Writing Hacks: Getting Into Writing With Arbitrary Story Structures

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

So you want to write a short story. It’s hard. It’s strange. Where you start? What do you write about? Do you model Ray Bradbury or Flannery O’Conner or Ursula K. LeGuin or Philip K. Dick, or what?

If you’re an absolute beginner, maybe starting with an Arbitrary Story Structure can help. First introduced at the California State Summer School for the Arts by author Todd Walton, Arbitrary Story Structures are a handy way to lower anxiety when jumping into writing short stories.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what you write about when using an Arbitrary Story Structure. If you want to start with some content that has some charge for you, it’s easy to find content using Freewriting.

Here’s a basic Arbitrary Story Structure:

Someone is somewhere.

They encounter someone.

Something unusual happens.

They go to a new place.

They have a vivid memory.

They return to the original place.

They see the place differently.

All you do is write that out. If you get worried about being boring, or if you can’t come up with something, that’s ok! If it ends up being very, very short, that’s ok as well!

The story could be as short as:

Jane is lost in a scary forest.

She encounters a witch.

The witch is angry that Jane doesn’t remember her, and chases Jane away.

Jane comes out of the forest to find an enormous lake, where the stars are reflected on its calm water.

Jane remembers the witch, pointing out the constellations in the sky, and how the sky became a great map. Jame remembers how the fear left her, and how much she loved the witch.

Jane goes back into the dark woods, but now she can see the starlight falling between the leaves of the trees, and how it traces out the path home.

Simple? Yes. Does it make sense? Maybe. Is it a story? Folks have spent lifetimes writing dissertations on what a story is and what a story isn’t. Maybe decide what story means for you, and let that meaning change and evolve as you write and read more and more stories.

For now, ask this: do the events follow the Arbitrary Story Structure?

And if what you come up with feels too simple, or too silly, or too shallow, then try adding some content that has a real charge for you. Make the first character you, or make the second character you, or someone you know. Make the characters fictional, but for the memory use a real memory that is intense for you.

Here’s a great post from Todd Walton about Arbitrary Story Structures, that has a few more to try out.

Check out previous Writing Hacks!


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1 Comment

  1. Love the writing hacks!

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