Monday, March 27, 2023

Q&A with Leon Conrad




Leon Conrad is the author of the book Story and Structure: A Complete Guide. His other books include Aesop the Storyteller. He is based in London.


Q: What inspired you to write Story and Structure?


A: One summer afternoon in 2010, I was holed up in my cozy study, warm coffee on the desk, a good book in my hands, and I ended up stuck. Very, very stuck.


I was reading H. Porter Abbott’s Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, and I had just stopped at a passage in which he wrote: “What is necessary for the story of Cinderella to be the story of Cinderella? ... This is a question that can never be answered with precision.” I remember thinking, “Really? Never? How come?”


I’m the kind of guy who gets intrigued by questions we don’t have satisfactory answers to. Working out the answer to this particular question took me a mere 10 years.


I'm happy to say that in Story and Structure, I reveal not only what’s necessary for the story of Cinderella to be the story of Cinderella - and to answer it ... with precision - but that it is one of 18 distinct story structures (excluding comedy and tragedy) I've identified, along with new information on how each of the 18 story structures identified so far links to a different kind of problem, and how it provides the optimal way of solving it.


If you're a writer or storyteller, the approach will make your telling more robust, credible and multi-dimensional. When your characters face particular kinds of problems, the story structures outlined in Story and Structure will help you find the best structure for them to follow to reach a solution to their problem – or tragically fail to reach it.


The structures will give you more control without being too prescriptive. They're specific, yet flexible and allow for a large amount of variation. The mapping is simple. What's more, it will make it far easier for you to find where plot holes lie and how to fix them.


More importantly, perhaps, the structures link to the way we approach problems in everyday life - which is, I think, why stories follow specific structures in the first place.


Q: The writer Lisa See said of the book, “The idea that stories can be mapped using six symbols is fascinating. Yes, there are rules and laws that govern every story that’s ever been told.” What do you think of that description, and how did you research the book?


A: I was honoured and humbled by Lisa See's comment and particularly delighted that she mentioned rules and laws.


The new way of looking at stories outlined in Story and Structure is based on six simple, visually intuitive symbols. They allow us to trace the underlying pulse of story, the forward and backward moves that relate to “fortunate” or “unfortunate” events in each character's story line. These events follow natural rules and laws - the rules and laws of story.


The wonderful thing is that the patterns they follow are embodied patterns. All I've done in this book is to show how they work. In the process, I found that story structures interrelate - and that led me to offering up some new ideas about why different story structures might exist in the first place. 


Over the 10-year research period, I was fortunate to have been able to draw on the work of others - storytellers like Giles Abbott, Martin Shaw, and Shonaleigh Cumbers; George Spencer-Brown, polymath and author of Laws of Form; and sinologist Sandra Hill all provided important keys that unlocked new insights when I was stuck. 


The result is a simple, easy, visually intuitive way to analyse story structures.


The new insights Story and Structure provides on how story works universally, how and why story structures differ, and why story really is a much wider phenomenon than most people have taken it to be up to now will make it easier for writers and storytellers to navigate characters’ story lines - not to mention the narrator’s, the listeners’ or readers', and yours.


The process will ultimately give you a greater understanding and appreciation of each element of the story you’re working on. This will make your storytelling and writing skills more robust, credible and multi-dimensional, and will help you tell your stories in a more compelling way and keep your listeners or readers engaged, so they want to come back for more.

Q: What do you see as the best definition of “story”?


A: When I refer to “story,” many people assume I'm referring to “a story,” “the story,” or “stories,” even though I'm referring to “story” as I would refer to “music” - as an underlying quality shared by every story that has ever been told or has yet to be told.


Story, for me, is like music. And music is hard to define. We can never really know music except by listening to pieces of music - songs, symphonies, operas, musicals, ballads. We don't refer to these as “musics,” so we don't really confuse the common element (music) and the musical compositions that bring it to life. Story is no different, but I see four levels to “story.”


“Story” (in the abstract) is the first level. Here, I use the word “story” to mean two things which are linked: firstly, the relatively static ways in which events in a chronological sequence are linked; and secondly, the dynamic impulse that links these events. The combination of these is what makes story “story” (in the sense of both a noun and a verb). “Story,” here, is equivalent to “music.”


On the second level, I refer to “a story, the story, or stories.” Stories come into being when someone initiates or communicates a series of events which are (or are capable of being) meaningfully related to each other. Think of musical forms - symphonies, sonatas, torch songs, ballads, pop songs, etc.


On the third level, I refer to “narratives.” By “narratives,” I mean particular versions, or tellings of a story. Think of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, his Moonlight Sonata, or a musical like Hamilton or West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, or Candide.


Finally, on the fourth level, there are “interpretations”: different (re)presentations of a work or performances of a production which come about as a result of a dynamic process of engaging with a narrative. Think of individual performance of a musical composition.


The very existence of story implies the presence of a story spinner who communicates the information in a story to a story seeker. My definition of what constitutes a story is wide and it includes riddles, koans, folk tales, wonder tales, myths and legends, academic essays, recipes, and even mathematical proofs!


All of these are narrative forms which communicate series of events that are meaningfully related to each other. Each of them is powered by the common element of “story.”


Q: Can you describe the primary audience for the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: Story and Structure is deliberately written to appeal to a general readership. I've done my best to ensure that anyone who is interested in stories and storytelling - it will be particularly useful to writers and storytellers who want to improve their understanding of how story works - but anyone with a general interest in story will hopefully find it readable and engaging.


Having said that, it is written with academic rigour. Terms are defined clearly, and the new approach to analysing story which I outline in the book, while explained as clearly and simply as possible, will also appeal to narratologists, professional storytellers, and creative writing teachers.


In addition, the insights I bring to the story structures which give rise to poetic forms like sonnets, limericks, landays, or haikus will be of particular interest to poets and poetry teachers. Story and Structure is an invitation to rethink your idea of story.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm currently working on a companion volume to Story and Structure called Master the Art and Craft of Writing. You see, Story and Structure focuses on how events unfold in a story “at the time of the tale.” It focuses on the “what” of a story.


But stories don't have to be told that way. When you get to the level of narrative, you can move events about, have flashbacks, add suspense, and surprise ... to make the story come to life for the reader.


Master the Art and Craft of Writing covers a series of around 150 exercises specifically designed to help writers tell better stories. It focuses on the “how” of how you tell a story, “at the time of the telling.”


Any writer who wants to improve their craft, and explore how to write more engagingly and compellingly - whether fiction or nonfiction - will find something both useful and valuable in this book.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: What excites me most is that story has purpose. Story generally appears when we face problems. Most story structures arise because we face different kinds of problems. There are problems we can easily solve ourselves, for instance, and others we can’t easily solve without a little help from our friends.


Different kinds of problems give rise to different story structures. And that’s one of the reasons that the story of Cinderella can be recognised as the story of Cinderella, or, more generally, as a Rags to Riches story: it starts unproblematically.


There’s another story structure that doesn’t start with a problem – it just flows forward. I call it the  Creation Myth structure. It’s the story structure that the story of the unfolding of creation follows as told in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.


I think that’s the story structure we’re called to follow in our lives – and every other story structure that exists is simply a way of helping us get back to that state of flow.


Rethink your idea of story.

Visit to download a free sample.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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