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September 23, 2003

Story Structure


On a few occasions you've given me the impression that you’ve sought out training in how to structure stories. Well, the only ideas I can contribute to this discussion derive from the fact that I have a DVD player in my car and I play movies for my two-year-old son to keep him happy on car trips. My son loves to watch “Stuart Little 2”; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts:

Part I—Introduction to our hero/heroine’s inner, emotional problem

Part II—Introduction to our hero/heroine's outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem

Part III—First round of engaging the practical problem

Part IV--Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure

While this accurately described "Stuart Little 2," I was curious about how generally applicable this model might be. During this past weekend it dawned on me to make a test. I happened to pick up a copy of “The Great Bathroom Book” while, ahem, hanging out in the bathroom, and, to pass the time while I was, ahem, occupied, I scanned a one-page plot summary of "The Great Gatsby." I decided to try the "SL2" model out on "Gatsby." It would appear to go like this:

Part I--Gatsby meets Daisy during his training for WWI in Louisville; he falls hard for what she represents (youth, glamour, what his lower-class life lacks.) The end of this part would show Gatsby coming back from France, only to hear that she's married rich Tom Buchanan.

Part II--Gatsby, who is broke but toughened up by the war, gazes longingly on Daisy from afar while going into the bootlegging business. He intends to make a lot of money fast so he can go after Daisy on a level playing field with Tom Buchanan.

Part III--Several years later, Gatsby, now well set up from his illegal activities, buys a home near Daisy's, and starts entertaining lavishly to see if he can hook up with her somehow. He does, via the narrator, and starts an affair with her. He confronts Tom Buchanan about his affair with Daisy, but she’s ambiguous about leaving Tom.

Part IV--Gatsby tries to gain possession of Daisy, but ends up getting shot by Tom Buchanan's mistresses’ husband, who thinks Gatsby killed Tom's mistress in an auto accident. (Daisy, of course, was actually at the wheel.)

Of course, the first part of the SL2 schema is only glancingly referred to in the novel; the second part is reduced in the text to a rumor. I can see why F. Scott may have suppressed these parts; he had written about the issues of Part I exhaustively already, and my guess is he knew nothing and cared less about the issues in Part II. But the neglect of these two parts also allowed F. Scott to finesse several questionable elements of his book: (1) Gatsby is a member, and a successful member, of organized crime. One presumes if he was really serious about getting ahold of Daisy he would have had Tom Buchanan rubbed out. In any event, Gatsby certainly never acts like a successful criminal--a major flaw in an otherwise well-observed novel. (2) The novel’s truncated approach seems to make Gatsby appear to be more of a victim than the ‘standard’ treatment would have suggested; after all, in the SL2 version we would have seen Daisy ditch Gatsby once already in Part I, which would have made Gatsby's tragic outcome less a matter of the moral obtuseness of the rich and more a matter of Gatsby's rather masochistic choice in women. I mean, some people are just asking for it, if you know what I mean.

Thinking about the convoluted story structure of "The Great Gatsby," it further occurred to me that it is essentially a detective novel. The detective is our narrator, who tells is the story of how he tried to understand his mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby. This made me wonder if the central structural approach of detective stories is the omission of the first two parts of the SL2 story format to cloud the audience's view of the situation.

To test this notion I considered a Nero Wolfe short story, "Instead of Evidence." This is about an apparently sympathetic woman who is gradually unmasked as a murderess by the offhand but acute mental analyses of the great detective. However, when placed into the SL2 format, her story looks like this:

Part I: A seductive bad girl has married her boss and is comfortably well off. Her emotional problem is that she hates men, and pathologically resents being under their control. When her new, rich, husband tries to control her behavior, she decides to kill him.

Part II: Bad Girl develops her strategy. She learns that her husband is quarreling with his business partner, and she decides to blame the murder on the business partner. When she comes across a man that has access to a top-secret explosive and who generally resembles her husband in age and build, she seduces him and recruits him to her plot

Part III: While her husband is at a show at Madison Square Garden, Bad Girl takes her boyfriend to Nero Wolfe's house. Boyfriend pretends to be her husband and explains to Wolfe that he's afraid his evil business partner will kill him, and get away with it. Boyfriend pays Wolfe $5000 to make sure the partner doesn't get away with it. The villianness then drops off her boyfriend at the train station telling him to go to Westchester county where they will meet later. Bad girl picks up her husband, and drives to Westchester county. Arranging to leave her husband in a restaurant, she hooks up with her boyfriend, kills him and obliterates his identity by running over him with a car. She then gets picks up her husband and goes home, where she gives hubby a "trick" cigar, loaded with the top secret explosive, which obliterates his face and kills him. Now Bad Girl just has to sit tight and "get away with murder," having planted various pieces of exculpatory evidence along the way.

Part IV: Everything is going fine for Bad Girl (the police are trundling along the trail she set for them) until Wolfe, who long ago spotted that the man pretending to be hubby who came to hire him was a fake, gets irritated that Bad Girl thinks she can use him like all the other men in her life. He quickly establishes the identity of the boyfriend, and corners her with proof that she's the murderer, deliberately offering her the opportunity to kill herself. She does so.

Turning back to "Instead of Evidence," I note that the first two parts are, as usual, compressed or eliminated. In fact, Parts I and II are merely explained--not dramatized--by the great detective to the cloddish police in his wrapup at the end of the story. Oddly—or perhaps not so oddly—the mythical character of "avenging angel" / murderous misogynist that Wolfe displays in the SL2 version is presented far less emphatically in the original story, presumably to make him a more sympathetic character.

Well, I think I understand the detective story better these days. But there's always a hitch. Now I can no longer see “The Great Gatsby” as a tale of rich and poor in the Jazz age, but rather as a hard-boiled detective novel, complete with gold-digging blonde, rich husband and shady boyfriend who dies “mysteriously.” Boy, Daisy Buchanan sure was lucky she appeared in a story that didn’t include Nero Wolfe.

I can just imagine how Nero would have maneuvered her into saving him the trouble of testifying at her murder trial.



posted by Friedrich at September 23, 2003


Gatsby is a member, and a successful member, of organized crime. One presumes if he was really serious about getting ahold of Daisy he would have had Tom Buchanan rubbed out. In any event, Gatsby certainly never acts like a successful criminal--a major flaw in an otherwise well-observed novel.

I thought Gatsby was trying to rise above all that mob bidness.

Posted by: j.c. on September 23, 2003 5:40 PM

In the words of Michael Corleone: Every time I almost get out, they pull me back in!

And lusting after a moll like Daisy is no way to keep on the straight and narrow.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 23, 2003 6:39 PM

This is a fascinating post, first because of the content, and second because it is so not the way I think. I'm an engineer, I'm analytical, I write book reviews, I've written a novel, you'd figure I'd analyze narrative structure (especially in my own fiction) to distraction and beyond. But I don't, at least not in the way you are here. I'm going to have to think about that.

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 23, 2003 8:25 PM

Isn't this straigth out of Poetics and numerous "How to write screenplay" seminars. I thought the structure of a satisfiying (not neesssarly good) story was well-known


Posted by: Jleavitt5 on September 23, 2003 9:50 PM

Mmm, we should have a story-structure jamboree at some point. I've gone through periods of exploring and loving books about story structure. Of course, I never actually get a story written. Will, on the other hand, never looks at these books, yet finishes a novel. There's probably a moral here.

Anyway, time for FvB to do some weird kind of po-mo take on "Adaptation," only using "Stuart Little 2" and "Gatsby" as his source material.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 23, 2003 10:56 PM

I'd LOVE a story-structure jamboree, if only I had the time! This is one of my pet subjects, so of course I don't know where to start.

Yes, "Beginning, Middle, End" is the millenia-old answer, and it holds more than one might at first believe. There are extremely interesting ways of looking at all stories in many different series, though: as marriages of compliments, as trinities of discrete degrees, as four-season cycles (often with a "fifth" season which repeats the first), as seven steps, ten parts, twelve members, etc. Interestingly, attempts to break all successful/satisfying stories dogmatically into groups of other numbers -- say, of six or eight -- tend not to work so well. Weird, huh?

This is all stratosphere stuff, though, and the real fun is when you look at story structure from the pragmatic standpoint of "I have to write a story! What's my framework??" I highly recommend you check into some of the down-to-earth discussion in Jack Bickham's writings, especially in Scene and Structure. He usually writes on what is mostly "tactical" structure -- structure of a scene, stringing action beats in a proper sequence, playing games with extending or omitting scene types in the overall structure for pacing or dramatic reasons, etc -- but what he talks of are the building blocks of the larger structural issues writers (of books, movies, role-playing-game scenarios, or whatever) need to face.

I myself am primarily a structural writer and thinker. Whether writing a six-figure technology services proposal, a novella, a grad school paper or a theological thesis, my first step is usually to try to discover the natural structure underlying the information I'm dealing with and what I have to say about it. From there I can build a skeleton of a narrative that is later filled out into the full work. I can't write the first line without knowing where on the map it sits...

Except when babbling in the comment section of someone else's blog, of course....

That's enough for now. Take care. If you haven't already, do check in on TNT/SpykeTV's "Joe Schmoe" - it's fascinating in a sort of train-wreck-plus-true-life-good-guy sorta way. (My wife, of course, already suspects that the schmoe is also an actor, pulling an elaborate joke on the rest of the cast, but you should ignore her in this case.)

Posted by: Mac on September 23, 2003 11:53 PM


Part I — Maladjusted screenwriter is unable to cope with his own apparent success and develops writer's block. His twin brother decides to live with him, provoking long-suppressed sibling rivalry.

Part II — Screenwriter is commissioned to adapt a best-selling book, and can't find a story. His twin brother decides to become a writer like him, exacerbating this sibling rivalry.

Part III — Screenwriter, still frustrated by his inability to adapt the book, attends the same screenwriting course his brother praises. Twin brother writes bad psycho-thriller which catches Hollywood's attention, bringing screenwriter's sense of personal inadequacy to a boiling point.

Part IV - Screenwriter applies course's story-structure techniques to his own screenplay, which leads to narrative closure but artistic failure. Twin brother is "killed" in elaborate fantasy sequence, thus ending the sibling rivalry without actually resolving it.

Last year there were two movies with Charlie Kaufman screenplays. One of them was good, and it wasn't this one.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 23, 2003 11:55 PM

Obviously, you guys are way ahead of me here. I certainly claim no insight into creative writing; not my thing. (I do, however, like to see patterns.) I must give special thanks to Mr. Hulsey for sparing me from having to see "Adaptation" which I have deliberately avoided up until now.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 24, 2003 12:30 AM

To FvB: You're welcome. I saw Adaptation on a date, which made it much easier to bear.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 24, 2003 3:30 AM

Also look into "the Hero's Journey" as described by Joseph Campbell, which I think describes a large portion of fiction plots.

Hmmmm, I kinda dug "Adaptation". Didn't think it was great, but I finished it with a smile, unlike my recent experience with "In the Bedroom", which is near the top of my "most loathed" list.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 24, 2003 10:47 AM

Friedrich, I'm afraid you mixed up two different story tools, structure and backstory. I wrote a long post trying to clarify the two.

Posted by: Ian on September 24, 2003 12:41 PM

Technically, Ian, you are quite right. However, I think I was actually getting at something a bit different that I probably didn't communicate well. To wit: backstory, frontstory, it's all information. In "Stuart Little II" the straightforward approach permits us to see all this information laid out quite cleanly. When trickier structures are used--as with detective stories or in "The Great Gatsby"--they often permit authors to, er, ease around issues that would be troublesome to the intelligent reader if presented more straightforwardly.

Frankly, while "Gatsby" is a marvelous confection and mood piece, there are aspects of it that simply don't bear up serious inspection in its current form. If Fitzgerald had written it in a more straightforward manner he would have had to confront some of these issues far more directly and might well have written a better, if less "artsy" book.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 24, 2003 2:53 PM

I think Gatsby wants Daisy to CHOOSE to leave Tom for him---the ultimate validation. It doesn't accomplish his emotional ends to rub Tom out.

I think your detective novel premise is interesting, but I always felt that Nick was "detecting" as much on "the rich" in general as he was Gatsby. Daisy and Tom and the lady golfer were also objects of his curiosity.

Posted by: annette on September 24, 2003 3:46 PM

Someone should write a story about the day JL and I have a "Freaky Friday" episode.

Posted by: j.c. on September 24, 2003 4:54 PM

I commented on this, sort of, here.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on September 24, 2003 8:50 PM

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