures. But you can have a complication without a conflict. The complication is a point but it’s also a section of the story that is from the beginning through the complication, where you get to know the character. All major characters have to be introduced there.
The end of the beginning, the beginning of the middle, and the middle to the beginning of the end, the end of the middle to the beginning of the end, is the largest part of the story. It’s called the development, and that’s when your plot develops, when your character struggles with the complications. Actually it’s the easiest part to write. If you’ve done the other ends correctly, it’s almost always just a matter of chronology. You set yourself up to do it.
I don’t want to make it easier than it is. You’ve got to have the right things in it and not put the wrong things in it, which is not easy. But it is basically a chronology.
So this is the stuff that happens in the middle, in the development. And usually if you look close, you will find three pieces of the development. One, in which the person digs in deeper; the second, in which a person digs in deeper yet, and the third, in which the person has some kind of an insight. And the end of the middle and the beginning of the end is called the point of insight. Sometimes the character never knows what happens to him, but the reader understands.
The point is, your character gets to the point where something changes. And this happens to all characters all the time. You may have trouble seeing it at first. People usually do. What you have to do is find that significant point of change. That’s the snowflake part of it, where they’re all the same. Where they’re all different is that there are different ways that all these things play out. Endings tend to be short after this point of insight.
In all good stories, the character determines what happens to them. And journalists very usefully tell us what it is that drags people down. But what narrative journalists can do is give us the meaning of survival. The way we survive and the meaning of survival. So the story has meaning.
Journalism is so relentlessly cognitive, as in large part it must be, but at the same time, so much of our lives, the meaningful parts of our lives, have an emotional depth to them. And even a rhythmic depth. So stories are always in three layers. And the top layer is always what happens, and the next layer is always how that makes the character feel and how that makes the reader feel. And when you’ve achieved suspension of disbelief, where the reader is actually living in this person’s head through this story; what the person feels and what the reader feels are going to be the same. And then underneath that, there’s some kind of rhythm.
Reading happens very fast, that’s why we can’t be subtle. What is subtle to the reader is not necessarily what is subtle to the writer. Because the reader’s going so much faster over the same landscape than the writer. So a good story is an experience. That’s why we like it. Our minds are made to draw information from experiences. Experiences are narrative. So we give the reader experiences that they actually don’t have to live through.
Good stories are experiences. And if they have meaning, they’re true. I mean, truth is a second-level concept, which is why people get into so much trouble saying there is no truth. Well, that’s not true. Love endures, okay? There is evil in the world. Everyone’s truth is not the same, but that doesn’t make it less so. You know, it’s internal. It’s emotional. The thing that we’re trying to touch. Once you start touching it and once you start saying it, you see these stories all around you. We don’t impose these stories, we report on them and find them.
We think in stories. That’s how we get our meaning. That if I read a story in a newspaper, a hard news story about something that interests me, the fact that I know what the context is, the fact that it interests me, means that I know what the narrative is. Or something about the narrative. I don’t know what comes next, but that didn’t happen first. So what the mind does is it looks at the evidence, it looks at the past. It tries to figure out these scenarios because it wants to know what it means. This is why structure is meaning, and why we like stories that are structured.