The Problem With Structure

First off, I love structure and books on it and have a list of ones I have found useful here.

However, and it’s a big however, standard structure can also completely wipe the originality out of your story before it’s begun. I never used to believe this, but as I’ve gotten more experienced, I have gone from being a structure nerd to someone who believes there’s a better place for it in the writing process.

The problem with the 936,967 books on structure, is that most of them take a finished product (a film) and unpick it. This is great once a draft is written so you can look at what may be lacking and tweak it, but when you’re starting a project, asking the What If? and thinking about character, you need to take these strict structures and put them in the bin. You will have a natural storytelling structure in your mind so trust that. I have found my best work has come from being free, having an idea of where I want to go, and letting myself go on the journey.

Structure books are great for understanding commercial form, and you can learn how to tackle issues, but they are not the way to go (mostly) at the start. They can be stifling and you’ll find yourself tied up in knots, especially when seeing all the different methods. A triangle, a square, a hexagon, a walk in and out of the woods. They’re all dizzying and turn stories into maths which is great as a tool for analysis, but not for building.

At the beginning, what you want is your character and what you want to explore through them, and then you want to go wild writing the outline or script and then when you’re done, that’s when you look at the overall thing and mould it. Build the thing before you sculpt it.

When starting you need to be wearing a different hat and it’s a cruel one. You need to be thinking about all the bad things you can throw at your character on their journey. That’s what it’s all about - Character. Stories are about character journeys. When you can say ‘It’s a story about someone who…’ then you have a story.

Stories are this:

Themes -

Your central dramatic argument, for example, the world is a cruel place. Then the screenplay explores that theme through your characters

Characters in stasis that need to be disrupted -

The disruption is the inciting incident. It is designed to disrupt stasis, and like most people, nobody wants their stasis messed with. We like our stasis, and even if we don’t, it’s comfortable and maybe we’re stuck in it. Our job as writers is to poop on that stasis. If I’m a dragon and I love living in my cave, shut away from the cruelty of the world, I need to be booted out of that cave. My mission for the rest of the story is to get my cave back, to get back to stasis, because if I don’t my worst fears will be realised. I’ll be alone in the wild, which is where my mum was killed brutally in a particular place. We relate to fear, and fear and vulnerability make characters engaging. (I don’t know why I’ve chosen a dragon here)

Hope crushed

Once the protagonist has their stasis ruined, it’s time to see the dramatic argument in motion, so they need to meet something that believes in the other side of the argument. This creates natural conflict, but your protagonist isn’t a closed off fool, they can see the appeal of the other side, they just have their reasons not to like it.

Stories are about taking people through the argument and ramping it up. The protagonist will reach a point where they see the benefits of the other side, so the dragon may suddenly have the most fun they’ve ever had and let themself go, but then you need to knock them back down and the dangers of the theme hammer them back to their old way just when it looks like their eyes are opened.

Make your characters have hope, dangle it in front of them, then throw it into a fire. Your job is to be brutal.

The dragon’s goal, which at the beginning was to get back to the cave, could change on the exploration of the outside world to wanting love if they meet someone who embodies the adventurous world the dragon fears.

Then they move to sharing that outlook, the outside world isn’t so bad. Then you take that hope and new outlook, and you have their joy destroyed. Perhaps the love is placed in danger, oh no, in the place where the dragon’s mother was brutally murdered. Fear realised.

The dragon has to choose between saving the embodiment of the counter-argument to the theme, and being part of the new world, or they can go back to their cave and go back to normal, away from danger.

Stories are about change and opposites. Here’s a dash of hope, followed by a soaking in some despair.

At the start I want to live alone in my cave. By the end, I want to share my life with someone outside in the world and despite the danger that poses, it’s worth it, because love conquers all.

So write your story, and remember these rules:

  • Don’t protect your main character. Kick the joy out of them. Lift them high so they can almost fly, then take a chainsaw and saw off those wings. Give them great joy, and follow it up by taking them to their worst fear.

  • Opposites. Stasis at the beginning, to the opposite of it at the end.

  • Don’t get bogged down by the acts. Naturally, if you’re ramping tension up, act structure will happen. Do not hit a marker by a certain page. You can tell if something needs to move along, so you do that. Escalate.

  • Central argument. Treat your screenplay as a thesis. This is why you hear people talk about antithesis and synthesis. When Harry Met Sally explores the argument of men and women can’t be friends. Every scene is that exploration from the perspective of each gender. One character will raise the question, and at the end their belief will have changed through their interaction with someone who believes the opposite.

Good luck and happy writing.