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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