Category Archives: Write better (tips and techniques)

The “Why?” Behind the Inevitability of Story Structure

I love a good challenge.  

Almost as much as I disdain a misunderstood debate, the kind in which one party can’t get outside of themselves long enough to see that they’re already arguing for the opposition.

Last year I did a post for the Writers Digest website, explaining why (my opinion) “just write” is among the most dangerous soundbytes of writing advice ever uttered.  It’s like telling someone about to on trial without a lawyer (an apropos analogy to trying to write a story without knowing how to write a novel) to skip law school and “just talk.”  One reader commented in response that, because after years of practice some writers can indeed “just write” and be successful… I thank her for helping make my point.

There is a huge, hard-won backlog of knowledge and principle that makes anything that can otherwise be “made up as you go along” functional, if not downright fatal.

“Just do it” can get you killed, and it can kill your story, as well.  

In that context, I’ve yet to encounter a writer who can disprove the existence or need for a largely given structure – the order and context for how a story should flow – for the rendering of long form storytelling.

Even the most famous names in the vast pantheon of pantsers, wailing their outrage at the suggestion that certain things within a well-told story tend to happen in a certain order – Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, some dude who wrote a book called Story Trumps Structure, and countless thousands of unpublished authors who don’t want to lean in toward doing something the seems to dictate order in what they hoped would become the transcription of a muse, or worse, a character actually speaking directly to them…

… they all end up doing it.  Executing structure in their own stories, or proving its necessity via the failure to find an agent or a publisher (or, in the new low-bar world of the self-published, readers themselves).

Stephen King’s and Diana Gabaldon’s stories aren’t successful because they are pantsers.  They are successful because, at the end of the day their stories do demonstrate structure, as predictable and aligned as those of the most ardent and vocal advocates of structure (James Scott Bell, for example).

In a good story, the reader will have no idea, none at all, whether the author planned or pantsed, or believes in story structure or not. Because if the story works, structure will be there, and in a form that aligns with the universal principles that explain how and why they work.

A closer look reveals the so-called debate isn’t that at all.  

Because those who decry structure as either limiting, evil, low-rent or some sort of imitation of authentic storytelling… they are actually talking about their preference for a certain story development process.  One that allows free-form thinking prior to the application of structural principles and optimization, in contrast to others (and there are just as many successful names here, as well) who create from same those principles.

Structure is not how you write a story.  Go about it any way that works for you, and call it whatever you’d like.

Rather, structure is what makes the thing work, when it finally does work.

Because when it does finally work – however you got there, via a one-draft manuscript-from-an-outline or 22 pantsed drafts written in the blood of your first born – it will have structure across the arc of the narrative.

Structure is precisely what the panster is looking for along the way.

Don’t take my word for it.  See what a so-called “artist” has to say on this topic.

A writer on TheAtlantic.com takes a fuzzy swing at bringing clarity to this discussion, and you may feel as I did that he succeeds only in muddying the water itself with his own hope that structure is after all a cheap date with shallowness that is dashed upon the realization that it turns out, also after all, to be the glorious manifestation of universal truth and physics.

Give it a read.

And then come back here… because he throws down a challenge that I hereby accept.

He claims that across the vast oeuvre of writing how-to, “nobody” has addressed the question, relative to structure… of why?

To which I say… oh contrare.

I am that “nobody.”

I guess this guy hasn’t read any of my three writing books – all of which have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in one or more of the many writing niche categories – or visited us here on Storyfix.com.  He even, in his own reluctant resolution that structure is a non-negotiable given – again, it’s not a process, it is the target and the desired outcome of any process that works – with the use of a word that I believe I was the first to apply to this craft, in this context: story physics (the title of my second writing book).

You want why?  I’ll tell you why.

Before a story will work – any story in any genre – a reader needs to feel some sense of curiosity and empathy for a protagonist.  That’s the primary mission and function of the Part 1 quartile chapters or scenes (in a novel or a screenplay)… this is where the story is setup in both character and dramatic contexts.

Both of those contexts are necessary for a story to work.  That, too, explains  the presence of a largely universal structural paradigm, because that framework accommodates and optimizes both.  It’s a tall order, which is why attempting to fill it without a solid handle on structure – something the nay-sayers seem to be suggesting – is like trying to develop a medicine without any training or notions about biochemistry.

A story that is simply a static immersion into a time and/or a place, a narrative 3-D postcard that dives deeply into geography and architecture as deeply as it does the backstories and physchological depths of the characters who are simply sitting there walking around among it all… that’s a story that doesn’t work.

I’ve met way more people people who couldn’t finish a Jonathan Franzan novel than those who could.

A story doesn’t work until something dramatic is proposed.  

A good story isn’t just about something – a time or a place or a culture or an issue or a theme – with the primary purpose of putting the reader inside of it all.  That’s journalism, not fiction.  That’s MFA stuff, and it doesn’t get published (ask an MFA grad, you’ll see).

Rather… a good story is about something HAPPENING within the context and framework of such a vividly-drawn story landscape.

When what is happening is up for grabs, with stakes and risk and consequences that readers can relate to… then it becomes dramatic.

Structure facilitates and accomplishes this, in a certain order and at a certain pace, whether the writer wants to call it that, or not. Even if they get there by instinct, or not (it’s still structure if/when they do get there, by whatever means).  By definition, the very “set-up” context of the first quartile leads to something happening – that’s precisely what has been set-up.

Can it be done on instinct?  Sure.  It happens.  Should it happen only by instinct?  That’s the wrong question.   Because this is also what happens – or more clearly, what doesn’t happen – in the vast majority of manuscripts that don’t work.  Mentors who urge writers to just sit down and wing it, forget about structure and everything else… “be like me, because that’s how I do it” – are engaging in a risky game of masturbatory hubris, masked beneath the smugness of false humility that suggests you can do what they do.

Right.  You, too, can do what Stephen King does.  Good luck with that.

If you’re tired of beating your  head against that wall, story structure is ready with a wake-up call.

There’s a time and a place for the writer’s instinct within any process.  

In every good story there comes a moment when everything changes.

It’s called The First Plot Point, among other descriptors (such as “doorway of no return” 0r “the jumping off moment,” etc.)  If it happens too early then the setup itself may be compromised.  Emotional resonance is a high bar if you fully launch the core dramatic thrust of a story in the first 20 to 30 pages, and if it happens too late then the reader might literally bail on the story… because nothing much worth sticking around for is actually happening.  We can only visualize so many falling leaves and the crisp cut of a gentleman’s cuff for so long before we toss the book aside and turn on Jimmy Kimmel instead.

Both choices make is easier to fall asleep.

The First Plot Point, when you truly master it as a narrative tool, is virtually without restriction.  

It is the very antithesis of formula.  because the manner and degree with which you thrust the story down a darker or steeper dramatic path is an infinitely wide road, yet one that demands a clear change of pace and direction.  This is where motivation and stakes collide for the first time, or at least with such a resounding thud, after dozens of pages of strategic setup have brought the reader – heart and mind – to this moment of embarkation.

So what happens then?  Structure tells us.  

Writers who don’t listen, or can’t speak the language, are left only to guess. And when they guess properly, that is not the antithesis of structure, but rather, the validation of one’s story sensibility, which is itself a manifestation of structure on an instinctual level.

The more a writer understands structure, the more instinctual it becomes.  Only when a writer gets to such a point does “story trump structure,” in the same way that an athlete’s gut instinct trumps the lines on the playing field.  Which are always there, by the way, in virtually any game you can  name.

Story never trumps structure.  That’s like saying health trumps medicine.

Story IS structure.

With a fresh journey underway thanks to the First Plot Point, fueled with reader empathy and curiosity and emotional resonance thanks to a newly elevated sense of need and stakes and fear and opportunity (all of it nothing other than character motivation), we now need to accompany our hero and other characters on a journey of response to this new direction and its richer context.

That’s the second quartile, a Part 2 “response” context.  Which, in classic three-act structure, is the first of “Act II;” because Act II has two equal halves, the entire arc of the story becomes, by definition, a four-part sequence, though shifting the language toward this level of specificity and accuracy – something I’ve tried to do in my work – is like trying to talk our electorate out of a two-party paradigm, even though both parts have a left, middle and right component, which becomes, in truth, a six-part demography.

An effective story changes in the middle.  Every time.

That’s not formula, that’s physics.

Here’s why.

If the story doesn’t offer a shift in the middle then chances are it won’t work as well.  That’s why we have a principle of structure that defines not only placement of this mid-story shift, but the nature of it — the curtain of awareness raises for either the hero, the reader, or both, by exposing truths heretofore hidden or masked or only partially assumed before.

Why?  Because pace will accelerate as a result.  A good thing.

That’s why.

With a new, clearly context of awareness in place for  your hero after this midpoint reveal, your hero will find new or heightened need and motivation, often in the form of closer proximity or necessity relative to some sort of proactive confrontation or strategy with the story’s antagonist (a role that absolutely needs to be filled in a story, usually by a villainous player but sometimes in the form of conditions – storms, illness, cultural roadblocks, etc. – or psychological incapacitation).

That’s why there is a Part 3 quartile (the second half of Act II) with a context of confrontation.  Because the reader needs to move closer, through the decisions and actions of your hero, toward a forthcoming resolution, which may or may not be clearly obvious.

There are no rules here.  Only shifting contexts and an evolving flow.

That’s why it’s not formula, but rather, why structure is empowerment and optimization.  Without it pace lags or exposition becomes random.  Without structure the hero remains stuck and separated from hope.  Without it resolution cannot ride a wave of evolving reader emotional engagement, which is how stories work best.

The story changes again in a new shift or exposure in what is called The Second Plot Point.  

This is truly a point of no return, more-so that the First Plot Point, because the hero is either swept toward an inevitable confrontation leading to resolution, or chooses it.  Either way, because this structure has facilitated an escalating level of reader engagement, we are there for every moment of an ultimate denouement, one in which the stakes fall as they will… all at the author’s behest.

Here’s one final, sobering truth about structure.  

It doesn’t assure you of anything.  You can do it all byk the book and your story still might not work all that well.  Structure is the fulfillment of ideas, not the ideas themselves, which is why it defies cynicism.  Structure is like an instrument, or like a blueprint – it is the creator’s fresh take and voice, the sense of specific timing and illumination, executed with passion and an eye for vicarious detail, that makes a story soar.

But like anything that seeks to soar, you must have wings to take you there.

Structure gives us those wings.  Without wings, there is no flight.  There is no story.

And in nature, wings are the very epitome of structure.

That’s WHY structure exists, and why we need to pay attention.  

It is also why some writers can execute a story perfectly with giving it a second thought, or acknowledging it afterwards – because structure is sensibility.

Every argument to the contrary is either a misinformed feint toward process, or a submission to the sweet bliss ignorance.

Without it, you may never know what you’re up against.

*****

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*****

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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 Creativescreenwriting.com.  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 Amazon.com.  The trade paperback releases in a few more weeks… check back here or on Amazon if that’s your preferred format. 

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