Puzzling Through Story Structure
A friend recently asked me what I love most about what I do. Digging around to find a great story? Talking with people about the moments that shaped their lives? Getting behind a microphone and using my voice and my words to help bring clarity to something that otherwise might be confusing?

Truth is, I love all of those things.

But the thing I love most might just be … story structure.

I know. I'm weird. Structuring a story is "invisible" work. It's the support beams buried deep into the walls of your story. If you're doing it right, nobody thinks about it. Nobody praises you for it.

In fact, if your structure is too flashy, too visible...it's probably distracting from the story you want to tell.

So why do I love it so much?
Structuring a story is like putting a puzzle together. But in this puzzle, the pieces fit together in dozens of different ways. And you can't just look at the box to see what it should look like when it's done. And there are a whole bunch of pieces that belong in another box -- pieces of another puzzle.

How you choose to put your puzzle together helps bring meaning to your story.
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Structuring a story can seem simple at first. After all, in narrative, most stories are told chronologically. Even if you choose to use an e*, you're still guided by chronology.
* In an e structure, the narrative begins after the main action is already underway and the reporter must "rewind" the action to get back to the beginning. Imagine yourself drawing a lowercase e. You place your pen down in the middle of the page, move the story forward a bit -- often to a moment of great tension -- and then swoop your pen up and around in a circular motion, starting at the beginning of the story, bringing the listener back to the moment where your narrative began and then continuing along to finish the story.
There are tons of ways to play around with chronology. You can start at the present moment and then explain how we got here. You can use a flashback or flashforward to create a big reveal..or to drop in a piece of fun/necessary info without taking the time to build a whole storyline around it. I've even heard stories that start at the end and end at the beginning.

There are also a bunch of ways to "break" your narrative -- that is, pause the action of your story to give the listener information they need before the action can move forward again. You can use this technique to quickly explain something the listener needs to know before they can understand what happens next. But you can also use it to carry the listener through dense information that could otherwise be a bit boring.
The Broken Narrative, HowSound

If you want to learn more about the "broken narrative" and how it works, I suggest this excellent explainer from Transom's Rob Rosenthal and Rough Translation's Gregory Warner.
You can mix and match all of these techniques in an almost infinite number of configurations.

But here's the catch.
Every time you pause, rewind, interrupt or fast-forward, you risk losing your listener.
While it might seem like great fun to write a story with multiple e's and a couple of places where you "break" your narrative, you might leave the listener wondering WTF is going on. (I'm pretty sure I've done this … more than once.)

So everytime you think of telling something out of chronological order, ask yourself two questions.

1. Why am I changing/interrupting the chronology?
2. Is this in the best interest of the story, or does it just feed my own ego?

So, so often these things are done to feed the storyteller's ego. Believe me. I've been there. And done that.

Don't be like me.

So how do you figure out how to put your puzzle together?

There are a lot of different ways to think about story structure. Let's just talk about one of my favorites...the Post-It Note method.

(Like many good things, this method works best when accompanied by friends. In the Covid-era, consider a zoom call and Miro or Google Draw.)
This is going to sound like a lot of unnecessary work, but it really helps to think through these things visually.

Each anecdote -- or story beat -- gets its own post-it note.

(I have a rather large collection of different colored post-it notes, so I give each source their own color. This can help you figure out when to bring in a new voice or character, but it's not 100% necessary.)

Don't write a ton of stuff on each Post-It. They're just placeholders for the anecdote or story beat. So a couple of words will do.

Case in point...Introvert Banana!
If you're doing investigative work or using a story to illuminate a difficult-to-understand concept, you might find yourself needing to pause your story from time to time for explainers, data or findings. Use a different color Post-It Note for each complex concept, data point or finding. The colors will help you visualize where you need to set the boring** stuff aside and go back to story.
** Yes, I know. The "boring" stuff is the whole reason you did all this work! I don't mean to make light of your efforts. I'm just saying, the listener is gonna need some incentive to pay attention to all that dense information. You're using your story to keep them interested.
Throw all of your story beats up on a wall in chronological order.

Look for beats that can drop away. That anecdote might be funny or emotional, but if it doesn't directly lead you to your next story beat, get rid of it.

Look for places where you can pepper in your explainers/findings. (Don't put all the explainers at the beginning and all the findings at the end! Snoozefest!)

And then decide, should this story start at the beginning? Or should it be an e?

This method works really well if you're plotting out an arc with multiple episodes.

Start by putting your story beats up on the wall, chronologically--trying to get a sense of the larger arc first. How does the story progress from the first episode to the last?

Then look to see places where the narrative can be broken up to insert some of the explainers, findings and other dense information.

And then look at how to break the whole thing up into the correct number of episodes.

Once you've figured out what belongs in each episode, then you can go back and structure each episode in a compelling way. Some episodes might work chronologically. Others might need an e. You'll be able to treat each episode as if it's a standalone story, because you've already figured out how the episodes fit together.

And I promise you, once it comes time to actually write your story, all of this work is going to pay off...big time. You'll have already done all of the difficult work by figuring out the shape of your puzzle and where all the pieces go. All you'll have to do is connect them.

By the way, this installment was inspired by a reader who sent me a question. Do you have a question for me? If so, reply to this email, and I'll see what I can do!


P.S. - Yes, I totally finished that "brave" thing I was working on a couple weeks ago. I can't share the details yet but let's just say...my life is about to get a little bit jiggly! (How's that for vaguebooking?)
Resources I Love
The Broken Narrative, HowSound

In case you ignored me before, I'll say it again. This HowSound episode is totally worth your time.

The 'e', HowSound

What? My hastily scribbled Post-It Note didn't illuminate anything for you? Maybe this HowSound episode will help.

How to Construct Narrative Stories Without Losing your Mind, AIR

Ack! I had quite a few technical difficulties during this workshop. I hesitate to share it, because I didn't realize until the end that no one could see my slides. Oh well. I think it's still worth a listen.
Puzzle photo by Lydia Tallent on Unsplash.