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.

Sarah Selecky

Photo credit: David Kohler on Unsplash.

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Kathy Martens

Sarah, I'm so glad you highlight  Henry Lien’s guest workshop here and the lessons he shared. I too found it so inspiring, mind opening, and horizon expanding. It gave me insight into a story I'm working on and gave me permission to think about it in a different way. I love/hate the process of overcoming conditioning, biases. The stretch can be so painful. And so liberating. I love the idea that nothing is "settled." There is always new information coming. That cycles spin, but not always in a closed circle. The multi-verse is far too vast for us to think we've got it all figured out. I'm just trying to remain supple so I don't crack too much with the expansion. Although... cracks do let in the light, yes? xoxoxo

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I loved Laurence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. 

When you arrive at the end of the first story and go on to the next, at first you think it is a new story. 

Then you realize, it is the same story, seen from another character's point of view, and it is completely - mind-blowingly - different. In fact, the stories inform and critique each other, revealing the protagonists' perspective as limited and in some cases completely flawed. It's as if the first protagonist thinks he is in a romance, only to find out he was obliviously involved in a political thriller, and in terms of today's topic, it just gets better from there. 

I love the way the quartet asks us to consider our assumptions about the genre and arc of our own stories, and the way the structures and motifs of those stories shape our expectations and beliefs about the 'reality' we think we're living. It asks us to look for what we're not seeing.  

Thank you for your article and for the link on Asian story structure. I will check it out.



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Linda G

Wow.  Amazing new perspectives.  This gives me a LOT to think about.  Thank you for your "philosophical" sharings and the link to Henry Lien!

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I am currently struggling to write that one story of my past that has shaped my entire life for the following 26 years. It is a story filled with so much shame not least because I have not, in almost 3 decades, been able to force the narrative into a tidy 1, 2, 3, structure. I don’t even understand my own motivations for my actions all those years ago - how can I possibly explain it to anyone else? And then on the very day when I have finally started telling the part of that story of which I am most ashamed, you hand me this gift. I didn’t even know that I needed permission to embrace what feels so much like chaos, to trust that my story doesn’t need to fit neatly into a structure I have assumed was required. 

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