The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?

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.

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryDancing, 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.

Structuring Your Novel Visual Chart

Stay tuned: Next week, we talk about the Hook.

Tell me your opinion: How do you feel about the idea of story structure?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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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. I am a bit surprised that authors of all artists should have any form of problem with structure.

    Language, and written language in particular, is all about structure. Letters (or sounds) in a certain structure build words, and words in a certain structure build sentences. Without that structure you wouldn’t have language.

    We all know sentences in a certain structure create scenes. Why shouldn’t scenes in a certain structure create story?

    In fact, perhaps not paying attention to structure would be just as bad as trying to send in your manuscript with the words in alphabetical order? 😀

  2. Another art form that relies totally on structure is music.

    There are, in western music, 12 notes in a handfull of octaves. That’s what all music is made of, and yet, is it formulaic, repetitive, bad? Eh, sure there are bad music, IN MY OPINION, but there are enough good music that I would never consider notes and octaves to be the bane of musical expression…

    In fact, when it comes to music, it can only be done if you play the notes cleanly, otherwise you wont appreciate it particularly. Draw your nails over a blackboard while you’re at it!

    And sure, I once programmed a MIDI-sequencer with notes–as opposed to recording myself playing the music. It sounded like stone dead, soulless robot music… any structural “theory” can become unbearable in the hands of an amateur… but that’s just because it’s in the hands of an amateur…

  3. I feel like I visit this particular page almost every week. I love the breakdown graphic for structure you have on here, always studying it.

  4. I am so glad that I found this series of posts. I attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for a degree in creative writing and finished at a small college named Houghton College and no matter what type of classes I took they didn’t have the depth that you’re teaching here and I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing on your website. I’m wondering if the graphic you have on structuring your story might be available as a poster it might be very helpful to have that handy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Debra! Glad you’re enjoying the site. The graphic is actually by Matt Gemmell. You’ll see his web and Twitter contact info at the bottom of the graphic. Feel free to contact him about printing it out, if you’d like.

  5. I’ve always felt that story structure wasn’t something that you really needed to know about to become an author. I felt someone could write a story and not have to know anything about it. But after reading this article and seeing that chart, I realized that not knowing about this was one of the problems that was holding me back. I could write a story, but it always felt like it was all over the place. Now I know that I need to learn about story structure in order to help write a good story and finally begin my writing career.

Trackbacks

  1. […] are using K.M. Weiland’s “Secret’s of Story Structure” Podcast, Book, and Blog as well as Dan Well’s “Seven Point Story Structure” […]

  2. […] If you’re going to finish anything, you have to be excited about what you’re working on now. 3. Understanding story structure really helps I highly recommend the book, Structuring Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland. I don’t always know where […]

  3. […] Helping Writers Become Authors: Secrets of Story Structure Pt 1 […]

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