Monday, January 07, 2019

Is Story Structure Strangling Your Writing?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Recently, two things happened that made me think about structure and storytelling. Jami Gold talked about writing rules and the pros and cons of following them, and a fellow writer expressed frustration over structure killing their story. I’ve spoken to enough writers in my career to know that for every rule, structure, or process out there, there are people for whom it just doesn’t work—or worse, has negative effects on their writing.

I think a lot of the frustration stems from the idea that writing has a formula, and if we just do it “right” we’ll be successful. It’s not story structure that’s the problem, it’s the template idea. Follow X rules and you get Y. Fill in the blanks and you can write a great book. Every story contains the same basic parts.

The kicker…is that this is all true, and it’s all false.

I’m a huge fan of structure and using templates to develop a novel, and they work well for me. But I’ll also tell you that aside from “beginning-middle-ending” it’s your call on what that template looks like. There are plenty of proven structure templates out there that work, but also successful novels that didn’t follow a single one of them.

I feel it’s much more important for a writer to understand why structure templates exist and what they do for a story than it is to follow a rule or fill in a blank. Original art doesn’t come from a paint-by-numbers set, but understand color and composition and how the eye flows over a canvas often does. Story structure offers a way to guide creativity—but don’t feel it has to control that creativity.

If you’re feeling constrained by story structure or structure templates, remember…

Writing is not a formula. But good stories usually have the same elements.

The creative process is a process, and every story has to find its own way into the world. Some writers find using guides and templates helpful tools to create their story, but not all of them do.

How you get to the end of your story is your call. How you write it is your call. There is no magic formula, but there are a ton of guides and suggestions and structures you can try to see if any help you.

The reason for all these structure templates is that they work. They contain turning points proven to advance a plot and keep readers interested. But not every turning point on a given structure needs to be in every book, and you don’t have to force your story to fit a template you don’t like. In the end, it all boils down to:

Protagonist discovers there’s an issue or situation -- protagonist does things to deal with the issue or situation -- protagonist faces cause of the issue or situation and resolves it (beginning - middle - ending).

In other words, it’s just like English class—introduce your topic, support your topic with points, conclude your topic.

(Here’s more on the benefits of using story structure on the second draft, not the first)

X + Y does not = a great novel.

Writing is hard. Building a story is hard. Plotting is hard. Structure templates are tools to make it easier, using the moments and plot points nearly all stories use.

But if you’re driving yourself crazy trying to cram your story into a template, you’re not writing a story—you’re filling out a template. This can flatten a tale and kill the spirit of it, because you’re not choosing turning points and plot events based on your story, but on what someone says you ought to have at that page in the book.

And you know what? Novels just following a template seldom make great novels. They often feel forced and contrived and shallow, because the motivations come from a desire to fill a slot, not from characters making choices that advance the plot.

Not every story needs a romance, or a character arc, or a deep emotional B-Story. Just as not every story needs heart-pounding action and life and death stakes. A “whiff of death” moment might work great for some tales, but be inappropriate for others. A “meet the mentor” might not fit a novel with no mentors. Trying to force these into your story when they don’t belong can hurt that story.

Structure is a great guide, and there are so many options and different approaches to aid you, but use what works for you and how you like to tell a story and ignore the rest.

(Here’s more on making structure work for you)

Every story contains the same basic parts.

In the end, stories do have similar elements, but how we decide to arrange and create those elements varies. As I said—beginning—middle—ending. Everything else is open to interpretation. I’m a plot-focused writer, so my structure template leans toward a plot-driven novel. Michael Hague writes a lot of love stories, so his template offers strong support of a romance, relationships, or character growth arc. The Hero's Journey follows the mythological adventure, while the Save the Cat fits a cinematic style. They all have great elements within them, but not every structure is going to fit every writer.

(Here’s more on six ways to structure a novel)

Having a structure you love that works for you is great, and if you have one, keep using it. Trying different structure templates until you find one you like is also good. Mix and match (I do) and pull pieces from several if they resonate with you and help you tell the stories you like to tell. But if you prefer to dive in and write willy nilly and see how it goes, do it.

(Here's more on structure for pantsers)

In the end, what matters is that you have a solid story that reads well and entertains the readers from start to finish. If you find yourself stymied by forcing your story to fit a structure template, either try a different one, or write and worry about it later.

However…don’t use this as an excuse to ignore structure just because you don’t like it or don’t understand it (grin). All well-told stories have structure holding them up. Just not every story uses a template to get there.

Do you find structure templates helpful or constricting? Why?

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Nail - head. If inside a broad description it works, it's a winner. Thanks for this article.

  2. I was strangling my creativity trying to find the right plot template, until my critique partner told me to just get back to writing. Your post just nailed it for me. Thanks for a timely article.

    1. Glad I could back up your partner's advice :)

  3. Good post. Love the concept: structure guides creativity, but shouldn't control it. Have all your writing books. Good stuff.

  4. I found this via Twitter and it comes at a crisis point in my own writing life. I'm not only an advocate of story structure, but a professional in the field (I'm a developmental editor), and I'm finding that my knowledge is strangling my own writing creativity.

    I believe that for many writers--maybe most--structural forms and templates shouldn't really come into play until a second draft, but believing that hasn't helped me turn the knowledge of them off when it's time for me to sit down and create.

    So thank you for a timely "permission" to try again. Great post.

    1. I think for some writers, that's true. Natural outliners (like me) find the templates helpful to direct our brainstorm and creativity, but for others, it's more useful to shape what's been written and refine the story.

  5. I'm finding all writing rules, templates, and formulas trstrictive these days. I feel like I'm drowning in them.

    1. Which is exactly why I wrote this :) You're not alone and I've been hearing it from others as well. It's okay to step aside and just write, and refine your structure once the story is solid.