Structure vs. Strategy — Don’t Get Mislead By Celebrity Author-Speak

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by Larry Brooks on September 20, 2012

I try to read all the author interviews I can get my hands on. 

Not sure why, because sometimes I find myself shaking my head in disbelief, occasionally flinging the magazine or my mouse against the nearest wall.  Because authors, even very famous ones, say some of the strangest things.

Sometimes what they say is just plain wrong.

The issue is the vernacular of our trade.  Some storytelling terms are close enough to be interchangeable (concept vs. theme, for example), but not always accurate in application, especially for those of us looking for insight into craft.

Many writers carelessly mash words like idea, concept, premise and theme interchangeably… carelessly… and yet each of these terms are separate and important issues of craft.  They don’t mean the same thing. 

The more precisely you want to hone your craft, the more you need to pay attention to this.

When Dan Brown says, for example, that his theme for The Davinci Code is a man caught up in a murder mystery going back over 2000 years (not sure he actually said that, just tossing out an example for illustration purposes), that’s a mash up of an old axiom: writers, even successful ones, don’t necessarily make great teachers. 

And, I am often reminded, vice versa.

Sometimes these writers actually don’t know the difference, like an athlete who refers to muscleclature (I’ve heard that one a lot on ESPN).  They either don’t know how they applied craft to get where they are — “I just sit down and write until I get it right, I have no idea how my stories are going to end…” (which is bull, by the way… they do know how it will end, I guarantee you, in the draft that they submit, having retrofitted that draft to be in context to this newly-discovered ending… thus rendering prior drafts part of their search for story; it all just sounds so much more mysterious and sexy and brilliant to imply they just suddenly get it at the eleventh hour of a final draft).

Here’s one that’s downright dangerous, though.

Common, too.  A case of the writer himself (it was a him that I heard do this most recently, though I’ve heard it often) not knowing the difference, but somehow navigating the story toward a successful docking with a publisher… which happens, in spite of not being able to explain how they did it with useful clarity.

The writer is talking about how they planned their story.  I like that, music to my ears.  But then he says, “I like to figure out my structure before I actually write the draft.”

Stop right there.  This could mean two things.  One of them misleading, implying the exact wrong thing, and therefore dangerous to writers who don’t know the difference between structure and strategy.

Because he could have meant to say — had he known the difference — strategy instead of using the word structure in that sentence.

First, when a writer says this, it could mean they are looking for scenes, for the content of their narrative, that fit(s) neatly into the classic four-part story paradigm (which they didn’t invent), with the proper milestones (first plot point, mid-point, second plot point) right where they should be.  Yes, that’s absolutely the right thing to do, and if that’s what he meant, then good on him.

But what if he didn’t mean that?

What if he meant he has no clue about four-part structure, and feels he needs to — that he can — invent whatever structure he wants?  This is a dangerous implication… like telling a kid who wants to get strong to start lifting weights (to achieve muscleclature) at age seven so he can grow up to be like, well, him.  Dangerous.  Naive.  Even ignorant.

Or… what if he really meant he needed to plan his narrative strategy

To figure out how he’s going to write his story. We all do need to do that, by the way… just don’t call it structure.   Structure is like gravity, you can’t mess with it to any degree.  And yet, how you handle it — trampoline, airplane, nine iron, ballon ride, balance beam, cliff diving… that’s all strategy.

The physics never change.  How you deal with them… that’s strategy

In storytelling that’s narrative strategy.

Examples of Narrative Strategy

I’ve deconstructed three major stories on this site, among others: The Davinci Code… The Help… and The Hunger Games.  Here’s proof of the principles of structure: all four had identical structural architecture.  They used the same model, the only model that works in today’s publishing world.  (If they stumbled upon it, they didn’t invent it, they had to work to get their story aligned with it.)   Four quartile-proximate parts… effective story milestones at very close to optimal location… and a contextual flow and character arc that aligned with these principles.

They were — all three of these novels and films – textbook examples of the principles of story stucture: the paradigm (which they didn’t invent) serving as the framework for their genius concepts and narrative skills. 

And… their strategies.

Did they plan this structure?  Hell no.  They used it.  They applied it.  They tapped into the principles, they optimized the story physics that those principles lead us toward.

So what if — and this didn’t happen — one of those authors said in an interview that they had to first “plan their structure?”

Could mean two things: that they indeed distributed their narrative out over this classic structural grid… or, they meant to say they “planned their narrative strategy.”

Now that’s something we can learn from. 

Because they did do just that — they had to have done that — and notice that all three books, while unfolding along the same structural paradigm, had very different narrative strategies.

So what’s the difference?

Let’s allow those stories to answer this question.

In The Davinci Code, Dan Brown told the story — he chose to tell the story — through multiple points of view, all written in classic third person omniscient narrative prose.   We were with Landgon as he discovered clues, as he ran as he uncovered a dark truth.  We were with the bad French cops as they chased him down.  We were with that albino assassin self-whipping whack-job as he received his orders and went out looking for his next victim.

This was Dan Brown’s narrative strategy.  Not his structure.  His structure was classic four-part exposition.

In The Help, Kathryn Stockett told the story through three points of view, each in the first person past tense (with a dash of present context) of three different characters.  This wasn’t structure… this was narrative strategy

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Colllins used a very different strategy than the folks who made a movie out of her story.  Both, by the way, used the exact same structure, which was identical (because it’s universal) to that of The Davinci Code, The Help, Gone Girl and virtually any other bestseller you can name, even if the author can’t or won’t describe it that way.  But her narrative strategy was to tell the story in first person present through the mind of Katniss, her hero.  Not one moment from behind the curtain of her awareness was used (though it was in the film).

Strategy.  Pure narrative strategy.  In each case.  Executed across the same, identical structural grid. 

The one you and I should be using.  Always. 

Tarantino uses it.  Even if he mangles time-lines to make it look like his story is jumping all over the place.  In terms of context, it doesn’t… it’s totally in line with the principles.  Same with the film 500 Days of Summer (also deconstructed here), thje strategy of which was to sequence scenes from random days from the double-entendre titled 500 days, making it look like a structure.  But the structure was textbook four part contextual beauty.

Structure isnt something we invent. 

Structure is something we use to populate with concept, characters, theme and our beautiful, clever words.  Structure is already there, like gravity, waiting for us to harness its power.

But narrative strategy… that’s ours to decide upon.  Even to invent.  And there really are no rules for this.  Just our choices, which we must live or die with.

Do you understand the structure into which your story must fit… at least if you want it to work?  To get it published and read?

Do you have a narrative strategy in mind?  You need one.  This can be the thing that takes your story to the next level.  This, you get to invent, or adapt, or copy.  Structure… not so much.  Structure is unversal.  Your structure is already there, waiting for you to grab it and go.

Have you considered other ways of doing it, in terms of narrative strategy?  

In my best reviewed book, Bait and Switch, I took a page from Nelson Demille and mixed first person smartass POV with third person omnicisent behind-the-curtain scenes… somewhere out there my high school creative writing teacher is rolling over in her crypt.

That book is being republished in 2013, by the way, alongside three other titles from my back list, and in conjunciton with my new novel, Deadly Faux, which uses the same narrative structure as its series precurser, which is, in fact, Bait and Switch

Never give up.  That’s another thing that, like story structure, isn’t negotiable.

****

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{ 10 comments }

Lin Barrett September 20, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Larry, when “Bait and Switch” hits Amazon again, I hope you’ll consider deconstructing it for us, and also recall for us how you reached some of the decisions that went into its writing.

Sam September 20, 2012 at 4:33 pm

When I hear an author say something like that, I’ve usually found (through other interviews and writings they’ve done) that it means they are an “outliner” (as opposed to a “pantser”).

Martha September 21, 2012 at 7:47 am

Great post, as always.
On another subject, I’d like to nominate “The Words” as a possible film/story for you to deconstruct. I’ve seen it twice, but still have brisk discussions with friends about the ending. And the way the script jumps back and forth in time is interesting, and at times confusing, and I wonder, was that part of the writer’s ‘strategy’?
You’re a great resource for us, Larry.

Brianna September 21, 2012 at 7:51 am

Great lessons here. Thanks for sharing!

Norm Huard September 21, 2012 at 8:49 am

The issue is the “vernacular”, plain, ordinary, everyday language that we use when discussing our trade. It is also a problem in the literary vernacular. There are so many misleading interviews and discussions because there is not a clear and mutual understanding of terms used by those involved, especially when it comes to idea, concept, premise, and story structure, thus the flinging of magazines and mice, not to mention invectives and insults. Larry must have one heck of a great suit of armor.

I recently downloaded and installed software designed for writers, not just novel writers but writers in general without all the bells and whistles of MSWord designed for businesses. I went through the tutorial and skimmed through the manual. Among other useful things, it comes with two novel project templates, one with parts and one without. Writers can manipulate those two any way they want or they can create a project template of their own.

Now here is the part where I have to watch my vernacular. Before even looking at those included templates, I created a TWO-PART TEMPLATE of my own.

The first part respects the PHYSICS OF STORY STRUCTURE (No choice really since it already exists. It’s “universal”. Larry has proved it many times.) It has four folders, one for each story structure part, and within each of those folders its corresponding blank story milestone document pages. There it is, waiting for me to create a story’s scene documents that I will make sure to place in their proper “beats” within each of the story structure parts. (Easily done with the software, BTW.)

In Larry’s vernacular: If I have worked on the strength of my idea/concept/premise first; jacked it to its highest inherent potential before I begin to develop a vision for the story that ensues from it; and know the core essence of my story, the spine, the central conflict and how it relates to my hero; and if I have a clear understanding of that four part story structure and what each of a story’s milestones should accomplish and when in a story, then I should be well on my way to outlining, building, growing, creating, laying, writing, and even pantsing a story that has potential.

It’s great to know I’m building on solid ground.

The second part of my template, below those core story structure folders, has a slew of folders that contain information I have imported to help support me in MY STRATEGY to write my story: RESEARCH folder for any kind of media related documents I want to import, STRUCTURE PLANNING DOCUMENTS (Contains documents I created to help me better understand the vernacular of story structure, which Larry works so hard to make us understand. I love having these on hand just to refresh and help internalize them in the muscle memory of my brain.), REFERENCE DOCUMENTS, THEME, SUB PLOT, CHARACTER, LOCATION, and OBJECT NOTES.

You get the idea, structure with a strategy.

Bill Polm September 21, 2012 at 9:40 am

Another good one, Larry, And a good review of key terms.

The way I look at it, those hostile toward or just plain ignorant of structure are like those that think that art is buying several cans of house paint, different colors, and throwing paint at a large canvas (or in some cases a wall!). It’s natural, organic, it’s just me being me, letting it all hang out. To me, art involves skill, craft and is built on it. It isn’t me just stumbling along rather blindly, and somehow miraculously “work” it turns into art that demonstrates my spontaneous “genius.”

By the way, what I like about your book Story Structure is that it is not only accurate and rich in fiction-writing insights, and clear about structure, it is also practical. I have read, for example John Truby’s book, which has a lot of good in it, but to me it’s a bit too structured (there’s that word again)–the advice is too ‘by-the-numbers” and therefore not as flexible in application (strategy, I mean) as yours is. I still have Truby’s book in my shelves, but I prefer and use yours.

Larry September 21, 2012 at 10:12 am

@Norm — you nailed it. You GET it. This should be a post in its own right. Will point readers to it here. Thanks for your contribution. L.

@Bill — thanks for your endorsement and kind words. It’s not often I’m seen as “flexible,” so I appreciate you getting my intention in that regard. L.

Tony McFadden September 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm

You got me.

I tell people I’m “working on the structure of my next book with my son” when what I *really* mean is that my son and I are working out *what goes where in the already defined structure*.

A not so subtle difference.

As an aside, collaborating (for the first time) with someone who knows the basics of story architecture is truly fun. I highly recommend it.

Nann Dunne September 24, 2012 at 6:44 am

@Lin – I, too, made this mistake. Larry already did a deconstruction of Bait and Switch. See the right column of this page under Categories: B&S Deconstruction. I guess it was the B&S that threw me off. :)
@Norm – What great organizational ideas! Thanks for sharing.
@Larry – Thanks for pounding the static condition of structure into our heads.

Chris October 1, 2012 at 11:54 am

I’m of two minds for something like this. On one hand, I agree that, at least on a practical level, it’s important to know the difference between strategy and structure. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to say you’re designing your story’s structure even though the fundamentals are inflexible.

Using an analogy, if you look at the structure of two different houses, they’ll look similar (and may very well follow the exact same blueprint) but each house nonetheless has its own structure. The core framework used to build these structures is largely inflexible – you’re not going to leave out a joist just to be different, nor are you going to choose materials that won’t stand up to the weight and regional considerations (wind, seizmic activity, etc.). There are however certain differences – for instance, the number of stories, the window sizes and orientation, etc. – which differenciate one structure from another. And, there are certain strategies – for instance, the decision to orient the windows in such a way to reduce heating costs in a colder climate – that will largely dictate the differences in structure between houses.

You can look at story structure in a similar way. That is, every story needs to conform to the same structural principles, based on the same template, but that doesn’t have to mean the stories share a structure. You can also look at the choice of scenes that are used for the FPP, the midpoint, etc. as making up the core structure of the story, according to the inflexible principles of the structural blueprint. And as well, while the choice to use multiples viewpoint characters and several subplots is a strategy, those subplots have their own structural spines, and they need to tie into the overall spine of the story – kind of like how a house can have a garage with its own structure attached to it, but the house still needs to have all the core structural components.

Put another way, all of us have skeletons that are fundamentally the same, but we still each have out own skeleton.

To me it’s a matter of perspective. Is the structure a set of nodes defining FPP, Midpoint, SPP, and the scenes that appear at those nodes a part of the meat? Or is that set of nodes a blueprint, with the specific scenes appearing at those points being the support columns for the story? As long as you understand the principles, I think either approach to applying the term is appropriate.

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