Category Archives: Story Structure Series

Epiphany: The Bottom Line, Revealed

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been in a street fight for the last 30 months.

Pantsers vs. Planners.  Jets vs. Sharks.  Right vs. left.  Good vs. Evil.

You would not believe — I’ve only shared a sliver of it — the vitriolic venom sent my way when I’ve suggested that there exists an underlying, matrix-like set of structural principles and aesthetic sensibilities that, like the Gods looking down from Olympus through their enchanted reading glasses, determine the fate (readability, publishability) of our stories.

I’ve been misunderstood.  And indeed, I’ve been guitly of misunderstanding.  And… I’ve been overwhelmingly reinforced by a small army of writers who get it.

My position has… softened.  I’ve realized that the “fight” isn’t what I thought it was.  That there is significant gray imbued in all of this discussion about the writing process.

But there is no gray at all in the truth about what makes a story tick, and the precision of that truth.  We don’t get to define, or reinvent, the word “tick” in this context.  Not if you intend to throw your story out there with the intention of finding an audience.

I think I stumbled up on it.  I wrote it in my post of two days ago.  One sentence.  Not planned, but totally pantsed in the throes of writing that post.  Here it is again, slightly paraphrased for even further clarity.  It bears repeating. 

It warrants posting on your computer, maybe tattooing onto your body if you’re still confused:

Write your story however you need to write it, process-wise.  But don’t turn a blind eye to what’s true about the story itself, however you get there.  About what the story demands from you before it will work.

That’s non-negotiable.

Which means that, at the end of the day, planners and pantsers are two names for the very same pursuit.  Same game, different paths and styles.  But there is only one finish line.

So I’ll stop the divisive ratta-ratta if you will.

Like many Epiphanies, the problem is simplied when clarified.  And the polarization vanishes like smoke blown away in a relieved sigh of recognition.

I still have strong opinions about the creative process. 

You can build a castle with a blueprint and a forklift, or you can built it one handful of sand at a time.  The latter may be more romantic, it may be the only way you can wrap your head around it, but that doesn’t change the above Epiphany.

I still beleive that the more one understands those principles and criteria, the more the writer will be prone to plan, or at least realize the “search for story”  in real-time, rather than continue to just write with blind trust that there is some muse sitting on that Olympus cloud that will show you the path.  Or at least how your story will end.

Either way, though, the truth is clear.   Only the path remains shrouded in an intoxicating mist.

If you’d like to learn more about the principles and criteria mentioned in this post, CLICK HERE.  My little Epiphany changes nothing that I’ve written in that text. Or dive into the roughly 300 other posts on this website that scrutinize and contextualize them.

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A Guest Post About Story Structure

But first… an Intro by Your Host

Here’s a confession.  I have mixed emotions about posting this article.  Not because it’s in any way unworthy.  It’s good.  Ultimately, that’s why it’s here.

But it reads a bit like a sales letter for one of my ebooks.  That makes me slightly uncomfortable, because  I don’t want appear overly self-promoting (I’ll leave that to the sidebars). 

So hear this: the article came in unsolicited, and like I said, it’s good.

In addition to its fresh voice, it’s good because it reflects an experience most of us who write stories have, sooner or later.  We get stuck in our own belief systems.  Our chosen process, which is often less than a fully informed choice.

Then we find something that helps get us unstuck.  This post might just might be that thing.

So if you prefer, every time the author references me or my ebook, just substitute “the principles of story structure.”  That’ll get you to the point the author and I both have in mind.

Huge thanks for Linda for sharing her experience.  If you’ve had a similar journey toward the discovery of story structure, or any of the other liberating principles of both process and its end-product, I invite you to share it here.

PS – you’ll notice that my sensitivity to self-promotion didn’t stop me from linking her references to the ebook.  One reason: it’ll help you, just as it did her.

Structural Difficulties

A Guest Post by Linda Yezak

Ever have a devil of a time getting a stalled story to kick in again?

No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to breathe life into it. I sympathize. I was ready to hit delete on one of my favorite manuscripts because I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it.

That’s when I remembered Story Structure–Demystified, by Larry Brooks.

I had begun Act I of The Cat Lady’s Secret perfectly, introducing most of the major characters and identifying their goals and the things they hold most dear. For my main character Emily, a woman who thrives on charitable giving, anonymity is vital, and I explained why in a sequence of scenes designed to rip at the hearts of the readers.

As I traveled along in the first act, I tossed in a few obstacles for Emily to stumble over–the home of friends being burned to the ground, a suddenly-empty bank account rendering her unable to help–then mistakenly believed I had established the first plot point. I was ready to drive my story sedan into Act II.

But the car stalled.

The conflicts I had presented were too easily settled, too easily side-stepped to challenge my main character and send her on a course to defend what she cherishes against a persistent foe. If the problems can be quickly solved, where’s the story?

I took forever trying to figure out how to get my stalled vehicle running again. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Nothing I tried worked.

Finally, after coming inches away from giving up, I realized the problem was structural. I yanked out my tool box and tweaked, tightened, and oiled until the motor sputtered to life. Then, I jumped behind the wheel, stepped on the gas . . . and smashed into a wall.

Realizing a road block is structural and knowing what to do about it are two different things.

That’s where Larry came in. His ebook showed me how to avoid the roadblock by identifyng the inciting incident (which can and very often does coincide with the first plot point) in my manuscript. Don’t get me wrong–I knew the definition of “plot points,” but the way Larry explained the FPP managed to reach through the fog created by constantly pounding my head for answers.

He asked these questions:

Does it appear in the right place?

Does it define and shift the need and quest of the hero from that point forward?

Does it create and clarify stakes?

Does it imply consequences that will stem from both the hero’s success and failure?

Does it create a sudden risk and opposition?

For both obstacles I’d set before Emily — the fire and the feeble bank account – the only “yes” answer was to the first question.

But further in the manuscript, deep into what I had thought was Act II, came a threat to Emily’s anonymity. A journalist hunts her true identity, scrambling for info, digging into county records. Publishing what he finds.

I ran the first incident with the journalist through Larry’s list, and lo-and-behold, it hit on all but the first–unless my cute little Chic-Lit novel is going to be 120,000 words.

After the journalist’s introduction should come a period of carelessness on Emily’s part, of her denying his ability to find her. Next would come a period of staying low to avoid detection. Finally, determination and confrontation and a battle royale to maintain her privacy.

That’s what should come next, but it doesn’t. Because I never properly identified my first plot point. I’m still smacking my head for not seeing it months ago.

I’m thirty thousand words into my manuscript. I submitted the required first fifteen pages to a nationwide writers’ competition and landed a spot among the finalists–something I discovered this past May. Plenty of time to finish the novel. But when I go to the conference in a few weeks, I won’t have a completed product to pitch because the novel wasn’t structurally sound enough to continue working on it. It soon will be, but not by conference time.

Never underestimate the value of solid structure. And don’t assume that just because you write “cute little Chick-Lit” stories (if you do) that you don’t need structure. Even romance needs conflict. Even comedy needs antagonists. And even seat-of-the-pants writers like me need a good grasp of story structure to be successful novelists.

Texas native Linda Yezak writes romantic comedy, and her first novel, Give the Lady a Ride, will debut in 2011. Linda holds a degree in English and teaches an adult creative writing class. She also speaks for various writers’ groups, works as a freelance editor, and is an editor for Port Yonder Press, a traditional publishing house catering to family-friendly novelists, poets, and non-fiction authors. Those interested can contact her through her blog, AuthorCulture, or through Port Yonder Press.

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