Story Structure Series: Epilogue… the Fine Print

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.

15 Comments

Filed under Featured posts, Story Structure Series

15 Responses to Story Structure Series: Epilogue… the Fine Print

  1. Shirls

    Larry, a thousand thanks for this great series. Far from wanting to fight off the truth of story architecture, I find it an immense and encouraging comfort.

  2. ‘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.’

    The dumbest people I know are those who listen only to themselves. They’re just determined to be dumb.
    You’re still good when you’re philosophical like right now.
    Bravo.
    There are two kinds of Chess school:
    Unorthodox and Bookish. I’ve spent years studying and playing both and guess what’s more effective. You’re right.

    ‘Stick close to these guidelines and you’ll be treading a proven and safe path. ‘
    Seems this is the bottomline.
    Your sarcastic conclusion is also great. lol
    Congrats for the excellent series. I promise my support all the way and thanks a million.

  3. Larry, this is probably the most informative and educational series of blogs I’ve read anywhere. I have taken notes like a college student and used them to study my book, which I then spent several days rewriting and making sure all of the elements were there. I was pleased to see that organically I had most of it there already, but your blogs clarified things greatly and will make writing my next book so much easier. Thank you. I’d like to put a link on my site if that’s okay and I’d love to twitter you.

  4. Sharon

    Great, great series!

    Now, if you’re taking requests, perhaps a seriies on foreshadowing?

    Please?

    Sharon

  5. I wish you hadn’t introduced the metaphor of you as life guard. I’ve spent years trying to get the image of David Hasselhoff out of my mind!

    This is sage advice to end a wonderful series, Larry. It may be too late for me to benefit – I fear the brave days of dreaming about novel writing are over – but my teenage daughter certainly will! Thank you so much, from both of us.

  6. Colleen

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the series on story architecture, and it’s really helped me put into perspective the things I’ve only seen out of the corner of my eye when reading books that I’ve enjoyed.

    A question: how does story architecture work for shorter fiction? Are all the signposts and milestones still there, at roughly the same intervals (25% here being not 25,000 words, but rather 1250 words)?

  7. Colleen — great question. With short stories, the rules do soften. The shorter the story, the more they soften. The longer the story, the closer it should adhere to these structural principles.

    Short stories get away with a “slice of life” approach, a vignette, a “moment in time.” They should always have a hero, always have a conceptual element, and always have a thematic landscape… so that much (three of the six core competencies) is consistent. And, they should always ask a question that will compel the reader to keep reading in hopes of an answer, there should be conflict and an antagonistic dimension, and there should always be a conclusion that packs an emotional aspect.

    So the answer really is… the shorter it is, the less structural milestones come into play… the longer, the more they are needed. Anything over 10,000 words should have a resemblance to the paradigm I’ve presented here. Hope this helps.

  8. Trish

    Awesome stuff, Larry. I went to your sessions at Willametter Writers Conference, came home and read Screenwriting, and have now read your blog…Whoa! I have to say, I can’t imagine an MFA program giving me more valuable information than what I’ve gotten from you in the past couple of weeks. I think I’m now ready to revise my novel (again – only this time with some actual tools to guide the process) and I know I won’t start writing another one until I’ve got the 4 corners and the story architecture figured out first. Thanks a ton.

  9. I’m with Trish….an MFA program cannot give me this much. In fact, I was in an MFA program (that I didn’t finish) that didn’t give me any of this…We simply went over other literature and descriptions…which are important, but I’ve always been after this story architecture. I’ve read numerous books, but none gave me the architecture as simplistically as you with stellar examples.
    Great Series Larry….Keep them coming!!!
    Trina

  10. Thank you for sharing this series. I’ve learned a lot and I appreciate the time you took to lay this all out for us ‘newbies’ to the craft. I’m writing my first book and I’d like it be worthy of publishing some day. I think this series will help make it possible.

  11. Katie

    Excellent series! I only wish someone had laid it out this plainly before, instead of making it all seem like some sort of secret, mystic art that you had to be born knowing.

  12. J

    Holy crap that was long

  13. Mike Lawrence

    Larry,

    You mentioned that a short story may deviate from the structure presented. At the same time, is it acceptable (or even beneficial) for a short story to adhere as closely as possible to the blueprint you present?

    Or is there a set of conventional caveats for short stories?

    Thanks.

  14. @Mike — in response to your question about short stories… read this post on that very topic: http://storyfix.com/structuring-your-short-story

    If a novel is a seven course meal (four parts and three major milestones), then a short story is like a snack. And a snack can consist of any of those courses, or small portions of any or all of them. Which means, with a SS you can cut deep into the structure and get very precise with it. In that case, the other parts are there by “implication,” allowing the ready to fill in those blanks.

    Hope this helps. SS’s are hard to write well, and one of the reasons is that there are fewer parameters, metrics and criteria to apply. L.

  15. harbin

    @janice I don’t think you’re too old to benefit, no one’s ever too old to be a writer