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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