On Writing: Basic Story Structure

It bears repeating: you can write your novel however you wish, but if you are a first time writer looking to get published, there is a certain structure to which you must adhere. This structure is not a new convention; it stretches all the way back to the epics of Gilgamesh. It is the structure of myths and fairy tales, Shakespeare and Dickens, Gone With the Wind and most bestsellers.

It is a simple structure. Start with a character who wants something desperately. Throw obstacles in her way and keep throwing them at her until, in the end, she gets what she wants or what she deserves.

Though I am giving you a formula, I am in no way advocating formulaic writing. Your writing should be beautiful and out of the ordinary. Your ideas should be startling and show life in a new light. Your main character should be someone we have never before met. Your obstacles must be fresh and exciting, your ending ingenious and right for the story.

The formula is merely the scaffolding upon which you build your story. Because it is so familiar and satisfying, it becomes invisible, drawing readers into your story world and creating for them the illusion that it is real. If you deviate from this scaffolding, which you have every right to do, you must be aware that all of those sharp edges poke at your readers, reminding them that what they are reading is a fabrication. It takes them away from the sheer pleasure of experiencing another world, another life, another possibility. And if you take that away from them, you take away their reason for reading. Some might continue to read in admiration of your cleverness, but most won’t.

Is that a risk you’re willing to take?

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8 Responses to “On Writing: Basic Story Structure”

  1. ulatbahanbacaan Says:

    Hmm quite an interesting advise. Thank though. Actually, I’m not really wanted to write and get published, enough for me to finish writing a book, it’s more than good for my satisfaction. hahaha anyway, it’s just in my point of view though.
    But, anyway, thank you for some tips.


  2. nomananisland Says:

    One of the biggest bestsellers of all time, and one of the oldest, does not follow the convention you describe accept in an analysis outside the text itself.

    The Bible. It is written in varying styles, with multiple characters, changing perspectives, diverse themes, and commentary within it on itself, even at times directly addressing the reader. It is unconventional, experimental, and refuses to restrict itself to the convention you describe accept for short periods of time when following the life of certain individuals, and then only to make a point before moving on with the story.

    Even when it follows a particular individual, it often gives conflicting witnesses, and different perspectives. The point of that person’s life changes, the details change, their struggles and solutions change. But it’s still one story, with the different pieces adding up to a greater whole, rather than being an anthology of different short stories. It’s a complete work. One which millions of people find reasons to read.

    Would breaking from convention make it almost impossible for a first-time writer to get published? Probably, almost certainly. But that doesn’t mean the conventional approach is better. It means that our publishing culture has limited itself in a way that the human mind hasn’t. And perhaps the best writing and writers will be the ones who recognize there are better ways to do it.

    Ways that have worked in the past and can be adapted for the future.

  3. lonewolf Says:

    The bible is not a novel, and has no bearing on what Bertram said.

    As for better ways of constructing a story: it is not the author’s decision as to what is the best structure for a story, but the reader’s. It is always about the reader, and any author who doesn’t get that will never get published.

  4. sonjanitschke Says:

    That just depends if a writer wants to get published. Personally, I question how well a publishing company can determine quality when there are books like the Eragon Series being paraded about…and I hesitate to let them determine how I write.

    Just because a new “structure” which doesn’t poke holes in the story hasn’t been found doesn’t mean that one does not exist. And, really, how do we know if we don’t read /every/ book or read /every/ writer who has or has not been published?

    All great inventors have received flak for their work. But I’m not going to let that stop me — well, I’m not clever or talented enough to vary from the formula, but it won’t stop the ones that can.

  5. Bertram Says:

    Exactly my point. You can write however you wish, but if you are a first-time writer looking to get published, you have a better chance of succeeding if you follow a particular structure. I never said that this structure is better, merely that it is familiar and satisfying. Perhaps if I followed my own advice, I would be published by now!

    And you are right about something else: publishers can’t determine quality, nor do they seem to want to. Marketablility is what they are interested in.

  6. nomananisland Says:

    So perhaps we should think of an alternative to mainstream publishing, eh?

  7. Promila Says:

    Dear Sir/Madam
    I am interesting in writing a love story.
    I don’t have any idea or basic points for love story.
    Can you guide me, what are the basic rules and is there any regulations for it.
    What are the basics.

  8. Bertram Says:

    The best way to find out the basics for writing a love story is to contact romance publishers like Harlequin and ask for their story guidelines. They will tell you what you need to know.

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