Orson Scott Card’s 4 story structures

            I spoke to my class about the 4 story structures that Orson Scott Card delineates:

  • Milieu,
  • Idea
  • Character
  • Event.


            Card says that it’s important to know the kind of story you’re writing, so that you know how to begin and end it.  All 4 of these categories can appear in a single story, but the writer needs to identify the most important element, the one that dominates, and that identifies the kind of story the writer is writing.

            In a milieu story, the development of the character, the back story, etc. is less important than the milieu he lives in or is entering.  Classic examples of the milieu story are Wizard of Oz and Gulliver’s Travels.  We don’t really need to know about Gulliver’s or Dorothy’s childhood.  We want to know about their lands.  So the stories begin when they enter the land.  They are changed by their experiences within the extraordinary worlds, and then decide to return home or stay within the boundaries of the new place. 

            An idea story begins with a question and ends with the answer.  Most mysteries are idea stories.  Who killed the victim and why?  The piece ends when the murderer is discovered and apprehended.  But the story doesn’t have to be a crime plot.  In Viorst’s Ordinary People, the book begins with the question, “why did this teenage boy try to kill himself?”  It ends when the reader finds out the answer.

            A character story is one in which the protagonist has reached a point of no return in his situation.  He can no longer take it anymore and opts for change.  The character’s obstacles physically and emotionally carry the plot until, in the end, the character has changed or has grown at peace with his situation.

            The event story is one similar to Beowulf or Hamlet.  Something is rotten in the fabric of the universe, or, at least, in Denmark.  The whole society is in jeopardy.  The story begins when the character, who is most able to correct the societal wrong, steps up to the plate, in the form of the monster Grendl or ghost.  The story ends when order is restored or when the hero realizes that he’s incapable and the society or universe descends into chaos.  Many science fiction and fantasy stories are the event type.  In an event work, the character doesn’t need complex development.  Indiana Jones is a character in an event story; he only needs to be clever and charming.  The focus is on the events that happen.

            I’ve found that these 4 structures are helpful.  Analyzing what kind of story you wish to write helps in structuring it and beginning when you should begin, not too early and not too late.  It also helps you end the story correctly.  Your beginning creates a need that the ending must satisfy.

            I hope Card’s material is as helpful in your writing.  Good luck.


About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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