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How Should Noir Writers Shape Their Story Structure?

Writers in general (not just those writing noir), tend to throw around words like story structure and plot outline. Like MBA graduates, writers too love making up words and phrases which sound complex.

If you’re a storyteller, the best parts of the craft will come to you naturally. You don’t need a creative writing course to know whether something is interesting or not. However, much of the ‘teach writing’ industry has drained confidence out of writers into finding their own path.

With heavy words like story structure and narrative outlines, writing ‘coaches’ scare new writers. This fear drives them to purchasing expensive writing courses and the cycle never ends.

However, we are not here to discuss the pitfalls of the writing ‘coach’ industry. This is about the story structure writers tend to rely on while writing noir novels, screenplays, and scripts. Generally, those who follow noir fiction would immediately identify some common patterns in their story structure and plot outline.

If there is anything noir history teaches us, it’s not to underestimate human creativity. Writers and filmmakers have taken old noir writing tropes and turned them on their heads for many years. From the traditional noir stories like The Big Sleep, writers have explored this style of storytelling to tell something honest and true.

The structure of a typical noir story has changed over the years. And yet, there are certain points of similarity. In this piece, we will fit together the different elements which together shape the story structure of noir fiction.

The Setting – The Foundation of Noir Story Structure

In most noir stories, the role of the setting is crucial. Think about Los Angeles in LA Confidential or Gotham City in The Dark Knight. Chinatown, quite possibly the greatest noir movie of all time, is named after a locality in LA and its influence on the protagonist.

Thus, it is safe to say that there is great value in the setting writers choose for their noir story.

How does the city affect the noir story structure?

The value of a setting is its role in shaping the story. People often believe choosing the right setting is down to the location and the general ‘feel’ of the city. This is false. Eventually, any setting a writer chooses has to suitably affect the characters and the plot.

For instance, Los Angeles as a setting is crucial for a film like LA Confidential because it represents the incestuous decadence within the film industry, law enforcement, and politicians. In The Dark Knight, the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Gotham City is the only bond that eventually matters. In fact, this bond is the reason Batman decides to make himself the fall-guy in the end.

Any setting you choose can become the base of your story structure. In fact, the best writers know how to turn the setting of a story into a symbolic representation of the plot. In most cases, the setting generally has a very claustrophobic effect on the characters.

The Players – Developing the Centre of Gravity

Who are the players?

The players simply refer to the characters which play the biggest role in shaping the story. In some cases, the protagonist alone is the sole force shaping the story structure. Gangaajal is a perfect example of the same. Without SP Kumar, the town of Tezpur accepts decadence without resistance. However, his arrival changes the dynamic.

Sometimes, the players can include both the protagonist and antagonist. For instance, Chinatown essentially becomes a story of Jake Gittis exploring the labyrinth of evil created by Noah Cross.

In some cases, the antagonist alone is the real player. The Dark Knight is a case in point. The Joker is the real player whose actions are dictating the decisions everyone else makes, including the protagonist, Batman.

Along with the setting, it is important to choose the players wisely. Remember, the players you choose must have a serious impact on each other and the story. In every great story, the actions of one character affect another. No action is without purpose.

The Obstacle – Moving the Story Along

In an interview, Nick Pizzolatto talks about his approach to writing the first season of True Detective. He explains that his entire motivation was to explore two characters. The entire murder investigation was only a way to move the story along.

While True Detective is not exactly an example of noir fiction, it does have some similarities. Pizzolatto’s approach also explains the importance of having a real puzzle for the characters to solve.

Most noir movies are generally an exploration of the protagonist’s mind. Blade Runner is as much about humanoids rebelling as much as it’s about Deckard and his purposeless existence in a decadent world.

This is why most examples of noir fiction have some kind of investigation going on. The main character needs something to do in order to move the story forward. In other words, the main character needs a puzzle to solve. The best puzzles are those which peel the layers of a character at every stage.

How does one create a good obstacle? It is well and good to start a story with a murder investigation. However, the investigation must have some personal significance for the main character to carry some weight. Otherwise, the protagonist is no different from a cop in a typical crime procedural show.

One thing writers must take care of while creating the obstacle is making it convoluted enough for the protagonist to solve. If the protagonist has to overcome a challenge, it should not ideally be easy to overcome. Thus, writers have to make sure they create a complex labyrinth for the main character to unravel.

This also helps writers layer the main characters at a much deeper level. Since the challenge is great, writers naturally end up revealing themselves more openly as the story progresses.

Final Words – Elements of Noir Story Structure

This piece is a close analysis of the three building blocks of a noir story structure. These elements are fundamental to the success of any example of noir fiction.

The structure forms the base of every good story. The aim of this piece is to offer clarity above all else.

Also read: What is Speculative Fiction?
Also read: Indian Fantasy Novels: The Best Fantasy Fiction From India
Also read: Ten Speculative Books You Should’ve Already Read

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