So you have a story to write, but maybe you’re not quite sure how to begin to get all that information in your head onto the page. This is where structure is important, and the best way to determine what your story structure should look like is by understanding the four different types of stories: milieu, idea, character and event. By deciding what kind of story you want to tell, you should have a much clearer idea of how to tell it.
Milieu – Stories About the Setting
Milieu stories focus on the world you have built. In these type of stories, your main character is not as important as the universe in which they live. While every story you create will have a milieu (the physical or social setting in which something occurs or develops – or simply, the environment), if you as the storyteller care more about the setting than the character, then you may be interested in telling a milieu story.
In a milieu story, the character(s) we follow as the audience should serve as our eyes and our ears as they explore the incredible world you have built. Therefore, you do not want to spend a lot of time talking about the past of the character prior to the start of their great journey. We as the audience only need to know the bare minimum before you launch right into the real story being told in milieu stories.
The milieu story truly begins the moment the character(s) first set foot in the strange lands. It ends the moment they return to the “regular” world.
Idea – Stories About Questions and Answers
Idea stories are all about prompting a question which will ultimately be answered through the direct actions of our characters. The obvious example of this would be a mystery story – for instance, who committed the crime and why? It goes beyond mysteries, however. Idea stories can be about anything that the characters do not know the answers to at the beginning of the story, who become driven to answer the story and then do it.
A few varying examples of this would be investigating the cause of an unknown illness, exploring the archaeological remains of an ancient civilization, and finding out how cars are made.
In these kinds of stories, the focus is about the question and the answer, not the characters. The true beginning of this story starts when the question is asked and ends when the question is answered.
Character – Stories About Transformation
In character stories, the most important thing we need to convey are the changes a character makes internally and within their social environment as a result of discovering that a change must happen in their lives. Character stories are very popular and span many different genres, but not every story that has characters we like are actually character stories.
The most important distinction between a character story and other stories is that, at the end of the story, the character has not returned to their regular life the same way they began. They may be in the same place, but their lives are permanently changed for better or worse (or, they resign to the same life but with a different attitude about it). Because they have undergone such radical changes, the world where they used to live is no longer able to be their home, even if they live there physically.
At the beginning of a character story, we learn about the status quo and witness the discomfort of the character’s role in that life. Throughout the story, we watch events unfold that will change the character permanently. At the end, we see the result of the transformation. The Hero’s Journey is a classic example of this, but tragic characters also follow this same blueprint with opposite results. A character who doesn’t want some responsibility who ultimately accepts it also follows this method. The possibilities are limitless, but something must change.
Event – Stories About Disrupted Worlds
Event stories are all about how something has happened in the world that has radically disrupted the balance, and how the most crucial character(s) to bringing about a resolution reacts to it. Put simply, the story follows a character who has the ability to challenge cataclysmic events, and what happens as a result of their actions. Event stories do not always end happily, which gives weight to the actions of the characters because they are not guaranteed to succeed.
Examples of event stories are stories where a monster has shown up and threatens the lives of the people living there, zombie apocalypses, alien invasions, natural disasters, war stories, and anything else where a “regular world” has been disrupted and characters must deal with it.
Event stories do not always begin at the onset of the disaster, rather, only when the most important character becomes involved with the resolution. The character usually faces overwhelming odds prior to the resolution, which can be a return to normal, a new normal, or a complete decent into chaos. The event story deals with a disruption of order, and whether order will be reclaimed, redefined, or lost.
Stories within Stories
Here’s the catch with stories, however. In any given book, film or television show, there are often multiple threads going on at the same time. That means that while the primary arc may be one type of story, there often are other types of stories going on as well. Just because the main story may be about a zombie invasion (event story), doesn’t mean we can’t have smaller threads going on that are character, idea, or milieu stories. When done well, there is nothing like it.
So, how do you incorporate different stories into your overall work? The best way to think about this is by thinking of it like digging into layers of the earth. At the first layer, we see what the main story will be about. When we dig into the next layer, we see what the next layer will be, and so on.
Once we have dug as far as we need to go for our storytelling, we then have to get out. We go back up in reverse order and resolve each thread as we climb. The important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t abuse the order of the resolutions, or you may lose your readers.
Just remember that you can introduce and resolve smaller threads at any time, but if you make anything get resolved after the main story being told, you will probably not have as rewarding of an ending as your readers really deserve. It’s like serving the cake and then starting the first dance at a wedding – people won’t know when to sneak out and go home if you do it in an order they didn’t expect.