The great Reds and Tigers Manager Sparky Andersen once said, “Give me a guy who can hit and I’ll teach him how to catch.”
I can apply that analogy to writers. A writer knows how to catch. A storyteller knows how to hit.
Anyone can learn the basic fundamentals of good writing–show vs. tell, active verbs, snappy dialogue. But to be a good storyteller, one must possess a minimum prerequisite of talent and imagination. Like the hitter who bats .100, though, we still have much to learn.
I’m taking a break from the NaNoPlotMo postings. Mostly because we’re in the middle of creating our character goals and story beats, which should take some time. But also to explain what my goal is with this blog.
When I first started writing, most of the blogs and books I read dealt with the mechanics of writing. Show vs. Tell was king of the writer’s lesson. And for a good reason. It’s the single biggest mistake a new writer will make. But something that can be mastered with a little practice. What I didn’t find was good instruction on story structure.
Not that lessons on structure didn’t exist. It just seems to be the last thing we consider. And I now believe it should be among the first.
The novelists craft is broken down into two major components: Writing and Story Structure. Without structure, we can write 1200 pages of the most beautiful prose ever gifted to man, only to have it rejected in twelve words or less. As Stephen King says, people want great stories, not great writing.
So before we begin our 1200 page journey, we can save ourselves a lot of time, heartache, and rejection letters by understanding story structure. If this offends your artistic senses, I will remind you that even Rembrant was restricted by the boundaries of his canvas.
So why structure? Because the human mind is geared toward a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Thus the three act structure. We expect an inciting incident, a point of no return early in the story, a point of reflection in the middle, another turning point later, and finally a conclusion. Most writers understand this. What few new writers understand is that we also expect these points at fairly precise locations within the story.
Which Structure is Correct?
The answer is D) Most of the above. Most of us are familiar with the three act structure. Every other commentary on structure follows that basic pattern, but they may add detail. Some of you know of the Save the Cat methodology made famous by Blake Snyder and The Hero’s Journey employed by Joseph Campbell. A few of you may even be familiar with The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams. All of these take the three act structure and expand on it. They give you definitive points where each story milestone should occur.
Right about now, the pansters are getting annoyed with me. I will suggest that a panster knows this structure as well. The published pansters have learned to write 200,000 words, then whittle it down to the three act structure instinctively. I say instinctive, but they’ve learned the lesson of structure through observation first, trial & error second.
Ask a Screenwriter
Screenwriters don’t waste much time on this freestyle form of writing that seems to infect novelists. That’s because they’re pitching to people who deal with seven or eight zeros behind the dollar sign on a daily basis. Trust me, these guys know what works. The free market never lies. Movies that follow that three act structure and other well-defined principles open on a Saturday and by Monday are posting $50million dollar earnings.
My friends, we need to learn this lesson from our screenwriting brethren: learn what works and copy the hell out of it.
Before I close, let me ask you this question: when was the last time you read a book that you couldn’t put down, but the author broke all the “rules”? Yeah, me too. That’s because you didn’t want great writing. What you craved was a great story.
So, if you’ll stick with me, we’ll learn together how to create a great story. No show and tell here, I’ll leave that to those who can better explain it. But I love to craft a great story. I hope we can do it together.
God bless. Let’s write your world.