A Better Story Structure: Making a Skeleton Jig for Storytelling

Asher Black
8 min readSep 9, 2023

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We’re generally presented with three types of story structure diagrams. One is linear and abstract like Freytag’s Pyramid (rising action, falling action) or based on a three-act structure (beginning, middle, end) but in a highly abstracted way. All stories perhaps have rising and falling action, but rising and falling action doesn’t make a story, and it’s hard to conceptualize how to create that action if you don’t know how to write a story. There are other similar structural presentations (e.g., setup, confrontation, resolution) that are likewise highly abstract. It’s a bit like saying, “Losing weight is burning more calories than you consume”. It may be true, but it doesn’t tell you how to do it.

Another common diagram outlines the Three-Act Structure in more detail (including elements like the call to action, inciting incident, black moment, and so on). That’s useful for a deeper understanding of story structure, for further developing a plot, or for post-literary analysis—reverse engineering what an author did for literary criticism—but it’s a bit elaborate for quickly plotting a simple story structure or plot, which one may then flesh out with those details. You’re making up a bedtime story for your kids, and you have to stop to think about what to do for the ‘dark night of the soul’ before the climax?

The third common format is archetypal, like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey (call to adventure, transformation, atonement, etc.). Campbell never claimed that all stories follow this format. It’s not universal. Rather, he was pointing to a pattern in some mythic stories to hypothesize a monomyth across cultures.

There is a church of storytelling that says, “the hero’s journey is how you tell a story,” and that, even if obliquely, the story's main character more or less always goes through those particular stages of experience. While it then tends to get diagrammed as a circle, the rigidity of that template for a main character’s experience makes it abundantly linear, almost like a 12-step program for story characters. There are enormous numbers of exceptions to this story format unless one forces it to fit through, once again, a lot of (dubious) abstraction.

I think a simpler, more tactical symbolism for a story's skeleton, or spine, is warranted. Ideally, it’s focused primarily on how to create or tell a story rather than how to understand what’s happening in one as literary analysis or abstraction.

Novice storytellers, especially those who employ storytelling in social contexts (cocktail stories, jokes, etc.), for selling, or for other purposes beyond literature and stage, tend to struggle with two things:

  1. They have a premise (or situation), but not a story. E.g., “A young woman with telepathy is kidnapped” or “A man with too many hats who decides to pare down”. It’s not yet a story, because nothing happens.
  2. They’ve got an anecdote but not a story. There’s a problem/solution or aspiration/effort, as there is in every story, and it’s briefly interesting, but it’s still not yet a story. “I was stuck in quarantine without food. So I ordered delivery.” (yawn) “I once fell down a well. I waited all day until someone came and lowered a rope.”

What makes a story, fundamentally, is three things:

  1. a goal (and any context around that goal — e.g., why it’s a goal)
  2. actions (taken toward the goal)
  3. obstacles (to progress)

That’s the skeleton. The rest is the flesh that makes it light or heavy, bright or dark, inspiring or tragic.

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If you’re a student of story structure, you might say, “Hold on, there’s a lot missing from that skeleton”. Not really. The interplay between actions and obstacles is the bulk of it.

What was the first action and first obstacle? How was it overcome? How many additional obstacles? What was each action in response to those obstacles? What was the final obstacle and action? Did we then reach the goal (comedy) or fail (tragedy), or did the goal evolve in the process, and did we reach that new goal or fail (could be either comedy or tragedy)? If we failed, was there a new reality that wasn’t the goal or a return to the original context? Everything else is the meat on the bones.

When I’m thinking of a story, I start with a premise (or situation), or even an anecdote (problem/solution, aspiration/effort), but what I look for to complete the loop is all three parts.

  • The main character has some objective or goal that propels him/her/it into action. That objective undoubtedly arises from a particular context or situation.
  • The character takes action. A passive character makes for a poor story—even a poor anecdote.
  • Instead of merely achieving the goal through that action (“I wanted beer, so I went to the store and got some. The End.”) there are obstacles. The interplay between actions and obstacles continues until the character succeeds or fails or clarifies the goal and then succeeds or fails.

That’s it. That’s a story. The rest is about making it interesting, exciting, moving—whatever you’re going for or whatever suggests itself from those elements. Perhaps it’s surprising because what suggests itself is not where the story goes. The character pursues love and ends up with a better self-understanding. The character wants a promotion and ends up self-employed.

The basic story structure isn’t linear, because a believable character has a new context that results from pursuing the goal, for better or worse or just different. The implication for a believable character is that the energy continues. They will go on living, and there will be other goals. The story in that sense, doesn’t end. Just this part of it does. Even if the character dies or is destroyed in the process, the intent and energy in the pursuit of the goal is best expressed not in any ultimate finality, as if the cosmos ends with the end of the character, but as if a world continues in which, if not their memory, their presence mattered enough for us to listen.

Even if the story is precisely that of the cosmos ending, we are still here to ruminate upon that, or else the story would have no point. This is why stories ending in suicide are so hard to accept. They suggest the obliteration of the character’s efforts, not just in the current story, but in the larger story of what was possible if the character continued, whether they failed or succeeded in the current narrative.

There is only one story, and it goes on and on, and we keep telling it in different forms, styles, and iterations ad infinitum. So shall it be until ages of ages, world without end.

Likewise, people have employed great effort in making the hero’s journey fit every story, and it will, like anything, if we tweak it enough, with enough substitution and squeezing oval pegs into round holes. It’s true that every story is a quest, in that there’s a goal, either to be free of a problem or reach an aspiration, but not every quest is a mythic one that matches exactly the hero’s quest.

The three-act structure is incredibly useful, not because it’s three acts—some stories are five acts, some two, some one. It’s useful in that the parts in those acts provide a useful narrative structure for thinking about what flesh we want to put on the skeleton of the essential plot. Trying to force every story into the mold of a Broadway play or blockbuster movie ignores all the great plays and films that don’t follow the mold. If the goal is a formulaic template for its own sake, fair enough. Whether we follow those rules or, having cut our teeth following them, we intelligently ignore some of them, the skeleton of a story collapses without a goal, actions, and obstacles.

Having those three elements in place does not guarantee a great story, but it will at least be complete. If the goal is telling a story, and perhaps doing as we’ve done from time immemorial, embellishing as we go or in multiple tellings, then that skeleton will serve.

I call this structure a story “jig” because it’s a specific kind of tool for story building. In wood and metalworking, a craftsman often makes more than one of something, the same way we do stories. If that’s happening often enough, he or she will often make a jig. The jig is a tool that bridges the materials and the other tools to achieve efficient repeatability in the craft. Imagine you’re cutting out three sizes of leather wallets to sell on Etsy. You might use a jig to get the same precise sizes every time, making the craft repeatable, sustainable, and efficient.

That’s what a good story structure tool does. In this case, how do you know when you have the skeleton of a story to flesh out? It’s when you have a goal, action, and obstacles. That’s the basic shape. The rest is craft.

Note: I have a LOT of ideas for stories, more than I can ever write in a lifetime. I keep track of them in notebooks. When I want to make sure I capture the gist of a story so I don’t lose the important parts, I make sure it fits this jig. When I’m picking a story to write next, I look at whether I indeed have those three parts and how strong they are, all other details, elements, and characters aside. I may have a killer premise, but I’m not ready to build a story unless it lines up with the jig.

Lastly, everyone has stories in them. We’re engines for stories. We live in them, make them, share them. We’re all about stories since we came down from the trees and built campfires in front of the caves. I often get asked how to get from a premise or anecdote to an actual story in anything from a business to a creative context. This is how. Get these three parts down, and the rest will fall into place as you work on it.

In business, it can be as simple as “There were plenty of x (hotel rooms, taxis, whatever), but they weren’t always available, and there was a lot of waste and unused availability. That created a need we wanted to solve (goal). We started by contracting with those services directly (action), but quickly found it inflated the price and that industry didn’t fully understand the problem we wanted to solve (obstacle). So we… (next action).”

Instead of “I needed beer, so I went to the store and bought some,” a story might be “I was going to buy beer, but something happened on the way to the store…” or “I was going to buy beer, but the stores were all closed, and I didn’t want to go home empty-handed so…” Goal, action, obstacle, rinse and repeat on the actions and obstacles, until…. That’s it. Do that, and you have a story. If you like the jig, drop me a note or comment.

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Asher Black

Asher Black is a storyteller, musician, & karateka satisfied w. the life he always wanted. Profile not yet rated. Parental discretion. Views do not reflect. Etc