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

10 Comments

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10 Responses to Story Structure: Is It Formulaic?

  1. I’ve yet to see Lady Bird, but it’s on my list of must-watch films.

    The writer that wrote to you nailed it in one line: “Now that I see it, I cannot unsee it.” Structure is everywhere! In every book we read, every film we watch, we even find structure in nature. Shame more writers don’t notice.

  2. Formulaic — from the word form. Story is the form of writing — fiction or non. Story structure (the three act basis) has been around since the Sumerians.

    Probably no other argument against story structure pisses me off more than when someone says, “it’s just so formulaic.” Damn, I wish they’d say that about my writing. As Larry points out, formulaic is not a pejorative!

    All art has form. Period. All of nature has form. I mean, chromosomes are so damn formulaic. Change one of those puppies and you have a mutation and it will not be beneficial to the organism.

    I study form and I’m proud of it. Nuf’ said!

  3. kerry boytzun

    The people behind the crusades sold their products using torture and death. Selling Story Structure requires appealing to one’s common sense.

    It would be much easier the other way.

    How well one adheres to their story structure will determine greatly upon the success of their book, movie, or TV series. For example, the current Mr. Mercedes TV series is described on IMDB as “Tells the story of a psychopathic killer who drives a stolen Mercedes into a crowd and a recently retired detective who tries to bring him down.”

    Concept is essentially a duel between a psychopath and a detective. This has been done before, such as Michael Mann’s Man Hunter 1986, and that movie was very successful.

    Trick question: are scenes involving the psychopath’s family and coworkers, or the detective and his neighbor—actually the duel itself? To say it another way, if you pay to see a boxing match between Tyson and Ali, do you want to either of those boxers fight other people?

    You might answer, “If it’s entertaining…but to a point because that’s not what I signed up for. I signed up to see who would win between Tyson and Ali.”

    Exactly. Concept is Tyson vs Ali…NOT Tyson’s past history on X or Ali’s past history on X, unless any of that history leads up to the fight and is relevant because it will AFFECT the fight itself.

    Currently the Mr. Mercedes TV series is halfway through and has driven off the road, crashing through the family member’s jungles of alcoholism and the employer’s issues. Half the series is backstory! I think there have been 3 scenes where the DUEL actually happens. Last night’s episode was a complete waste of time as it did NOT further the plot. We already know the family members are a mess for both the protagonist and the antagonist. Last night we watched backstory on the detective’s daughter that we already knew to be a drug addict. IRRELEVANT.

    Adhering to Story Structure (concept-premise) would make Mr. Mercedes a much better show. I could care less that it has an IMDB rating of 8 from people who love to see the scene of a car splattering humans and driving over babies…over and over and over again (it’s gory).

    My wife has turned into a fine fiction editor and she was the one last night handing out the verdict on this show. She has a degree in journalism but her story sense comes from Larry’s material. Her editing material came from journalism and editing material. My point is that I’m not alone on this topic: stories going flat due to spending their time on irrelevant scenes.

    **The trick is to know what is relevant and what is not. The acting on Mr. Mercedes is superb and the scenes are performed well. But we’re not watching Shameless (city of addicts), we’re watching a DUEL.

    If it’s not a duel, then it’s no longer Mr. Mercedes, but Mister Lost vs his family and coworkers.

    Count me OUT on that concept.

  4. I’m amicably envious of those authors who nail both structure and beautiful prose. They often fall into the literary fiction category (I’m thinking Chris Bohjalian), but sometimes into genre fiction. Their work is always a treat to read.

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  6. Robert Jones

    @ Stephanie Raffelock: Brilliant!

    @Larry: Words like “Formula” and “Commercial” become the dividing line between professionals and amateurs. Not to say those hungry neophyte writers may not be potentially brilliant, however, many of them want to be the indie author or film maker so they can step aside from the box they feel will trap, or change their ideas.

    What they don’t fully understand is that indie books and movies still follow structure. They just play with it a bit differently. They don’t take the same plot and suit up the characters a bit differently like so many Hollywood blockbusters. Once they take a closer look at structure, their favorite books and movies (viewed again) would be testaments on how mailable structure can be.

    @Kerry: If you apply structure to some literary novels (or films) you’ll see that structure is sometimes flipped from plot driven events to character issues and goals. When transcribed to film—especially TV shows that give writers more room to play with such things—it can be absolute torture. It’s a painful study to witness how too much backstory can detract from the plot. It’s also painful to see almost no back story when the summer action blockbusters try to sum up empathy from a single flashback that seems out of place.

    I was taught that when it comes to flashbacks, don’t do them at all unless there’s a very good reason. And never just one or two. That’s awkward and pulls the audience out of their experience. If you need backstory, sprinkle it in, and make sure its as interesting as the present—and adds to the story in an important way. A TV series that establishes 50% of the story is going to be flashbacks, can quickly run out of flashbacks that are relevant. The writers didn’t think it through.

    One such show is “Arrow.” Stranded on an island for five years where the protagonist recieved training in weapons and fighting skills, the flashbacks continue every season. Half the story each season is devoted to those five years in the past. I haven’t kept up with the show, but the backstory had become so involved and convoluted that those five years would’ve been crammed with adventures that would barely allowed the character time for a nap.

    Did the writers stop to consider if an ongoing show went on for a number of seasons, the backstory would start getting ridiculous? Or that they would eventually start chasing their tails in trying to fit half the show into a limited five year span? Yet the show continues to be successful because comic book and action movie fans seem to be able to suspend their disbelief in ways some of us cannot. The moral, however, is if you can keep the audiences attention in the main plot, you can literally waste half their time stretching things out in soap opera fashion and they won’t care. Because that’s the formula they have become used to. And why so many fledgling writers fight against anything labeled “Commercial” or “Formulaic.”

    And so we’ve come full circle. I believe (based on my experience) the contingent of writers who balk at structure do so because they don’t understand it. They liken it to so much of the crap they are force fed in mainstream entertainment. On the one hand, it’s good that they recognize much of what they see is crap. On the other hand, they have yet to broaden their understanding of craft to see wide enough, to understand that structure and bad writing do not go hand in glove.

  7. MikeR

    It just so happens that the “story structure” championed in @Larry’s books is a very good one – and, one which audiences the world over (and, throughout time) are well-conditioned to expect. However, to suggest that it is limiting – or to use a pejorative term like “formulaic” – to me is just silly.

    “If you have a JOB to do, please don’t start from scratch. And then, please don’t waste your time.” You’d never do such a thing with regard to an important business presentation, so, don’t do it here.

    That carefully-rehearsed presentation, that (yay!) landed you that big, fat promotion, was never “totally avant-garde” to the audience that sat down to watch it: instead, in retrospect(!), it could be compared to many other presentations of its type. And so, did you, at least in the back of your mind, “keep that in mind?” Of course you did, you now-vice-president, you.

    “So, did you just sit down and ‘whip it out,’ one PowerPoint at a time?” C’mon, be honest. You probably started with an outline, which maybe even started with four-or-so …

    Uh huh, you more-or-less used a time-efficient process, to produce a promotion-winning presentation (you now-vice-president, you …), that was familiar to “the audience that mattered.”

    Well – why stop now?

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