Friday, January 1, 2016

You're Wrong About Planning and Structure

So I've gotten kind of tired of my Facebook addiction and I'm trying to get addicted to Twitter, now.

(Follow me! @CarlWrites)

While I was experimenting with this new thing called Twitter that I understand is all the rage with the young folk, I stumbled upon this image.
(Visit for details about and further work from the illustrator of this image. No, seriously, do it. His stuff is super cool.)

Now this comic is kind of funny and it highlights a very common criticism of certain writing theory and technique. It's an argument against formula, against rigid structure like the three act structure and it's the sort of arguments I hear from people who are explaining why they never plot or plan a story before writing it.

I used to be one of those people. I used to wing it every step of the way for maximum creativity. I wrote Sorceress' Blood that way.

And if you happen to be one of those people, good for you. If it works for you and you write productively and write well and you're happy, good for you.

But allow me to express a counter point.

Go to your book shelf, down to the book store, to the library, to your e-book store of choice and have a look around. Dig out a stack of your favourite books from the last two thousand years and I guarantee you that some of those were written specifically to the three act structure. I guarantee you that some of those books were intricately planned before a single word was put down on the page. 
And I'll go a step further. I'll say that some more of those books were written without a plan and then heavily revised to have a better structure, to suit a more rigid plan. The same can be said for your favourite movies, your favourite stage shows, our favourite comics, your favourite Pokemon/Sonic The Hedgehog cross-over erotic epic poetic saga fan fiction.

Did you notice it when you read those books? Did it ruin the experience for you?

I asked you to get your favourite books, so I'm going to go ahead and say that you weren't too bothered by the fact that somebody planned it before it was written.

That's because it works. It has always worked. It will always work. Those beginning and end points, those turning points, the inciting incident, the rising tension, the climax all make for a good story. You could argue that this kind of story telling isn't an invention but a discovery, that we naturally tell stories this way. It's an idea with some solid ground, considering how many stories follow the formula and that it can even be applied to the way we tell anecdotes from our life and how we tell jokes.

And when you deviate in a big way, when you have your inciting incident too late, when your tension scale is flat, when there's no climax, when your conflict arises too fast or too slow, people notice it and they don't like it. Go ahead and break from the formula. Write your story with no climax. Trust me when I tell you nobody wants an anti-climactic story or one that just stops without resolution.

And for all the complains about rigidity, about restriction and how it kills your creativity, at its most basic level, a structure isn't that rigid. A structure is a guide, a framework for telling a story in a way that is logical, natural and satisfying. Whether it's three acts, four acts, seven acts or nine acts, they're essentially the same idea expressed in a different way.

Used correctly, a story structure is invisible. It's a subtle formula that bends to your needs as you shape your story to fit it. The only people who see it are those who are looking for it or already know it's there, and even then the lines can be blur together easily.

Look, as I said, if you don't plan your story in advance and ignore all the theories about structure and it's working out for you then that's great. I'm happy for you. But if you think that planning ahead or applying a structure to your story makes for a worse story or weakens creativity in some way, or that it makes all stories the same, then you're just plain wrong. You, sir or madam, are factually incorrect! And the chances are, if you finish your work and go back and have a look, you'll be able to see a way your story already fits a basic structure. They're that flexible that you can usually apply them after the fact without much difficulty.

Whether or not you personally consider narrative structures and formula, whether or not you personally plan ahead according to these theories, they work, have always worked and will always make for good stories.

At the end of the day, everybody writes differently and we all find our own balance of planning, moment-to-moment creativity, and we all decide which tools we're going to master and bring to our blank page to craft our story. There's no one correct way of doing things. Just don't trash other people's methods.

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