Friday’s Findings: Do We Really Need Story Structure?

I just finished Stephen King’s On Writing. Once again. I’m still flabbergasted that one of the best-selling authors in American history doesn’t endorse story structure.

And I also just listened to a fiction writing seminar with Lisa Cron. In it, she reiterated what she says in her book, Story Genius, to begin with the story.

But I’m also always hearing about outlining and plotting and how important they are.

You’re danged if you do, you’re danged if you don’t.

And I don’t have a problem with using a story structure. I’ve played with them all: the snowflake method, save the cat beats, the three-act structure. Or no structure at all.

Usually what happens is that I write a story or at least an outline of a story then test it against one or more story structure methods to see if it holds up. Or, when I outline a fiction project, I’ll at least plan to hit those beats or include those three acts.

But is it really necessary?

First, let’s define story structure.

Story structure is an essential element in fiction writing as it provides a framework for organizing and presenting the events of a story to engage readers effectively. It helps establish a coherent narrative, build tension, create meaningful character arcs, and deliver a satisfying resolution. However, there are different perspectives on the necessity and approach to story structure.

Let’s review some types of story structures

Here’s a short review of the best known story structure opinions and methods. I’ve tried to organize them from what I consider more organic to more structured:

  • Stephen King emphasizes the importance of character and situation, suggesting that following the characters and allowing the story to unfold naturally can be a valid approach. King believes that overreliance on plot can lead to less compelling writing. He talks about story over plot in his book On Writing.
  • On the other hand, Lisa Cron argues that story structure is primarily about plot and highlights the significance of internal transformation in a character. She believes that understanding the internal truth and the character’s change is crucial before constructing the plot around it. According to Cron, without a strong internal foundation, even a well-structured plot can result in a dull novel. I would dare say, if you are a pantser, you could benefit from Cron’s theories on writing. See her book Story Genius for more details.
  • The Snowflake Method, proposed by Randy Ingermanson, encourages writers to find the method that works best for them. It emphasizes individual preference and allows for flexibility in approaching story structure. Really, it’s more for outlining a story or novel, but can definitely be included in a list of story structure methods.
  • Freitag’s Pyramid, also known the Dramatic Arc, is a classic model for analyzing and understanding the structure of a narrative. It was developed by Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, in the 19th century. The pyramid represents a visual representation of the five key elements of a story’s structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
  • The three-act structure, popularized by Syd Field, divides a story into three parts: the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution. It provides a basic framework for organizing the plot and pacing the story effectively.
  • The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, and the related Dan Harmon’s Plot Embryo (also known as the Story Circle) offer narrative structures that focus on the hero’s character development and their journey through various stages and challenges.
  • Save the Cat beats, based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat methodology, break down the story into key moments and prescribe when they should occur in the narrative. It offers a more detailed and specific structure to ensure engaging storytelling. See also Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel.

So, do you, as a writer, really need to use a story structure?

Regarding your approach, it’s perfectly valid to start with a freer, organic writing process for the first draft. This allows your creativity to flow without being constrained by structure. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) can be a helpful event for this purpose. Once the draft is complete, you can then employ established structures like the three-act structure, the Hero’s Journey, or the Save the Cat beats to refine and enhance your plot, ensuring that the story maintains a compelling flow and progression.

Ultimately, the choice of story structure depends on your personal preference, writing style, and the specific needs of your story. It’s essential to experiment and find the approach that resonates with you and best serves your narrative.

There’s nothing wrong with using a specific story structure and there’s nothing wrong with not using one. There are pros and cons to both. Each time you sit down and start a new short story or novel, you may want to try one method, and on the next project you may want to try nothing at all.

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve considered this topic: it’s so freeing to realize that I don’t HAVE to do it just one way. Experiment, learn, and just have fun.

Photo by Joaquin Carfagna:

One comment

  1. I love On Writing, and have also read it several times. I have to admit, I kind of following his way of writing. I rarely make an outline. I kind of know where my story is going to go, but I also let the characters take where they want too.

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