This post is about putting everything we’ve just learned about story structure into perspective. Because little about fiction is black and white. And yet, as it is in life, the principles that keep those of us who write it safe and sane are written onto white paper with very black ink.
And oh… get ready for an onslaught of metaphors.
Every once in a while you’ll read about a neophyte swimmer getting into trouble in deep or fast water, and then, when a more experienced swimmer paddles out to help them – one who has themselves almost drowned on more than one occasion, and thus has learned how to remain buoyant – they fight off rescue with all their waning strength.
The thing about panic is that it can get you killed.
What can kill you even quicker is not even knowing that you need rescuing.
The analogy hits home because every now and then, more often than you’d think, I encounter a writer who just won’t accept the unimpeachable truth and validity of story architecture. They fight it off as if their writing dream is being mugged. They reject it as formulaic, they do everything in their power to make it wrong.
Even when you show them that virtually every published novel and produced screenplay is, in fact, a natural product of solid story architecture.
To believe otherwise is like saying the aesthetic beauty of the halls of Versailles has nothing to do with poured concrete foundations and seamless masonry. Or that, back in the day, there wasn’t an actual blueprint for it all.
These architectural atheists swear that writing a novel or a screenplay is, or should be, a process of random exploration, that their joy resides in following characters down blind alleys and allowing them to set their own pace from there, with no real knowledge of where they’re going.
This is like saying the joy of playing golf is wandering randomly around the course, crisscrossing fairways, club in hand, hitting balls at assorted greens as you please.
I don’t dispute the kick in such an approach. Hey, random creativity can be fun… so can finger painting. There’s an inherent kick in a lot of things: drugs, alcohol, sex with ex-spouses, Russian roulette… but that doesn’t make it smart or ultimately productive.
Me thinks these folks are confusing process with product.
If you’re only in it for the process, hey, knock yourself out. Just don’t expect to get published.
Writing without bringing a solid grasp of story architecture to the keyboard is like doing surgery without having gone to medical school. It’s a recipe for frustration and inevitable rejection. Because the patient’s gonna die.
Just because you’ve watched every episode of Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t mean you’re ready to do an appendectomy. Just like having read everything Tom Clancy’s ever written doesn’t qualify you to write a publishable techno thriller.
Story architecture is nothing short of the holy grail of fiction writing. Or if you prefer, the ante-in. Tom Clancy and every other author in the bookstore understands this. Even if they write from the center of the seat of their pants.
How they write isn’t the issue. What they know about what they write is.
You can write like Shakespeare in love and have the imagination of Tim Burton on crack, but if your stories aren’t built on solid and accepted structure — which means, you don’t get to invent your own – you’ll be wallpapering your padded cell with rejection slips.
I’m not saying you have to outline your stories. That’s not what story architecture means. What I am saying is that you do have to apply the principles of story architecture to the story development process, outline or no outline. At least, if you want to publish. That’s just a fact.
That said, allow me to backtrack just a nudge or two.
If you’re a screenwriter, the confines of the structural box within with you live are as inflexible as a Donald Trump pre-nuptial agreement. Obey them or die trying to be the next Tarantino, who inexplicably got a free pass on all this stuff. Screenwriters don’t mind the box into which they are stuffed, they accept it and go creatively hog wild within its comfy black and white confines.
But here’s the good news for novelists: life is easier for you. All of the structural guidelines and story milestones put forth here in this 10-part series on story structure are offered as principles as opposed to commandments. When I’ve specified a place to insert a milestone, you get to insert the word roughly into that specification. When I’ve identified the length of a certain part of a story, you get to chop or add to a reasonable extent.
Stick close to these guidelines and you’ll be treading a proven and safe path.
Disregard them, and you won’t sell your story. Period.
Advocating story architecture is like teaching your kids about the world – you tell them to do as you say, not as you do, you tell them about the golden rule and the law of attraction and the mystical consequences of karma, and you do your best to explain that good things happen to good people who live by these creeds.
And when it doesn’t… well, that’s life, and it’s not always fair. Doesn’t mean it’s not a valid principle. There are orders of magnitude more examples of dreams gone down in flames from not observing them than there are of success stories arising from exceptions to these guidelines.
Lessons in hand, you watch your children leave the nest to live their lives according to their own whims and appetites. Sometimes you win, sometimes… not so much.
Where teaching story structure is concerned – sometimes they publish, sometimes they don’t. You can’t make someone live in a box, even if the sides are somewhat flexible and porous.
It’s been a pleasure being your lifeguard for this swim in the waters of story architecture. If you can see the shore, then keep paddling, you’ll get there. And if you don’t, well, you keep stroking, too.
Because to tread water is to eventually drown. Moving forward is your only hope of survival. Unless, of course, you get a kick out of treading water.
Just don’t kid yourself in the process. Treading water can feel like swimming, like moving forward, but it’s not. It’s only wearing you out. And if you happen to get the aforementioned kick out of it, well, at least you’ll go down happy.
The only life raft coming your way in this sea of choices is one of your own construction. Or should I say, choosing.
Chances are it has the words USS Story Architecture stenciled on the side.