The “Why?” Behind the Inevitability of Story Structure

I love a good challenge.  

Almost as much as I disdain a misunderstood debate, the kind in which one party can’t get outside of themselves long enough to see that they’re already arguing for the opposition.

Last year I did a post for the Writers Digest website, explaining why (my opinion) “just write” is among the most dangerous soundbytes of writing advice ever uttered.  It’s like telling someone about to on trial without a lawyer (an apropos analogy to trying to write a story without knowing how to write a novel) to skip law school and “just talk.”  One reader commented in response that, because after years of practice some writers can indeed “just write” and be successful… I thank her for helping make my point.

There is a huge, hard-won backlog of knowledge and principle that makes anything that can otherwise be “made up as you go along” functional, if not downright fatal.

“Just do it” can get you killed, and it can kill your story, as well.  

In that context, I’ve yet to encounter a writer who can disprove the existence or need for a largely given structure – the order and context for how a story should flow – for the rendering of long form storytelling.

Even the most famous names in the vast pantheon of pantsers, wailing their outrage at the suggestion that certain things within a well-told story tend to happen in a certain order – Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, some dude who wrote a book called Story Trumps Structure, and countless thousands of unpublished authors who don’t want to lean in toward doing something the seems to dictate order in what they hoped would become the transcription of a muse, or worse, a character actually speaking directly to them…

… they all end up doing it.  Executing structure in their own stories, or proving its necessity via the failure to find an agent or a publisher (or, in the new low-bar world of the self-published, readers themselves).

Stephen King’s and Diana Gabaldon’s stories aren’t successful because they are pantsers.  They are successful because, at the end of the day their stories do demonstrate structure, as predictable and aligned as those of the most ardent and vocal advocates of structure (James Scott Bell, for example).

In a good story, the reader will have no idea, none at all, whether the author planned or pantsed, or believes in story structure or not. Because if the story works, structure will be there, and in a form that aligns with the universal principles that explain how and why they work.

A closer look reveals the so-called debate isn’t that at all.  

Because those who decry structure as either limiting, evil, low-rent or some sort of imitation of authentic storytelling… they are actually talking about their preference for a certain story development process.  One that allows free-form thinking prior to the application of structural principles and optimization, in contrast to others (and there are just as many successful names here, as well) who create from same those principles.

Structure is not how you write a story.  Go about it any way that works for you, and call it whatever you’d like.

Rather, structure is what makes the thing work, when it finally does work.

Because when it does finally work – however you got there, via a one-draft manuscript-from-an-outline or 22 pantsed drafts written in the blood of your first born – it will have structure across the arc of the narrative.

Structure is precisely what the panster is looking for along the way.

Don’t take my word for it.  See what a so-called “artist” has to say on this topic.

A writer on TheAtlantic.com takes a fuzzy swing at bringing clarity to this discussion, and you may feel as I did that he succeeds only in muddying the water itself with his own hope that structure is after all a cheap date with shallowness that is dashed upon the realization that it turns out, also after all, to be the glorious manifestation of universal truth and physics.

Give it a read.

And then come back here… because he throws down a challenge that I hereby accept.

He claims that across the vast oeuvre of writing how-to, “nobody” has addressed the question, relative to structure… of why?

To which I say… oh contrare.

I am that “nobody.”

I guess this guy hasn’t read any of my three writing books – all of which have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in one or more of the many writing niche categories – or visited us here on Storyfix.com.  He even, in his own reluctant resolution that structure is a non-negotiable given – again, it’s not a process, it is the target and the desired outcome of any process that works – with the use of a word that I believe I was the first to apply to this craft, in this context: story physics (the title of my second writing book).

You want why?  I’ll tell you why.

Before a story will work – any story in any genre – a reader needs to feel some sense of curiosity and empathy for a protagonist.  That’s the primary mission and function of the Part 1 quartile chapters or scenes (in a novel or a screenplay)… this is where the story is setup in both character and dramatic contexts.

Both of those contexts are necessary for a story to work.  That, too, explains  the presence of a largely universal structural paradigm, because that framework accommodates and optimizes both.  It’s a tall order, which is why attempting to fill it without a solid handle on structure – something the nay-sayers seem to be suggesting – is like trying to develop a medicine without any training or notions about biochemistry.

A story that is simply a static immersion into a time and/or a place, a narrative 3-D postcard that dives deeply into geography and architecture as deeply as it does the backstories and physchological depths of the characters who are simply sitting there walking around among it all… that’s a story that doesn’t work.

I’ve met way more people people who couldn’t finish a Jonathan Franzan novel than those who could.

A story doesn’t work until something dramatic is proposed.  

A good story isn’t just about something – a time or a place or a culture or an issue or a theme – with the primary purpose of putting the reader inside of it all.  That’s journalism, not fiction.  That’s MFA stuff, and it doesn’t get published (ask an MFA grad, you’ll see).

Rather… a good story is about something HAPPENING within the context and framework of such a vividly-drawn story landscape.

When what is happening is up for grabs, with stakes and risk and consequences that readers can relate to… then it becomes dramatic.

Structure facilitates and accomplishes this, in a certain order and at a certain pace, whether the writer wants to call it that, or not. Even if they get there by instinct, or not (it’s still structure if/when they do get there, by whatever means).  By definition, the very “set-up” context of the first quartile leads to something happening – that’s precisely what has been set-up.

Can it be done on instinct?  Sure.  It happens.  Should it happen only by instinct?  That’s the wrong question.   Because this is also what happens – or more clearly, what doesn’t happen – in the vast majority of manuscripts that don’t work.  Mentors who urge writers to just sit down and wing it, forget about structure and everything else… “be like me, because that’s how I do it” – are engaging in a risky game of masturbatory hubris, masked beneath the smugness of false humility that suggests you can do what they do.

Right.  You, too, can do what Stephen King does.  Good luck with that.

If you’re tired of beating your  head against that wall, story structure is ready with a wake-up call.

There’s a time and a place for the writer’s instinct within any process.  

In every good story there comes a moment when everything changes.

It’s called The First Plot Point, among other descriptors (such as “doorway of no return” 0r “the jumping off moment,” etc.)  If it happens too early then the setup itself may be compromised.  Emotional resonance is a high bar if you fully launch the core dramatic thrust of a story in the first 20 to 30 pages, and if it happens too late then the reader might literally bail on the story… because nothing much worth sticking around for is actually happening.  We can only visualize so many falling leaves and the crisp cut of a gentleman’s cuff for so long before we toss the book aside and turn on Jimmy Kimmel instead.

Both choices make is easier to fall asleep.

The First Plot Point, when you truly master it as a narrative tool, is virtually without restriction.  

It is the very antithesis of formula.  because the manner and degree with which you thrust the story down a darker or steeper dramatic path is an infinitely wide road, yet one that demands a clear change of pace and direction.  This is where motivation and stakes collide for the first time, or at least with such a resounding thud, after dozens of pages of strategic setup have brought the reader – heart and mind – to this moment of embarkation.

So what happens then?  Structure tells us.  

Writers who don’t listen, or can’t speak the language, are left only to guess. And when they guess properly, that is not the antithesis of structure, but rather, the validation of one’s story sensibility, which is itself a manifestation of structure on an instinctual level.

The more a writer understands structure, the more instinctual it becomes.  Only when a writer gets to such a point does “story trump structure,” in the same way that an athlete’s gut instinct trumps the lines on the playing field.  Which are always there, by the way, in virtually any game you can  name.

Story never trumps structure.  That’s like saying health trumps medicine.

Story IS structure.

With a fresh journey underway thanks to the First Plot Point, fueled with reader empathy and curiosity and emotional resonance thanks to a newly elevated sense of need and stakes and fear and opportunity (all of it nothing other than character motivation), we now need to accompany our hero and other characters on a journey of response to this new direction and its richer context.

That’s the second quartile, a Part 2 “response” context.  Which, in classic three-act structure, is the first of “Act II;” because Act II has two equal halves, the entire arc of the story becomes, by definition, a four-part sequence, though shifting the language toward this level of specificity and accuracy – something I’ve tried to do in my work – is like trying to talk our electorate out of a two-party paradigm, even though both parts have a left, middle and right component, which becomes, in truth, a six-part demography.

An effective story changes in the middle.  Every time.

That’s not formula, that’s physics.

Here’s why.

If the story doesn’t offer a shift in the middle then chances are it won’t work as well.  That’s why we have a principle of structure that defines not only placement of this mid-story shift, but the nature of it — the curtain of awareness raises for either the hero, the reader, or both, by exposing truths heretofore hidden or masked or only partially assumed before.

Why?  Because pace will accelerate as a result.  A good thing.

That’s why.

With a new, clearly context of awareness in place for  your hero after this midpoint reveal, your hero will find new or heightened need and motivation, often in the form of closer proximity or necessity relative to some sort of proactive confrontation or strategy with the story’s antagonist (a role that absolutely needs to be filled in a story, usually by a villainous player but sometimes in the form of conditions – storms, illness, cultural roadblocks, etc. – or psychological incapacitation).

That’s why there is a Part 3 quartile (the second half of Act II) with a context of confrontation.  Because the reader needs to move closer, through the decisions and actions of your hero, toward a forthcoming resolution, which may or may not be clearly obvious.

There are no rules here.  Only shifting contexts and an evolving flow.

That’s why it’s not formula, but rather, why structure is empowerment and optimization.  Without it pace lags or exposition becomes random.  Without structure the hero remains stuck and separated from hope.  Without it resolution cannot ride a wave of evolving reader emotional engagement, which is how stories work best.

The story changes again in a new shift or exposure in what is called The Second Plot Point.  

This is truly a point of no return, more-so that the First Plot Point, because the hero is either swept toward an inevitable confrontation leading to resolution, or chooses it.  Either way, because this structure has facilitated an escalating level of reader engagement, we are there for every moment of an ultimate denouement, one in which the stakes fall as they will… all at the author’s behest.

Here’s one final, sobering truth about structure.  

It doesn’t assure you of anything.  You can do it all byk the book and your story still might not work all that well.  Structure is the fulfillment of ideas, not the ideas themselves, which is why it defies cynicism.  Structure is like an instrument, or like a blueprint – it is the creator’s fresh take and voice, the sense of specific timing and illumination, executed with passion and an eye for vicarious detail, that makes a story soar.

But like anything that seeks to soar, you must have wings to take you there.

Structure gives us those wings.  Without wings, there is no flight.  There is no story.

And in nature, wings are the very epitome of structure.

That’s WHY structure exists, and why we need to pay attention.  

It is also why some writers can execute a story perfectly with giving it a second thought, or acknowledging it afterwards – because structure is sensibility.

Every argument to the contrary is either a misinformed feint toward process, or a submission to the sweet bliss ignorance.

Without it, you may never know what you’re up against.

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19 Comments

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19 Responses to The “Why?” Behind the Inevitability of Story Structure

  1. That article is actually an excerpt from a whole book like that. Ouch.

    Critical thinking, the ability to see beneath the surface, to connect the seemingly unconnected, is rare. The ability to teach engagingly is also rare.

    Among those who write about creating art, those people at the intersection of thinking and teaching are almost nonexistent.

  2. I love this so much! I am constantly saying this to writers–no structure, no story. Structure is what makes your story work. A writer-friend of mine pointed me to an interview with my favorite author the other day–and the thing I most loved was how she talked about structuring her stories and how she won’t even write until she feels like the structure is in place. She’s a multi-bestselling novelist. And there’s a reason for it. Optimizing structure.

  3. Seemed to me as I was reading the article he was proving your point, that all successful stories have structure. His comments are absurd, but even he can’t deny that structure works. Why else would all the stories he mentioned be widely popular? It amazes me that many writers will jump on his bandwagon and “just write.” Hey, good luck to them. They’re going to need it.

  4. Kerry Boytzun

    From the Writer of the Atlantic: “The audience is bored. It can predict the exhausted UCLA film-school formulae—acts, arcs, and personal journeys—from the moment that they start cranking..”

    That is NOT why the audience is bored. The audience is bored because they have not placed themselves into the position of the protagonist, which is the fault of the writer/director due to poor story structure and writing delivery technique, not to mention the lack of a compelling story concept-premise.

    A story is a problem, something that isn’t understood. It’s the thing that you ask, “so what happens after THAT (the setup of the problem!).

    Understanding is the realm of your mind. The weaker the mind, the harder it is to write or understand a story. Story reading and writing is the realm of psychology, as in Jung, Freud. But hey, you don’t need to know anything about the mind to write a bunch of words that are to compel THE MIND to imagine they’re in your story, eh?

    Take the latest Star Wars 7 movie out there. I saw it the other day. SUCKS. Why? No story. The story is “Where’s Waldo?” Disney sucks. Even Lucas has posted he’s unhappy about it. Watch the latest Star Wars and tell me the REAL problem, and who is the real hero? It’s difficult to nail it down, as it’s all about copying what has been done before without having the wisdom to know WHY it was done that way.

    Joel Canfield is spot on in regards to critical thinking. If you are weak in thinking, just what do you expect to understand and write?

    Case in point, is the calibre of the movie trailers we saw while waiting for Star Wars 7: in summary it’s all Zombies vs the masses; aliens vs the masses; oh and we’re remaking everything. They’re remaking “Independance Day” and the actor for that movie says, “Wow the alien ship is way bigger than last time…”

    WOW. That’s writing at its finest! Remake yesterdays money cash-cow but make it more exaggerated, and oh yeah, sell lots of merchandise.

    While I’m at it, I read the latest John Grisham book, The Rogue Lawyer. It’s a bunch of episodes, literally a diary journal, in which Grisham is describing the out of control evil corruption of the legal system. He is right! But, the book has no core story, zilch. Grisham would be better off to write nonfiction and get interest on it all that way. This book is another example of no structure, no story. Zzzz. While I completely agree with Grisham’s opinions, the fictional story isn’t the correct avenue for it, however it may wake up some zombies.

    For anyone wanting to write compelling stories, absorb Larry’s writing books!

    • I knew the moment Zachary Quinto yelled “KHAAAAN”, J.J. Abrams was a lost cause. I don’t say that lightly. While, as a die-hard Trekkor, I know the first reboot was off canon, I still really liked it. But I guess that’s all the risk J.J. was willing to take.

      I started referring to SW7 as “The Fourth Awakens” before it even came out and it sounds like I’m correct. I saw Khan. In the theater! I saw Star Wars. In the theater! Don’t need to see the same movie in different clothes. George already took care of that with 1001 digital edits.

      Borrowing, deriving and such don’t bother me. I like both Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, even after I realized they’re the same story. But they are different enough to get away with it.

      But, when I was able to quote the characters live in the last 10 minutes of Into Darkness, well that’s a different story. Seriously, I was saying the lines right along with them even though I had never seen the movie. It was pure rip-off. (I was the only one in the theater, so I was able to really yell at the screen as the lines progressed. I interjected some flavor: ‘Khaaan, you [beeeeep]’)

      And so I haven’t seen The Fourth Awakens yet, even though all my friends say, “Woot!” Yeah, well, I understand story stuff, so I’m probably going to be gritting my teeth through the whole thing. No, that’s Tatooine, No, that’s the same call refused. No, that’s the same antagonistic force. No, that’s the same theme.

      Besides, I’m pretty sure that little roly poly droid is going to irritate me.

      HUGE missed opportunity by Disney et al. Of course, the whole “long time ago in a galaxy far far away” fourth wall is torn down with dynamite when Cover Girl opts in for merchandising. But that’s a different, um, story.

      I’ve asked this before, what the hell is happening to screenwriting? Has the cat actually killed it or is it something else?

      And yeah, it’s OK for me to ask that even though I’m not an established writer. Those fellas are supposed to know better.

      Hire Larry! He’s good at it!

  5. Edward Anthony Giambalvo

    I agree with EVERYTHING you say on structure Larry, and found the Atlantic guy an intellectual bore. I had to laugh at some of the “big” words he used to prove his literary chops. But I also think the question of structure is getting a little boring, in general, because it’s pretty much “proven science,” not in how you write the story but how the story is constructed, in the end.

    The more fascinating thing I’ve learned from your books, and what is a struggle for so many, including me, and is where, in the end, Hollywood and all other mass-producers fail, is in developing an outstanding Concept.

    A great concept is the entry point to a great story. A lousy concept with great structure is still a lousy story. A great concept with a lousy structure has a chance, at least, of being a great story. And of course a great concept coupled with a great structure is boffo!

    CONCEPT is the key that unlocks that “aha” moment in our psyches.

    Anyway, best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2016.

  6. You opened my eyes to story structure years ago and I’m forever grateful. Thanks for sharing this strong piece.

  7. Bea

    I guess I’m the odd woman out here, but I don’t see why everybody here is so up in arms about the Atlantic article. It seems to me like an intelligent, clearly written exploration of different ideas about how a story is made/constructed/structured. Just because a writer looks at varied aspects of a thing doesn’t mean he is contradicting himself.

    And he doesn’t contradict the concept of the need for story structure, either. To the contrary, I think he’s saying that stories have have a very similar basic structure ever since stories have been told! Just look at the title and subtitle of the article: “All Stories Are the Same:From Avatar to The Wizard of Oz, Aristotle to Shakespeare, there’s one clear form that dramatic storytelling has followed since its inception.” (by John Yorke)

    And later, he writes, “All stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use; the laws of physics, of logic, and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path.”

    I think Yorke wrote an honest, interesting article from a place of humility.

    • When he wrote “nobody ever tells us why” it made him sound fairly ignorant, to me.

      Robert McKee’s Story has been out there for years. McKee tells us why.

      Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid has been out there for almost a year. Shawn tells us why.

      Larry’s books have been around for years, too. He tells us why in every book and many blog posts.

      For someone who is writing about writing to be ignorant of all these resources is, if not inexcusable, at least enough to raise question about their knowledge of the subject.

      • Kerry Boytzun

        Exactly. Well said. Imagine if you had to prove your point like you were in a court of law. The Atlantic article has no foundation to claim nobody ever tells us why. The Atlantic article is LAZY writing with not even a Google to see if maybe, just maybe somebody DID tell us.

        Joel Canfield rests his case…

    • Yes, it is a very well-written article which discusses the nature of story structure in a very thoughtful manner. I think the problem is the assumption of academic superiority by Mr. Yorke, which is encapsulated in his comment about snake oil salesmen.

      He’s accusing those who teach structure of not actually understanding it. When he asks “why?” he’s not asking why structure is important, he’s asking pundits to substantiate their views on the matter. More specifically, he’s challenging the tropes of modern commercial story production as having been derived from legitimate dramatic principles, whose real meaning have been lost in their industrial use. He then proceeds to dismiss those pundits en masse as ignorant hacks while he assumes the role of “He Who Really Understands.”

      He’s not saying guys like Larry are wrong. He’s accusing them of not knowing what they’re talking about. It’s a slight that rubs fur the wrong way.

  8. (Coughs in hand.) I had the misfortune or revelatory opportunity (yeah, right) to crit a first chp of someone who ‘hung’ with Diana G on the aol site. (You’re kidding, that still exists?)

    Anyway, Larry’s point re those with story instinct pulling it off, hell yes. This person, hell no. OMG, what a freaking mess. And this stinker was out on submission & thus, my suggestion (basically trash this and figure out how to haul an intelligent person into your story) was blithely dismissed as oh, this would take a long time to rewrite. (Ya think?)

    Before I degenerate into foul (fowl!) language, I bless the day I stumbled on Story Engineering & every LB book since.

  9. Short answer:

    Why?

    Because a story must begin and end. This is sufficient to demand structure, even if it’s just the beginning and the end. Without both, you don’t have a story. Every good story must be a paint-by-numbers affair that strictly adheres to the etched-in-stone edict that a story must begin and end.

    I am Logic. Fear me.

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  11. Mike Robinson

    Kindly notice what Larry says happens “==after== ‘the reveal'” at the midpoint of the story.

    It is: “‘Therefore,’ OH SH#T!!”
    … emphasis: “Therefore!!”

    As writers, we are magicians (and prophets): we know how the trick is done, and we know how the story ends. Therefore, “we (must) know the SECOND half of the story,” from the very start. We must know that “Rosebud is his sled.”

    … and, from this, we must construct a story that is just as compelling, “before,” as it is “after.” The story, on both sides of the aisle, must be both “complete” and(!) “satisfying.”

    Remember: our Gentle Reader does not know, as we do, “when the axe will fall.” The Reader must feel comfortable and satisfied in our story, before “OH SH#T(!),” even though “OH SH#T(!)” will, obviously, “change everything.”

    “Ex post facto,” so to speak, our Gentle Reader must feel that s/he “has, of course, ‘been lead on,’ but FAIRLY.” After the axe has fallen, the story that existed in the reader’s mind up to that point nevertheless does not “feel like a cheat.” The reader does not “feel ‘used.'” Instead, the reader feels even more engaged within your story than s/he did before the axe appeared.

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  15. You mentioned some good points!