From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James is one of those writing books people kept recommending, in general, and specifically for me. I finally read it over the past few weeks and am glad I did. Though there is an undeniably contradictory message that runs throughout, there’s an wealth of specific advice that any genre author, in particular, will find of immense value.
First, let’s get through that contradictory message, which might be jarring to a lot of readers. I feel as though I can dispel it quickly and easy enough that anyone will be able to brush past it and get to the good stuff, which describes the overwhelming majority of the book.
Story Trumps Structure has been held up as something like the “Pantsers Bible.” If you aren’t familiar with the distinction between “pantsers”—authors who start writing with no plan and complete a full novel “by the seat of their pants,” and “planners”—authors who laboriously craft impeccably detailed outlines then slavishly adhere to them from beginning to end—well, good. It’s a goofball distinction that matters not at all to anyone.
Everyone who puts pen to paper to write a novel is some part “planner” and some part “pantser.” Maybe your outline resides in your head, making you a pantser who has planned without writing down the plan. Maybe your outline, like every outline I’ve ever written myself, is so heavily revised by the time I get to the end of a rough draft that to an outside observer I’m a pantser who jotted down some notes that were then largely ignored. Let’s call planner/pantser a spectrum and leave it at that.
Steven James calls pantsing “organic writing,” which introduces another theme running through the book, which is attaching slightly different words to describe, in some cases, elements of Fiction Writing 101. And for the record, there is nothing wrong with Fiction Writing 101! We all start somewhere, and again, the specific advice in Story Trumps Structure provides great places to start.
A key concept in James’s organic writing is to ignore anything resembling a formula. This isn’t terrible advice, and I’m equally wary of any true formula, as he describes them, that would give you exact page numbers where this element must happen and are actually outlines with blanks for the characters’ names and so on. By all means, let’s leave that kind of stuff to Hollywood.
Bu I have to tag James with some real inconsistency in message here, since he rejects formulas outright, then goes on to rewrite some of the longest standing formulas as bullets points you must keep in mind while organically writing without a formula. For instance, James writes:
Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts or trying to make it “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” ask if it has an orientation, a crisis or a calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation, and a satisfying ending.
Which is a perfect definition of the classic three-act structure:
Act One: an orientation, a crisis or a calling that disrupts normal life
Act Two: relentless escalation
Act Three: a satisfying ending.
Okay, fine. Then he ends the section entitled “Let narrative forces, rather than formulas, drive your story forward” with a one-page formula that certainly doesn’t get into hyper-proscriptive detail, but maps quite nicely with most if not all of the formulas I’ve seen for novels and short stories. See how three questions he advises you to ask in Chapter 8: Emergence, maps to the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula I’ve featured here and in online courses for years:
James: What would this character naturally do in this situation?
Dent: The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.) Does everything happen logically?
James: How can I make things worse?
Dent: Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
James: How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?
Dent: The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn. The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
For me, the obvious takeaway is to learn this stuff—basic plot structure like my own “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it;” Aristotle’s three acts; and the rising tension, increasing difficulty, and logical next scene that Dent and many, many others have written about—then forget where you learned it and proceed without referring back. Again, okay. I don’t think Steven James is being hypocritical, it’s more indicative of how he got there himself. It’s interesting that agent Donald Maass touches on this in his foreword to the book:
You see, there are big chunks of the craft that most writers do without thinking. They’re good at explaining what they’re conscious of but unaware of what they do intuitively. They avoid mistakes and add flourishes as they write because it just feels wrong—or right. A draft passage on the page smells bad or looks good in the way food does as soon as you open the refrigerator door. Before you’ve picked it up, taken a look, peeled off the plastic cover, and sniffed… well, you just know. Either it’s good to eat, or it will make you sick.
James got there, learned to feel/smell his way through his books, and is now telling you how to get there too. Great! That having been swept aside, I’ll reiterate that I am recommending you read and study and think about this book. I’ll end with a few selections of great advice then let you read Story Trumps Structure for yourself:
Stories are transformations unveiled—either the transformation of a character or a situation, or, more commonly, both. If nothing is altered, you do not have a story, you simply have a series of images or a chronicle of events.
The truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism, and bouts of heartrending disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, you might just make a great one.
In each scene the protagonist will move forward from goal to setback(s) to a decision that drives things forward. Your character will seek something, fail in a way that makes things worse, process what just happened, and then proceed into the next scene of the story. Four steps: seek, fail, process, proceed.
Don’t ask yourself, “Should I include a subplot?” but, “How best does this story need to be told?” If you can even identify a subplot, it’s likely it hasn’t been woven into the story well enough.
A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who’ll be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget. So to create an intriguing character who faces meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.
Easy choices make for weak fiction.
Read this book!
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