An Interesting Story Structure

A murder mystery article slides into my inbox one afternoon. Sent by my manager. Curious, I click into the article and am immediately mesmerized. It’s one of those long-form, scrolling news articles that weaves in audio, video, and graphics. It’s a work of art.

I can’t read it all at work, so I send it to my personal email to read later. It’s an exceptionally well-written article named Murder, Lies, and a Missing Deer Head. I can hardly wait to chat about it with my manager the next day. I am so caught up in the “Can you believe?!” of the story, that I hardly notice its structure. Thankfully, my manager fills me in. He calls the story structure a “chiasmus.” I remember thinking “it’s a what-us?!”

Let me explain.

Chiasmus Story Structure

Right at the beginning of the article, there are three lines that immediately stand out to introduce a family murder that took place in 2013:  

The crunch and pop of truck tires on a frozen road.

A dog barking.

A gunshot.

Makes your hair stand on end, right? These lines begin the story, but they aren’t immediately explained. You don’t realize they are clues until you find out that the son and his friend worked together to kill the family (sorry, late spoiler alert). The two lines toward the end of the article explain what happened to induce the gunshot after the family was murdered:

When Keela [the dog] came snarling and growling, Josh shot her, too.

They left Gordon’s truck by the Battle River, then Jason drove Josh back to Castor, leaving him in the dark just outside town.

They are the reverse order of the lines from the beginning of the article, making it a chiasmus. Again, let me explain.

The Story Structure

The way this story is written is called a chiasmus or ring structure because it follows this pattern: ABC…CBA

The beginning concepts or ideas (ABC) precede the thesis/main events of the story (…), and then the concepts are repeated in reverse order toward the end (CBA). In the beginning of the news article, we are given a couple sentences and find out there was a gunshot. Following that, we find out the events that led to the gunshot. Then we are told of the fallout after the gun shot. The chiasmus structure blends these elements together in a fascinating way, forcing the reader to pay attention and connect the dots themselves.

In biblical times, this story structure was quite common. You can see its impact on religious texts such as the Quran. It is a structure well suited for oral storytelling, because it would help orators remember the order and detail of events while presenting a dramatic story.

But it’s also a structure well suited for the digital age. More and more, we see the roots of oral storytelling making a comeback online. By incorporating different media and using oral story structures to make the story “sticky,” we can connect with our audience. We can help them circle back to concepts and keep them interested the whole way through.

My Experience with Chiasmus

I practiced using the chiasmus structure in a Behaviour-Based Safety course I am developing. In one of the modules, we cover the importance of participating in safety culture on the work site. I’ve been researching how companies are inspiring their employees to think about making safer choices while completing their assigned duties. One idea that stuck with me is to relate safety on the work site to their everyday lives.

I started to think of an everyday scenario that would resonate with my female audience. I pictured a hectic morning, a young mother trying to get her kids organized and dropped off before work. This is a situation many women could relate to. I set up the story with these two lines:

All is quiet in the house, except for the faint giggles of a small child learning to test her boundaries.

The smell of burned toast wafts its way through the air.

Then the main events of the day unfold. The main protagonist, Malia, gets to the work site and has to deal with a bunch of typical work stuff. But, she also has to deal with an unsafe situation on the work site by coming to terms with the awkward reality of what it feels like to speak up when no one else will. She makes it through the day, realizing that she makes the choices she does to keep herself and others safe, so they can all go home to their families in one piece. This message isn’t necessarily spelled out, but reinforced when she’s back at home and then the next morning experiences the same events she did the previous morning:

The smell of burned toast wafts it way through the air.

All is quiet in the house, except for the faint giggles of a small child learning to test her boundaries.

It’s not necessary to repeat the same lines for a chasmic structure, but I liked the repetition. I also think it points to the idea that many days are monotonous and routine. On work sites, the repetition of tasks can lead to complacency and the rise of incidents. There are a lot of parallels to Malia’s home life and her work life, which I tried to show through different ways she keeps her kids, her co-workers and herself safe. The ring structure just helped me do it in an interesting way.

Helpful Resources

After learning about the chiasmus, I realized there are tons of other story structures I probably don’t know about! And they can be really interesting ways to tell stories to adult learners, who don’t need everything spelled out for them, but probably appreciate the aspect of using story to learn key concepts. The hero’s journey is getting a little overdone, so it’s good to branch out and see what else is out there!

Here are a few I found:

Reference

Bible image from Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/oUiTrFhnEkE

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