Tag Archives: Narrative structure

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.

Hacking Your Way to Better Writing

I just finished reading Larry Brooks book, Story Engineering, and although it certainly isn’t anywhere close to weird enough to feature in its own Bizzaro Book Review, I gotta say, you people really need to pick this thing up, if only for the section on structure.

But while I was reading this book, I came across a theme which seemed to be repeated with alarming regularity. Namely, that some writers simply refuse to accept the idea that there might be a basic format with nearly all good stories follow and that learning and applying that format can vastly improve your chances of getting published.

It boggles the mind to think that someone could write a book saying, “This is the structure on which 99% of all financially successful stories are based. Disregard it at your peril,” and struggling writers would choose to completely ignore it.

It would make sense if you didn’t know about fundamentals of structure, but to know and refuse to apply them seems completely nonsensical. Yet according to Brooks writers do this all the time. And I think I know why.

Writers want to feel special.

Sure, maybe all those other hacks need to pay attention to things like story structure, but not you. You’ve got something unique. And while I don’t want to tear down anyone’s self-image, I do have a bit of cold hard truth for you to swallow:

You’re not special.

I know you’re hackles just went up. After all, you’ve been told that you were special by wonderful well-intentioned people for your whole life. And here’s the thing: pretty much everyone else was told the same thing.

Now, are you unique? In some ways, sure. Do you have something valuable to offer the world through your writing? Probably, yes.

But trust me when I say there are thousands, possibly millions of writers out there who think they’re the ones who’ve really got what it takes if only the big mean publishers would get out of the way and print their stuff.

This is not to say you are not a good writer. You may be a great writer. You may be a great storyteller. (These two things are not synonymous by the way, a topic which deserves a post of its own one of these days).

But the odds are good that as long as you keep thinking of yourself as the next greatest thing in the literary world, you’re not going to be able to learn as much as you need to learn to get better.

Instead, try taking a page from fellow blogger The Hack Novelist. When I first saw Hack’s internet moniker I thought, “Well, that’s odd. I wonder why someone would choose to be so self-deprecating.” But the more I think on it, the more I believe he’s got the right idea.

See, if you start to think of yourself as a hack, it’s very liberating in a way. For one thing you’re freed from the obligation to write the perfect story. After all, you’re just a hack right? You do the best you can and move on to the next project.

You also create a better psychological environment for learning. Because if you’re nothing more than a hack pounding out pulp fiction for the masses, you’re going to be open to any advice you can get.

As always, the single biggest thing getting in the way of your success is you. And the same advice goes double for me. The more I can get out of my own way, the better my chances of success become.

Bottom line: we need to check our egos at the door. It’s a good practice for writers and for life in general. Only through humility can we achieve greatness.