A/N: Sorry this took so long. I was busy with life and it also turned out much longer than anticipated.
Edit: Thinking it over, my wording here was confrontational. In that respect, I am sorry, because my goal was never to provoke but only to inform. So let me try again:
I personally believe nonfiction has a right to exist on this site. All I want is to provide a platform for young writers in the pokemon fandom who might not otherwise be exposed to such ideas and elements. If the mods decide to take down my guide I won't object, but until that point is reached I'm going to continue plugging away. If you genuinely wish to continue discussing this with me, I would prefer you reach out to me via PM as opposed to through the review section.
One final point. Please don't respond to each other in my review section - this isn't AO3, the person isn't going to see it. Take it to PMs, I don't care about your personal grievances with other people on this site.
On the bright side, my commission was finished. Thanks, Wooled (also known as Woo), and a special shoutout to Will_1231 for recommending her to me. It's so cute!
"All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." - Leo Tolstoy
Every year in high school English class, inevitably, my teacher would scribble a pyramid on the board with a bunch of terms I didn't care about. I had more important things to do, after all, like daydream fanfiction ideas that would never be written, haha.
Regardless, most people should be familiar with this pyramid, and it has a name: Freytag's Pyramid. It takes Aristotle's triangle, the three-act structure, and turns it into a five-act structure. I'll quickly go over both of them.
Aristotle's Unified Plot Structure
(it's important to note that this was designed specifically for dramas - a structure for comedies may have existed but is now lost)
Protasis: The lowest left of the triangle represents the introduction.
Epitasis: The highest-middle of the triangle contains the crisis.
Catastrophe: The lowest-right of the triangle provides the resolution to the conflict.
Application: Gary and Misty meet in Alola on vacation - Gary and Misty must confront the Ultra Beast conflict and deal with their own personal hangups involving family - Gary and Misty resolve both the external (Ultra Beasts) and internal (personal resentment toward family) conflicts
Exposition or Introduction: Presents the setting, characters, and the basic conflict. Also establishes the mood or atmosphere of the story.
Example: Misty and Gary meet up in Alola. The mood is established as bright and lighthearted, much like the region itself, with some sad undertones.
Rising Action: The second arc where the basic conflict is brewing and the reader begins to feel the rising tension associated with this conflict. At this juncture, the basic conflict is further complicated by the introduction of obstacles frustrating the protagonist and other characters to reach their objectives. Secondary conflicts are probably coming from the antagonist, or adversaries, of lesser importance.
Example: Misty finds out Gary is there to learn more about Ultra Beasts that have been unleashed across Alola. They work together to capture the Ultra Beasts, foster a relationship, and uncover their personal issues.
Climax: The turning point and third arc effects a change either for the better or for the worse in the protagonist's (main character) situation. In a comedy, the protagonist positively faces his obstacles and there is a great chance that things will turn out well; but in a tragedy, the conflict of the protagonist is worsening which will ultimately turn disastrous for him.
Example: Misty and Gary come across the final Ultra Beast. Perhaps they lose, against, let's say Necrozma. Regardless, it puts them at odds, results in their insecurities being revealed and testing their relationship. Ultimately they overcome their issues, however, and resolve to try again.
Falling Action: A reversal happens in this fourth arc where the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist (the character in opposition to the protagonist) is beginning to resolve. The protagonist either wins or loses to the antagonist. There are unexpected incidents which make the final outcome suspenseful. The falling action designates that the main action (the climax) is over and the story is heading towards the end.
Example: Misty and Gary resolve the conflict with Necrozma. Something unexpected happens - perhaps Team Aether appears. Perhaps Ash appears. Perhaps Misty's sisters appears. Regardless, I want to introduce some sort of surprise but also wrap up the main conflict.
Conclusion: The end of the story, sometimes called dénouement or resolution. If at the end of the story the protagonist achieves his goal, the story is a comedy; however, if the protagonist fails, the story is a tragedy. After conflicts are resolved, the characters resume their normal lives. The conclusion makes way for the catharsis - an event or events allowing the tension or anxiety to loosen.
Example: Misty and Gary have achieved their goals. Depending on the trajectory of their character development, they return home, or perhaps they decide to stay longer and fulfil the challenges. Regardless, it should tie up loose ends and provide a satisfying ending.
Now, before I continue on, I want to raise a few points. Not everyone agrees on using these structures for novels and short stories. Freytag's Pyramid and Aristotle's Unified Plot Structure were designed to analyze theatre. Elizabethan and Greek theatre, respectively.
James Bonnet writes, "The Greeks had no act structure in their plays. The plays had one act. The Romans had five acts. It's arbitrary. It appeared in plays because of the need to have intermissions. People can't sit for three hours in a theatre listening to an auditory experience without taking a break or going to the restroom. It appears in television shows because they want to have commercial breaks so they can sell something. None of which has anything to do with story...
"In my opinion, it makes much more sense when you're creating a story to be thinking in terms of the natural structure of the problem which has two main parts: the action that created it and the action that will resolve it. The action that creates the problem is called the inciting action and the action that resolves the problem is called the principle action. The threat, which is the driving force of the inciting action, be that a villain, an asteroid, a shark, etc., is the cause [sic] the problem. The anti-threat, which is the driving force of the principal action, be that a protagonist or a hero is the one who opposes the threat and solves the problem. Either of these actions will acquire the components of the classical structure if there is resistance - which is to say if there is sufficient resistance, there will be complications, a crisis, the need for a climactic action to resolve the crisis, and a resolution."
Rigidly following structure can also lead to formulaic writing. When a reader recognizes beats and patterns they've seen before in other works, it can break their suspension of disbelief. Suddenly they're not thinking about the plot and the characters, but instead, the threads the puppeteer, the author, are dangling overhead to move from point A to point B. Always remember that fiction, especially genre fiction, is less reality and more an illusion to reality.
However, I'm going to talk about a variety of structures regardless. Why? Because I think it's helpful to at least be aware of their existence. Because even if I don't follow Freytag's Pyramid to the letter, it's a useful tool to help me better pace my project. Structure helps me organize my thoughts and ideas and provides me better clarity. Also, by understanding structure, I can figure out when and where to break convention.
Not everyone structures their stories. There's nothing wrong with that. But often even unstructured stories break down into a 'plot skeleton' because good writers intuitively understand what works (and even if they actively set out to avoid structure, every story can usually be divided into a beginning, middle, and end). And that's what a lot of this is about - analyzing why stories work and figuring out what works best for various types of people.
Jeffery Carver says, "Why do we care about structure? Think of it this way; you're running a race. How far would you get if you were a really powerful runner, but suddenly you didn't have any skeleton? You'd be flopping on the ground with your muscles not having anything to pull against… you'd be like a beached jellyfish. That, to me, is a story without structure: a beached jellyfish. It might be beautiful, it might be glistening in the sun, it might be really interesting - it might dangerous, but it's essentially inert. It doesn't take you anywhere."
He then goes on to say he received a lot of letters back from editors, talking about how many of the early things he wrote were nice mood pieces, but not necessarily stories. Personally, I think a 'plotless' story is possible, but his anecdote is still something to think about. Structure provides momentum and direction.
The Heroic Quest
This is one of the easiest ways to look at a novel:
A character in a context with a problem tries to solve the problem and fails, tries to solve the problem and fails again, and then solves the problem. This is a story boiled down to its most basic elements. Character, setting, conflict, and conflict resolution. The heroic quest.
Interestingly enough, an idea doesn't always start with a character (although many do begin there). Tolkein was a linguist who wrote the Elvish language (context), and then created a problem (the one ring) so that he'd have a story to tell that involved said context. Satoshi Tajiri loved collecting bugs, and later in life, he translated that love into a game about collecting magical animals known as Pokémon.
It should also be noted that the problem should be difficult to solve. A problem that's easy to solve is inconsequential. It would be like if I went to the bank, withdrew some money, and then went home. That's not a story. Something needs to go wrong.
The reverse can also be true. John Gardner had a term known as 'dis-pollyanna syndrome'. Pollyanna-syndrome is a psychological term where people are more likely to remember positive memories than negative ones. Gardner uses it to mean stories where we know everything will turn out all right. Therefore, dis-pollyanna syndrome implies nothing will turn out right. Gardner argues this is just as intellectually dishonest as the opposite. If a story is nothing but rape and death and murder, people are going to lose interest, because they're not given anything to care about.
A Song of Ice and Fire is well known due to terrible things happening to the characters, but it still gives us characters to care about, such as Tyrion and Ned and Jon. And even though characters often fail, they also often succeed, such as when Jon stops others on the wall from bullying his friends, or when Tyrion successfully defends King's Landing.
Shadow of Antioch, a good friend of mine, is writing a story called Rebirth with a very dark tone. But the two central protagonists are still fundamentally good people (well, Pokémon), giving us something to latch onto no matter how horrible the surrounding events get. Make sure the audience has something or someone to care about.
The Hero's Journey
This is a common template, developed by anthropologist Edward Burnett Taylor, of a broad category of tales involving a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. It's particularly prevalent in fantasy and fairytales. There are seventeen stages, although not all stages may necessarily be used. One of the most notable modern stories that employ this structure is Star Wars.
1. The call to adventure
2. Refusal of the call
3. Supernatural aide
4. Crossing the threshold
5. Belly of the whale
6. The road of trials
7. The meeting with the goddess
8. Woman as Temptress
9. Atonement with the father
11. The ultimate boon
12. Refusal of the return
13. The magic flight
14. Rescue from without
15. The crossing of the return threshold
16. Master of two worlds
17. Freedom to live
Okay, there's a lot to unpack here. Let's summarize.
Departure is the beginning point, where the protagonist is called upon to achieve some sort of goal. The idea behind them refusing the call is that it illuminates personality - they might say no because of duty, or insecurity, or fear of the unknown, whatever. They do, eventually, answer the call, because if they didn't there would be no story. It's at this point they meet their mentor, who often provides supernatural aide, and adventures into a mysterious and dangerous realm, where the rules and limits are unknown. The 'belly of the whale' basically means they're willing to undergo changes. Think Luke after Uncle Owen dies, and his strengthened resolve to train under Ben and defeat the Empire.
Initiation is the middle part of the story, with the series of challenges the protagonist overcomes. 'Woman as temptress' doesn't literally mean a woman, it just means something of a pleasurable nature trying to lead the protagonist astray. In a lot of stories, the hero is tempted from his spiritual journey by lust, which is why they use that particular metaphor. Same with the 'atonement with the father', it's about confronting whatever holds the ultimate power in a person's life, and in a lot of cases that's a father figure - it could be alcohol, a significant other, a boss, etc., etc. Apotheosis, called the epiphany in short stories by Joyce, is the moment of realization and understanding. It's the turning point that lets them achieve the ultimate boon, aka the main goal of the story.
Return is all about, well, the return. The hero must return to their ordinary life and integrate their knowledge with everyday society. Sometimes they must escape back, sometimes they're reluctant to leave. But inevitably they return home.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky can easily fall under the Hero's Journey. Even more interestingly, we could start right at the twist where they get pulled into the future, and everything would still function coherently. This might be an explanation for why some criticize the game's slow start. Regardless, when the partner asks the MC to join their exploration team, we've technically had the call to action (and saying no could be considered a refusal of the call). Them getting kidnapped to the future could be considered 'crossing the threshold' and entering the 'belly of the whale'. There are a series of trials that culminate in journeying to the Hidden Land, where they must overcome Dusknoir and the MC must face the fact that he will disappear to save the world. They accept their fate, the apotheosis, and disappear (only to return later, which, while perhaps a bit of a stretch, could be considered the 'master of both worlds').
Eastern Story Structures
One of the major takeaways when it comes to western story structure is that a lot of it revolves around conflict. But is it possible to write a story without conflict? According to the east, yes, absolutely!
Jo, Ha, Kyu
"Every phenomenon in the universe develops itself through a certain progression. Even the cry of a bird and the noise of an insect follow this progression. It is called Jo, Ha, Kyu." - Motokiyo Zeami
Once again, this structure was originally designed for theatre. Keep that in mind if it sounds interesting. I cannot stress enough how important it is to know the differences between mediums and what does and does not translate. Considering fanfiction, in particular, is often transferring a visual and/or interactive medium into a written format, always, always, always remember this.
Many of the conventions of Japanese theatre are actually based on accurate observation of natural patterns. One of these patterns is a rhythmic structure called Jo, Ha, Kyu. It starts slowly, then gradually and smoothly accelerate towards a very fast peak. After the peak, there is usually a pause and then a recommencement of the acceleration cycle - a new Jo Ha Kyu.
Jo: A beginning or opening
Ha: A break or development
Kyu: A sense of 'speed' or 'climax'
It differs from the West's concept of 'beginning, middle, and end' because it's a smooth acceleration as opposed to a series of steps. Dialogue and action will also have a rhythm to it (John Gardner also talks a lot about sentences and paragraphs having a 'rhythm' - but I'll cover more of that in the section regarding flow), starting at a certain speed and ending at a slightly faster rhythm.
The degree of acceleration will vary; sometimes it's quite clear to the audience, sometimes the shift in tempo is very slight, but it's always there. The sense of forward momentum is never absent. If we view the previous structures as a pyramid and a triangle, a shape that would fit Jo Ha Kyu would be the rolling wave. This might have a useful application for longer running stories that utilize arcs because they're self-contained narratives within a single story.
Kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure often found in Japanese and Chinese storytelling. Many horror stories and even, funnily enough, Nintendo's Super Mario employs this concept.
Introduction (起): The topic, setting, and characters are all established.
Development (承): Information is further clarified and elaborated upon.
Twist (転): Something happens that changes the way information is perceived.
Resolution (結): The first two sections must be reconciled with the shocking revelation of the third.
This is the type of structure that I could also see working wonderfully for a slice-of-life story, or a cute, fluffy, romantic one-shot.
Stilleatingoranges, referencing a four-panel comic of someone getting a bottle of soda and giving it to a friend/father figure, says, "The resulting plot–and it is a plot–contains no conflict. No problem impedes the protagonist; nothing is pitted against anything else. Despite this, the twist in panel three imparts a dynamism –a chaos, perhaps– that keeps the comic from depicting merely a series of events. Panel four reinstates order by showing us how the first two panels connect to the third, which allows for a satisfactory ending without the need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory. It could be said that the last panel unifies the first three."
As an example, I'll go back to my Misty and Gary story. Ditch the Ultra Beasts. Just have the two of them in Alola spending time together. And at the midway point, the twist is that they were dating all along. Twists exist in all forms of media, western or eastern - the difference is that the twist here isn't rooted in the conflict between the characters or the plot.
Other Miscellaneous Forms of Structure
There are, of course, a variety of other ways to structure a story.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park have a simpler way of looking at it. Many writers make the mistake of writing a story as 'and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened', when instead it should be, 'and then this happened but this happened, therefore, this happened'.
I'll look at the first episode of the Pokémon anime as an example:
Ash Ketchum lives in a world inhabited by Pokémon. It's the day he receives his starter, but he oversleeps. Therefore, no starters left. Therefore, he gets Pikachu instead, but Pikachu won't listen to him. Therefore, Ash angers a flock of Spearow. Ash tries to protect Pikachu but injuries himself in the process, therefore Pikachu defeats the flock of Spearow.
In contrast with this:
Ash Ketchum lives in a world inhabited by Pokémon. He wakes up and then gets his starter, and then leaves town, and then walks to Viridian City.
See the difference? It's a useful way to denote cause and effect.
There are a lot of complaints about the Pokémon anime and for good reason. But this first episode is solid from a structural perspective.
Douglas Goetsch discusses a Tibetan Buddhist teaching known as the three poisons - passion, aggression, and ignorance - three foundational emotions that underlie all others. A comparison is drawn to three primary colors, combining for all other colors in the spectrum.
It's certainly possible to structure a story off a philosophical conceit. Schools of thought such a Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism, Nietzscheism, and more are all the basis for a variety of works.
The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction by Emily Petermann defines genre as form, borrowing musical techniques such as rhythm, timbre, jazz riffs, call and response, leitmotifs, themes and variations, symphonies, and albums.
Milan Kundera studied classical music in his youth. His book, Art of the Novel, also connects writing with music. Just looking at, say, the sonata form, and how it consists of three main structures (an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation), and it's easy to see where the translation can begin. It is possible but it's something that needs to be handled with thought and care.
Conclusion and Application
So. I've now covered a variety of potential story structures. As a word of warning, please, please, please do not just pick a structure because it sounds different or unique from what everyone else is doing. I pick a structure because it's a useful tool that will help me accomplish whatever it is I'm setting out to achieve, and I shouldn't be afraid to break away from it if it's truly curbing my creativity.
My other warning is this - always remember the audience. If I'm going to write an anachronistic, Avante Garde story on free will, based off the doctrine of Duns Scotus, using Pokémon in a series of dialogues representing abstract symbols, chances are I'll have an audience of one (aka my mom).
If someone doesn't care about their audience and are just using fanfiction as a means to experiment and do whatever the hell they feel like, then by all means, experiment away. They just shouldn't be mad if/when nobody reads it.
It's worth mentioning that once someone has gained a following, they have a little more wiggle room to write something without losing said audience. For example, once Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he was able to publish the Silmarillion. Anyone who's read it will know it's rather dry, but because Tolkien got people interested in the world of Middle Earth, he was able to publish a book that was essentially nothing but lore about a fantasy world that doesn't actually exist.
Now, I'm going to reel it back a bit. Simplify things, because that's generally how I prefer to operate. I set a goal for myself in the previous chapter to write an outline for an adventure/romance novel involving Gary and Misty.
One of my favorite forms of structure comes from Daniel Schwabauer, because it's simple, flexible, and, best of all, was specifically designed for writing adventure novels. It utilizes concepts from the heroic quest and breaks down into two parts, a situation and a question. Then it's divided further into three parts.
The situation is made up of:
The way things are (context)
Someone to care about (the hero)
Something to want (the story goal)
The question is made up of:
Something to dread (the villain)
Something to suffer (the price paid)
Something to learn (the theme)
Okay. Now I'll fill this bad boy out. Feel free to follow along.
The Way Things Are
Misty needs a vacation, sick and tired of her job. She heads over to Alola for a month, and while there, meets up with Gary Oak, who's been spending time with Samson Oak, his grandfather's cousin. They're all chilling, having a good time, when Misty learns that Gary is there to study the strange, recent appearance of creatures known as Ultra Beasts.
Someone to Care About
I want my heroes to be people the audience cares about. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll like them, but what it does mean is that they have an emotional connection with the protagonists and want to find out what happens to them. I plan on discussing characters more in-depth in the next chapter, but in short, I want my characters to have external and internal motivations that are understandable to the audience. Misty and Gary both have strengths and weaknesses, they have desires, and they have obstacles they must overcome.
Sometimes what draws an audience are not the characters but the setting - Alola is a bright, colorful, fun place to be filled with cool fantasy creatures, and that alone might be enough to grab and hold someone's attention.
Something to Want
The goal of the story. One bit of advice I find useful is that the main goal can be summed up in a single photograph. The Death Star being blown up in Star Wars. The One Ring being dropped in Mount Doom.
This provides us the major motivation for the characters. It doesn't necessarily have to be the only motivation, but it's a place to start. Gary and Misty want to find and stop the Ultra Beasts from hurting other people. I consider this an external motivation, and the plot boiled down to its simplest element.
Internal motivation comes from the characters personal needs. Luke is motivated to stop Darth Vader. Frodo is motivated to protect those he loves. An internal motivation may not necessarily jive with the external motivation. Setting the internal and external motivation in opposition to each other creates organic stakes and tension. Gary and Misty are working to find the Ultra Beasts, but they don't want to return home, because it's a source of unhappiness for them. Therefore, they're reluctant to finish finding the Ultra Beasts, because then they'll have no reason to stay in Alola. But, again, that's a discussion I plan to continue in the chapter on characters.
Something to Dread
I want my audience to feel compelled to continue reading. We want them to feel like characters can fail, be curious to find out what happens next, be caught up in suspense. It motivates them to continue reading.
The Ultra Beasts should be a legitimate threat for Gary and Misty to handle. We also want the obstacles they face to naturally progress. If we started with the Ultra Necrozma fight and ended with a battle against a Bidoof, well, that would be rather anticlimactic. Or, perhaps the Ultra Beasts are not the true threat, and in a twist, it's instead, I dunno, the league, or Team Aether. Regardless, there's an expectation that something is set up to be a threat to our protagonists, and we, the author, should pay it off at some point or another.
It could also revolve around the internal motivation. Perhaps, a la Shadow of the Colossus, capturing the Ultra Beasts leads to a slow degradation of Gary and Misty's morality. Or perhaps their reluctance to return home leads to them ignoring the Ultra Beast threat, resulting in people getting hurt. An unspoken promise between the reader and the writer, at least for the adventure genre, is that bad things are going to happen. It's important that I find a way to keep that promise.
One final point: a great villain can save an otherwise bland story. People love a good villain. Sleeping Beauty is nothing without Maleficent. Spike was so effective in Buffy that he wound up joining the main cast when originally he was more of a one-and-done type villain. The best villains inspire emotion and force the protagonists to react to them in interesting ways.
Something to Suffer
As we mentioned before, it's important that the goal be difficult to achieve. Our characters should go through trials and tribulations to achieve their goal (this is not exactly the same thing as something to dread - dread ties into suspense, payoff, and tension, while suffering is more about the actual event. Put another way, one is about how we feel, while the other is about what is actually happening).
Suffering is put into two categories: emotional suffering and physical suffering. The Ultra Beasts are strong and elusive - there's one way to create physical suffering. Gary and Misty have to brave the elements and put both themselves and their Pokémon in danger to stop the Ultra Beasts.
Both Misty and Gary are known to have rather obnoxious personalities at times, so perhaps they clash, putting a strain on their friendship/potential relationship. That's emotional suffering. Perhaps the fights with the Ultra Beasts hurts their Pokémon badly, emotionally distancing the Pokémon from their trainers. Suffering shouldn't be random. It should feed into the plot, into the character's flaws and motivations. Always play fair with the audience - show them the real cancer before showing them the cure.
Something to Learn
Ah, theme. People tend to talk in circles around it.
I'm going to ignore the conventional definition of theme and go with a simpler concept. For my purpose here, a theme is a general statement about some larger truth.
Theme #1: Happiness is important.
Theme #2: Personal stagnation is bad.
Now let's turn those into specific premises. Right now they don't really hint at any sort of conflict or juxtaposition.
Premise #1: Happiness is important even in the most difficult circumstances.
Premise #2: Personal stagnation due to familial obligation results in entropy and resentment.
Now we have the seeds of conflict in place. Think of a theme as something similar to the scientific method - I want to test it, again and again, to try and prove it wrong. And in doing so, I show my audience without directly explaining it to them, why my premise is correct.
To be honest, I had a bit of a difficult time coming up with a theme for this story concept (I actually went back and edited it after thinking it over while at work, and like it a lot more). That's normal. Most writers don't really think about their theme, except maybe in the most abstract terms, until perhaps the end of their story. This is still the planning stage, and the theme may very well change because I intended the structure to be flexible. But it's important to imbue some sort of meaning into the narrative, some sort of revelation for the characters to have, or else it's going to feel hollow and empty.
In summary, structure is a useful tool. I should use the best tools to write the best version of a story I'm interested in telling. I hope, if there's any takeaway from all of this, that's the one. I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do, I'm just trying to lay everything out so people have the proper equipment to succeed at whatever they're attempting, whether it be a full-fledged story, or a mood piece, or a one-shot, or, hell, even smut. At the end of the day, if someone manages to evoke the emotional reaction they want out of their audience, they've succeeded as an author in my mind.
Daniel Schwabauer, One Year Adventure Novel
The Odyssey Podcast featuring Elizabeth Bear, Michael A. Burstein, Jeffery Carver, and Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem
The Writing University Podcast featuring Douglas Goetsch
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
The Significance of Plot Without Conflict from stilleatingorange's tumblr
What's Wrong with the Three Act Structure? by James Bonnet
The Notion of Jo, Ha, Kyu from The Invisible Actor by Yoshi Oida and Lorna Marshall
The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror by Rudy Barret