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Writing: How to structure archetypal stories – Putting your readers’ emotions first

Photo of Olaf Wielk giving a talk

Olaf Bryan Wielk of Beemgee helps us invoke our readers’ emotions

Do you know the signposts you need to provide your audience in order to take them on an emotionally satisfying journey through your book? ALLi Partner Member Olaf Bryan Wielk from www.beemgee.com walks us through an archetypal story structure that will greatly improve your readers’ experience.

Putting your readers’ emotions first

It is your readers for whom you work – at least if you want them to buy your books. As a fiction author, it’s your job to arrange the actions of the characters into a plot that creates the greatest emotional effect possible in the readers.

It helps to consider what emotions you want your readers to feel. Archetypal story structure provides a map for what audiences like to experience. Give readers this overall experience and the story is more likely to be so satisfying that they will recommend your book and read your next one.

Here’s a checklist of the emotional journey readers tacitly expect when they let themselves in on a story, presented more or less in the order they should be evoked by the narrative. This loose pattern fits for any type of story, whatever genre, however literary or trivial.

  • What’s this?
  • Ooh
  • Ah
  • Yeah
  • Whoa!
  • Sniff
  • Oh
  • Oh no!
  • Yes!
  • Gasp
  • OMG!
  • Phew

Let’s look at these feelings individually.

What’s this?

First, you want to arouse your readers’ curiosity to such an extent that they begin reading and stay with you beyond the first couple of paragraphs.

Ooh

Then you want them to understand the world of your story and who it is about. Oh, and you want your readers to care what happens to these characters, so make them human and interesting as early as you can (which does not mean they have to be likable).

Ah

Pretty soon after you have established the ordinary story world and set the scene, you want the reader to understand that there is a problem, or actually there are a couple of problems. The story is probably going to show how these can (or cannot) be fixed. By now, the reader has a feeling for how you are presenting the story, for instance what rules you have set yourself for point of view, as well as for what kind of story this is. This creates expectations in the reader’s mind as to the scenes coming up. If the problem is a case and the protagonist a detective, the reader will expect some sleuthing.

Yeah

Once the characters have started trying to solve the problem, have set out on their task or mission, have fixed their objective, met the person with whom they will begin a new relationship, etc., the “fun & games” part starts. This is where the expectations you have awakened in your readers need to be satisfied.

Whoa!

In the middle of the narrative, a goal may be reached, a moment of truth may occur, a revelation, or some great turning point. The midpoint is one of the most powerful emotional tricks up an author’s sleeve.

Sniff

Something sad may happen now. A death, possibly a metaphorical one.

Oh

A moment of calm, to soothe the nerves, perhaps a campfire scene where the main characters reveal something about their pasts that sheds light on their behaviour.

Oh no!

Things may go terribly wrong, the threat to the heroes looms so great that there seems to be no way out. Time for nail-biting.

Yes!

A moment of hope! Brought on by a realisation, an idea, or a new plan.

Gasp

An awful moment of choice, where the reader is aquiver with anticipation while waiting to see if the hero will do the right thing.

OMG!

The excitement of a great confrontation!

Phew

Relief! A great exhalation of breath.

Put like this, the checklist might seem like a simplistic blueprint for a Hollywood blockbuster. But there is a reason Hollywood so often chooses this archetypal structure, whether you’re watching The Godfather or The Goonies.

Because it has worked since storytelling began. If you look at the oldest stories, for instance Homer’s Odyssey, and the greatest stories through the ages and various cultures, you’ll find this pattern. If it’s good enough for Homer, it might be worth checking your own story structure to see what emotions it is designed to elicit in your readers.

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OVER TO YOU What’s your favourite part of the archetypal story structure? Let us know by leaving us a comment below.

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