Story structure helps your story fly

Some writers might dismiss the concept of story structure as contrived of stiflingly un-artistic conventions, a set of gimmicks reserved for mere “genre” fiction, i.e. stories with (allegedly) little importance.

You want a story with weight and seriousness? Violate the rules!

Others might obsess about their stories adhering to the proper pattern, as if they are filling out a form.  What page is the Inciting Incident supposed to occur?  Where’s my guidebook?

There is a middle ground, my friends.

Unless you’re one of those writers (like Blake Snyder of Save The Cat fame) for whom the sprouting narrative needs a grid like vines need a trellis, you should probably never think of story structure while writing your first draft.

Or, at most, keep a weather eye out for its signs so you don’t miss the plot points when they appear organically.

However, while rewriting, a writer should pay very close attention to story structure.  Think of it like sculpting. (For now — I have another metaphor later.)

First you have a huge uncarved block of rock.  The first draft is like chipping out the general shape of the statue from this raw stone.  Each successive edit tightens the form, until it reaches the point of maximum artistic impact.

…and that would break your mind.

Whenever, I hear or read someone preaching the virtues of defying the rigid rules of fiction I remind myself of two things.

First, that story structure isn’t an arbitrary standard imposed like some tyrannous artifice upon the Free Spirit of fiction. Human beings are animals with very real cognitive patterns and biases that make a huge difference in how we receive and process information.

It’s not for nothing that story structure exists: it reflects how our narrative instincts are geared to receive stories.

Second, I think about one of the most successful stories of all time, The Lord of the Rings, which has been roundly criticized for (among other things) dragging along too much at the beginning of the first book with the details and routines of the Shire.

In other words, it delays the plot point.

Does LOTR deserve to be held up as a masterpiece of storytelling? Absolutely. Could it have been even stronger if a lot of that introductory material had been stashed away in one of Tolkien’s signature appendices? Clearly.

Yes, even one of the best-selling and most impactful stories of all time could have benefited from a bit more respect for story structure.

Okay, the other metaphor now.

Writers should think of story structure not as a rigid cage stifling our creative autonomy, but like flight engineering that enables us to travel where we otherwise could not.

Sure, there’s more than one way for a vehicle to fly — we have airplanes, helicopters, blimps — but all of them work within the rules of aerodynamics.

For example, consider arrows as a precursor to airplanes.  When modern story-tellers draw from myth, are they not performing the same mimicry as modern fixed-wing aircraft engineers do when they echo the art of ancient fletchers?

Those engineers have also developed rotary wing craft, the cyclical sweeping of which is analogous to serialized fiction.  Listen to the rhythm of a helicopter’s rotors, and think of your favorite television show, the whop-whop-whop of its weekly punch and draw.

Just as a single, self-contained novel must press forward toward its goal like a fixed-wing airplane, episodic fiction exhibits the maneuverability of choppers.

Can you push the rules? Test them? Tweak them?  Of course!  After all, today’s aircraft bear very little resemblance to the Wright brothers’ biplanes, even though they’re all based on the same underlying principles for interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere.

The human psyche is the atmosphere of your narrative. The better a story harmonizes — not aerodynamically, but mythodynamically — with its flight environment, the more weight it can carry and the further it can fly.

I guess what I’m saying is that attention to story structure supports the gravitas of your fiction.

Contrarian efforts to undermine the archetypal patterns of narrative don’t make fiction more serious; they just make it pretentious, unreadable, and therefore less powerful.

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2 comments

  1. I love the analogy of a story being like a sculpture. Usually when I write fiction I first write a basic story then I read over it and add details. For example I may want a certain character to die in a sword fight so I can have the victor wax poetic about death and victory. Well first I will just say they fought with swords and Joe died. The next time I come back to it. I will add all the details of the fighters jumping off rails and slicing and dicing each other until one dies.
    Sometimes I just let the muse take the keyboard and run with it. But I always have a basic story outlined before I start.

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