Tuesday, 7 February 2017


If you have been writing with a mind to getting published at some point, particularly in the last ten years or so, you will have read at least one book on the craft of writing already. Seriously, I probably don't even know you personally and I'd still put money on that.

This is because there are literally thousands of them available now, in both e- and dead-tree form. Many are written by authors who have sold decent shedloads of their novels and are passing on wisdom and experience that they've gained through dedicated practice and results, while others are written (I suspect) by enterprising individuals who are fantastic at marketing and know how to 'adopt' ideas from several other writing craft books and put their own spin on them to make something that appears to be full of entirely new information (which, in fairness, also requires good writing skills - just different ones from writing novels.)

Either way, it'd be hard to escape hearing the most popular pearls of writing wisdom that crop up all the chuffin' time. Adverbs are the devil's crystal meth, Show Don't Tell if you don't want the Story Gods flaying you alive and selling your internal organs on eBay, a kitten dies every time you use Passive Voice... yes, yes, we know all those, thanks very much. But once you get past the basics, and start delving deeper into The Craft books, you get to the next level, which is all to do with Story Structure.

At the most basic level, there's the Three-Act Structure. In spite of its numerical leanings, this actually splits the story into four parts; Act One (the first 25% of the story,) Act Two (the next 50% of the story, but with the all-important  'Midpoint' splitting the whole into a kind of 'before and after the game like, totally changes,' with 25% on each side) and Act Three (the remaining 25% of the story.) Layered on top of that is the seven-point story structure - or the twelve, for the more ambitious - that splits the stages down even further. Joseph Campbell calls his version The Hero's Journey. Whichever way you slice it, this is where you find terms like The Inciting Incident, The Call to Adventure, The Final Battle...

Sound familiar? It's hardly surprising. The Three-Act Structure is very, very popular among professional writers in all media: novels, comic books, stage plays, screenplays. The reasons for this are simple; it works, has worked well for as long as people have been telling stories, and it mirrors the way naturally gifted storytellers tell stories (even back in the days before writing how-to books - or writing as we know it.) It follows the life cycle of most living creatures on this planet (Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 = Child, Adult, Elder,) so we relate to it on a subconscious level as humans. And the seven (or twelve) plot points link up with the stages we humans go through in solving a major problem in our own lives. Every story ever written or told, when you boil it right down to its essence, is 'some person has a major problem and then does stuff to solve it.'

But there are those who rail against making their stories fit a predetermined structure. Anything that sounds like it's trying to introduce some degree of conformity onto what is supposed to be a creative process will inevitably be viewed with suspicion - and this is particularly true for those who believe writers are born, not made. That only those imbued with pure, natural talent can truly become successful writers - and if you don't already possess it, all the studying and practising in the world won't help you acquire it. They in particular hate the idea that something from the well-springs of imagination could actually be improved by shaping it with the tools of rules and structure - "We're supposed to be bohemian, radical free-thinkers, man! We don't do rules!"

And that's when they use the f-word. No, not that one, I mean 'formulaic.' They say things like the three-act structure are why so many 'commercial' novels these days are 'all the same,' 'lacking originality' and 'recycling the same old plots, over and over again.' They claim it's how 'bad writers' can have a successful career and sell millions of 'terrible' novels, because they're all just using the equivalent of a factory template to churn out cookie-cutter stories, production line-stylee.

They say it with the kind of venom that's born from fear; the fear that 'anyone' (i.e. even the ignorantly untalented, defiantly lazy and cynically opportunistic) could write a successful novel armed with little more than a fill-in-the-blanks template. That's a pretty soul-crushing thought if you've toiled for years at your writing, believing in it and the notion that only those who truly possess The Gift and nurture it with pride and dedication earn success and respect in the end. Anything that purports to make the writing process easier - when you know from personal experience that it's mostly bloody hard work - can automatically sound like it wants to 'dumb down the craft.'

But I think that's where the misunderstanding occurs. Yes, using devices like the three-act structure will change the way you write your stories. You will find yourself shuffling bits of plot and character development around, adding particular elements in or taking other bits out to make a story more closely fit that structure. But - and here's the key - only when you already have a story to work with.

Three-act structures, seven-point-plot structures - all of those things -  are not the same as a template; you can't just fill in the boxes with characters and plot pieces to see what kind of story you end up with like one of those multiple-choice questionnaires in teenage magazines. You need to have at least a beginning, middle, some sort of ending, and a basic idea of who the main characters are. It's the same as baking a cake; the structure is just your recipe, you've still got to collect all the ingredients and equipment you need first. Without those... well, that recipe could be as detailed and precise as the average legal document but you still can't make your cake, can you?

Structures and frameworks are not quick and easy short-cuts to writing formula novels designed to cater to the dumb masses. In fact, if anything they require the writer to put even more time and effort into their stories. Most of the greatest novels, plays and movies ever written follow, at the very least, the three-act structure - it might not be obvious at first glance, but the genius of a great writer is that you don't see them pulling the strings and working the levers.

So don't be afraid of them cramping your style if you want to give them a go - they might improve your storytelling capabilities in ways you never thought possible.

 On the other hand, if you're more a stream-of-consciousness, wildly-experimental kinda writer then carry on as you are - there's room for that kind of writing too, so you go right ahead and keep doing you. Just accept that you're making that artistic choice, and it will have an impact on how much money you make from your work and how widely it sells. If you're writing purely for yourself that won't matter, but if you're in it with hopes for wealth and/or fame... well, unfortunately you can't have it both ways. Remaining defiantly 'unique and quirky' while accusing other writers of 'selling out' when they use tried and trusted methods for commercial success just makes you look bitter and kind of full of yourself.

Because whatever choices you make about using structure or not, one thing all writers should remember is that it's the readers who ultimately make the choices. Readers have the right to love what they love and hate what they hate - and if what they love is the stuff you would never choose to write it doesn't make them bad or stupid people.