Last year I did two posts on story structures and had thought them to be relatively complete. However, I was recently contacted regarding the first of those two posts. The person who contacted me praised the post and the blog and also provided a link to a blog post on story structures by New York Times bestselling author Jerry Jenkins.
I periodically receive requests to add links to my blog or from people who want to author posts for the blog. Almost always I politely decline because either the link is not relevant or because it’s nothing more than a sales pitch of some kind. Only if I feel what’s being offered will truly benefit my readers will I post the link.
The Jerry Jenkins’ article is a gem that I felt I had to share with my readers. The link to it is near the end of this post.
Many new writers starting out face problems with attempting a novel. These problems aren’t unique to novels, but short stories are easier to deal with because it’s much less daunting to revise or rewrite a short story than a novel.
Trust me that there is nothing more crushing to a writer’s confidence than having someone you trust tell you it’s “too even” (the nice way of saying your story is flat and not exciting enough).
You nod at this person, a good friend or a relative, who is trying to be honest without completely crushing you. You can’t tell the person that he or she is full of crap and throw a tantrum because your inner voice is telling you this person is spot on the mark.
The problem is that every time you put some obstacle in your protagonist’s way, you have him solve the problem too quickly, relieving the tension, when you should have used it to increase tension. instead of turning the problem into a major obstacle to be less easily solved. You realize you did this rather consistently throughout the entire novel, and you see that there is not easy fix by patching a few scenes here and there. No, this is going to need a lot of thought, planning, and REWRITING. If you’re lucky, maybe you can salvage big chunks of the writing, but even with that, you’re going to have to pay attention to continuity so that the old material blends properly into the new material.
This problem could have been avoided or minimized if you had given more thought to your story’s structure before you began. Unfortunately, too many beginning writers don’t bother with that. They start with an idea then jump into the writing as ideas enter their head.
There’s a name for this writing technique. It’s called “pantsing” (as in writing by the seat of your pants), and I’ve I talked about it previously in the post SOME THOUGHTS ON OUTLINING. You might want to check it out.
There’s nothing wrong with pantsing as a writing technique. The key to using it well lies in understanding the problems it can bring, such as finishing the novel then finding out it’s a disaster. Pantsing is a skill that most beginning writers can’t pull off their first time trying it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try it, but it might be better if you don’t use it exclusively. A little thought and pre-planning helps.
A second pitfall for beginning writers is episodic writing. This refers to writing in scenes where each scene tells a more or less complete story while pushing the main story into the background. The story becomes a series of episodes loosely tied together.
Episodic writing risks crafting a weak overall story because you’re concentrating on the episodes and ignoring the main story. Some TV series are episodes with no single strong story thread running through the series (think series like Law and Order, NCIS, and CSI. Other TV series, however, exist both as individual episodes with mini-stories in them AND a strong story thread running across several episodes in the season, across the entire season, or across multiple seasons. You can probably think of examples of each type of show. When it comes to novels, episodic writing can kill a them if done at the expense of the main plot. Always keep your main story line strong and use your subplots and side stories to enhance, not interrupt, your main story line.
A third problem that can crop up is having too many characters and too many subplots. Not only is it hard for the writer to keep track of them all, but it can be even harder for the reader. This is where the knowledge of story structures can help. Each character or subplot that the reader must concentrate on can weaken the main story. Paying careful attention to your story’s structure can ensure that you keep things moving as they should.
For reference, here are the two previous articles I did on story structures:
And here’s the link to Jerry Jenkins’ superb article:
What I love about Jenkins’ article is that it’s one of the most comprehensive, yet simple-to-understand, articles I’ve read over the course of my writing endeavors. A number of articles on story structure that I’ve read in the past were written by romance authors and were therefore limited to story structures that worked for well romance novels but were not always applicable to other novel types. I’m now more articles with broader application.
No single structure works for all stories, but at the same time, more than one may work for any given story. Because of that fact, you have room to experiment to find the best one for your story. Armed with this knowledge, you should be able to determine a good structure for all your stories now and in the future.
I can’t promise (and neither can Jerry Jenkins) that learning about story structures will turn you into a bestselling author. I’m confident, though, that having this knowledge will give you fresh insights into your writing and guidance when you get stuck.
Before I close, I want to point out one thing Jerry Jenkins says about Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure (and that pantsers can take heart from): “I’m a Pantser, not an Outliner, but even I need some basic structure to know where I’m going. I love that Koontz’s structure is so simple.”
Finally, remember that story structures are not rigid forms. They are guidelines to help you craft a strong story.