Story Structure

Remember, there are no absolute rules in writing. Note, I said ABSOLUTE. We do have grammar, punctuation, and spelling rules, but these are broken everyday by writers who want to show something about a character’s speech or writing. Formatting rules change due to technology or the desire to create a different presentation. Even the structure of a story (beginning, middle, and end) may be altered…or completely ignored.

So why even worry about these elements? Why bother to edit?

There are writers who absolutely do not want anyone changing what they have written. This is how they wrote it, and if you don’t like it, tough!

That’s fine if these writers don’t want traditional publishers to consider their stories and don’t want 99% of readers to read their books.

But the truth is readers have expectations. Those expectations may change over time or differ from culture to culture, but from birth upward we are taught language and storytelling structure. We will accept some variations (new words added to our vocabulary or changes of meaning; experimental writing), but we’re more comfortable with the tried and true. This is especially true of genre writing. If a writer does not meet the expectations of that genre, chances are the story will fail.

Most genre writers follow the three-act play structure with the story being told in a sequential manner. If the writer includes events from the past, it’s done in a way that’s clear to the reader. The most popular structure seems to be Action–>Reaction. An event occurs and there is a reaction to it, either physical or emotional. When that sequence is disregarded, the reader may become confused. What happened? Why did that happen? Why wasn’t I told that first?

New writers are the ones most apt to make the mistake of not following a sequential structure, especially if they are writing about something very personal. Their emotional attachment to the story (event) often dictates the writing. One memory leads to another, not necessarily in any order. They’ll mention people or events without fully explaining who these people are or what relevance this event has to the story. They may write long scenes (sometimes beautiful scenes) that have no need to be in the story. For the writer this structure has meaning; for the reader, it may not.

Unless what we are writing is strictly for our eyes (and perhaps for family members who might also know what was going on), we need to remember the reader wants structure. They want to be able to follow a storyline. If the writer does jump from present to past, it must be done in a way that allows the reader to understand the time change. And by the end of the story, the reader wants to feel a conclusion has been reached. For romances, it’s the HEA (happy ever after). For mysteries/suspense/thrillers, it’s the solving of the mystery or the end of the danger. And so on with each of the genres. Even with literature, the reader wants some benefit from the time spent reading (or listening to) the story.

Structure is one of the most important reasons to have an outside editor edit your story. (Not your mother or best friend.) The editor who reads through your work will (we hope) pick up inconsistencies and repetitions; will be stopped by a name or reference he/she doesn’t understand; or will let you know if a scene (no matter how wonderful) isn’t relevant to the story. A good editor will point out scenes that need to  be developed and those that need to be trimmed. In my opinion, not using (or listening to) an editor is foolish.

Next week I’ll blog about finding a freelance editor.

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8 Responses to Story Structure

  1. Good post, Maris. Learning to tell a story is hard because beginning writers have to learn to trust the story itself. Too much back story, too much unnecessary concealment, and more can ruin a good tale.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. I’m not sure beginning writers even realize they’re concealing information. It’s often a case that they know whom they’re talking about and don’t consider the fact that the reader doesn’t. That’s also true of terms that might be known to the writer (or a small population) but not known in general.

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful post. I wish all new writers understood this. So much of the backstory isn’t needed if you weave it into the tale the correct way. Info dumping pulls the reader out of the story and makes them stop reading.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Melissa, you are so right. A century ago, a writer could (and often did) start a novel with backstory, but nowadays, readers want to get right into the story. I know I like it when a writer weaves the backstory in.

  3. Diane Burton says:

    I agree totally, Maris. As a reader, I like a recognized structure. I read a book that jumped to the past and back to the present so much and was very confused. I want backstory, but I want to know it’s backstory. I only finished the book because it was for a book discussion group.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Your comment, Diane, reminded me that structure is also a personal matter. Some of the books I’ve read for a book group have stimulated opposing opinions, with one group liking how the story moved from present to past and others disliking it. It’s the old, you can’t please everyone.

  4. paula says:

    “Even the structure of a story (beginning, middle, and end) may be altered…or completely ignored.” As soon as I read this in your post, I thought of Colson Whitehead, who won this year’s Pulitzer for “The Underground Railroad.” It does not follow the three-act play structure but is so well-told.

    I know you have a lot to say about editing and the more I listen to you, the better I become at editing. Thanks again for the good words.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Paula, when a writer can break the traditional form and the reader says it was a well-told story, then the writer succeeded. Also, my guess is he knew what he was doing. The problem comes when a writer doesn’t know, and the change in structure is purely accidental.