How Story Structure Echoes Music Theory

There's a reason why works of art are called compositions. They are by definition composed, with a structure that the creator felt best represented that work.

While I doubt anyone would fault a painter who sketches out her subject beforehand, or a songwriter who includes a chorus between his stanzas, the term "formula" has a negative connotation in storytelling. All artistic formulae have the same purpose: to leverage a refined language that helps ensure clarity of message. Yet for other mediums they are considered tools of the craft, while for stories they are often considered unscrupulous.

I'm not exactly sure why this is. Perhaps it's because stories are the most efficient way to evoke emotion, so one that is deliberately crafted feels like a form of manipulation.

Whatever the reason, we can't deny the power of formula to enhance stories. Story craft has been honed over millennia of human civilization; it's been studied, analyzed, and experimented with. Each new medium brings with it new challenges, and thus new evolutions of the language of story in order to convey meaning. Understanding techniques to raise suspense, increase empathy, and provide satisfaction are essential to any budding storyteller.

I believe that when it comes to formulae, writing stories is much like writing songs.

When you listen to a song, you have an inherent understanding of what makes the composition pleasing, or at least passable. Think of chord progression: if you play three different chords for someone, they might not be able to tell you exactly what chord should come after the third, but they will be able to tell you if the fourth chord feels right. The chord might not be what a listener expects--you may even be able to surprise and delight them--and they may not have the ability to understand why it feels right. Yet because of all the music they have been exposed to in their life, and even thanks to a natural intuition for harmonic progression, they know whether it helps make a good song or a bad one.

By the way, this is where the word "discordant" comes from: harsh and jarring from a lack of harmony. It's the same with stories.

We may not understand why the sequence of events or a character's arc in a story feels satisfying, we just know that it does.

Usually though, the best storytellers do understand why. They've studied their craft and learned story structure so they can use it in new and interesting ways.

Of course there are many storytellers who go by instinct alone without crafting their plot points to maximize impact. Like many songwriters, some storytellers are simply talented enough to naturally pick up on the way satisfying stories progress, and then write their plot without understanding why it works. The rest of us want want to study, understand, and leverage story structure in order to create the best experience possible for our audience.

This is why it is so important to not just create your own, but to also experience the stories of others. Whether you read, watch, listen, or play: the more stories you absorb, the better you will be able to intuitively understand what makes a story succeed or fail.