LFS:Workshops/Story Structure

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Dramatic Structure

Freytag's Pyramid

Dramatic structure

The Inverted Pyramid

Inverted pyramid

Diagram by Christopher Schwartz CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A story is...

  • is someone doing something for a reason
  • builds tension
  • has stakes
  • has a beginning middle and an end
  • has a hook

One simple way to test whether your story is worth telling on the radio is to tell it to your friends, and notice how you feel. Do you feel like you’re dragging through one tedious moment after another, always on the verge of losing their interest, and sometimes you’re not even sure what the story’s about or why you’re telling certain parts? Or are your friends laughing and buying you drinks and begging you for more details about the characters? When you’re done, does everyone at the table launch into an excited discussion of similar things that happened to them? Heed these signs. If you can’t tell the story compellingly to a friend, it means either you haven’t figured out what the story is really about, or ­ much more likely ­ it never will be possible to tell this story compellingly over the radio.
(Also notice, incidentally, the way you tell your friends the story: where you begin it, what background facts you feel compelled to throw in and where you throw them in, what parts of the story you tell in what order, what parts of the story you leave out, what parts of the story seem weaker when you tell them. The way you tell the story to your friends is often the best structure for the story on the radio. Sometimes, when someone’s stuck on writing a story for our show, I or one of the other producers will have them put down their notes and logs and just tell us the story, to hear the structure they naturally use in telling it aloud.)
And yes, there are ways to get a story to work. Often this means you have to think about what the heart of the story is about, and figure out how to make that more present. This can involve adding moments and scenes that build up the central conflict (and pruning away the ones that don’t). It can mean making explicit what the story means, stating more directly what the point of the whole thing is. More about that below.
Ira Glass, Transom “What’s A Story?”

Further reading


Listen to this story: Alex Blumberg/This American Life: The Hills Have Eyes

  • Draw a diagram of the story's progress
  • What's the hook? What's the climax?
  • What would this story sound like if it was a news report?
  • How is tension built into the story?
  • Does it have a satisfying ending?

Other Resources