Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels and short fiction.
By Katie Zdybel
Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli, is a classic YA novel. When it came out in 2000, it was a New York Times bestseller and won several awards. I first read it then and have returned to it several times over the years. The title character, Stargirl, is one of my all-time favourite fictional characters.
Disney recently released a film adaptation of the novel and the book, too, is having a resurgence. It can be uncommon for a movie to truly rise to the occasion of an outstanding book, but in my opinion, Stargirl the movie shines as bright as the novel. The interesting thing about both the book and the movie is that the story is rather simplistic, even a bit predictable. The arc perfectly follows the standard Aristotelian structure; you could easily pin every plot point on that familiar inverted check-mark shape. But despite having an uncomplicated shape, this story has an enduring, glittering quality that continues to charm readers (and now, viewers). Let’s take a closer look at how that narrative shape unfolds before examining what makes the story so compelling.
Narrative structure in Stargirl
Moving through the story, we can identify the main plots points: status quo, inciting incident, rising action, the dark moment, resurgence, and climax.
Though the book is named after the most captivating character—a non-conforming tenth grader who wears costumes to school, serenades her classmates on the ukulele, and carries her pet rat in her backpack—Stargirl is not the protagonist of the book. That’s Leo: an ordinary sixteen-year-old who prefers not to stand out in a crowd—a nice guy, shy and a bit timid. Leo and Stargirl meet when she begins attending Mica High after nine grades of home schooling. Mica High is a bland school in a milquetoast town in Arizona.
The heroes of the school include Wayne Pratt: a standard, good-looking guy whose biggest ambition is to look like a GQ model and who, Leo observes, is “monumentally good at doing nothing”. Wayne leads the rest of the high school by example to care about nothing, to exude pure, unbroken indifference. Wayne’s girlfriend, Hillari, takes this stance a step farther by policing the student body’s collective apathy—if anyone attempts to be uncommon, to take a stand, to get excited about anything, Hillari is quick to denounce and mock. Like most high school-drama villains, she’s also adept at rallying a flock.
Leo accepts this status quo until—cue inciting incident—Stargirl Caraway arrives. Suddenly, the halls of Mica High are abuzz with confusion and curiousity: Who is she? Where is she from? What is she wearing? Is that a rat? Is she for real?
That last question lays the first stone in the foundation of the novel’s theme. To Leo, and many other characters in the book, Stargirl is so unusual, so free from self-doubt or even self-concern, she feels almost magical to him. Leo tries unpuzzling her nature with his friend and teacher, Archie Brubaker, who has also taught Stargirl. Archie is a classic “wise, old man” character and, like a sort of paleontologist Yoda, he answers most of Leo’s questions with more questions.
The two of them spend time digging for fossils in the Sonoran desert, trying to excavate elusive truths about life (and, in Leo’s mind, about Stargirl) with Archie subtly guiding Leo toward his own slightly less exuberant version of personal freedom.
One of Leo’s questions succinctly captures the theme: “Is she magic?”
“You think things have to be real or magic,” Archie responds. “But the best things are both.”
Rising action ensues as Stargirl first wins over her fellow students who just can’t help being swept up by her enthusiasm for life, her genuine joy at victories large and small. A ninth grader picks a candy wrapper off the ground and throws it in the garbage? Stargirl drums up a cheer on the spot and leads everyone in applauding him. It’s somebody’s‚ anybody’s, birthday? She’s plinking “Happy Birthday” on her ukulele, dressed in an old wedding gown. When she cartwheels, sings, hoots, shimmies, and dances her way around the football field to never-before-seen uproarious cheer in the stands, the head cheerleader invites her to join the squad. Leo watches it all from the sidelines, intrigued and charmed, but too shy to approach her. It turns out he doesn’t need to; Stargirl declares her love for him with unabashed honesty.
Eventually, conformity-checker Hillari begins casting aspersions—which aren’t hard when Stargirl begins rooting for the other team, even when Mica High is losing. Just as Leo works up the nerve to hang out with Stargirl, the school shuns her. And while Leo and Stargirl are in their own private first-love dream bubble, everyone else is ramping up their intolerance, going so far as to blame Stargirl for their basketball team’s ultimate loss. Ultimately, the entire school freezes out the new couple.
In the dark moment of the novel, Leo loses his nerve and asks Stargirl to conform, to be like everyone else. He coaches her on the art of being ordinary and Stargirl—slipping back into her real name, Susan—acquiesces. Leo believes this will win over their high school’s favour, and Stargirl believes it will win over Leo; but of course, it doesn’t work.
The moment of resurgence occurs when Susan transforms back into Stargirl, and pulls off one last magic act: at the high school’s Ocotillo Ball, she captivates in an outrageous and beautiful costume, and charms everyone into dancing in one long, connected conga line off the dance floor, into the desert, and back again. The next morning she is simply gone, and Leo never sees her again, learning only later that her family has moved away.
The climax is bittersweet: Leo loses the girl, but it was never really just a love story. It’s a story about learning how to be oneself—whether that is quiet and introspective or luminescent and unencumbered—no matter what others think. Stargirl is free and though Leo loves her and loses her, once he meets her, he can never settle for less than being free himself in his own way.
A simple story structure driven by compelling characterization
While Stargirl’s structure is simple and straightforward, because it’s YA (and some might consider it Middle Grade), this works just fine. We don’t particularly need subplots or B-stories or great complexity because the character of Stargirl herself is so compelling, so glowingly fresh and well-drawn, we are charmed into turning each page. Spinelli himself pulls off a kind of magic trick by rendering this unique character with such precise, authentic feeling that it all comes together beautifully. The film adaptation achieves the same effect, casting ingenue Grace VanderWaal to captivate us all as the perfect incarnation of this unforgettable character, the brilliant, elusive Stargirl.
Katie's first collection of short stories, titled Equipoise, was shortlisted for the 2018 HarperCollins | UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. She is the recipient of a 2019 and 2021 Canada Council for the Arts award, the Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction award, and was publisher-nominated for a Journey Prize as well as two National Magazine Awards in fiction. Katie is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and has worked on PRISM International’s editorial board. As a manuscript editor, she enjoys working with character, theme, and imagery.