“Story Structure — Demystified” is live.
I’m excited to announce the publication of my new ebook. The preliminary reader response has been nothing short of astounding, and humbling. Even for me. Here’s just one of them:
“I’ve purchased and read at least ten books since last spring on writing and I’ve found nothing yet that explains story structure like this e-book. If you’re a newbie, like me, and you want to learn more about how to put your story together, I recommend this e-book. It’s energized my creativity and it is giving me more confidence in what I’m writing. I think it will greatly decrease the number of re-writes I’ll need to do as well. I like that!” (attribution available upon request)
If you ordered a pre-release beta copy and would like the updated (sans typos) published version, send me the Paypal address you used and I’ll forward you the new version. With my thanks.
What follows below is the first chapter of the book.
It stands alone as a perspective on story structure and why you need it, and is valuable as a reinforcing reminder that this is absolutely essential stuff. At least if you want to publish your work or sell your screenplay. Hopefully both.
If you want to read more about the book itself, click HERE for a look at the sales page (you can order from there, as well).
If you know you want this stuff and would like to order now, click HERE. It sells for $14.95, and if you don’ think it’s worth every nickle, even in comparison to the best books on writing you’ve ever read, I’ll happily send all those nickels back to you.
Chapter 1: Why You Need to Break the Writing Process Down… into Structure
I think all teachings about writing are good. Wonderful, in fact. Taken as a whole, the body of knowledge kicking around out there is astounding, and because there are so many views on so many of the variables that comprise the creative writing process, in the end the writer gets to decide what works for them and what doesn’t.
I’ve discovered there’s a wide breadth of preferences on that particular issue. Especially on the issue of story structure.
Unlike screenwriting, there are no strict rules when it comes to writing novels. Especially if you don’t like the sound of the word rules. But there are expectations and proven techniques that are accepted as fundamental principles, and if you want to publish your novel you will honor them.
Or at least you’ll learn to honor them when enough rejection slips collect in that desk drawer you rarely open because, like opening your 401K statement, it makes you nauseous.
Breaking Down the Fiction Writing Process
Next time you go to a writing workshop, notice how the topics on the agenda break down into bite-size segments, each of which gets the once-over from someone you’ve never heard of – famous writers hardly ever give writing workshops – who is nonetheless worthy of dishing it. Titles like: How to add tension to your stories. How to impress an agent. Writing better titles. Fun with sentence structure. Tips for better dialogue. Writing juicy sex scenes. How to be more creative.
Lots of little buckets of information, all valid. What’s lacking at most conferences, though, as well as on the bookshelves, is an understanding of what happens when you pour the contents of those buckets into the same vessel – your manuscript.
Because how those elements relate and interact, how they balance and empower each other, is the key to writing a great story. And unless you look at the issue of melding them, in addition to understanding them as stand alone skills, you’re on your own to put them together.
Putting them together is the primary objective of this book.
Wrapping Your Head Around the Big Picture
I often open my workshops by asking the writers in attendance to define story using only one word. There are usually five to ten nominations, all just fine and dandy, and usually someone nails the one I am going for, the one that defines the essence of a story, because without it the story doesn’t exist.
The word is conflict. No conflict, no story.
But inherent to the notion of conflict is the architecture of how it is handled within the narrative. And that’s where structure comes into play. No structure, no story, either. Because story is what turns conflict into dramatic tension, without which, again, you have no story. It’s the full circle truth.
This is just a slice of the Big Picture approach you need to embrace before you can write a successful story. You can be the best writer of sentences on the planet, but if you don’t understand story and the structure that makes it work, you’ll have to settle for love letters and poetry. You can have killer ideas and craft characters that Meryl Streep would pay you to take on in the movie version, but there will be no movie version until you give that character a story to tell, one with structure.
In fact, once you do understand structure and the inherent potential of story architecture (which is the draping of structure with concept, character and theme, told through effective scenes; see page 110), your sentences don’t have to be poetic at all.
They don’t even have to be much more than merely coherent.
Because in today’s publishing world, story is everything.
Narrative voice is just, well, nice when it happens. But it’s not what they’re looking for. Not remotely. They’re looking for great stories, well told, with solid structure at their heart.
Rarely is this Big Picture approach to writing stories addressed. I haven’t seen a writing workshop yet that offers an initial exploration of what “story” even is. (You’d be shocked and dismayed at how many experienced writers aren’t able to articulate or implement an understanding of “story.”) It sounds too entry-level, too basic. Not something you can teach in an afternoon within the confines of a hotel conference center.
They assume everybody with an admission ticket has that one nailed. And everybody doesn’t. In fact, as someone who reads and coaches unpublished manuscripts for a living, I can tell you that the most common shortcoming of unpublished writing is, in fact, a lack of a solid grasp of storytelling.
Which means — if that’s you — as you listen to the breakout session at the next writing conference on How to Write a Better Sex Scene, you’ll do so without the essential context of the Big Picture. You’ll get something out of it, sure, but too often you’re not sure what to do with it. If you take that workshop but still don’t know how to write a story, at best you’ll end up with a broken novel or screenplay that has a great sex scene in it.
It’s like trying to build a car from scratch and taking a seminar on how to repair your brakes, when you’re not sure how the brake system interfaces with the brake pedal, or even why the brakes are necessary at all.
Do you need to master the separate parts in order to master the Big Picture of storytelling?
Absolutely yes. Do you need to understand how the parts relate to each other? Of course you do. Do you need to wrap your head around how to make the collective gathering of those parts into something beautiful, a whole in excess the sum of the parts? Well, that’s the idea, isn’t it.
But that workshop isn’t out there.
Neither is the book. Not really, at least for novelists. I’ve talked to students that after three decades of reading how-to books and going to workshops, their vision of that “collective whole” is still eluding them. I read those hopeful manuscripts and realize that certain basic engine parts are missing, or if they’re present they’re in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.
Which translates to: the writer doesn’t understand story structure.
The overwhelmingly common trait among unpublished manuscripts is the lack of big picture context that disempowers a relationship between the essential narrative parts. This results in bland ideas with great characters. Characters rendered one dimensionally. Clever stories with no tangible theme, or stories with too many themes watered down to vagueness. Stories told without dramatic tension and pace. Out of whack scenes. Riddled with wrong notes. The complete and utter absence of stakes. Pedestrian writing.
Any one of these can kill your story.
That’s precisely why most novels and screenplays don’t get sold, despite perhaps being technically sound. Because it’s art, and art cannot be quantified or reduced to a template.
Story structure is not a template. It’s a set of principles that translate into sequential guidelines and criteria-driven content.