Structure Versus Intuition In Storytelling

Writing fiction is not a connect-the-dots process.

In every structure-centric writing how-to book I’ve ever read (screenwriting books in particular), the author encourages writers to create their story after creating the structure for it—usually by way of an outline / plot treatment / notecard shuffling derby.

Fuck all that noise.

Unless your name is John Grisham. In that case, carry on with your paragraph-per-chapter rundowns.

And unless, of course, outlining works for you.

The way it works for you is The Way.

And yet…

The best writing is intuitive. The story is already there. A frequency in the ether.

Your job is to tune into it, not “architect” it.

The kind of structure a writer needs is a better antenna; more satellite dishes in their array.

Not a “blueprint.” Not “scaffolding.”

Used in this way, structure doesn’t help you create the story, it helps you hear it. It helps you recognize the station you’re tuning into, and to distinguish your story from the competing static.

In other words, structure helps you most of all when you get stuck. It isn’t a substitute for voracious reading and practice.

Structure is an amplifier.

Structure is a strange attractor.

When you know how dramatic fiction works structurally, you can start with anything—a piece of dialogue, an odd shadow in an alley, or your protagonist getting punched in the face—and then derive the other elements that must be in the scene to make it as compelling as possible.

(That said, when the writing is going well, and you’re simply tuning in to the story and writing it down—without needing to rely, consciously, on structure.)

Viewed in this way, structure isn’t a “roadmap,” it’s a compass.

Then Again…

An understanding of the skeletal anatomy giving shape to the flesh of a great story can reduce the anxiety that so often chokes the creative process.

The blank page is a formidable opponent. It can drown you with possibility.

Many writers find that sketching an outline prior to crafting new prose frees up enough neurons to make writing a compelling story possible. This might depend on the kind of story you’re writing. Certain genres demand carefully plotted twists and turns and intersecting timelines. While other stories are simpler explorations of a what-if? which might actually benefit from a driving-at-night approach.

If you do outline your stories in advance, make a conscious effort to use your bullet points and your scene summaries merely as tools to quiet your mind just enough to hear the story that’s already being broadcast.

Don’t fall into the ego trap of thinking you’re smart enough to “invent” a 100,000+ word story that other sentient beings will actually want to lose themselves in. The “story” that you can hold in your mind—even in outline form—is necessarily finite.

A meaningful story—worth reading and worth passing along to the attractive stranger at the Costa Rican hostel—is infinite; its fractal-folded meme demons convey universal human experience inaccessible to the whirring gears and thumping pistons of logic, no matter how thoroughly greased.