An Emotional Response: The Universal Story Structure

May 30, 2014

freytagThis month The Masters Review focused on the short story in a way I’m very proud of. Our thesis was this: The Masters Review celebrates writing that works, not what is supposed to work, or taught to work, or what is strictly labeled as a story that “works.” This month we discuss stories that surprise us, from flash fiction, to literary science fiction, to magical realism, and back to the basic Freytag — we applaud the short story, and all the different things it has come to mean.

Ashley Farmer mentioned stories that live in her mind as both poems and narratives. Kevin Brockmeier expressed his hope that we might live in a literary world where labels like fantasy, science fiction, and genre fall away, and Aimee Bender spoke about the fantastic, how the unreal guides us toward a truer examination of our lives. Each of these interviews and discussions echoed a sentiment that inspires breaking from tradition. This week, we take a look at short story basics, more specifically dramatic structure, to acknowledge that while pushing boundaries moves writing forward, basic narrative elements tell powerful stories.

Freytag’s examination of short stories provides a clear geometry for dramatic structure. Most writers know the progression: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. This formula offers an effective strategy for a “good” story, and is present in many of our favorites. Most traditional stories follow this path in some way, eliciting an emotional response from the reader through the story’s progression. It is an important structure to recognize because it helps break down the elements of the story that move us. This structure breakdown shows us how the story works.

Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, has conducted research on story structure and found that stories following Freytag’s pyramid increase the empathetic response, and thus, the reader’s connection to the story. His findings are summarized well in this video: (see below) and speak to the power of storytelling. However, his research only compares stories with a dramatic arc to those that have none. His findings show Freytag’s story arc has the power to change brain chemistry by appealing to our emotions. However, it is my opinion that all effective stories achieve this regardless of structure. As Ashley Farmer said in her interview, “You only have someone’s attention for a few seconds, but if you hold that attention and care for it, you can connect so deeply with a reader in that moment.” A great piece of flash conveys emotion in a space where following traditional structure would be impossible, yet it carries the same power. In this way readers respond emotionally outside of traditional constructions.

In his interview with Sadye Teiser this week, Steve Almond says, “My conception of plot is primitive: you basically figure out what your protagonist wants and what they’re afraid of and you push them towards that. The stories you mention seem to have a ‘strong’ plot because the characters have strong wants.” It is my belief Almond is commenting on the effectiveness of the emotional response over the structure of his stories. His pieces may follow a traditional structure, but they work because they touch us with well-developed worlds and characters.

All “good” fiction services the story. Following a structure like Freytag’s helps to ensure all the elements required for a strong story are there, and it is effective for learning, but the real impression behind a story lies in the way it makes us feel. Understanding the traditions of writing helps uncover new literary territory. Once the basics are there, we can push that knowledge into something new. Freytag has given us an excellent understanding of story structure, and the authors we’ve spoken to this month have each applied that knowledge — at least the emotional register of it — in their own unique and effective ways. I am reminded of a quote from EL Doctorow, which sums it up beautifully: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader — not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”  To me, the ways in which writers achieve that feeling are not confined by one specific structure, but through the life of the story.

by Kim Winternheimer


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