All this talk about story structure… it’s easy to get the wrong idea. Because in the sequence of revelations and midnight ah-hahs and pure flashes of genius that come with the territory of writing a novel or screenplay, structure doesn’t come first.
It doesn’t even come second.
But eventually it must come. Or the campaign you call your story will never fly. Or if it does get off the ground – at least in your view – it’ll sink faster than a Dick Cheney Presidential run.
So what does come first?
Structure is the skeleton upon which you hang the meat of your story. Which means, you need to create the muscle and skin and organs of your story, not to mention its personality and emotional landscape – the meat of it all – first and foremost. Or at least have a strong notion of what those things will be.
Without all that, structure is just a bag of useless bones.
And with all that, but without solid structure holding it in place, what you have then is a mess.
Didn’t know there even are such structural principles for storytelling? Thought you could just make up whatever structure you want in the service of your story?
Here’s the truth: you can’t find a published book or movie without structure. And not just any structure, or something the author concocted.
You can’t just make it up as you go. You need to apply the known principles of dramatic fiction or your story will collapse like a building without beams.
A successful writer uses principles of structure to help formulate the elements of a story.
For example, proper structure depends upon an inciting incident that transitions the story from set-up mode into hero-response mode.
Which means, simply by understanding this concept the writer knows that the inciting incident – also known as the First Plot Point – is at the top of the list of the things that must be created before the story will work. That it is the most important moment in the whole story.
And then, once formulated, the writer who understands structure knows precisely where to put it within the sequence of the story.
Structure, then, serves two purposes. It is a tool that guides us toward the creation of the elements of our story, allowing no omissions or short-shrift. Then, once the story’s elements are known, structure becomes the roadmap for laying out those elements in proper sequence.
So what does the writer need to know before structure becomes relevant as a roadmap?
Well, genre, for starters. Then, at some point, you need to decide on first or third person narrative. You need a killer concept upon which to build. You need a compelling hero to carry the dramatic ball – the key word being compelling, which means you need to have thought this through beforehand. You need to give that hero something to do, to accomplish, to save, to fix, to discover or to redeem. You need to give them a few internal demons that will make the journey difficult. And mostly, you need external obstacles that oppose those goals.
All before you worry about structure.
Structure won’t give you those things. But it just might lead to them by virtue of knowing you have a blank space to fill in.
And then, it provides a purpose for them and a place to put them once conceptualized. It tells the writer that until that happens, milestone by milestone, part by part, the story isn’t yet complete.
If you don’t understand story structure, you may not ever realize that your story is half-baked or too thin. Which means, when the rejection slip arrives, you won’t have a clue why.
Let’s circle back and put structure in proper perspective.
Story structure is one of six core competencies you need to bring to the storytelling party. The others are: concept, character, theme, scene construction, and writing voice.
Three of those – four when you include structure – are elements of your story: concept, character and theme. At the end of the day, when your story stands alone as solid and saleable, all of them will be in place.
The other two – scene construction and writing voice – are issues of execution.
The four elements are the game plan. The two executional skills represent the ability to bring that plan to fruition. A great plan in the hands of an unskilled writer won’t fly. Neither will a shabby plan in the hands of a great writer.
A skeleton – story structure – can’t walk around, chat up neighbors, have coffee, solve crimes, fall in love. A skeleton has no purpose, no life of its own. Only until you put some flesh on those storytelling bones will you have created something that deserves an audience.
And like a human skeleton, you shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature.
Structure is a tool, nothing more. An essential one.
New definition of insanity for writers: trying to bring a skeleton to life before you know what the monster you are creating – the flesh of the story – will be like once incarnated.
The power of structure works equally well for story planners and pantsers alike. Because successful pantsers write their drafts either in search of or in context to it, rather than making it up as they go along. The only thing they make up as they along, at least the successful ones — is the flesh that will hang on those structural bones.
Once these elements – concept, character and theme — fall into sequential place, one of two things usually happens to the pantser: they go back to the drafting board and start over, writing the next draft in context to the elements that are now in play… or they try to retrofit them into a manuscript that had no idea (no context, no foreshadowing, and no structure) these particular creative body parts would ever make an appearance.
The latter, of course, is a disaster.
For story planners, we are stuck with another type of madness…
… the limbo of knowing too little about our stories to actually write it well. So we resort to notebooks full of random thoughts, index cards, sticky notes on office walls, flowcharts and long walks with a patient friend to discover the best concept, character and theme that we might eventually come to wrap our head around it all.
And then, once we do know, we drag our skeleton – story structure – out of the closet to dress it up with the shiny new suit of dramatic flesh we see in our mind’s eye. It may not work perfectly, but at least there will be something there that can be saved.
Because all the essential parts are there, and roughly in the right place.
Here’s the magic of that process, for pantsers and plotters alike: that skeleton is roughly the same every time: two legs, a backbone, shoulders, two dangling arms, a neck and a skull. And yet, despite that simplicity, human beings wander the earth with unfathomable individuality, both in a physical and an emotional (personality) sense.
God doesn’t worry about the structure, that’s a given. It is what it is. Yet God creates with great latitude the form and function of the individuals that are draped over that skeleton.
So it is with writers as we play God with our stories.
Story structure is there for you, waiting in the closet of your imagination. If you can’t grasp that skeleton in a generic sense, then chances are you won’t create a story that will work.
Once you know what your story is about, why it will fascinate, what it will explore, who it will introduce us to, and why the reader will invest themselves and come to care about it all, structure becomes the necessary and solid means by which you will bring it to successful life.
So many stories to tell, so little time. And yet, only one basic skeletal model upon which to hang it all.
For an in-depth understanding of narrative structure, check out Story Structure – Demystified, a new ebook that takes the mystery out of knowing what to write, where to put it, and why it won’t be remotely formulaic.