What’s With All The Talk About Structure?

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookIt’s everywhere. The snowflake method. The Wordplay lady. Moi. Probably a few other places.

Why are people talking about structure all of a sudden?

Does a story even need it? Or maybe it’s just for genre writers. Besides, isn’t that like putting shackles on a running thoroughbred? Especially literary writers?

Image courtesy of sprinfieldfiles.com

Structure? No thank you. I’m an artiste. I wing it.

Whoa there, back up. Please don’t mistake structure for some dictatorial pre-fab format. Structure is to story what bones are to flesh. It’s there, whether you consciously create it or not. Writing without structure is like walking without bones. If you’re lucky – and most of us are not – you have a knack for intuiting structure from within the writing process. Like a boss. Bravo.


It’s a bit like raising children: if you don’t teach them values, someone else will.

Image courtesy of totalfilm.com

Like this guy. He will teach em up real good.

If writers don’t consciously deal with structure, the reader will. And while s/he might not be actively aware of what the problem is, the story will simply not sit right. If you troll the comments sections of your local online book emporium, notice how often you read assessments like “a mess”, “went nowhere”, “had no point”, “all over the map” “fell apart” “pointless” or “doesn’t know what it wants to be”.

But, you may argue, that’s just bad plotting. Or there’s probably no theme tying it together.

Oh, pookie. These are not plot issues. They’re not thematic problems. They’re structural.

How do I know?

Theme is, say, a massive glass skyscraper in the heart of Kabul, or a cookie cutter neighborhood. If a building is ugly, it’s a design issue. If it falls down? Structural. If there are cracks in the walls, crumbling? Structure. Warping or listing? Structure. Accretions? Structure. Seepage? Structure.

My house. See? I know what I’m talking about. That’s 360-degree structural issues right there.

The qualities of structural soundness apply whether you’re knee deep in basement sewage (and have miraculously found no Hot Wheels stuffed in the toilet) or wrist-deep in narrative sewage.

Take a look at this:

Theme = what your story is about. A glass skyscraper in Kabul says something (intentionally – we’ll get you on your feet economically, or perceptually – we’ve been colonized). A cookie cutter neighborhood says something. Theme is either directed or interpreted, and not necessarily the same way.

Ugly story = unappealing, distasteful, unfamiliar style, voice, form. And ugly can be beautiful: As I Lay Dying.

Collapsed story (ie: a mess or fell apart) = failed structure

Cracks in the narrative (ie: pointless, makes no sense) = unsound structure

Warping/listing story (ie: all over the map, bad beginning, weak middle, fell apart at the end) = weak or poorly constructed structure

Accretions in the story (ie: stuck, all build-up/no follow-through) = compromised structure

Seepage (ie: doesn’t know what it wants to be) = breached structure

You can be a fantastic writer but a bad storyteller, and you won’t have an audience. You can be a terrible writer but with amazing storytelling skills and end up a millionaire.

Structure is everything. Storytelling stands on its foundation. Genius and talent and great ideas are nothing without the substance of structure.

That’s what the big deal is about structure. That’s what all the talk is about.

Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest part to get right. So someone’s telling you to use fractals to set up your story. Start with generalities and work your way toward specifics. It’s a nice idea but how does that help you with your story, now – right now? How do fractals create the dramatic momentum required to tell a good story?

Someone else out there wants you to write summaries and tack them all together with scene-building. What does that have to do with structure, or momentum, or internal logic?

Three acts? Five? Does it matter?

Did you tell a good story after all those exercises? Can you even tell?

Now what? How do you test out whether your story will be a good one? Shouldn’t there be some way to examine the components to see if it has created a structure strong enough for good storytelling?

Mapping? Storyboarding? They might be good for idea generation but how are blind guide methods going to help writers structure? Keep reading all the self-help type books but it’s like reading about building houses. If you want to actually learn how to build a house you have to build a house. That’s when all the weird words and actions take on meaning. Real meaning.

So build your structure.

Over the next few months readers of this blog will learn about the only structuring tool available anywhere that can truly help: read my post on the Writer’s Studio Series:Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative). Learn how to structure by structuring your story. This is something different. Right now every other method out there is like trying to make sense of a film by looking at one photo at a time. The Structural Flowchart is your whole story. All at once. Right in front of your eyes so you’ll know instantly when something isn’t working, and how it affects other parts of the structure.

Let that bake your noodle for a while.

If you want to tell better stories, if you want to increase your chances of having readers and getting published and doing well, you will need this tool. Subscribe to my blog (rather than merely “like” the post) for updates about when the Structural Flowchart will be available. I’ll continue teaching readers about what exactly this thing is so that by the time it launches on Kickstarter, my blog subscribers will not only know what it is, they’ll also be among the first in the world to get a hold of it. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition, so please tell anyone you know with an interest in writing to come to this blog, subscribe, and be part of something that will change the way stories are built.


Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

2 responses to “What’s With All The Talk About Structure?

  1. It is absolutely true that ” If you want to actually learn how to build a house you have to build a house.” I’m glad I found your blog, because although I have four novels under my belt (one published), I still struggle with structure. I look forward to more in the coming months.

    On another note, I nominated your blog for a Liebster “Award” today (see my post: http://audreykalman.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/leaping-liebsters/). As you can tell, I’m taking it with a grain of salt, but it was a great opportunity for me to discover new blogs, which is how I found yours. Do with it what you will.

  2. Algernon Struthers

    Structure, omg, so true. Five years that I wrote trying to understand the writing process taught me that my poor little brain can’t handle “skyscrapers” of info, because those spires keep falling.

    I don’t have that problem anymore because I write what my characters tell me and magically everything works. The only reference I have on the subject is the ‘Enid Blyton’ method.

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