Story Structure Architect: A Writer's Guide to Building Dramatic Situations and Compelling Characters, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt (also author of 45 Master Characters), categorizes stories into 55 Dramatic Situations, as well as giving some detail on genres, storyforms, and the possible forms of conflict in a story. Here is a summary of Schmidt's ideas:
Five Dramatic Throughlines
According to Schmidt, the main character's goal can end in any of the following ways:
- The main character succeeds.
- The main character is defeated.
- The main character abandons his goal.
- The main character's goal is undefined.
- The reader creates the goal.
That last one applies to games and interactive fiction of various sorts. However, it doesn't apply to all games, since the more linear games have the goal already set out for you, and the only variation is whether or not you succeed (or abandon the game).
Schmidt also notes that a character might start with one goal, abandon it, then find a new goal and see it through to completion - so it's okay to mix these up a little. For example, the character might begin without any real goal, then find a goal, fail at it, abandon the goal, find a new goal, and succeed.
Six Types of Conflict
Say that Bob wants to go on a date with Alice. Here are six ways to make it difficult for him:
- Relational Conflict (Mutually Exclusive Goals)
- Social Conflict
- Bob is Jewish and Alice is Muslim. Their parents would never approve.
- Or, class warfare: Bob's a bum and Alice is rolling in the millions.
- Situational Conflict
- Bob was all set to confess his love to Alice when Alice got kidnapped.
- Or, there's a tornado come to town, and there's no time to think what with all the running for cover.
- Inner Conflict
- Paranormal Conflict (supernatural or cybernetic, etc.)
- Bob is chasing Alice through a virtual reality world that keeps changing and disorienting him.
- Or, Alice is a robot, and Bob is debating the morality of programming her to like him.
- Cosmic Conflict (fate, destiny, or God)
- Bob saw the future, where he dies sad and alone, and he's desperately trying to change that.
- Or, Bob seems plagued by bad luck, and he believes it's because he ran over Alice's dog and never owned up to it.
Schmidt puts Social Conflict at the end, but it seems more useful to compare it to Relational and Situational.
Also, I'm not entirely sure that those examples are appropriate for the categories I've listed them in.
Schmidt offers the following genres, some cut into even finer categories:
- Creative Nonfiction
- Diary / Journal
- Historical / Epic
- Suspense / Thriller
- Science Fiction
Eleven Master Structures
Schmidt goes into great detail on these. You know the three-act action illustration that looks like an upside-down checkmark, with the high point at the climax in the third act? Each Master Structure here has its own form of that illustration, and they are quite distinct from each other. Get the book from the library for that alone.
According to Schmidt, the first six structures are more traditional (three-act structures), while the next two are "based on structure content rather than structure design" and vary in how they're developed. The last three "are somewhat anti-structure in design."
- Roller Coaster
- Interactive Fiction
- Slice of Life
Fifty-Five Dramatic Situations
Starting with Georges Polti's Thirty Six Dramatic Situations, Schmidt combined a few of the overlapping situations (e.g., Rivalry of Kinsman and Rivalry of Superior and Inferior got stuck in the same Competition category). Then she:
was able to see that the original thirty-six situations were very masculine and somewhat violent in nature as well as very plot driven... with this in mind, I decided to put on my "feminine glasses" and take another look at these situations. It became clear to me that there was a feminine, nonviolent, more character-driven side to each situation that hadn't been explored.
Hence, she took each of the categories, gave it a flip side, and thus ended up with the following list. Each entry has a specific set of necessary characters and goes into detail on the three-act structure and the various ways in which conflict can occur.
Supplication and Benefaction
Deliverance and Sojourn
Vengeance for a Crime and Rehabilitation
Vengeance Taken for Kindred Upon Kindred and Appearance of a New Kinsman
Flight and Pursuit
Disaster and Miracle
Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune and Becoming Fortunate
Revolt and Support
Daring Enterprise and The Healing Journey
Abduction and Reunion
Enigma and Invention
Obtaining and Letting Go
Enmity of Kinsman and Hero to Kinsman
Competition and Concession
Adultery and Fidelity
Madness and Genius
Imprudence and Caution
Crimes of Love and Sacrifice for Love
Slaying of Loved One and Conviction
Self-Sacrifice and Self-Preservation
Discovery of Dishonor of Loved One and Discovery of Honor of Loved One
Obstacles to Love and Unconditional Love
Conflict with a God and Supernatural Occurrence
Mistaken Judgment and Intuitive Judgment
Remorse and Empathy
Loss of a Loved One and Rescue of a Loved One
Odd Couple and Fish Out of Water
Blank Situation Template
This last one is Schmidt's concession to the understanding that she, like Polti, probably didn't collect the definitive set of dramatic situations that can never be added to. She encourages writers to use the Blank Situation Template if they are very certain that they can't use one of the other Dramatic Situations for their story.
This is a summary of Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt; published by Writer's Digest Books (www.writersdigest.com), 2005.