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’s “The 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.