Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What's the big deal about story structure?

by Stephanie Morrill


Today I'm spending my afternoon in lovely Olathe, Kansas for the One Year Adventure Novel conference. I'm holding mentoring appointments with teen writers, and I'm a teensy bit  nervous because I've never done anything like that before. I'll be there again tomorrow as well, which means I probably won't be quite as chatty in the comments section this week.

When I was writing my first novels, I gave zero thought to story structure. I read all the time, and I'd always been good at writing. It had never crossed my mind that a novel had a structure. I honestly would have thought it beneath me to pick up a book on story structure. Writing was an art form - I didn't need to read some stuffy, close-minded rules about story structure. Wasn't it more of an instinct thing, really? For a true writer, anyway?


But it would have served me well as a young writer to pick up a book like Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell or Story by Robert McKee. I could have saved myself a lot of time and frustration, a lot of hair-pulling, and "Why isn't this story working?!"

So as we talk about story structure on here, don't think of these as rules. Think of them, rather, as principles. I love this quote from Robert McKee:





A rule says, "You must do it this way." A principle says, "This works and has through all remembered time." The difference is crucial. Your work needn't be modeled after the "well-made play"; rather it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.

If story structure is new to you, I don't want you to feel anxiety over following everything perfectly. But I've found that studying story structure has helped me not only craft deeper, stronger stories, it's also helped me:


  • Figure out what story ideas are good and which ones need more work before I've written half a first draft.
  • Write more than just the beginning.
  • Determine where my main character is headed and how I can help her get there.


Are any of those things that you struggle with?


19 comments:

  1. Good luck teaching! TeachingIs class is not really my thing, but I am sure that you will be extraordinaire! The One Year Adventure Novel? I was considering taking that course. It sounds exciting! Have fun!

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    1. Teaching is always a bit scary for me too. I left feeling drained, but I had a fun time and met some really great people.

      The curriculum looks REALLY good and all the students seem to really love it. And then you could come to Kansas City for next year's conference, and I could meet you! There's a Sheridan's close by :)

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    2. You should do it! Ditto what Stephanie said about the curriculum. Coming from someone who has been through it four times, it's awesome. And (in case you couldn't tell) I'm one of those students who really (REALLY!) loves it. Lol.

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    3. I'm doing OYAN too! Actually, that's how I found GTW: through Mrs. Morril's link on the OYAN workshop page. I wasn't able to go this year, but it sounds awesome and I hope everybody had a lot of fun and learned loads!!

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    4. Anonymous, I hope you get to come next year! The students seemed to be having fun, and I had a great time. If Mr. S. doesn't invite me back next year, I might come hang out anyway :)

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  2. I've reordered my story so many times and FINALLY found a structure that builds suspense and plot in the right ways. However, it took forever to do as I have not yet done research on structure. Of the two books you mentioned, is there one you prefer?

    ~Gina Blechman

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    1. Gina, it SEEMS like it'll be so easy, doesn't it? Kudos to you for sticking with it and doing the hard work of reordering.

      I really liked Story and found it useful, but it's geared toward scriptwriters. I borrowed it from the library, but it's not really one I need to own. Plot and Structure has earned a spot on my shelves :) There are so many writing books out there, I like previewing them through my library, then buy the ones I want to mark up and refer back to.

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  3. I hope you have fun! I'm sure you'll do great,
    I struggle finding what ideas are novel worthy, etc. I've been trying to go through your composting questions but I don't always have every answer,

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    1. It was a lot of fun. Yesterday I was up on stage and stuff, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would, but I'm definitely more comfortable doing the one-on-one stuff.

      I think determining which ideas are novel worthy gets easier with practice. I'll talk through some plot-bones type stuff that might help. And I don't always have all the answers to my compost questions either :) Often I'll get stumped on a couple of them, spend lots of time digging for the answers, and weeks later the solution will strike me while I'm washing dishes or something.

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    2. I wish I'd found your site sooner... I am far from being a teenager but your writing info and tips and insights ate awesome! I wish I wasn't on this Kindle and may have to post something from home PC Later! WRITE ON!

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  4. I bet you'll have a great time. I envy those you're mentoring!

    I need to pick up one of these books. One thing I have found, though, is that I'm studying the books I'm reading. I'll get to page 100 and think, "Oh, look, compelling struggle" or some such. :)

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    1. Lol, Rachelle. Studying story structure completely changes the way you read! Story is really good, though the focus was on screenwriters. While it had gems, it's one that I was fine borrowing from the library for a couple weeks and then returning. It's pretty pricey to buy - $35 or something.

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    2. I find myself doing that too! It's both annoying and great - it makes it harder to focus on a story sometimes because I'm thinking "Oh, this is a turning point" or "Oh, this is raising the stakes" and "this is why such-and-such works". On the other hand, if I'm struggling with how to do something in my own story, I can turn to some of my favorite books and say "Now, how do they make this same kind of thing work in their novel?" And sometimes I'll get an answer I need.

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    3. I just finished my fourth Siri Mitchell book this afternoon, though, and found that I made "story structure notes" to myself less with her books than any other books I've read recently. Maybe it's because her stories seem so wonderfully-threaded and flawless. :)

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  5. I need to get my hands on some of these books. I can usually figure out good plot twists, and can get a story finished, but I never know what exactly it is my main character is looking for.

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  6. Can you please do a post on story structure, Stephanie?

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    1. And nice post, by the way! I might have to try the Bell book.

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  7. I soo wish I was in Olathe too. I'm a passionate OYANer. One of my good friends has a mentoring session with you!

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  8. A rule says, "You must do it this way." A principle says, "This works and has through all remembered time." The difference is crucial.

    I love that!

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