Of Snowflakes and Structure

So yesterday I made a post talking about Larry Brooks book Story Engineering and how I thought that sometimes authors let their creative ego’s get in the way of learning something that will help them.

It was not a post about structure in my mind, but structure was certainly the launching point for what I wanted to say. However, structure being the touchy issue that it is, I still managed to rack up a negative comment from long-time reader Catana about how I was irresponsibly propagating the doctrine of “there’s one right way to do everything, and if you refuse to do it, you’re screwed.”

So today I thought I’d address those concerns.

Here’s the thing. I don’t believe that there’s only one right way to write a novel. But I do believe that there are loads of wrong ways to write a novel. To put it differently I believe that there are rules that will help you on your path to the construction of a solid story. Yes, you heard me. I said “rules.”

Actually, I’m not sure why this idea should seem so strange. After all, we accept that there are rules that govern almost every other area of our creative lives. For example, no one objects to the basic tenets of good sentence structure. If I say, 99% of all good sentences follow the basic pattern, Subject + Verb + Object no one objects to that.

And we all know that it’s okay if we decide to drop the object from time to time and make a sentence fragment, or leave out the object to create a powerful but simple statement like, “Jack ran.” You could even leave out the verb and just give us a list of objects that stand alone.

But that doesn’t negate that fact that sentences do still have rules. Break them if you want to, but you really ought to know them first.

And I believe stories, particularly long stories like novels, are the same way.

For those of you who are still skeptical, let me give you a barebones view of the structure Brooks lays out in the structure section of Story Engineering.

1. The Hero and his situation are introduced (this takes up about 25% of the beginning of your story.)

2. Something happens such that the Hero becomes directly involved with the antagonist or opposing force.

3. The Hero tries to deal with his new problem, but for a while his efforts are futile.

4. The Hero gets his act together and finally defeats the antagonist.

That’s it. That’s the essence of the story structure.

Are there stories that don’t follow this structure? Sure there are. But many, many more stories do follow this path. From blockbuster action movies like Die Hard, to works of literary brilliance like The Old Man and the Sea, stories of all shapes and sizes will fit into this framework.

The idea isn’t that you can’t be creative. After all, you can follow the rules of sentence structure and still create an infinite number of phrases as beautiful and varied as snowflakes. The idea also isn’t, “follow this structure, and your story will be awesome.” If you know and follow the rules for writing sentences that doesn’t mean you’re going to automatically be writing great sentences.

And as always, the choice is up to you. If, after reading this, you say to yourself, “That Albert just doesn’t understand how much I’m going to be constricted by that format,” then hey, you’ve got every right to write your story however you want to.

For my part, I’m keeping the principles of structure in my writing toolbox. I think they might just come in handy.

5 responses to “Of Snowflakes and Structure

  1. I completely agree with this. Structure is there because structure works. If you know what basic structure is, then you can break rules in a more informed way. If you don’t like structure because you feel you’ll be “constricted”, then learn about structure and find an informed way to deviate from it.


  2. This seems like common sense and yet i wonder if I would have made a mistake without the clarification of your rules. I think this will help to keep me from wandering off the path!
    Great post! Thanks for sharing~

  3. That sounds basically like the underlying structure of just about every novel I’ve ever enjoyed reading. You can definitely build on that and make it more complicated, with additional heroes, additional antagonists, and maybe have points 2 and 3 happen multiple times. Maybe point 4 can happen more than once as well. But as foundations go, that’s it right there. Nicely summed up.

  4. Just like my 9th grade English teacher told me, “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.”

  5. We do need structure. It’s not a matter of incorporating it but it’s a matter of when. Personally, I think it’s better to write as much as I can and when I’m done, that’s when I put the structure.

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