Plot Structures 1: Who Needs Structure?

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Welcome to the first in a 5-part series about Plot Structures. Don’t worry book-lovers, reviews will find their way between these updates. Look for The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu coming soon.

Have you noticed how terrible children are at telling stories? Oh, sure, they’re cute. Their little eyes gleam at the exciting part (“the slide was huge!”) and they wave their little arms. And if you’re listening to a kid weave their tale, chances are you love them, or are close to somebody who loves them, so you smile and make encouraging noises and ask leading questions until they decide to run off and play. But, let’s be honest, that cute story you just heard rambled a bit, didn’t it? Ok, it rambled a lot. Who were the characters? What did they want? What did they overcome on the way? 

… we’re going to be here all day. Image Source

Jokes aside, what’s forgivable in kids’ stories can be grating in a novel that cost good money. We’ve all been there – it’s page 237, and you put your finger in the book, stare at the ceiling, and wonder where all this is going. 

Plot structures exist for a reason. Love ‘em or hate ‘em (more on that in a minute) humans have ingrained expectations about the rhythm of a satisfying story. We need to know what normal is. We need to experience a surprising turn, sparking conflict and destroying “normal”. We expect there to be twists, and turns, and challenges, all focused on resolving the initial incident. Once the final hurdle is cleared, we expect a moment to breathe and explore how the world has changed. Even if they cannot articulate these expectations, readers feel their absence in their gut. 

“But Josh,” you may say. “I’m not a plotter, I’m a ‘pantser’. It works for Stephen King, it’ll work for me.” 

Maybe. 

Let’s address the elephant in the room, the great myth about plotting:

Myth: Plotting Ruins Creativity

As my readers know, I’ve been enjoying a variety of writer’s experiences over at The Reading And Writing Podcast. Whether and to what extent the author plans their novels in advance nearly always comes up, and I’ve noticed some patterns that lead me to a conclusion: The simple picture of plotter vs ‘pantser’ is a false dichotomy. 

We all use structure. We all improvise. It’s just a matter of where and when. 

Most pantsers – also known as discovery writers, those who crack their knuckles, sit down to the keyboard, and bang out a stream-of-consciousness story as it comes to them, no plan needed – make a claim, and an admission. They claim that they cannot write their first draft (a key distinction) any other way. A plan is too restrictive, it ruins their ability to improvise. I can respect that. I don’t empathize, but I understand. The admission, then, is that they must often untangle the mess afterwards. Many self-proclaimed pantsers describe taking the building blocks of their first draft and applying structure after the fact.  

So, whether you are thinking about plot structure in pre-production or post, it is unavoidable. 

For the corollary to the myth – if plotting ruins creativity, then plotting is, by definition, uncreative, right? (wrong) – I can speak from personal experience. 

The team at Writing Excuses said it best – “Plotters are discovery-writing their outline.” I experience the thrill of exploring surprising turns and dreaming up twists in brain-storming sessions with a pen and a certain leather-bound notebook, rather than with my keyboard and digital pages. My characters still surprise me – writing a plot-point such as “they explore the archives and learn the secrets of X” or “escape the pirate ship” does not tell me the beautiful nitty-gritty details that bring the story to life. Those still emerge in the course of writing.

Each scene rests on the previous. (Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com)

Guidelines, Not Rules

It is worth saying that as much as I love following a plan, strict adherence to a traditional structure without deviation is far too predictable. Excessive predictability is boring. So, even as I shill for plot structure in the coming weeks, keep in mind that rules are meant to be broken… but you have to understand before you can subvert. 

We All Need Structure

So, whether you aim for a structure up front or beat your story into form afterwards, all writers need a basic understanding of structure. In the coming weeks, we will explore: 

  • Scene/Sequel format
  • Three-Act Structure
  • The Hero’s Journey
  • The M.I.C.E. Quotient. 

Happy reading, and happy writing.

[Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly included a paragraph intended for another article. Sorry about that.]

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