Or maybe just pissed off at it.
I’d like to share an exchange I recently had with a Storyfix reader. I think it speaks for a silent constituency out there, those to fall into either of the categories defined above.
But don’t be scared. Don’t be angry. Structure loves you. Structure wants to liberate you from frustration, it promises to set you free. It might just get you published. When you marry it to your muse and embrace it with your inner literary genius, miracles ensue.
Because you see, structure is inevitable. You can’t escape it. It’s not even a story until structure gets in the game. Even when you think you’ve eluded it, perhaps conquered it through the sheer force of your lyric writing voice, after you’re beaten your story into submission with a deliberate obliviousness to it… when the story finally works, structure will be there. Uninvited, silently liberating your frustrated self.
It will be why it works.
Because story structure is synomymous with effective storytelling. Structure is the vehicle for all things artistic about a story: dramatic tension, pace, empathy for the hero, a vicarious experience, and emotional Epiphany, a window into truth. They are all born on the wings of structure.
I just read your latest blog installment and the comments left by those that “get it”. I am left wondering what the hell is wrong with me? I purchased your book, Story Structure – Demystified when it came out and everytime I read it I just become overwhelmed and I don’t understand why. I actually have physical symptoms of the shoulders creeping up to my neck until cramping starts, a sheer sign of that nasty “s” word, stress, and it is curtains from there.
I have what I think is a decent story but I can’t figure out how to make it structured the way you’ve written. I have tried bite sized pieces and still I sit with a blinking cursor and blankity, blank curse words stomping around in my head because I’m stuck at go. Obviously your book works, there are too many successful testimonials to attest to this fact. Soooooo…that means it’s gotta be me. I’m so irked with whatever is keeping me from getting the meat of the lesson. I’m not an idiot so that makes this even harder to swallow. Can you help?
Sincerely, Scared in Sarasota.
I feel your pain. This is challenging stuff. so be patient with yourself, nobody totally gets it at first. Here are some thoughts that might bring you closer to getting it.
Structure defins and manages the dramatic arc of your story. Something you absolutely need. You don’t have to make it up, it’s already there, as a theory, as a sequence, waiting to make your story better. You don’t even have to fully understand it — though you’ll want to when you see what it does for you — you just have to apply it.
Structure gives sequence and placement to the PRIMARY CONFLICT and HERO’S QUEST in a story. It’s a time management tool, making sure that your exposition of these things isn’t too fast, too slow or otherwise off topic. These are things that, ultimately, at some point in your search for story, you absolutely need to know about. When you do, it is structure that defines pacing through specific milestones, which are points at which the story changes in a certain contextual direction, for a certain reason. That reason being… it works better this way.
It’s physics. And like other kinds of physics, these principles are there to be harnessed for good.
Here’s what might be going on for you.
If you are focusing elsewhere in your storytelling (setting, character, theme, true facts), then this can lead to weak or nearly absent dramatic tension (plot), favoring episodic vignettes instead. Episodic scenes are a virus in a story, they’ll kill it if they take it over. A story without linear, accellerating tension driving forward motion and exposition is a story that won’t be as good as it could be. A story that won’t make the cut.
Instead, try to isolate what your story is about, OTHER THAN character and theme and a cool setting. Make it about something unfolding, emerging, and finally revolving. Avoid episodic storytelling by sequencing scenes and story points as parts of a whole that LEAD somewhere, rather than simply EXPLORING something (like a character, a place, a time, or an issue).
Start here at the very root of it all: a story is about a hero who is given a problem, a need, sent on a quest, with a goal at the end of it. There are stakes at hand. There is opposition to the hero’s intentions. We care about this hero, about this outcome, because we can relate to the stakes. This is what makes a story work. An effective story asks a dramatic question that demands an answer, rather than painting a freeze frame of an isolated… something.
Writers who don’t see this, or agree with this… they struggle. Their stories become a focus on a thing, a time, a place. They are about something… when it would be better served to be about something happening. The solving of the hero’s dilemna or problem. The reaching of the hero’s goal. Not merely a tour of the times.
When Dickens said “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he was setting a stage upon which to introduce a cast of characters with needs and goals, not telling you what the story was about.
Try this focus on dramatic tension. Strip your story down to its essence in terms of CONFLICT and OUTCOME, and then see how much more powerful your themes — the “things” you care about and want to explore in your story — become. The part of structure that intimidates is just the vernacular and the rhetoric of it, when in fact structure is the essentials physics of storytelling, the very things you seek in the first place.
And it is a language, a template, that can be learned.
Once you do, you’ll see it everywhere. in every bestseller, in every good film. You’ll wonder why you never saw it before, and you’ll be certain, once you connect its presence to the effectiveness of these stories, you won’t ever take it for granted again.
Hope this helps.
Hope it helps you, too.