What’s the single most overlooked, misunderstood—and yet most important—part of storytelling? If you cheated and looked at the title, you already know the answer is structure. Most uninitiated writers have two different reactions to the idea of story structure. Either they think it’s great, but too mystical and lofty to be understood by common mortals, or they think it’s formulaic hooey that will sap the art right out of their books.
I started out somewhere in the “huh?” camp that didn’t even realize there was such a thing as structure. From there, I progressed to reading complicated outlines that left me shaking my head. If that was structure then my story was practically written for me before I even came up with a decent idea. Thanks, but no thanks.
What I didn’t know—what most writers don’t know—is that even as I subjected the idea of story structure to ignorance and ridicule, I was actually structuring my stories without even realizing it. In the years since, I’ve been introduced to many theories of structure, all of which bear out the inevitable components found in all good stories, whether their authors deliberately structured them or were just lucky enough to wing it on their own good instincts.
|Image by Calliope Diavolo|
Some experts’ approach to structure is mesmerizingly complex. John Truby’s must-read The Anatomy of Story presents twenty-two elements of story structure. Syd Field’s canonical Screenplay (which is just as valuable for novelists as for screenwriters) breaks story down to the simpler three-act structure. All of these approaches incorporate the same tenets of structure, but some of them break them down into smaller chunks. I prefer a happy medium of the two: ten steps that are found in every story and, when arranged correctly, give both author and reader the biggest bang for their buck.
As you’ve probably already figured out, all this just goes to say that today I’d like to introduce a new series. Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring the mysteries, the fallacies, and the opportunities of structure.
But first let’s consider a few of the reasons every author should care about structure—and why none of us should fear it.
Structure is required in all of art.
Dancing, painting, singing, you name it—all art forms require structure. Writing is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the form’s limitations, as well as how to put its many parts into the proper order to achieve maximum effect.
Structure does not limit creativity.
Authors often fear structure will limit their ability to be creative. If they have to follow a certain road in their story and observe certain pit stops, won’t the story be written for them? But this isn’t the case. Structure presents only a shape—the curve of the story arc that we all recognize as vital to a novel’s success. The only difference is that structure allows us to be concrete and confident in our creation of that arc, ensuring the shape always turns out perfectly.
Structure is not formulaic.
Another fear is that if every story has the same structure, won’t every story ultimately be the same? But this isn’t any more true than is the idea that because every ballet incorporates the same movements, every ballet must be the same. Structure is only the box that holds the gift. What that gift may be is as wildly varied as the wrapping paper it hides behind.
Structure offers a checklist of must-have elements.
Don’t we read how-to books (and blogs like this one) because we’re wanting to discover and remember all the elements that make up a successful story? Structure is nothing more than a list of those elements, all tied up in one tidy package. How handy is that?
Structure solidifies mastery of the craft.
Learning to consciously understand the techniques you’re probably already using on an instinctive level can only broaden your understanding and tighten your mastery of the craft. When I first discovered the intricacies of structure, I was amazed to realize I was already incorporating most of the elements into my stories. Learning about them then allowed me to strengthen my raw instinct into purposeful knowledge.
So are you ready to open up a whole new world of storytelling? Structure is exciting, comforting, and liberating all at the same time. Whether you’re discovering the ins and outs of story structure for the first time or just brushing up, I hope you’ll join us for the next ten weeks as we delve into the most salient and crucial moments in the structure of the story.
Stay tuned: Next week, we talk about the Hook.
Tell me your opinion: How do you feel about the idea of story structure?
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