Story structure… and staying alive.
Iskipped half a grade in high school. That meant that I finished my final high school courses mid-semester, and two days a week for the rest of the year, I drove myself to Laurentian University to get my first two undergrad credits: Philosophy 101 and Roman History.
In philosophy, I learned how to read and write about the pursuit of truth. And how subjective “the truth” is. There are so many different theories on truth (and wow, those old white guys really like to go on and on about it).
In history I studied the rise and fall of Rome. Ugh, all of those battles! Basically, the takeaway there was that Romans thought they were great, powerful and invincible, until they weren’t.
I’ve been reflecting on my earliest post-secondary learning because of Henry Lien’s guest workshop in Centered. His talk on diverse story forms made us all feel kind of breathless and dizzy with possibility.
When he told us how to switch a western story lens to an Asian story lens, it dissolved our assumptions about stories we already thought we knew. He showed us how to take the top right off of the box.
“Let’s play a game,” he said. “I’m going to summarize a famous book you already know, but I’m going to tell it from an Asian lens instead. See if you can guess what it is.
Majestic gold dragon is murdered by band of thieves and homeless men.”
If you haven’t already guessed the answer, you can find it in his fantastic essay, Diversity Plus, which is available online here.
Even if you did guess the answer, read his whole essay. There are more examples of story lens-switching in there, as well as a smart look at storytelling in Hamilton, and a great explanation of the east Asian four-act structure (you may know it by its Japanese name, kishōtenketsu).
It’s an understatement to say that many of our writers completed his tutorial with big insights about their own stories.
Cultural and societal values are expressed through story structure.
Chinese stories, Lien told us, hold an ancient knowledge of dynasties rising and falling, rising and falling… and so a cyclical story structure is more common than the symmetrical western story form, which builds conflict up to a climax, and ends with denouement. That, he pointed out, is a story structure that only a very young culture would create.
A culture that’s growing and making itself for the first time.
A culture that thinks in terms of good and evil, protagonist and antagonist, winners and losers.
A culture that believes there can be one form of truth that rises above all others.
A culture that thinks it’s great, powerful and invincible, until it’s not.
“The Asian four-act structure is not necessarily based on conflict, tension, and resolution. It is more interested in exploring the unseen relationships among the story’s elements than in pitting them against each other.”
— Henry Lien
There are so many possibilities available to us: in the paths we take to become the writers we are, in the forms we choose for our stories, and the lives we design for ourselves and our characters.
Our writing creates culture through story.
To those of us who were programmed by the western story form, stories with open endings can feel unsatisfying. But an ambivalent ending means that the story stays alive within our consciousness, long after we finish reading it. It nudges us, questions us, reminds us to wonder, what might happen next?
Can we train ourselves to see an unresolved ending as a way for a story to keep on living?
Because, you know, looking at it from a cultural value perspective, it’s actually pretty healthy. I mean, it’s staying alive.
Have you written something that doesn’t seem to fit into the three-act story structure? Try another form, and see if there’s something else your story is trying to say.
What novels have you read that are asymmetrical, cyclical, or told in an otherwise unfamiliar way?
What story forms do you like to experiment with?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments.
Photo credit: David Kohler on Unsplash.