Why Learning Plot "Structure" Didn't Help

part two of series

What is "character-first" writing? A mini-series

Part One: An Invisible Problem All Writers Face

Part Two: Why Structure Didn't Help

Part Three: The Power of the Two Plots

Part Four: The Power of a Victorian Narrator

 In the last post, I told you about a recurring problem I found in a lot of writers' stories. 

Here is part two. It is about the first solution I tried as a solution to that problem: story structure. 

To recap: over many years in workshops and writing groups, I noticed that many writers struggled to tell stories that other people could properly understand.

we just weren't wowed by the story because we, as readers, couldn't quite figure out what was going on. Yes, we could read the sentences and scan the dialogue. Yes, we could recognise the familiar moves of a plot moving forwards. But we seemed to be lacking a vividness, an emotional experience, a quickness that as readers we had been expecting to find.

Now, many of you maybe were thinking, "Daniel, you just need to follow a proper story structure! These writers of yours needed to shape their stories around the three acts, or the hero's journey, or the romantic arc, or the twenty two steps..."

And I can understand this response! I love studying story structures. If you've attended my plot summits, you'll see me getting deep into the weeds with fantasy and romance writers, asking happy questions about plot points. It's such a pleasure for me -- and I believe that these structures are really useful. 

My interest in structure was heightened, in graduate school, because structure was kind of a taboo subject, a dark art. We weren't supposed to be writing "cookie cutter" fiction -- and yet I could tell that these structures were so useful. I was the guy in the writing class handing in an eighteen-point outline with peculiar subheadings.

However, as time went on, I noticed that "structure" alone couldn't be a solution to the problem I had identified. 

Here are three reasons why:

1. Anything can go in the boxes: maybe if you are writing a genuine mythological "hero's journey" then (perhaps) the beats of that plot structure will line up perfectly with your story. When your hero receives a magical sword -- it really is a magical sword. Simple. But for most stories, those beats can only ever be a metaphor. If you depict a nervous law student studying late at night, learning case law over the summer, it might not be clear to the reader that you intend this passage to represent the box "acquiring a magical weapon." The reader might instead read the passage as showing the student losing hope -- or something completely different. A confused reader remained a confused reader. Sometimes, when I was editing a manuscript, I would ask the writer about a particular scene, one that felt unnecessary or too slowly paced -- and the writer would say, "In a horror novel, you have to introduce the 'friend-who-will-die' in chapter two." The problem was that, even with this knowledge, the weak scene was still there, looking clunky and forlorn. 

2. Do these models make sense for novels? Over time, I started to question whether plot models designed for plays, films, or myths actually fit a lot of the novels I liked. Now, if you are convinced that -- by definition -- a book like the first Jack Reacher novelmusthave an "inciting incident," then you can definitely pick one out, I suppose. But often the pacing of successful novels seemed not to fit many of these plot patterns. On the one hand, the drama in a good novel seemed to begin quicker than an act structure or hero's journey would suggest; on the other, once the tale was underway, often the protagonist would spend a huge number of pages refusing to make progress on the "real plot." And as soon as a novel included multiple points of view, multiple themes, or multiple timelines, these structures became even more awkward to apply.

3. Do plot structures solve the problem of readers "not getting it"? Structure was always unlikely to fix this particular problem: it is just too big. Even with a detailed, multi-stage strurure, you might have ten pages to write before you reach the next turning point or plot inflection point. Whereas the "readers don't get it" issue is a page-by-page problem. You have to make page one interesting enough that readers read page two -- and so on. How do you make page two interesting enough to make the reader go on to page three?

This was a serious problem

As you can imagine, this situation did not make me feel good. What on Earth could be the way forward? The freeform, literary-focused, "every-book-is-different" approach of my grad classes did not seem to help writers make their fiction easier for readers to process. But the opinionated, structure-focused, craft books with their plot rules ("by page seven, the hero must have touched two pistols") did not either. 

How could I help writers get the stories that were so vivid in their heads into the heads of readers? 

So I kept looking -- and eventually, I saw a way forward.

(What do you think about my partial critique of "structure"? Heresy? Half baked? Insightful?)