Reasonably enough, you’re a writer who wants to do “your own thing.” You want to write the story you want to write, and you want it to be as long as it needs to be. You want to ride the tumultuous wave of creativity straight out of the well-spring and all the way to the sea, without ever thinking about story structure even once. But story structure isn’t meant to be a limit on your creativity and lead to formulaic, cookie-cutter fiction.
You know who you are: the so-called “pantser.” You make up your first draft as you go along. And for a first draft, there’s no reason not to do it that way. Throw aside the constraints of what is and what has been, and strike out into the undiscovered country on your noble quest for whatever might be new under the sun.
But if your goal is publication (particularly traditional publication), you’re ultimately going to need to come to terms with the principles of story structure. Sure, you can self-publish your 500,000 word rambling epic fantasy romance thriller paranormal adventure with its seventeen characters and all their interlocking story arcs in one (or more) massive volume. And in self-publishing, all bets are off. Neither I nor any other writing/publishing guru has a Magic 8-Ball that says, “It is certain” about your chances for success with that as a self-published author. But maybe you’re not clear on what “story structure” really is?
There is No Science to Story Structure
Story structure is not an equation. It’s not going to reduce your story to quantifiable parts: a + b + c = sell-out best-seller. For one thing, the industry just doesn’t work like that. Can you find formulaic hack-writing from traditional publishers on bookshelves? Of course you can. But (as a rule), those aren’t the best-sellers, those aren’t the perennial money-makers. Sure, they might flash in the pan for some reason, but they aren’t going to achieve lasting, long-term success just because they followed a classic three-act (or other) story structure.
Why is this such a fear among writers? It probably has to do with writing instructors whose gifts lean more toward instruction than toward writing. It might have to do with the way English Literature is taught, with an eye toward deconstruction rather than authorial intention.
Don’t get me wrong. I can engage in a Derridean deconstruction with the best of them. But knowing how other people can someday pick your work apart doesn’t help you today in creating a work that will someday be picked apart.
But a basic understanding of story structure does.
Story structure is about evolution. It’s a way to trace the beats of the character’s growth through the sequence of unfortunate events to the evolution in his perception that allows him to resolve the plight of his story. It’s about finding one’s way to that “Eureka!” moment when the character comes to terms with the false belief he has doggedly held onto, and embraces instead that new world-view in which his plight simply doesn’t exist anymore.
This evolution involves alchemy, magic, mysticism. It requires creativity. But science has nothing to do with it.
Three Key Ingredients of Story Structure
Really, story structure is more like a recipe. With the right ingredients, mixed in such and such a way, yes, it will look just like the picture in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But what if you don’t have all the right ingredients? What if you don’t measure them just so?
Like cooking, writing is a matter of a pinch of this and a punch of that. It’s about experimentation and taking chances.
But also like cooking, beef bourguignon isn’t beef bourguignon if it’s made without beef braised in red wine. There are key ingredients that make particular recipes… well, particular.
So what are the three key ingredients in story structure?
- Desire: Your character wants something.
- Surrender: Your character can’t have what she wants, and she gives up trying to get it.
- Evolution: Your character realizes that she can have what she wants, but it’s not what she expected.
Story Structure is About Plight, Not Plot
Notice that this is not just another version of The Hero’s Journey. In fact, it has nothing to do with the plot at all (except that it does). Story structure is about the theme. It’s a method of organizing the events in the plot in such a way that they serve the three key ingredients, rather than distracting from them.
You will remember from my maxims of storytelling (here and here) that every character is at odds with the central plight in the story. Every character wants the same thing, and every character has a false belief about how that thing will benefit that character. It is through your characters’ relationships to that common desire and their struggles to achieve it that the theme is explored. It is by tracking your character’s desire or goal through your story, that the central plight is revealed.
That’s it. That’s all story structure is. For those of you who were told there wouldn’t be any math, poof! No math. No equations. No formulae. Start with the end, skip to the beginning, and end on the middle, if that’s what your creative heart desires. Just keep your focus on the three main ingredients. Work toward bringing out and enhancing their flavors, rather than overwhelming them with too much pepper.
Just three simple things to keep in mind as you walk through a re-reading and re-writing of your first draft.
- What does my character want?
- What does it look like when my character realizes he can’t have what he wants, and gives up?
- How does my character change in relation to his desire, such that he achieves his goal after all?
That’s it. The Art of Structure.