Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lessons in Story Structure in Unlikely Places

Over the Fourth of July weekend, like many Americans, I went on vacation and drove to my destination. A local radio station had recently played every number one hit from the 80s over a weekend, so I put together a playlist of all those totally awesome songs to keep me company on the long drive. So when one of my adolescent favorites—“Take On Me” by A-ha—started playing, I was instantly transported back to those carefree days.

I particularly remember the music video for this song. In fact, here it is:

Not only is this one of my favorite music videos ever made, it’s more or less a romance novel. Within the space of three or so minutes, it condenses everything that the structure of a romance novel should have.

Let’s take a closer look at that.

We begin with backstory. Our hero is a cool racecar driver. He’s got some rivals too. The tension is set up and the antagonists are introduced.

In comes the heroine. Of course, this is a paranormal romance. It’s somewhere in line with time travel, only instead of falling in love with a portrait or something along those lines, the heroine is enamored of a drawing in a comic book. And then she’s drawn into the comic book world.

Things start off well for the hero and heroine, but more conflict is introduced both from the heroine’s side, when the waitress thinks she’s skipped out of the restaurant, thus crumpling the comic book and damaging the world the hero and heroine now inhabit, and from the hero’s side, when the antagonists find the young lovers.

A chase follows, and even though the hero and heroine face it together, they reach the point where the hero has to make a sacrifice in order to save the heroine. She escapes from the comic book world—much to the surprise of the patrons of the diner—but then rushes home with the comic book to see if there is anything she can do to save the hero in turn.

Lucky for our heroine, and maybe with the help of some fabulously 80s band members, the hero manages to escape from the antagonists by joining the heroine in the real world. The two lovers are united, and presumably they live happily ever after.

One of the reasons this is absolutely one of the most brilliant music videos ever made is because it follows all of the elements not just of a story with a classic three-act structure, but a romance novel. What separates a romance from any other story is the focus on the relationship between the hero and heroine. In “Take On Me,” the plot breaks down into the hero and heroine meeting and falling in love, adversity coming between them and pushing them apart, and the two of them battling to overcome those obstacles in order to get back together and have their happily ever after.

It doesn’t matter if your action centers around a comic book chase or the social interactions of a Regency ballroom or opposing tribes of shape-shifters, this structure simply works. Readers are drawn to stories where they can fall in love along with the hero and heroine, then hold their breath and cheer for them as they overcome the obstacles put in their path, and finally let out that cathartic sigh of victory once the baddies have been overcome and true love wins.

So watch that video again. If you find yourself stuck in your story, give it another look. Perfect structure, all within three minutes. It’s no wonder it was a huge hit!
Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. I liked the song and vaguely remembered the video, but I have a whole new appreciation for it. I will never hear the song without remembering the story now.

  2. Wow a whole story in 3 minutes and 44 seconds, Merry ... pretty much matches my attention span!

  3. Enjoyed the post and the video. Thank so much for pointing out the fact that music videos tell a complete story. Most songs do, and that is why songwriters write them. (smile) I told my guitar student that at the last lesson, and she was intrigued. She had not thought about the words so much, but I think she will from now on.

    1. It's one of those things were being confined to a small space actually helps you to be crisp and clear and to get the story across.

  4. What a great example of "less is more"! Never thought about music videos from this perspective; in fact, I rarely watch them. You've given me a lot to think about here, Merry. Thank you! :-)


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