Friday, June 17, 2011

Story and Structure

A while back, I read David Baboulene’s book, The Story Book. What I found fascinating about it was that it wasn’t about how to write a novel or how to write a screenplay. It was about how to make up a story. The book deals with a whole lot of things that are interesting and easy to understand. However, I want to talk about another thing that I started realising.

I’ve always gone about the process of writing by thinking of a novel, then writing it. This, as I see it now, was the wrong way. Instead, I should have been starting with a story, and only after I’ve completed that step, should I have moved on to the process of turning that story into a novel/short story.

While the two ways do seem to be much the same, it can make quite a difference. See, maybe this is just for me, but I tend to think of structure before I think of the rest. Baboulene says in the book that structure should never come first. When you think about it, he’s absolutely right.

I’m a very structure-seeking person. I tend to want things to line up and have them provide feedback as they go along. I need facts instead of feeling. Say, I’m cooking something, I would want to know things like, simmer for exactly 5 minutes and then add exactly this amount of some or other ingredient. That way, each step can be confirmed and evaluated. Therefore, if something goes wrong in step 1, I don’t needlessly do steps 2 to 10.

By doing this, also in writing, I am limiting my creation. I put a structure out there and then stick my story inside it, instead of putting my story out there and finding a structure that fits around it. Say I hear that a beginning should introduce the main characters and establish place and time, but my story does not work with such a beginning (e.g. the story gets moving with an event that does not involve the main characters at the time). If I were to bend my story around so that I can insert such a beginning, my story would suffer for the sake of structure. Rather find another structure or bend the structure.

I’m not saying structure is a bad thing. Structure gives you guidance and support when you don’t know where you’re going or when something goes wrong. But if you start off with structure, you can never reach your story, because you’re too busy relying on the crutch to carry you through it.

Use structure when you need it. The rest of the time, the story should dominate.


  1. Yeah, a good story idea is the best place to start. What sort of genre are you interested in writing?

  2. I love structure. It is so important to a story and sometimes so hard to get right. Have you read Stern's Making Shapely Fiction? He discusses several different shapes that a piece of fiction can take. It's one of my favorites.

    I'm a follower now and am glad to have found your blog!

    -Miss GOP

  3. Mood: I write mainly thriller, fantasy, sci-fi. A lot of things with a supernatural element, sometimes not.

    Miss GOP: I'm always glad to find a new follower. So, welcome.
    I haven't read Making Shapely Fiction, but I'm always looking for new writing books, so I'll definitely find myself a copy.
    Thanks again for stopping by.