Writing advice

The basic story structure – why it’s kinda like a sneeze, and why it’s (really) kinda important

We all know what a sneeze feels like. You start with the itch, you take a deep breath, say (or shout at the top of your lungs, if you’re like my dad) “achoo!”, then sigh with relief and say “phew, that felt good.” The most basic story structure is pretty similar, and no matter what stage of the writing process you’re at, it’s always worth remembering the fundamentals. Because, like advanced story techniques, you can’t sneeze while driving unless you know first how to sneeze (please be careful when driving and sneezing!!!)

Stories come in all shapes, but most of them tend to draw inspiration from the simple story curve. It’s a tried and tested way of writing your story, and forces you to consider every major aspect of a novel; character, setting, plot, and story (yes, plot and story are two different things, which I’ll discuss another day). It helps you put them all together, and gives you something simple to refer back to whenever you’re writing, so that you don’t lose focus.

If you Google “story curve”, you’ll see many examples, with many different labels. So, here’s mine, complete with sneeze metaphor, just to add to the mix:

  • It starts with the itch
    Just like every good sneeze starts with a “hmm, I feel a sneeze coming on”, a good story starts at the beginning. Ok, so technically you can start at the end, but for the most basic story shape, you’ll always start at the beginning. After all, you can’t have the relief of a sneeze without the sneeze itself. What form your beginning takes is up to you, so long as it’s interesting enough to hook your reader (rather like how, once you feel a sneeze coming, it consumes every fibre of your mind). But one thing you should never do is start with back story (I’ll explain why another day, but basically it’s very lazy to start with backstory).
  • Next comes the question – do I need to sneeze?
    We all do it; whenever we have one coming on, we instantly question whether it’s actually going to happen or not. And that’s what the next part of your story should do – start the action, present questions for the reader to be interested in, and have your twists and turns in the plot. But don’t all throw it at your reader in one go. Instead, draw the action out, let it rise and fall, back and forth, as if you’re standing there going “yup, I need to sneeze, oh wait, no, I’m good, actually the sneeze still feels there, but then if I ignore it, it’ll go away, argh I can’t ignore it, but can I?” and so on, until…
  • Take a deep breath
    So, you’ve umm’d and ahh’d over whether you actually need to sneeze, when you suddenly hit the deciding point; yes, yes you do. Now is the time, like in your story, to take a deep breath. It’s the calm before the storm, the moment all the rising actions, the dramas, and the questions, are building towards. Note that this step isn’t necessarily crucial in the story structure; you can simply plunge into what comes next, but you might consider giving your characters a moment to take one last rest before…
  • “ACHOO!”
    If you’ve taken all the necessary precautions, then you’ll have a tissue ready to go. Or, maybe, like your characters, you weren’t ready, and you’ve got snot-covered hands. Either way, the actual sneeze is the climax of the whole event. This is the pivotal moment that your action must have built towards (i.e. this climax has to be a direct result of what’s happened in the story). Some questions will be answered, however, you should always leave some left open, because this isn’t the end!
  • “Ahhh, that’s better, now then…”
    Congratulations! This is the end of the sneeze, the moment where you can have a nice sigh, enjoy the somewhat violent clearing of your nose, and carry on with your life. This is the resolution of your story, the post-climax, and again this must make sense in the context of everything that’s come before. Resolutions can take many forms (*insert I’ll discuss this later phrase here*), for example; setting a new status-quo, the death of a bad guy, a new outlook on life, etc. The true end of your story is here, where all the questions you’ve established for the reader must be fulfilled, hence why I said it’s worth holding some back during the “achoo!” stage.

If you’ve read the entirety of this ridiculous post, then a) well done, and b) you must be wondering what the point of all this is? Well, it isn’t to document the life-cycle of a sneeze, although that’s what it appears to be. Instead, I’m going through the most basic story shape because, as with everything else in the world, you must always bear in mind the foundations. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at; the professional golfers may have the best equipment, but it’s useless unless they practice their swing.

Writing is the exact same; you could come up with the most incredible plot twists ever, or write a story which jumps between the past and the future. But the only way you’ll be able to pull these advanced techniques off is if you always always ALWAYS remember how to do the basics. It’s like a sneeze; once you’re comfortable with saying “achoo!”, you can start practicing how to not shout it so loudly that people on the other side of the planet can hear you. Seriously, silent sneezers are the best.


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