“Your structure is off…” — What Does That Even ‘Mean’?

You may have heard that.  In fact, you may have heard that from me, either by virtue of having me evaluate your story, or through your own interpretation of the story architecture principles I espouse here.

It may confuse you.  It may even piss you off.

Not everyone understands the difference between a principle and a rule. Truth is, there are no “rules” in art… but we can lay no claim to art until the principles that underpin effectiveness have been put into play.

That’s not a paradox as much as it is a major lightbulb going off.  If you haven’t heard that glorious little “click”  yet, keep reading, I’m pointing you toward the on switch.

In storytelling, however, what we do have instead of rules are options.  Creative choices.  And for those — to ensure that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot — we have principles.

Principles are there to keep us safe, to empower our work.

When someone tells you your story structure is weak, it usually means one of the following: pacing is sluggish… not enough tension… no discernible character arc… too one dimensional… not complex or layered enough to sustain interest.  Dull as dirt.

Truth is, you’ll probably hear one of those dark critiques before you’ll hear about your structure.  But pay attention to both,, because one is cause and the other is effect.

Structure is the means toward pace, tension, arc, depth and compelling interest.  It is the roadmap, the paradigm, that allows them to happen in an optimal way.  To mess with structure — to believe you can make it up as you please — is to put these outcomes at risk.

The more you understand about cause and effect in your fiction, the better your stories will be.
The principles of story structure set you free to be great.

Step off a cliff and you will fall.  Do it with the right gear, something that mitigates the very physics you seek to defy, and you have a shot at living to leap another day.

Really?  Why can’t we simply write a story any dang way we please?

We can… provided the story aligns with the basic principles of fiction.  Trouble is, basic as the principles are, too many writers don’t consider them when facing the very  choices in a story that will define its ultimate effectiveness.

They just write it.  Something comes to them in the flow, and they put it in.  And then they move on.

Think of every airplane you’ve ever seen.  There are hundreds of designs, sizes and shapes.  Some have two wings, some have four, some barely have any.  Some have propellers, some don’t, some have strange tails (just as some writers tell strange tales… sorry about that typo in the first edition of this post),  some are shaped like a flying pachyderm.  Some don’t even have pilots.

There are no rules, if that’s how you want to intrepret it.

But… they all align with certain principles, or they cannot fly.

Same with our stories.

Why do certain things need to be in certain places, in a certain order, and in specific context to other certain things?

When you see this — story structure itself — as an application of principles rather than a constriction borne of rules, then you’re onto something.  This shift is perhaps the most critical milestone is a writer’s development, because without it one remains alone and without a compass in a sea of creative choices that will drown your story in a heartbeat.

Principles, not rules, give us access to the physics of storytelling.These universal literary forces don’t care if you understand them or not (kind of like gravity and the certainty that the sun will rise in the morning), they will always be there to influence your story, to either drag it down or lift it up… depending how you apply them.

What do bestselling authors know that you don’t?  It isn’t the freedom to break  what you might perceive to be rules.  Rather, they understand the awesome power of applying the principles of literary physics within a story.  It is the certain knowledge that it is the principles themselves that bestow freedom to our choices, in context to the certainty that to violate them is a sure route to literary suicide.

If that sounds harsh, it won’t once you understand what specific principles I’m talking about here.  If you don’t recognize them as essential, then you don’t understand fiction.

And if you want to call them rules, in that case… it doesn’t matter.  They don’t care, they’ll still kill you if you ignore them.

Here are the best of those principles.

A story without a hero to root for will not work well.  We don’t have to like our heroes (as readers), but we do need to root for them to keep us engaged.

Conflict — dramatic tension — is what makes a story more than a character study.  Plot is what gives characters something to do… and what your characters do becomes the optimal way to illuminate character.  Thus, these two elements of story physics — dramatic tension and hero empathy — depend on each other to work.

Compelling pace is more effective than stories with misguided pace.

The more vivid the world you create, the more vicarious the experience you deliver to your reader, the more succcessful the story will be.

These aren’t rules, they are principles of story physics.  Understand the difference.

That’s my belabored, over-written point today.  Understand the difference.

The real issue isn’t the physics, it’s the author’s relationship with the physics of storytelling…which include a compelling premise or concept, dramatic tension, pace, hero empathy, vicarious journey, and strength of execution (the latter being the goal of, and the sum total of, the Six Core Competencies of successful storytellingg.

When, perhaps unknowingly, or from a desire to break rules and do something you believe to be out of the box, by definition you are thus confused about what commercial creativity even means.  It’s almost impossible to cite an example of a story that has proven successful without those physics in play.

Better, then, to understand how to harness these story forces to make your story as good as it can possibly be within parameters of your own making.

Sometimes you get lucky, you tap into one or more of the elements of story physics intuitively as you unspool your narrative, but more often you succeed when you are conscious of these forces and don’t allow yourself to settle… when you push your story with a view toward optimizing the very forces that will give it wings.

And how do you do that?

By understanding the elements, context and mission of story architecture, as it manifests on the page via structure.

Where you start, what comes next, what comes after that, what and where and why to twist and evolve the story, how to end it… you optimize them not from the pure genius of your learning-curve savvy intuitive self, but from a proactive application of the role and inevitable presence of story physics in your vetting of, and ultimately your selection of, the elements and moments of your story.

Story structure isn’t a rule.  It is the means toward freedom to create without risk.

It is a set of principles that are illuminations of the truth about what makes a story work.

8 Comments

Filed under Six Core Competencies

8 Responses to “Your structure is off…” — What Does That Even ‘Mean’?

  1. Thanks! Your timing is great and this is just what I needed now.
    Don’t misunderstand, your Hunger Games posts were good too but I haven’t read it yet so until I do… Those days of being able to read an dissect novels will come again, being a writer is a continuous cycle.
    But this was the post I needed to today – and the beat sheet. Structure is always my greatest challenge because I’m all about characters.
    Happy writing!

  2. Leanne Lucas

    1) I love what I’m learning about story structure, but I one thing I really want to know is how you come up with such great metaphors…”without a compass in a sea of creative choices that will drown your story in a heartbeat.” Your writing is full of them, and I want to learn how to do THAT.

    2) You always say we don’t have to like a character, but we have to want to root for him/her. You’ve probably addressed this before, but I don’t remember it if you have. How can you really root for someone if there isn’t something about them that you like? I can’t think of a book or movie I’ve finished that had a main character I didn’t like for some reason. I can think of one (“Payback” with Mel Gibson) that I turned off in the middle because I found all the characters pretty repulsive.

    Anyway, thanks, Larry – you always make me think…

  3. I love the airplane analogy. I’m finally getting a firm grasp on structure (in part thanks to the Hunger Games dissection) and it’s helping me immensely in my rewrite.

  4. Shaun

    @ Leanne Lucas,

    What I think he means is that while you don’t have to like the character, you do have to sympathize (perhaps even empathize) with him or her. Understand their motivation/situation.

    Yes/no/maybe so?

    • @Leanne, and Shawn — Shawn’s right, it’s that simple. Unlikeable heroes are everywhere in detective and thriller genres particularly. What’s not really negotiable is that the reader must ROOT for the hero in the STORY-SPECIFIC ARC you’ve given them. As for the rest of their life, they can go back to their golddigging, womanizing, larcenous ways… but in this story — YOUR story — they have a chance to be heroic, and we root for that. The rest is you call… just didn’t opt into the “we must LIKE our hero” old school truism, because it’s not true. We need to reach higher and go deeper than that. Hope this helps. L.

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