An editorial collaboration between Larry Brooks and Art Holcomb.

Click HERE for a post that explains the mission of this website and the differentiating perspective behind it. 

Story Structure: Is It Formulaic?

December 5, 2017

By Larry Brooks

Talking to writers about Story Structure is like trying to sell religion (how’s that for a polarizing opening analogy?). Sometimes, no matter how logical you present it, you can’t change someone’s mind. You never stood a chance.

Some writers will never believe story structure – the traditional 3-act paradigm, even with a drill down into its subtleties – is anything other than formulaic. And that “formulaic” is a bad thing.

Politics, too. Just sayin’. I know you’ve been there, talking to someone who won’t hear you, and you walk away shaking your head.

Let me flip that. It’s like trying to sell science. Proven, irrefutable fact.

In either case, there are those who will embrace it – sooner or later, if for no other reason than they are tired of failing – and find their lives to be orders of magnitude more… clear.

Today’s post is for those writers.

Here’s the unexpected truth behind this paradoxical issue every writer must face:

It actually is formulaic. And in a good way. A way that gets you published.

That’s the part some writers resist. That there is something beyond their pretty sentences and deep thoughts that makes all the difference in the world.

There are two liberating understandings here, stuff that most writers don’t get to, especially if they judge and discard the structure proposition at the mere mention of the word.

Some writing teachers don’t even get this. Which means, you may not have encountered this framing device before. Confusion ensues because the debate really isn’t about the existence and essential nature of story structure, but rather, the debate is about the story development process… which is all over the map.

Structure is not process. It is outcome.

When – if – it finally sinks in, the mist lifts, doors fly wide open and the angels weep. It happens when you consider story structure from this unassailable and rarely spoken truth: it is formulaic, and largely a given, within genre fiction. Learning this is, for some, for many, the core essence of the writing journey.

If you try to reinvent the structure of a genre novel, you will likely crash and burn. Every revision strategy offered to you will seek to bring the story back into alignment with the core principles of structure… that were available to you from square one.

Need an example? You write a spy novel in which the spy isn’t given something to do until page 210. That’s a rejection slip, no matter how brilliant your 209 pages of backstory.

By definition, genre fiction is formulaic for a reason: because readers buy these novels because they know what they are getting. They want what the genre promises.

They want the formula.

But when it comes to so-called “literary fiction,” structure becomes a more flexible, less discernible part of the story proposition. The author is free to, basically, invent the form and function of the story on their own terms, from within their own process.

But structure isn’t just about plot. Character, and the arc that demonstrates it, is a structural issue, as well.

Here’s a shocker: a huge percentage of literary novels follow the structural principles – the same principles that drive genre stories – that have become the foundation of my own teaching and understanding (not that I invented them, that’s certainly not true: rather, like all writers must at some point if they are to succeed, structure is discovered, then explored, then mastered).

Not long ago a Storyfix reader sent me this observation about a Pulitzer Prize winning novel:

“I’m currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a literary novel and one of the most beautifully written and nicely observed ‘character’ novels I’ve read in a long time. But here’s the thing. The first plot point? Bang on target!”

Another skeptical writer sent this:

“After downloading “Story Engineering,“ I went on to read Neil Gaiman’sThe Ocean at the End of the Lane” which seems like a very “literary” novel. And I was delighted when, at the 25th percentile, I discovered the First Plot Point; at the 50th percentile the Midpoint emerged, and then at the 75th percentile the dramatic Second Plot point showed up. I had my doubts… I’m amazed that I hadn’t ever noticed this before… now that I see it, I cannot un-see it. My writing is forever changed and empowered.”

Why do some literary novels end up here? Because structure, as a universal architectural principle of storytelling, works. It doesn’t matter that the author has never heard of a first or second plot point, it matters that, however they got there, they reached the point where the story works, where it is optimized.

And when that happens the principles of structure will be visible in the story. Very much in alignment with the generic architectural (sequential) model that describes them.

The question isn’t whether the principles of structure are evident – trust me, they are… in virtually every published genre novel and a huge percentage of literary novels. This includes thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, historicals, and most obviously of all, romance and all its sub-genre variations. Take a hint from the previous italicized word: published. If you’re writing a genre novel that is not built upon the expected structural paradigm, odds are it won’t be published. Which is not to say it’s not any good, but it may no longer be commercial within the intended genre.

Yep, it’s true. It’s a formula, in a business in which that is a dirty word. 

Somebody has to say it. I just did.

And yet, seeking to understand it and apply it within your own work is, for many writers – a great many – the very career milestone that evolves that writer from someone who believes suffering isn’t optional, that chaos and chaotic first drafts are certain and even a rite of passage, to one that pours their art and heart and soul into a framework that is, while flexible, largely already defined and waiting for me.

An understanding of structure can turn a first draft into what is, for writers in blissful denial, a fourth or fifth draft, qualitatively.

Understanding structure can cut a decade or more off your learning curve. Structure isn’t process, unless you want it to be (which is true for many authors). Rather, it is an inevitable outcome for any process that is functional, if not efficient.

Writing a whole bunch of drafts of a novel is the epitome of inefficiency. Ask Lee Childs – he gets structure, which is why his first drafts are a quick polish away from final.

Is he genius? Certainly. But part of that genius is the degree to which he gets the essential nature of story, in a structural sense.

In fact, we can conclude that to some extent, structure becomes a choice we make.

Structure is the canvas for our stories.

All great paintings are rendered to a canvas. Unless they are brushed onto walls (vandalism comes to mind) and mugs and urns and roof tiles, in which case they aren’t mainstream art after all. Art, maybe, but probably not something you find in a gallery (or, applying the analogy, in a bookstore).

The second level of truth I promised is this: the true nature of structure is something that runs very deep. Deeper than most care to dive. It is a four-part (across three traditional “acts”) evolution of the context of a story, as viewed from the perspective of the protagonist. It is the nature of the hero’s journey in a story. What you do within those four parts – within being the key word here – is entirely yours to create… which is why, once again, this really isn’t formula in a derogatory sense after all. Writing within a structural awareness becomes the art of fitting your story within the boundaries of the canvas that will deliver it.

Nobody ever won a game by hitting or kicking or throwing the ball out of bounds.

A story is setup… the hero is rendered human as we see them encounter a problem or challenge… that hero then searches and wanders through darkness, danger and failure a the problem escalate and the stakes loom large… the hero evolves into a problem solver and warrior who summons courage and cleverness… and then, in a way of the author’s choosing, the hero resolves the story.

That’s it. That’s structure. Four sequential parts defined and differentiated by context. With a whole boatload of missions, definitions, milestones, nuance, and application variability, enough to make it anything but formulaic, at least in the way deniers and the naive use the term.

If you’d like to hear a killer analogy for this, one that might jar you into taking a closer look at the structure proposition, look to the right here on this Home page (if you’re reading this on email, click on the title to go to the Storyfix site), and watch the video available in the little window in the middle column (click it to go full screen). It’s a bonafide 30-minute writing workshop (with over 37,000 views on YouTube), with the aforementioned analogy at about the 25-minute mark (which you can skip to if you’re impatient with listening to me talk).

The truth is out there.

The question isn’t whether structure exists in a form that you don’t really need to create for yourself – in the same way that an athlete doesn’t create the playing field or the painter doesn’t create the canvas – or shouldn’t play too loosely with (though it is flexible). The question isn’t if it’s formulaic or not… the question is…

… will you see it? Will you know it when you see it?

Once you do see it, when you understand what classic story structure is, form and function, you can’t miss it in the novels you read.

And you shouldn’t ever again miss it in the novels that you write.

*****

On another note… remember my post a couple of weeks ago discussing and recommending the movie Lady Bird? (If you missed it click HERE; it’s not at all about the wife of an ex-President, by the way).

Pictured below is the reviewer’s grade and synopsis for the film in this week’s edition of Entertainment Weekly. They give it an A-minus, which is rarefied air.

If you haven’t seen Lady Bird, know that this is truly a “writer’s film” – delightful, funny and moving… and you’re missing something special if you don’t.

And by the way… Lady Bird is a great example of classic story structure, at the apex of its intended contextual principles, unfolding before your writerly eyes.

Lady bird pic

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The Six Pillars of Your Writing Education

November 28, 2017

By Art Holcomb

I’ve been a writing teacher for a very long time.

I started in the 1990’s with a small group of students and, today, I teach classes and seminars in-person and through the internet to people throughout the U.S., in eleven different countries in four different languages.

And, unfortunately, I see the same problems everywhere I go.

What we do, as writers, is separate and lonely.  We write and dream and hunger for the kind of information and guidance that we need to move forward – to level up, as we talked about last time.

I think you are some of the lucky ones – because you’re here . . .

You found Larry and StoryFix and you’re beginning to see that not all craft information is the same.

There are some sources, like StoryFix, which are dedicated to getting you what you absolutely need to learn your craft and thrive.

It would be fantastic if every site could be like this one.

But the internet can be an unending stream of junk information which, at best, is weak regurgitations of classic insights and, at worst, is misleading and harmful.

But that’s even not the biggest problem.

The absolute worst thing I’ve found is that many writers are led to believe that this never- ending diet of craft McNuggets is all they need for success.  That this diet of informational fast food is enough to move them to the next level and show them the path to achievement in writing.

This is simply not true.

This is misleading.

And you deserve much more.

How I began here.

I came to Larry and StoryFix in 2011.  I was already a successful working writer. But I was so moved by what Larry had to say that I sent him a note, telling him that I thought he was on to something very special with this site and his books.

He was kind enough to invite me to guest post and I have need here off and on ever since.

What made this possible is that we were of a very similar mindset.

What drives us both are these two separate concepts:

  • The need to get real craft information into the hands of writers ready to hear it – and actually use it – and…
  • The need to fight back against the well-meaning but damaging information that fills the internet.

So – here it is.

So that there is no misunderstanding about where I‘m coming from, here is a list of what I believe you REALLY need for success as a writer – what I call the Six Pillars of Success:

  • High Quality Craft Information
  • A constantly available Mentoring Relationship
  • A short Feedback Loop
  • Real, Effective Accountability
  • An ever-improving Process
  • Access to Deep Writing

Pillar #1 – High Quality Craft Information

There is a reason why Aristotle is revered amongst writers.

Why Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee are honored names.

And why you come back to StoryFix – and Larry Brooks – time and time again . . .

Because we all are thirsty travelers crossing an unending desert.

From an informational and craft standpoint, the internet – your main source of information about writing – is filled with hacks, tips, secrets, and top-ten lists, all from well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) writers wanting to share their knowledge with you.

Here are some standards by which you could judge any piece of information you’re considering.

  • Is it MEANINGFUL? Does it make sense to you on a craft level? Is it there to make you writing better or is it touted to make your writing easier? Is it appropriate for your level right now? Does it sound like the writer is trying to impress you, rather than seriously help you?

I’ve been writing all my life and one thing has been as true today as it have seen for the last 40 years . . .

Good writing is not easy. It is troubling and difficult.

Why? Because it is meant to be.

And anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

All art must come from some deeper place, and the talent that you seek does not lie on the surface.  Like gold in the ground, it requires hard work and digging to access.  This frankly is because all good things are hard to achieve.

If you find writing to be easy, simple, breezy and completely enjoyable, it’s very possible that you’re not even scratching the surface of what you can accomplish.

  • Is it VALUABLE? Will this information lead you to write something that is unlike anything you’ve ever written before? Can it help you to get published and build an audience? Can you instantly see that what you are able to do with this information is as good as what you see in books, movies, short stories and stage plays? When you share your work with others, are they clearly moved by your words?

Whether it’s for publication or merely for exercise, will this information help you to become a better writer?

  • Is it RARE? Quite simply, will it help make your most recent piece of work the best thing you have done to date? Is it clearly, and instantly better?

That, in a nutshell, is what you want in all the craft information you are considering.

Whether you’re getting the information from a post, a book, or a seminar like one of mine, you want to be ever moving forward. And, if you’re honest with yourself, you can already recognize the difference between information that tells you something that you can really use, and something that simply tells you something you’ve heard many times before.

So, you need to develop some real radar about what is useful and what is not.  In the weeks ahead, we’ll try to help you develop that sense, and teach you to fill your individual tool boxes with valuable tools and insights.

Next time, we’ll talk about Pillar #2 – The need for a positive mentoring relationship in your life.

Until then, just keep writing.

Art

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