The other day, I was doing some research into story structure because I was (and still am) thinking about writing a post about the subject. In the course of this research, I came across an article from 2010 in Writer’s Digest, written by Orson Scott Card entitled “The 4 Story Structures Dominating the Modern Novel.”
Now, Orson Scott Card is a fantastic writer, probably a better writer than I will ever be, but his analysis in this article was less about structure—at least as I understand it—than about story archetype. He talked less about beginnings, middles, and rising action than about the subject and theme of the works.
There was a theory bouncing around for a while that said all fiction stories were variations of two basic stories: Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstock. While I think this is a gross oversimplification, I felt this was the direction Mr. Card’s article had taken. Not that it was bad, or untrue, just misleading. I thought it should be titled: “The 4 Story Types Dominating the Modern Novel.” He does do a good job of identifying four “types” of fiction novels. Despite not being quite the structural analysis I was looking for, Mr. Card’s analysis of type was still interesting.
Four “types” of Fiction Novels:
The Milieu Story
In this type, the writer’s focus rests squarely on the world in which the action occurs. While every story has a milieu, in these novels the environment is the primary aspect, more important than character development, or even plot.
These stories usually begin when the character arrives in the particular world and ends when he/she leaves it.
For example: Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia
The Idea Story
The purpose of this story type concentrates on discovering new information as seen through the eyes of characters driven to uncover the truth.
Mystery and detective fiction fit nicely into this category. And as in most mysteries, the novel begins with a crime and the question of who committed it and ends with the discovery of the criminal and his/her motive.
Much political fiction is also fiction of ideas. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is dedicated to asking the question “Does communism work?” and, in Orwell’s opinion, answering it.
The Character Story
These stories focus on transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to her. These are most often what are considered “literary” fiction, though that is only a general guideline.
Think of Practical Magic, which chronicles two sisters’ struggles to define and accept their roles in the family and The Secret History, which looks at the workings of a group of college friends through the eyes of a naïve young man. The events of the story cause him to drastically reassess his opinion of everyone involved.
These stories usually begin when the character decides to change his role in the community and ends when the character either settles into the new one, or retreats into the old.
The Event Story
In the event story, something is wrong in the fabric of the universe. The world is in disarray and the main character is called upon to restore order. Almost all fantasy fiction and horror falls into this category, as does much science fiction. But the event story is not limited to genre fiction. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also an event story. (A king has been murdered by his brother. Something’s rotten in Denmark.)
These stories usually begin when the character is made aware of the problem and ends when the character either restores the old order, or ushers in a new order.
Think Lord of the Rings, Dune, Stephen King’s It.
Personally, most of my work falls under the “story of ideas” category, probably because of my long love affair with mystery and horror fiction. Of course, almost no writing is exclusively one category over another. Often, it is merely a recognition of what the writer feels is most important. The story revolves around a murder investigation, but the author is more interested in the psychological stress on the detectives than the mystery itself has the trapping of a story of ideas, but is actually a character story. Tana French’s In the Woods is a good example.
So where does your writing fall? Have you even thought about it?
Let me know in the comments.