Over twenty years ago, I met a teacher who changed my life. Not only because of what he taught and believed, but because of the community of fellow students and other teachers united by a common practice of a particular martial art. Training in that art yielded a number of benefits, among them a sense of and appreciation for structure that has affected my approach to stories and writing.
This isn’t too surprising. Much of the how-to around storytelling deals with structure: three acts, the hero’s journey, and so forth. Stories and storytelling have been a part of humanity for so long that it’s hard to imagine ourselves without them. But we also get impatient when a story meanders too much or seems to have no point. Often what’s missing is structure; or, if you recall that stories were told long before they were written, timing.
The danger of how-to manuals like Structuring Your Novel, useful though that book has been for me, is of mistaking the map for the territory. Just as solely repeating forms doesn’t mean you’ll win a fight, forcing one’s story to conform to the structure runs the risk of discarding ideas that might have worked with a little more creative effort. You have to allow for the unexpected. Use the structure as a tool instead of taking it for granted.
It’s also beneficial to avoid assuming that any one structure is universal, or even that any one structure is better than all the others. My chief complaint about the hero’s journey model isn’t the model itself–it’s very useful, and it’s a lot of fun to map stories onto it, including quite ancient ones such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. But trying to force every story we find into this particular structure means missing the variability and mutability in which reside stories’ ability to surprise–not to mention the other story structures which are possible.
When I first started writing I resisted what I viewed as the formality of story structure; I was too creative for that, maaaaaaan. Yet an interesting thing happened when I started paying attention to structure and its attendant feature, timing–when I started thinking about how the structural elements of story interrelate, like little Chekov’s guns firing all over the place. My stories started selling.
Structure guarantees nothing; I still collect more rejections than acceptances. But in starting to see how structure functions as a tool in storytelling, I’ve strengthened my stories overall, and seen the creative potential in giving my story a good skeleton. Structure might make for predictability in some respects, but some of the best poems are sonnets.