Thursday 12 September 2013

How to Learn Story Structure Without Even Trying

Guest post by K.M. Weiland (@kmweiland): 

Here’s a secret about story structure that you may not have realized: You already know it. 

Many authors are intimidated by the mere thought of structure. As if writing isn’t already enough of a juggling act, now we’re expected to also make certain our plot fits into some nebulous framework. It can be daunting, to say the least.

But here’s the great thing about structure: it’s neither nebulous nor difficult to learn. 

If we view structure through the lens of the classic three-act approach, we can break it down into ten easy steps (which I discuss in depth in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story). Once you get a handle on these steps, they’re easy to understand, easy to work with, and they allow us to purposefully mold our stories into their optimal shapes.

That’s the solidity of structure.

But what about this supposed simplicity? 

Learning structure easily

Let’s make a little friendly wager. I’m going to bet you that, even if you’ve yet to learn anything about story structure, you’re probably already writing stories that adhere to it.

Say what? 

That’s what I said too. I dismissed the whole notion of structure as a lot of hooey until one day I realized I was instinctively structuring all of my stories.

That’s right: instinctively.

Story structure is hardwired into the human brain. Most of us intuitively understand what makes a good story: the hook in the beginning, the rise and fall of action, the importance of major plot points, and the gallop to the climax. We’ve been learning structure all our lives. From that first board book Mom and Dad read us at bedtime to our Saturday morning cartoons and right on through every novel we’ve read and every movie or TV show we’ve watched—we’ve been learning story structure via osmosis all our lives.

Not only are we learning structure without even trying, we’ve been learning it without even knowing it. How cool is that? 

Learning structure purposefully

But we can (and should) take this several steps further. In order to maximize this inherent understanding of story—and to make our wrangling with those first drafts about a thousand times easier—we need to quantify our instinctive knowledge.

Once I started studying structure, learning its ins and outs, and solidifying in my conscious brain what my subconscious already knew, my writing process was revolutionized. Suddenly, I understood why certain things worked and others didn’t. I was able to look at plot problems and immediately see the solution, instead of just trying to feel my way to a workable answer.

Our subconscious brains are powerful. But until we understand how to use that power, we will often have a difficult time harnessing it. 

Learning structure organically

Once we have an understanding of the basic parts of story structure, we get to jump right back into the “not even trying” stage of our learning. Read books. Watch movies.

Tough assignment, right?

But don’t just read and watch. Instead, read and watch with purpose. Pay attention to how other authors play out the aspects of structure in their own stories. Try to get a sense of the timing. Watch for the way the characters’ arcs shift around the plot points within the structure.

Re-read and re-watch some of your old favorites. Since you’re already familiar with how these stories play out, you can gain an even better perspective of their structure as you anticipate plot points yet to come.

The only rule of good storytelling is write a story that works. When we study the stories that work for us, we deepen our already innate understanding of story structure. The deeper that understanding, the more likely we are to write that power into our own books.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She makes her home in western Nebraska.


If you found this post useful please give it a tweet and don't forget to visit K.M. Weiland's very helpful website Helping Writers Become Authors. Her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel are available now.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good to know we do it naturally. When I picked up Save the Cat and compared the fifteen beats to my second book's storyline, I was surprised that I hit every one of them without even trying. Who knew?

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for hosting me today, Mood!

@Alex: Kind of amazing, isn't it? Not to mention super exciting! Makes the whole idea of structure so much more accessible.

Change It Up Editing said...

Indeed--as Alex Cavanaugh wrote, "Who knew?" This is great info for anyone who says "I could never write a book--I wouldn't know where to begin." It's all in there; we just need to have the confidence to access it.

Unknown said...

It's very true. Although some people may have more natural inclinations for writing than others, writing a book is a very learnable accomplishment. Just wanting to write a book is the first and most important qualification.

adan said...

exceptional piece for its clarity and balance -

esp liked,

"Once I started studying structure, learning its ins and outs, and solidifying in my conscious brain what my subconscious already knew, my writing process was revolutionized."

thanks so much :-)

Unknown said...

So much of life, not just writing, is about harmonizing intuition with logic. Once we can bring our logical mind into an understanding of what's going on subconsciously, a lot of things make more sense.

mooderino said...

Hey Katie, glad to have you here. Great post; I'm sure my followers will find it very interesting.

@Alex - I think we all have a natural sense of storytelling, it's just trusting ourselves to let it out.

@Change - I agree, just takes a little confidence to get the ball rolling.

@adan - one day people will say that about one of my posts. One day...

PK HREZO said...

I read KM's newsletters and she always has great advice. I'll be buying this book for sure. Structure is so basic, yet it's something new novelists never realize they need. I know I didn't. Now I figure out the structure before I even start writing and it's a huge help.

Unknown said...

Thanks, PK! I hope you enjoy the book.

Matthew MacNish said...

I saw Lou Anders give a panel on Screenwriting for Novelists at WorldCon. It was excellent, and quite similar.

Well done, K.M.!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Its nice to know that story structure comes to us instinctively. Though for my current book its just not happening. I follow the 3 Act structure and have certain plot points in place which help me get the entire story spread out before me.

Unknown said...

@Matthew: Glad you enjoyed the post!

@Rachna: Yes, sometimes things just don't quite fall in place the way we'd like them to. Often, I have to credit this to our conscious brains getting in the way and trying to finagle stories into a direction they should never really go.

mooderino said...

@Pk - I'd recommend anyone looking to improve their writing to check out Katie's website. Lots of great advice.

@Matthew - good to know others agree.

@Rachna - I find with stories that aren't quite working i have to keep plugging away and at some point it all seems to come together and make sense. And usually the answer was there all the time, just couldn't see it.

Al Diaz said...

I really have this book on my MUST list. Dying to read it. I just need to find time. I'm still your fan!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much! I hope you find the book super useful.

Author Leanne Dyck said...

Yet another reason to devote time each day to read. Thank you for this inspiring article,

Unknown said...

@Leanne: Writers write, but writers also have to read. We can't output good work, unless we're also putting it *into* our heads.

Lydia Kang said...

Very true. KM is a great resource for writers!

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading!

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