2 min read

All structured out?

I spend a lot of time—arguably too much—thinking about story structure and planning. I have spent at least tens of hours on this. That includes tight big structures like three act structure, five act structure, snowflake, palindrome, Dan Harmon's Story Circle, and looser structures like Trey Parker and Matt Stone's but/therefore and Stanislavski's (?) through lines (via this blog post). It includes smaller-scale elements of story like try-fail cycles. It includes mixed-scale structure that exists at multiple levels like wants, emotional needs, and obstacles, as well as the conflict that emerges from those things. It includes planning and note-taking about characters in the form of for example character trees (from Film Crit Hulk's Screenwriting 101, which seems to have link rotted out of existence...).

I would really love to fit all these ideas together. I'd love to place them in a larger toolbox that makes sense of how they relate to each other. I'd love to connect the structures to the prose fiction techniques and patterns used to implement them.

That could be deeply satisfying. I want to understand structure and planning because I want to write better fiction, but I also just like the idea of slotting these ideas together into a coherent systematic structure.

I think it's possible to relate the structure and the techniques. I think there is a way of relating structure and technique: Technique is how you implement the story in a particular medium.

And all this could be helpful to have, but here's the problem: I'm not using any of those tools. I don't know how to connect them usefully and I don't know which ones are actually of any use to me.

I started reading about structure years ago because I felt like my stories were too chaotic. I had gotten feedback to that effect, and it seemed true. Lots of things happened in sequence without a break. Characters' reasons for doing things were not always clear. Stories tended to end when I got bored and ran out of jokes or ran out of ideas for the next interesting thing that could happen. I wanted to learn to structure a story "properly" to address those problems.

Trying to assemble a big, comprehensive, coherent toolkit is probably the wrong approach if I care primarily about writing better fiction. I would do better learning what I need when I need it, trying things and seeing what works, using tools in an ad hoc way to solve the problems at hand. I would do better by looking at a specific story I have written and try to fix it—possibly using one of these tools, if it seems appropriate—than by endless theorizing.

But that sounds like a lot more work and a lot less sexy.

Worse, it might turn out that my stories no longer suffer from shitty structure, and what then? Then to improve them I might have to learn something new. I might have to take desperate measures, like talking to and empathizing with real human beings to ground my fiction. That sounds even harder.

I could consider doing a structural analysis when editing, though. It shouldn't make things worse. It could even help.