Tag Archives: story structure

Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

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Plot and Story: What’s the Difference?

When I started writing fiction, I used the terms “plot” and “story” interchangeably. I later learned there are big differences between plot and story. Recently, Writer’s Digest magazine brought together three story masters to discuss story structure. James Scott Bell, Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler shed light on the differences between plot and story.

Bell, the best-selling suspense writer, said it well. “Plot is the arrangement of story incidents. It’s a simple concept, but within that one must then use all aspects of the craft to create freshness and originality,” Bell said.

He continued, “The reason plot and structure are so crucial is that this is how readers are wired to receive a story. To the extent you ignore them, you frustrate readers and reduce the reach of your book. For some that may be what they want to do. Experiment. It’s a free country, so no problem—just as long as you understand the consequences.”

Here’s what noted literary agent Donald Maass had to say: “Plot, to me, is shorthand for the sequence of external, observable events that comprise a story. It’s the things that happen. And unless things happen it’s hard to give a story impact.

“What many authors need are stronger events,” Maass said. “Most pull punches, underplay and basically wimp out. Strong story events feel big, surprise readers and evenshock them. There are ways to do that deliberately. One is magnifying events, both in their outward, observable sense and in their inner impact. For instance, you can work backward to make a certain event a protagonist’s worst fear. Better still, you can take something a protagonist must do and make it something that character has sworn *never* to do. Or you can work with an event’s consequences, finding unexpected damage to inflict or unlooked for gifts to give. There are lots of ways to make events strong. A string of strong events is what we call a great plot.”

Read the full interview here.

Think of a novel as a home under construction. The plot is the frame. The story is the finished house. Carrying the analogy one step further, the characters are the foundation. Stories are about people—flawed people who go on a journey and emerge on the other side fundamentally changed.

Stephen King admits he doesn’t plot his novels. In his book, On Writing, King shared his thoughts on plotting:

“I distrust plot for two reasons: because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…”

On Writing, by Stephen King, page 163

When I come up with an idea for a novel, I sit down and identify about a dozen major milestone events that will move the story forward. You could call this plotting. I agree with King to the extent that as I am writing a novel, I often discover ways of getting from Point A to Point B that I had not envisioned. I’ve also discovered that Point B isn’t the place I want to end up, and that’s okay too. That’s the “spontaneity of real creation” King spoke about.

Do you believe in plot or do you agree with Stephen King? How extensively do you plot your novels?

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