In chess, the game is over when the king falls, but the queen is the strongest piece during the game. She has the most power and flexibility. If you lose your queen it’s almost guaranteed you’ll lose the game as well. In many ways, the queen rules the gameplay, but her allegiance is to the safety and preservation of the king.
Similarly, structure and character work together to create a dynamic game of story. Characters are your strongest elements–they have the power to enliven the story and the flexibility to create dynamic change–but they exist within the foundational element of structure. What characters do, how they do it, and why, relates directly to the shape of a story’s beginning, middle, and end.
When I refer to structure, I don’t mean plot exactly, though it’s naturally inferred. I see structure as a general framework on which you hang a specific plot. Plot and character follow the dictates of structure (ideally, three-act structure, though there are various offshoots an interpretations). When you write a story, you have to choose where to start, where to end, and what to include in the middle.
Structure is a bit like the chessboard and the rules of the game. The plot is the particular game, of which there are myriad patterns. A particular plot makes a story unique, but structure makes it understandable.
Structure sets the stage for plot. And what is plot without character? A story is always about someone (character) doing something (plot). Many writers start with a character as a source of inspiration. They drop them into a challenging situation and watch what happens. A character in pursuit of something that’s not easy to achieve, with worthy obstacles and adversaries, plus an uncertain outcome, is endlessly entertaining to us readers. And it fits nicely within a shape of beginning, middle, and ending.
Structure as a ruling, guiding force is your friend. It’s worth defending. All eyes will be focused on your characters, their choices and their fates, but their journeys will mean something because of where the story begins, where it ends, and all that happens in the middle.
So set up your pieces and have fun with the game of story. Let your characters take the spotlight, honor structure’s guidelines, and allow the wild plots to unfold.