4 Ways to Prevent Formulaic Story Structure

4 Ways to Prevent Formulaic Story Structure

4 Ways to Prevent Formulaic Story StructureOne of the most common concerns writers have about story theory is the fear of creating formulaic story structure.

If you’re following a set pattern of dictated beats for your story, then won’t your story lack originality? Won’t readers see the expected plot turns coming from a mile off? Indeed, won’t story structure inhibit your creativity by forcing you to conform to a preconceived format?

These are all valid questions.

Fiction is an art. And as artists, most writers enter the arena wanting to give free rein to their imaginations. It’s all about self-expression and creative abandon. Structure sounds… well, too structured.

Add to that the fact that we can all look to certain genres and immediately start pointing out similarities, tropes, and cliches. We don’t want our stories to look that. But if we have to follow formulaic story structure, isn’t that exactly what we’re doomed to?

Let’s examine these questions a little more microscopically, and then talk about how you can take advantage of story structure without worrying about your stories becoming formulaic.

Formulaic Story Structure: Is It True?

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Yes, it’s true: story structure is a formula. Three acts, seven major turning points. The reason story structure even exists as a concept is because writers, over time, have recognized, analyzed, and broken down the patterns that arise consistently in almost all successful stories—across centuries, nations, cultures, religions, and genders.

These patterns exist for a couple reasons:

1. They are reflections of the similar patterns that span the human experience.

Unique as we each may be, we are all on essentially the same journey. We are born, we struggle, we die. On an even more intimate level, we also share similarities within our most personal experiences: self-doubt, losing a loved one, reaching a goal, falling in love, searching for the meaning of life.

There are distinguishable arcs. Questions and challenges arrive—and we either rise to them or fall before them. It’s a pattern. A formula, in a sense.

5 Secrets of Story Structure2. The patterns of life are ingrained in our psyches.

Because we live these patterns and see them lived in the lives around us, we understand them and resonate with them on a deep and primal level. They are a foundational part of who we are as humans. As such, we instinctively relate to them and mimic them in our storytelling experiences.

Like many authors, my relationship to story structure started with outright rejection—until the moment I realized the stories I had written before I even knew story structure existed were, in fact, instinctively following this so-called formula. All the Acts and Plot Points were there.

I was was “writing what I knew.” I was instinctively mimicking the human experience in my stories and recreating its familiar and necessary beats as I tried to bring my characters realistically to life.

So, yes, story structure is formulaic. But that’s not a bad thing. That’s the whole point. Story structure is nothing more or less than a recognition of how life works and an attempt to purposefully recreate it in a dramatic and emotionally-powerful way on the page.

But, yeah, I know. The very word formulaic still has you cringing, right?

That’s because there is certainly such a thing as story structure crossing the line into rigidity, predictability, and outright tedium.

But where is that line? How can you use structure to create reliably good stories without ending up with what every writer dreads—formulaic story structure?

4 Ways to Avoid Formulaic Story Structure

Learning how to properly use story structure is a balancing act. Authors must learn to internalize a conscious knowledge of story theory, so they can harmonize their logical understanding with their instinctive understanding.

Most of the problems with story structure—either the lack of it or the over-reliance on it—arise because authors are overcompensating in one direction or another. Either they are ignoring the importance of structure in an attempt to blindly feel their way through a story. Or they are forcing themselves to adhere rigidly to a set of “rules,” at the expense of their own individuality and creativity.

Both extremes are mistakes.

Here are four ways to find the perfect balance.

1. Understand the Difference Between Genre Expectations and Genre Cliches

In observing formulaic storytelling in action, I find it’s rarely the story structure causing the problem. Rather, the sense of over-familiarity with certain plot beats is more likely arising from specific genre tropes.

All good stories, regardless their genre, are built upon the skeleton of basic story structure. (As I explore in the Story Structure Database, you can find the same important plot points, with the same timing, across genres and mediums.) However, the guidelines often become even narrower in certain genres, such as romance, action, mystery, and westerns.

Readers of any genre will always expect to find certain things in their books. Indeed, that’s the whole point of genre: it’s a marketable niche that guides readers to finding the elements they most enjoy.

It’s important to fulfill your readers’ expectations. If they start reading your romance only to find… no romance—they’re not going to like it.

However, it’s just as important to distinguish between genre expectations and genre cliches. Readers may want the same old thing, but that doesn’t mean they want the same old thing.

One of the first things I do in outlining a new story is start a list of answers to the questionsWhat will readers expect?” and “What won’t readers expect?” Some of the answers to the first question tell me the beats I know I need to fulfill. Other answers tell me which expectations I can subvert in order to buck genre cliches and attempt something original.

In short:

Subverting genre tropes doesn’t alter foundational story structure in the least. Rather, with the strong basis of that structure underneath you, you have the security to try as many new and interesting things as your imagination can dream up.

2. Embrace the Consistent Emotional Pattern of Strong Story Arcs

Story structure is awesomesauce. It really is. Aside from just the geekiness of realizing there’s this incredible pattern that explains why humans relate so powerfully to well-told stories, it’s also a tremendously valuable tool in the hand of any author.

It’s the secret ingredient.

In the early days, before I understood structure, I felt as though I was in a constant struggle with my stories: trying to figure out how to make them as relatable, powerful, and good as possible, and yet never quite knowing how I was even supposed to define those terms.

Story structure is just the beginning. Story theory is the guiding star that leads to the ever-broadening horizons of character and theme. Together, this trifecta—plot, character, and theme—give you the understanding of what is required to create stories with consistently powerful emotional arcs.

These arcs work because they’re real. They work because we all live them out time and again in our own lives. They work because in understanding how life works, we instantly understand how to better comment upon it via realistic and compelling characters.

In Short: 

Don’t fight story structure. The irony is avoiding it probably will not help you write stories that are less formulaic. Indeed, embracing story structure is the first step to a wider world of true originality.

3. Learn Structure, Trust the Structure, Fly Free

When you’re first learning story structure, it can feel… clunky. You just want to write the this big, beautiful story bubbling out of you. But now you have all these rules and regulations you’re supposed to be aware of. You’re trying to make your logical brain and your creative brain work at the same time—and it often feels awkward.

But stick with it. True mastery of structure involves growing beyond the need to constantly consult a checklist of “must-dos.” The better you understand structure and the more fully you integrate it on a subconscious level, the less you’ll need to consciously consult it.

Occasionally, people will ask me, “How do you use the workbooks you’ve written on outlining, story structure, and character arcs?” The answer is: I don’t. I don’t need to anymore. I still outline my stories with a conscious seeking of story structure, but I understand what is required by that structure on a deep enough level that I don’t have to run through an external checklist.

Workbooks and beat sheets are great tools. But they should also be a stepping stone to learning story structure so deeply that you reach a point of harmonizing your conscious and subconscious creativity. For example, when I started consciously structuring my stories, I would initially have to look for the First Plot Point. I would have to brainstorm the proper event that could launch my story into the Adventure World of the conflict. These days, First Plot Points find me. A scene idea will come, and I will immediately and instinctively understand this is going to be the story’s First Plot Point—which then gives me the focal point to imagine the rest of the story around this event.

In Short:

Put in the due diligence to your apprenticeship to story structure. It will be difficult at first, but the more you study and practice, the more instinctive it will become—until the day you no longer even think in terms of the story structure being a separate entity from the story itself. When that day comes, your creativity will no longer be a wild mustang, but rather a powerful, muscled, trained racehorse.

4. Accept Imperfections and Deviations From “Ideal” Story Structure

Ohmigosh, the rules. Some writers love them so much they burrow into them like a mound of comfy blankets. Other writers immediately go all wild-eyed and flee as if their lives depended on it.

Not surprisingly, reality lies somewhere in between.

Story structure is more than a guideline. It’s important because it is almost universal in its ability to create stories that work. Story structure is a precise science; but it’s not an exact science.

A few years ago, the website Slate notoriously posted about how Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and its scriptwriting beat sheets had turned Hollywood movies into robotic clones. The article’s author Peter Suderman contrasted this with the more general exploration of story theory, as presented in Syd Field’s Screenplay and Robert McKee’s Story:

Screenplay gurus like Syd Field and Robert McKee touted the essential virtues of three-act structure for decades. For Field and McKee, three-act structure is more of an organizing principle—a way of understanding the shape of a story. Field’s Story Paradigm, for example, has just a handful of general elements attached to broad page ranges.

Field and McKee offered the screenwriter’s equivalent of cooking tips from your grandmother—general tips and tricks to guide your process. Snyder, on the other hand, offers a detailed recipe with step-by-step instructions.

I’m not anti-Cat! in the least. It’s full of great and practical advice. But this approach is far more formulaic than the kind of integrated understanding of story that I’m talking about. And there comes an unfortunate point where some authors are so determined to nail down every single moment on a specific beat sheet that they end up missing the forest for the trees.

Even the seven beats of story structure and their respective timings, as I teach them, don’t have to be adhered to rigidly. There’s breathing room. The story is still king, even though you must be in tune enough with good storytelling to really understand what your monarch is telling you.

In Short:

I’ve yet to write a story that was perfectly structured. Heck, I don’t know if I ever read or watched a story that was perfect. Don’t sweat it. An understanding of why certain beats are important is much more useful than a blind adherence to checklists and timelines.

***

Don’t get hung up on the concept of story structure. (Even the word sounds a bit like a strait jacket, doesn’t it?) Instead, focus on the underlying story theory. (Aww… room to breathe once more!)

The only reason story structure is important is because it is the fundamental principle that has arisen from story theory—from the exploration of transforming the abstracts of storytelling into the concrete facts of technique. Story structure exists. There’s no denying that. But from that realization, it’s just one exciting step to gaining the skills to consciously implement that structure in your stories in a holistic and personal way.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you (or did you) fear formulaic story structure? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. thearcherofGod says:

    Do you think a very long story may have an amplified structure? Like 4 acts and 4 plot points?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No, not unless it’s telling more than one story.

      That was a question I asked myself early on, so I started studying really long books (like, say, Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings). I noted down every turning point in the book, trying to figure out if there were extras just because of the length. But nope, same old structure—just a lot more padding in between. 🙂

    • Don’t let it stop you from experimenting though.

      If you just want it to work then sticking to what has worked for 99% of all instances will certainly help you out.

      But if you are truly curious how things that haven’t been made yet work out then go for it. Who knows how a four-point structure might look like. Three act structure is great as it always works and gets things done, but maybe you find something new. Maybe you don’t, but then you know why it didn’t work and reinforce your understanding.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I agree. Experimenting is good, as long as you’re doing it with an awareness of the bigger picture.

  2. The story I’m currently working on suddenly did a 180 on me, lol. Basically everything my protagonist believes and reacts to at the beginning of the story is wrong. I’m trying to decide if she should learn all this at the Midpoint or if I should spread it out a bit more. Reading your book on Structure and trying to get my head around some of it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I recommend my book Creating Character Arcs, which talks about the evolution of the protagonist’s mindset from Lie to Truth. Basically, the character will understand the Truth at the Midpoint, but not reject the Lie until the Third Plot Point.

  3. I think we all buck at guidelines, but I’ve found limitations like story structure help provide me with focus and direction rather than stifle my creativity. That said, I both desire and need to become more knowledgeable about the broader, less rigid and more complex subject of story theory. To borrow your example, I think it’s the difference between following a recipe to the teaspoon so it’ll turn out just right and departing from the original recipe with the knowledge of how ingredients interact to create a bitter or different taste.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, exactly. I love the structure that structure provides. It gives me the confidence of knowing what works, so I can then focus on being creative.

  4. Until I found your site, my idea of story structure was either a plot triangle or an even more general pile on the crap, then yank them out of it structure.

    I’m curious to try a formal story structure for a future WIP, but did worry about many of the things this article covered.

    So thanks for heading off many of my questions.

  5. Hey, Katie… yes, structure, it’s as important in fiction as it is in house construction. Without it they both fall down. Ironically, in fiction, we want the protagonist to fall down, and that’s precisely how story structure works best — it ensures that we create the necessary beats to set the hero up and than bring him/her down… so that they may rise again as a wiser character, someone who has earned the right to enter Act 3 and bring the story home. What say ye?

  6. Peter Kapitola says:

    Thanks for this, KM. After finally getting my WIP into some sort of structure, I was a bit worried about making it too formulaic and predictable. You know… “oh well obviously this plan won’t really work because we’re still at this point X of the book”, and “oh look, the villain is showing up right on time to demonstrate his power, blah, blah, blah.”

    Perhaps a good analogy is gardening? Many plants grow better and are more productive when trimmed into shape and/or trained to grow along a stake or trellis. You can obviously take this to extremes though and kill the plant by trying to enforce order too rigorously! A health plant will be kept in shape but still have lots of variety.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I’m loving the analogies you guys have been coming up with lately.

    • What you say about the timing I don’t think can be avoided in any story that has a defined length (a book vs. a campfire story). We know the detective isn’t going to crack the case at the half hour mark. Well, except on “Law & Order.” We know the hero isn’t going to save the world at 30 hours if the video game is billed as 60 hours.

      To me that’s why it’s important to have surprises, as in point 1 above. If the detective thinks she’s going to solve the mystery on page 100 and the reader sees the book is 400 pages, they know she’ll fail. What I would want to see is just how well the author has led us astray, or the mindblowing game changer that results from the detective’s efforts.

      Think of the “You helped her?!” moment in The Ring, where it turns out that the mom (the detective) did not solve the case the way other horror stories trained us to think she had. She put the corpse of the ghost to rest, which traditionally is supposed to stop the ghost from haunting you. But not this time … (insert evil cackle here).

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I agree. Stories become formulaic when the expected always happens. Turning expectations on their heads inverts tropes and keeps readers engaged on a deeper level.

      • Peter Kapitola says:

        That’s a fair point, Jamie. The format itself does tend to spoil things.

        Maybe I’m thinking more though about the Save the Cat beats. Like… “oh yes, well of course everything has to go wrong now for the protagonist so that we can have our ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ moment”.

        Perhaps the issue isn’t that many works follow this structure, but when it seems contrived. If there are good reasons why everything should go wrong (e.g. the protag got cocky, there were lurking issues that were never resolved properly, other foreshadowed events etc.) then it’s all good. The problem is when writers force stories to fit a structure in an artificial manner.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Too, it has to do with *how* the beats are followed. The low moment in a story can take thousands of different forms, but if the author is just reusing familiar events that have been done to death, it will always feel expected and contrived.

  7. No fear, just an awareness that when a story I read or watched did not satisfy I became annoyed. These works did not fulfill a duty that I had expected. I promised myself that I would not leave a reader unsatisfied by the story I was trying to write. Learning what my story needs and putting that knowledge into practice are not as simple as I first thought. I am working within the framework of your workbooks but I still have a lot of creating work to do.
    Maybe it’s like painting by number at first then starting with a blank sheet once you get the hang of it. I will say that I never realized there was so much to learn about story structure!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I hate that feeling. You can be watching or reading something that is *this* close to being good, but something is just off. It’s always disappointing, because it’s such a waste.

  8. Adrienne Nesiba says:

    I got your Character Arcs Workbook and love it already. I love those Workbooks. At the same time, the last writing craft book I have gotten is about story theory. Sounds great. I’m thrilled with how my “hobby” is going, and maybe I’ll get that cover made through Photoshop, which we have on a monster computer, upstairs.
    As always, thank you for your insight and sharing your knowledge.

  9. Jenny North says:

    Your books have made a believer out of me! 🙂

    These days even when I “free write” a short story without thinking about the structure up front, I find it’s still very helpful to do a quick check against the standard structure after the first draft is done since it can be a good yardstick for things like pacing. I love writing dialogue so it’s easy for me to get lost in the sparkling pitter-patter only to look at it objectively and think, “Wow, that’s a lot of words but nothing has advanced the plot. Oops.”

    I find it’s easier on my ego to catch this myself rather than have a beta reader observe how a story drags in the middle. As you say, you don’t have to be overly slavish to this stuff, but a pinch point in just the right place can go a long way towards giving a story a well-needed kick!

  10. As much as story structure sometimes drives us all crazy, we need it, and I’m so glad I discovered it, thanks, in part, to you. As I gradually learned about each plot point, to my relief I found they were all present in my story. My greatest epiphany (thanks to your post: Choosing the Right Antagonist for Your Story) was realizing that my antagonist in book 1 was not who I thought it should be. Switching him to the thematically correct choice made the whole story fall into place. But still one missing puzzle piece still remains: the inciting event.

    While there are plenty of crises and quests for the protagonist to cope with in Act 1, the current inciting event (while important) does not lead directly to the key event and first plot point, but is distinct from those events. Nor does the climax answer the question introduced in the inciting event. I presume, Katie, that means I have chosen the wrong one.

    Today, I think I’ve figured out why. Years ago, upon realizing my first book in the series was growing into a behemoth, I split it into two books. My current inciting event correlates to the protagonist’s great moment of truth in book 2. Should I create a new inciting event in book 1 that better supports the plot points and theme of the first story?

    I think if I can get this one remaining plot point right, my story will flow with logic and excitement, and feel anything but formulaic. Am I on the right track?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Technically, yes, it sounds as if the existing Inciting Event is incorrect. However, since you are dealing with a series, it’s possible it may still work within the larger story. What I would examine is whether or not the scenes in the existing First Act, leading up to the current Inciting Event, and then from that Inciting Event to the First Plot Point, are all integral to one another. Are they leading logically one to another and building upon one another? If so, then what you have may work. If not–if the existing Inciting Event and/or entire First Act seem just kind of “stuck in there” and separate from the main conflict in the rest of the story–I would definitely reevaluate.

      • Thanks for the excellent feedback. I would’ve responded earlier, but I had to install a new keyboard into my laptop because of sticking keys. This one key, in particular, got so bad, I was copying and pasting it into my sentences every time I needed it, and not just any old key like Q or J or Z. No, I had to have a wonky…E! (We hardly use that one at all, do weeeeeeeeee?) ; )

        Anyhoo, I’ve given a lot of thought to what you said about my inciting event (IE), and I have figured out how to solve my problem. I need two concurrent inciting events. My current one relates to my protagonist’s personal journey that arcs over the first two books. However, my second IE will affect all three siblings at the first plot point (a catastrophic big reveal) and will introduce a story arc that will have profound ramifications for the entire series.

        After brainstorming, I’ve come up with a “seemingly” minor mystery that will pique the protagonist’s interest and shake up her longstanding perceptions of a character she thought she could trust. The upsetting question this mystery raises flows neatly and naturally into the original IE, and eventually into the key event and first plot point. There is no way anything will ever be the same for the protagonist and her brother and sister after Act One. (Cue the dramatic music.)

        Have you ever heard of two related IEs in a novel with multiple POVs? I would imagine that family sagas, fantasies, and sci-fi novels have seen a few. Thanks again, Katie. Story structure is fascinating!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, you can handle this in two ways: either use the same plot point to drive the plot in both POVs – or time it so each POV gets its own structure-advancing plot point at the proper time. In the vast majority of cases, the first is preferable, since it will contribute to a much tighter story. But both are totally legit.

  11. To be honest Katie, I started to love Story Structure (and to learn) with you and only you. Your posts, charts of the Acts and your books helped me a lot!
    Keep doing it and maybe one day I will not need a checklist of must-do’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Story structure is totally lovable. 🙂

      • Katie, could you respond to my question above (10/25)? I think it got lost in the shuffle. 🙂 I’ve been researching inciting events on my own these past three days, but I would really appreciate your expertise on this matter, since you are only one of a few story structure experts on the Web that doesn’t confuse the inciting event with the key event or first plot point. I need to know if the first plot point must directly answer the question brought up by the inciting event or if the inciting event can, in fact, be an unrelated crisis or question.

        I am planning on using NaNoWriMo as SceMo (Write-a-Scene-a-Day Month) to try to finish the rough draft of my manuscript before the end of the year, and the inciting event is one of the only things that is holding me back from that goal. Thanks in advance for your help!

  12. Observation. Observation. Observation!!! Yep story structure stems from observing how we learn, or fail to learn, or teach others – so if we could Earnestly observe how we learn, or failed to learn, or taught – and dictate that, well then…🔥🔥🔥 😉

    But *?#! Me if the act of observation isn’t the most difficult type of intelligence to hone. Haha. Brutal. But not impossible 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Really, that’s what story theory is: figuring out to portray life realistically and dramatically.

  13. Oh and speaking of balancing instinct with logic, I do agree with Save the Cat that every scene should be about Sex or Death!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Save the Cat! does have a lot of good, catchy advice. The one I keep coming back to is avoiding “Double Mumbo-Jumbo”–unnecessarily complicating scenes.

  14. Hi! Great post as always. Just wondering if you have ever read anything by Chinua Achebe and whether story structure (in terms of 3-act structure) is always evident in novels such as his, which deliberately apply a very different stamp on ‘traditional’ understandings of certain aspects of story? (The one he mentioned specifically was his English usage — writing in English, but using an Igbo-esque syntax and idiom.) Just thought it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this.

  15. Eric Troyer says:

    Katie,

    I loved this post. I think you’re spot on. But you made a pretty big statement in the beginning:

    “The reason story structure even exists as a concept is because writers, over time, have recognized, analyzed, and broken down the patterns that arise consistently in almost all successful stories—across centuries, nations, cultures, religions, and genders.”

    I’ve often wondered how story structure applies over time (not just the past couple hundred years) and across cultures (not just European-American). Almost all story structure breakdown examples I see are of relatively modern movies or books. So I’d love to know what data you have to back up that statement. Perhaps it would be worthy of a blog post (or bigger).

    Thanks again for your great blog!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Check out Homer’s Iliad. I was actually quite shocked when reading it to see that all its major turning points were timed almost down to the exact percentile.

      • Eric Troyer says:

        Interesting. I’ll check it out. Still, that’s just one example. I would love to see a broader exploration, perhaps even an academic study. If you know of any, I’d love to hear about it.

        Thanks.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It was true of The Odyssey as well, and, of course, many of the classic myths, such as Gilgamesh, are where we get our foundational understanding of the Hero’s Journey. I’m pretty sure Beowulf is another good example, but I haven’t read it since high school, so couldn’t swear to that.

  16. Like a lot of things in fiction, there’s a balance between sticking to the tried and true and trying to do something new. That’s often a tricky balance to find, without kind of starting a formula of your own that you may overuse after a while.

  17. Paula T. Phillips says:

    I’ve read thousands of books in almost every genre, having been a journalist in a former life and now as a volunteer at the local public library. I also write historical romance and historical fiction. The novel that blew me away from the first page in terms of breaking all the rules was the debut novel of Diana Gabaldon’s, Outlander. I did research about her and discovered she wrote it almost on a lark, not expecting it to be good at all. While reading it, I remember thinking over and over, “she’s broken all the rules and gotten away with it. I was in awe, and still am, of her imagination.

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  1. […] other story elements, K. M. Weiland lays out 4 ways to prevent formulaic story structure, Jordan Rosenfeld shows 4 key ways to launch a scene, Jami Gold explores finding the right balance […]

  2. […] while we are on the subject of novel structure, this post on avoiding formulaic story structure is good. If you can get past the idea of a formula for avoiding formulaic work, that […]

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