Category Archives: Write better (tips and techniques)

The Non-Structural Language of Story

Or… How To Get Your Story Written Efficiently and Effectively, Even If Structure Is Not Your Thing.

Or maybe… Stop Worrying and Just String Some Pearls Together.

Wherein I borrow cutting edge content from frequent Storyfix contributor Art Holcomb (visit his website, as well as the article linked later in this post).  He and I agree there is a gap in the understanding of how and where structure fits into the creative process, even among experienced professionals, and today’s post offers a fresh point of view on the subject. 

Art trains both professional and amateur screenwriters, and has been doing so for the past 25 years, teaching and lecturing all over the world (in fact, just this week he just returned from lecturing in Italy).  His goal relative to structure – something he and I share a passion for – is to smooth and empower the transition from what writers see in their mind onto paper, and do it quickly and with brilliance.  This is one of the fundamentals of his teaching method, and it is massively relevant to what we do as novelists.

Or, perhaps more aptly stated… how we do what we do as novelists.

Contrary to recent popular rumor, story does not trump structure. That’s like saying food trumps water.  But structure isn’t obvious to some, even when it should be, and it isn’t important to others, when it absolutely should be.

This was a dangerous headline, because unless you read the sub-heads as well (somewhere out there is a study that says X percent of readers never see the subhead) you might think I’m implying that structure is not necessary to the development of a story.

That implication could not be further from the truth.

But another truth is this: some writers simply don’t like the word “structure” and what it implies and means.  They find it less than artful, antithetical to being creative, even downright offensive.  Some don’t understand it.  Others view it as formulaic, and thus, they reject it…

… until they don’t.  And even then, they may hesitate to admit using it.

It is tempting to say that structure is always part of the writing process…

… which some writers (those same “some” writers from that prior paragraph) might construe as an intention to say that structure IS the process.

We could bat that one around all day, but here is what is unassailably true: structure is always a part of the result of the story planning and writing process… when that process works.

Which, in turn, means that it doesn’t always have to be the driving context of story development. 

Every successful pantsing drafter on the planet can attest to this: they don’t give structure much thought (if any) as they begin to write, preferring to go with the flow and lose themselves in a sequence of random and unburdened imaginings that seem to be driving the whole show… they like to believe that all they’re doing is just writing it down.

That last part is not true, by the way, but that’s another debate altogether.

Thing is, when that process works for a pantser – including authors who are famous and love to talk about their process in interviews, of which there are many – there is a hidden truth behind it, a sort of dirty little secret about structure that never seems to make it into the interview.

And that is… they already understand structure.  They already think structurally.  And not only that, they actually believe in structure, just not as part of their initial story development process.

For them, it’s simply there from square one.   Like a hockey player who learned to skate in grade school, they don’t spend a second thinking about skating — the essential fundamental of their game — once the puck drops.  The story pours from their head onto the page in a way that is naturally in close alignment with the principles of structure, quietly and unacknowledged to their pantsing peers, which in their heart of hearts (if not their interviews) they know are required before the story will work.

All writers, no matter how they claim to develop a story, share a common goal. 

They must first search for and find their best story, before they can actually engage with developing it to any degree.  This includes knowing how your story will end, and how the dramatic arc plays out across several key story turns toward that ending (in essence, setting it up), and how all of it (including structure) drives character development and arc.

Again, some folks conduct this story-search using drafts , others through some form of fluid sequencing (flowcharts, three-by-five cards, yellow sticky notes, etc.) that leads to an outline, or at least to a post-search draft that is fully informed.  The process doesn’t really matter, because…

… (this being important enough to warrant its own paragraph, and these italics) the criteria for an effective story are the same no matter how you go about writing it.

That said… even when a writer reluctantly accepts that structure is a criteria for their story, if not the focus of their process, they may struggle with how to go about finding it.

Which is, by any other name, their process.

The search for story is not the same as the search for structure

Every story is unique and different, and thus the search process has no users manual.  But structure… that’s a different thing altogether, because structure is not different for every story.  In fact, when viewed as a generic model, it is nearly identical in every modern successful commercial story, and it goes like this:

Hook… setup… story ignition from that setup… response and envelopment… a midpoint twist or reveal… the hero proactively engages and confronts as the antagonist ups its game… another reveal… the hero becomes a primary catalyst in the resolution of it all… the end.

So let’s put the word STRUCTURE aside for a moment…

… and ask how we might develop a story without that nasty three-act/four-part monster sucking all the air out of the writing room.

There’s another thought-model – the one that Art has put to words – that appeals to writers who prefer to address structure later in the process, allowing their unfettered creativity to go wild in the early story development phase… which is also the story search phase.

There are many types of first sparks of energy when a story initially announces itself to a writer.  It can be a character, a notion or concept, a place, a thematic passion, a real-life event… none are better than another.  From there, the astute writer (don’t take this one for granted) understands that one should not latch onto that first spark and simply begin writing … because – that astute writer understands – you don’t have a story yet.

In other words… an idea is not a story.  Yet.

Right here is where the crowd divides (those who get it on one side, those who don’t on the other, wondering what went wrong…), become some writers – too many writers with honorable intentions – don’t really understand what a story is, what those criteria will be that ultimately will measure its effectiveness.  And so they begin writing the story armed with nothing more than that initial idea… which is like trying to hike Everest with a back pack and a bottle of Perrier.

So what is better than an idea?  Art Holcomb has the answer.

A story process can begin with a single scene.

One of the more common and rich starting points, from whatever spark might land in your imagination, is the visualization of a scene.  Very quickly you can see this whole scene in your head, you have a place for it, a player within it (often your first inspiration for your protagonist), and some notion of what happens.

You might even write this scene, fully and with the intention of using it, before you know anything else about the story.  Which is fine, provided you know where you are – and aren’t – in the process… and ultimately, within the structure.

But again, set that last one aside for now, criteria-wise.

This is cause for celebration, because this initial scene might be the beginning of something big.  Something that doesn’t care what or where your first plot point is, or how you are going to pull the rug out at the midpoint, or even where the scene goes, period.

All that stuff comes later… for now, you have a scene that you’d pay big money to see on the silver screen, after it appears in the bestselling novel that features it and your name on the cover.

So now what?

When you ask that question in the context of your writing process, doors fly wide open before you.

Intuitively, two questions await your attention. 

First, ask yourself what happens right before this initial scene that has you salivating for more?  And then, what happens after it?

In both cases you can quickly and intuitively expand the scope of those questions, from what happens right before/after your scene, to what happens at some point before/after your scene.

Because your beloved cornerstone scene, the one that ignites from that first spark of story inspiration, probably is not the opening scene in your story.

From this simple model, now begin imagining other scenes. 

Go crazy, don’t worry about anything that smacks of structure (at least for now, that awaits down the road, and when it does it won’t be an imposition, but rather, it will be the glow-in-the-dark finishing catalyst that will take you to Hollywood).  For now just come up with more scenes, doing it organically.  Sting a story together.  Go for stuff you’d like to see, and need to see, somewhere next to that opening scene that rocked your world.

Yes, this is story planning, but if you leave the notion of structure out of it, some pantsers put down their weapons and join the fun.

Before long an amazing thing will happen.  You will begin to thirst for, if not engage with, a sense of context for the scenes you have.  A purpose for them.  And not long after that, you will sense where in the story any of these scenes might – should – reside.

And here’s a little secret… don’t tell your structure-loathing friends: context is good.  It is always necessary.  And context is… wait for it… nothing other than structure itself.

Think of these random scenes as pearls of inspiration. 

When you are designing a necklace, you don’t give much thought as to which pearls go where.  But with storytelling, you can’t help but address that issue, which is preceded by having a bunch of pearls waiting on the table.  And yet, at the end of the day, your story is nothing if not the stringing together of a bunch of scenes, and the more sense that sequence makes, the better.

Your innate story sensibility – even if you are new at this – may begin to put those scenes into some kind of order.

And dare I say, if you become unsure, or stuck, there is a tool waiting to help out… and that is the accepted and proven story structure (three-act/four-part) paradigm itself.  Not necessarily as your starting place (though it remains an excellent starting place), but as either a get-past-the-sticking-point assist, or even the golden finishing touch.

My buddy Art Holcomb, who is a Hollywood screenwriting heavyweight, wrote about this much better than I just have, in an article for  Check it out, see if this appeals to your sense of whimsy, or just your structure-phobic self.

Let’s be clear… structure is inevitable, and it’s never something you can simply make up as you go (definition of hubris: “Gee, my story is so unique I have to make up a brand new form of structure for it.”).  Structure, the kind that renders stories effective and powerful, awaits.  But it doesn’t care how you come to it, and it is forgiving in its willingness to take your story where it needs to be.

It’s like a full can of gas waiting in the trunk, in case you find yourself lost with no lights on the horizon.

Until then, let the sparks fly and the pearls appear. 

Sting them together, have fun with no borders or rules – really go for it, give us something we’ve never seen before.  And then, when the time is right within your process, your inner storyteller and that generic structure chart you aren’t fond of staring at will combine to bring it all to life on the page.

And you will smile when you remember… it all began with a single pearl.


My new writing book, “Story Fix: Transforming Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant,” is available now as a Kindle edition on  The trade paperback releases in a few more weeks… check back here or on Amazon if that’s your preferred format. 


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

The Irrefutable Algebra of Story

Don’t be scared off by the implication of forthcoming mathematics.  

I know, writers aren’t known for their affection for numbers, but I promise you this particular story problem will be right up your alley.

This post is inspired by a recent story coaching client who answered this question — What is the core dramatic arc of your story? — with this response: My story is about a woman seeking to discover her roots to find out who she really is.

This answer, almost to a word, is very common. It is also, as a story development metric, almost completely worthless.

That said… it may be fine (too often it isn’t) if the context is a cocktail party or passing an acquaintance on the street, or as the first line of a premise that goes on to offer more.  And it’ll look great on the back cover of a trade paperback.  But as a window into the story itself, its source of drama and action and character arc… as a test of the writer’s awareness of what a story actually requires… as something that really answers the question about dramatic arc… this all-too-familiar answer falls far short.

It is missing the dramatic heart and soul of the story itself.

But as a pitch — this being germane because an agent will almost certainly ask you this question in some form or another — this answer is a disaster, with a one hundred percent certainty that the agent or editor sitting across for you (or on the receiving end of your email) will ask you what the hell that even means… by asking you to describe what happens in the story.

Which you haven’t accomplished with the answer you’ve given.  Dramatic arc is what happens… which means you’ve just outed yourself as being new and uninformed.

Actually, that’s not accurate… make that less then 100 percent, because some agents will trash your pitch based on such an answer alone.

Because, you see, “finding out who she is” is an outcome.  

It is a goal, something the hero pursues.  It is a dependent consequence of what the hero actually does to reach that goal, but without telling us what that might be.  Drama doesn’t reside in the outcome, it is found on the path that leads to an outcome.

Such an answer is more an idea, an intention, than a workable story.  It’s like saying you want to be rich… worthless without a plan.  It is the kind of thing that occurs to a writer in the first minute of awareness of the story idea, rather than an outcome of weeks and months of cultivating what you might do with such an idea.

Too often it indicates that you don’t really know what to do with your idea.

When that agent asks for more detail, you better have a meaningful answer at the ready.  Which, if your original answer is any clue, you probably don’t.

Let’s look at this in algebraic terms.

This isn’t an equation, nor is it a formula.  Rather, is is a universal calculation and construct of fiction, a postulation that applies to and empowers any story in any genre.

Let’s call your hero X.  Then let’s call your story resolution, that outcome you are in love with, Z.   Which too often leads only to this: “In my story, X pursues Z.”

Again, that answer is a terrible, fatal way to pitch your story.  Because…

Do you notice something missing?

Let’s hope you do.  It’s not math, in this context, this is first grade English — we’re missing a Y component, because the fuller, better, more professional sequence is X, Y and then Z.

X deals with, encounters and confronts Y… to reach Z.   The math is that simple.

Let me say, before I go any further, that this broken hypothesis — X pursues Z — has caused more rejections than you can imagine, because when the attention turns from pitch to manuscript too often an author who would indeed pitch it without the Y element would also write it without a full and properly formed Y element.

Which is a deal killer each and every time.  X and Z are easy… it’s Y that separates the dreamers from the doers.

Because Y is what the story is all about.  

Y is the dramatic arc of a story.

Let me repeat that.  It’s not X, the hero… not Z, the outcome… the dramatic arc of the story is Y.

Y is the narrative itself.  Y is where the scenes are.  Y is where conflict comes in.  Y is action and decision leading to further action and decision.  Y is the stuff of story sequence and structure.  Y is the catalyst for character arc.  Y is the vessel for the conceptual essence of the story. Y is what the reader engages with, roots for, empathizes with and relates to.

Y is the path that leads to Z.

And yet, too many new writers leave it out completely when pitching their story.  

Which is a sure bet they don’t understand the value of the Y component in their story.  It’s like pitching The Hunger Games like this: My story is about a girl who must overcome a dystopian society ruled by a cruel President.

Tell me that doesn’t completely leave out the entire heart and soul of that story.  It’s not wrong, per se, merely incomplete in a way th at renders it ineffective.  But what is does do is demonstrate the lack of a nuanced understanding on the part of the author, who hasn’t demonstrated that they know what makes a story tick.

Agents and editors have an ear for that, just as much as they are listening for the story itself.

Here’s the real algebra of a story that works:  

The hero (X)… must engage with, confront, battle, navigate, outwit, outplay, overcome or defeat an antagonist (all this comprising Y)… in order for a specified outcome (Z), which is the hero’s goal, to manifest within the story.

It boils down to this.  Feel free to print this out and tape it to your monitor:

A story is not just about something.  Not just, or primarily, about a character, a setting, a theme, an issue, a piece of history, or an ending.

Rather, a story is about WHAT HAPPENS to reach whatever conclusion serves the natural outcome of scenes that depict conflict stemming from a hero with a goal and an antagonist that opposes that goal.

Some writers read those two sentences and can’t see the difference.  Those writers are in for a long haul, because the second sentence is where the gold is.  It is what professionals know and they don’t.

That second sentence is the key to everything.

Wrap your head around this at both the contextual and narrative level, and you will have, merely by doing so, risen into the top quartile of unpublished writers striving to lose that tag.

Our friend Art Holcomb (check out his blog) has supplied us with an illuminating video and short article on “The Power of Storytelling,” where this math will be obvious.


If you’re interested in seeing how you’d do – which means, seeing where you are on the story learning curve – with one of those Coaching Questionnaires, see the menu to the left, or click HERE for more information.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)