Sunday, March 6, 2011

Does Structure Thwart Inspiration? Part 2

I recently read an article in Writer’s Digest that has been most helpful to me, called “Story Trumps Structure”. It expressed a liberating idea: We don’t need three acts like everyone says we do. Why not four? Or ten? Or as many as the story needs? If your story is boring because you’ve tried to force it into some mold it doesn’t want to go into, WD (specifically Steven James) says, ‘Why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts [instead of the conventionally accepted three]? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?” This was the first time I considered that maybe the structure should serve the needs of the story rather than the other way around.

He gave an example of a friend who argued the necessity of the three acts, saying they form the skeleton of the story. He didn’t know how to respond until later that week when he went to an aquarium and saw an octopus. It gets along just fine without a skeleton, he realized. I loved his next words: “A storyteller’s goal is to give life to a story, not to stick in bones that aren’t necessary for that species.”

I like it when big ideas can be boiled down into a single, simple concept. For example, the whole of the gospel can be boiled down to love God and everybody else. In my pondering over this matter, I have decided that storytelling boils down to pretty much one thing: don’t be boring.

Follow inspiration. What is inspiration, after all? My definition, on the fly, is a creative sort of energy, mixed up with excitement and a sublime sense of possibility. I did look it up, however, and I like what it says best: “To be filled with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence”. When we are inspired, we engender the birth of an idea and feel a certain confirmation of its potential. Too much structure is you trying to change that, or at least filter it. Story is best discovered in letting it flow.

That said, you do need both. The trick, I think, is in the approach, in how to separate them and then put them together. I believe there’s no one right way to do it and no way to get around the fact that, regardless of your approach, it’s hard work.

“To the rationally minded the mental processes of the intuitive appear to work backwards.” —Frances Wickes


  1. I really like that, "Don't be boring". Yes, that sums it up perfectly.
    Thanks for the reminder to be an artist and bring creativity to the mix.

  2. I don't know all the rules of good writing but I can sure put down a boring writing fast.Thanks

  3. As an English teacher, I think formulas are great, I'm always giving my students writing formulas for different tasks: essay writing formulas, plot formulas, letter-writing formulas. But the students who get the best marks are always those who can play with the conventions of the formula, breaking the rules or using them in different ways to give the readers unexpected surprises.

    But I always feel that it requires that they've mastered the formula first.

  4. Good comments. It's interesting to see what people think about this, because there seems to be such a need for balance. My problem is I think I like formulas a little too much. Akseli, I like how you said the best students know the formulas well, but break the rules a bit. Thanks everyone.

  5. I agree with Manzanita - I don't know all the rules of writing but boring writing=no read for me! You have to be intrigued to keep reading a book. So I am sure if you looked at all the books you love you will also find that they all bend the rules a little.