Why Story Structure Anatomy Matters

(sourced from Catawbaschools.net)

On the spectrum of pantser v. plotter, I’m a hybrid…but I’m convinced of the necessity of structure to tell a good story. Lately I’ve been playing with various types of story structure. This is interesting and useful stuff. Lots of people have written lovely books about this topic, if you want to bone up on specifics and argue about stuff, I’ll refrain from grumbling and just tell you what I’ve learned about my own process.

The more I experiment with various methods for organizing and presenting plot, the more I realize how structure has the ability to alter a story, for both better and worse – sorta like spousal expectations in a marriage.

I enjoy formatting and I adore bones. Those don’t go together, you say…ah, but you’re wrong. Both are foundations, skeletal elements if you like, that support and provide scaffolding for other important stuff like soft tissues, organs, musculature…or in terms of writing, the words on the page.

Without skeletons we’re just big old blobby messes of tissue, wiggling around like primordial ooze on the blue-green algae-smeared banks of evolution. With internal structures we rise gracefully to our fine-arched feet in order to dance, climb, leap and cavort across the landscape. These structures are the steel girders and the welded joints of the support system which make our movements smooth and sleek. Structure gives lift to our words, form to our ideas, and agility to our plots.

Knowing the anatomical structure of your story only benefits your ability to layer and interpolate meaning.

I spend a lot of time being distracted with how dialogue lays out on a page. It reads differently (like poetry), depending on where the breaks, pauses and cessations occur. Sometimes poetry just pisses me off because I think the writer put the breaks in the wrong place. I know it’s done that way on purpose, but it frustrates me. A writer friend recently informed me that in poetry this is called enjambment. Interesting.

Tweaking dialogue to create additional layers of meaning, intuit foreshadowing, and draw out deeper emotion is intriguing. This is the strength of story structure. When you find the right one for your particular work, it offers improvements, extends threads and hijacks complexity into lovely snarly new tangles.

Hot damn. That’s sexy.

Most of you writerly types already know this stuff, but I’m still figuring out the basics. Reading about structure in writing craft books doesn’t always work for me. I’m a hands-on kind of girl (yes, that was Beavis snickering in the background), and these ideas never really make sense until I’ve had a chance to apply one or two to my own work. Doing that has garnered some pretty nifty results.

More than one professional author advised me about the critical importance of structure – not just having one – but knowing which schematic is the best choice for a specific work and how to best implement the process for greatest effect. Each author claimed this is what made the difference in taking their work to a new level. I’m convinced. Already I’ve grasped the practicality of using structure to better visualize my stories, improve the complexity of threads, identify material that needs to be jettisoned, and how the correct structure can draw the reader deeper into a story.

I didn’t really begin to understand, until I applied it to my own writing.

I’ve no idea how many different story structures exist, but do some web surfing and you’ll find information about:

Narrative approaches to structure.
(meander, pace, sprint!)

The use of acts in structure.
(occurring in 3-7 distinct parts)

The 8-point story arc.
(excellent for the folklorists in the house)

Inverted pyramids, wave forms, and compression storylines.
(great alternate approaches)

Angularity techniques in plotting.
(I might have made this one up…I like geometry)

Various permutations of mythic exploration and journeying.
(I heart Joseph Campbell)


If that isn’t enough to confuse the general browser, a week or so ago, Chuck Wendig had a don’t-miss-it post called 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, in which he explored the usefulness of structure. Check out this post and you’ll come away with new insight and a few curses you might not have previously known. Don’t forget to peruse the comments section below the post for further input.

So what’s your experience with story skeletons? Has the anatomical structure of your work thrown you aside or pulled you down unexpected byways?

Share the epiphanies…

, ,

  1. #1 by Ryan King on February 7, 2012 - 5:20 am

    I’m still figuring out structure for my longer pieces. I firmly believe in having the bones down before hand. I just have a bad tendency of over doing it and not focusing on the characters like I should. Good luck on finding your “formula” 🙂

    • #2 by Leslie on February 7, 2012 - 1:33 pm

      Thanks for dropping by, Ryan. I find at the very least, a roadmap of my story is essential. As long as I know the start of the journey and where I want to end up, getting there is the creative fun part. I’ve discovered only recently that while the social media aspect of networking with other writers is energizing, and having a digital room full of people cheering me on, that sometimes I just need quiet alone time to produce better quality work.

      Finding the right “formula” is indeed a challenge but I feel like I’m getting closer to figuring out what works for me.

  2. #3 by Natasha Hanova on February 7, 2012 - 8:16 am

    Knowing the intricate details of a story and how they connect can help the writer hook the reader. Have you ever read Stephen Kings’ ON WRITING. I found that very helpful as well.

    BTW, I’m in your para romance platform group. Looking forward to getting to know you and your blog.

    • #4 by Leslie on February 7, 2012 - 1:36 pm

      Welcome Natasha!

      I’ve heard many good things about King’s ON WRITING. I’ll have to add it to my list and check it out. There’s so much really great writing advice and recommendations out there, the challenge is in finding the ones that work best for me.

      I love the campaigns! They’re so much fun…so glad you came to visit! I’ll start making the rounds this weekend.

  3. #5 by Rachel Morgan on February 8, 2012 - 4:20 am

    Um… perhaps this makes me a bad writer (gulp!) but I spend hardly any time thinking about “formal” things like structure, character arcs, story arcs etc. I just have a story in my head and I want to tell it so I sit down and write it! (I’m definitely more of a pantser!)

    Anyway, I’m from the campaign. In the paranormal romance group with you. Lookying forward to reading your writing 🙂

    xx Rachel

    • #6 by Leslie on February 8, 2012 - 8:28 am

      Welcome Rachel!

      Nah, that doesn’t make you a bad writer! Some people just inherently include everything that needs to be in a story. I find the more I’ve written the less certain I’m getting everything where I want it to be – so now I’m exploring techniques I haven’t used in the past. Some of them really have improved my writing but others have just seemed like a lot of effort for little pay-off.

      I can’t wait to start making the campaign rounds. I’ll be visiting you soon!

  4. #7 by Jennifer Tanner on February 8, 2012 - 9:49 pm

    I have tons of craft books. I’ve actually read some of them, too. But I’ve learned the most from reading books for pleasure…not that reading for pleasure is that pleasurable anymore since I started writing because I find myself dissecting the book. But as craft books go, Stephen King’s book is one of the best I’ve read.

    I know that as long as I’ve got my GMC nailed and know my characters well, I can proceed.

    • #8 by Leslie on February 9, 2012 - 1:59 pm

      I enjoy craft books and almost always find something of value that helps me learn my personal process better. I really need to pick up a copy of King’s book because a lot of folks have recommended it. I till enjoy reading but I am far more critical of stories and often set aside a book that doesn’t capture me. In the old days I wouldn’t have done that.

      For me, the tricky part is figuring out my own process for success and my failures that leave me stranded in the muck.

  5. #9 by Angela Orlowski-Peart on February 9, 2012 - 9:40 am

    I can admit now that I am a recovering pantser. I’ve learned a HARD way that plotting is much better for me. Although I always leave some room for pantsing. I guess that’s the best way to go – having that solid skeleton of a story to begin with, and then unleashing my writer’s imagination to build the rest of the body.

    • #10 by Leslie on February 9, 2012 - 2:04 pm

      When I started writing I didn’t know anything about the mechanics, so I just meandered through a storyline that had grown in my head….and like a vine it crept everywhere. Invasive is a good descriptor of that plot. It’s taken a couple of years, weed killer, a machete, tons of hours, false starts and stops, frustration up the wazoo and dedication – but the blasted thing is almost whipped into a finished state. In between I wrote more stories and each one was a HUGE learning experience. I’ve learned structure works for me but so does an organic approach, so by combining them I benefit both ways. Figuring out what works for each writer is key, I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s