story structure

by Anna

Question: How detailed should the structure of my story be without overloading the reader and still maintain it's integrity?

Answer: Good structure is invisible to most readers.

There are basically four things that can make a story great.

1. Style. Many people love beautiful language and will love a book that is told well.

2. Authenticity of experience, whether that lies in the depth of characterization, detailed subject matter, or richness of setting.

3. Novelty. Many people love stories that deliver unique characters, settings, concepts, and events.

4. Story. If the reader feels the story has taken them on an emotional and intellectual journey that is powerful and compelling, that is almost always the result of good story structure. Structure lets you construct the emotional pathway of the story.

However, readers should not be aware of structure. They should not be thinking "Oh, this is happening because it's the right place for a cliffhanger," or "This happened because the writer feels the relationship needed a dark moment."

When readers see events as happening for structural reasons, that is a usually sign that the writer hasn't developed the characters properly and has resorted to shallow cliches.

Sometimes a writer can fail to provide logical, cause-and-effect reasons why events are happening, so that the reader feels the writer must just be making them happen for structural reasons.

Both these mistakes can lead to a story that feels artificial, forced, and shallow. It's like having a body that's so transparent that you can see right through to the bones.

Good writers make the characters and situations feel authentic--they put solid flesh on the bones--so that the reader has to look hard to see the structure. Nonetheless, the structure is still there, underneath everything, doing its job.

When you're writing, if you pay attention to the authenticity of the characters, settings, and events, structure can often take care of itself. Some writers who are good at this do very little structural planning.

However, this approach doesn't always work, which is why many writers also get stuck. Spending time developing the structure can avoid this problem. Paying attention to structure can often fix a story that otherwise falls emotionally flat. It can help you discover why a story isn't working.

Of course, you can also spend too much time on structural planning. Many of the best ideas about a story come in the actual writing. So you have to be prepared to revise your outline as you go along.

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