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What novelists should know about story structure

Writers, understanding story structure will make you better at what you already do instinctively. From developing stronger, more memorable characters to saving you precious time in the writing and editing process, John Yorke explains why all novelists should take time to learn the universal language of storytelling.

Get maximum emotional impact from your story

Your success as a novel-writer is dependent on your understanding of story structure – because narrative structure is the way you organise the series of incidents in your novel to tell your story effectively.

There’s an underlying pattern to structure – common to film, theatre, novels and other mediums – not because that pattern has been prescribed by story gurus over the years; it’s simply the natural way in which human beings tell stories. And our success or failure, as artists and communicators, is dependent on our understanding of that pattern.

This universal story structure mimics the way we make sense of the world and the way humans learn. We pull the world into a shape and order that allows us to interpret experiences and pass them on. It’s a three-act process of observe, absorb, change – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – beginning, middle, end.

Go all the way back to the epic of Gilgamesh and work your way through centuries of literature from around the world, and it’s inarguable that all successful stories are formed around this same pattern. It’s in everything from Shakespeare to Breaking Bad to S-Town to The Girl on the Train.

Don’t be seduced by the idea that you’re a maverick if you resist structure – you’ll find yourself fighting against a universal human language.

– John Yorke

Taking the time to understand structure (the what, how and why of storytelling) will allow you to get maximum emotional impact out of any story you wish to tell.

It’s important to note that most people sense story structure instinctively. And some people just write perfect structure, like Russell T Davies, for example. But don’t let that stop you from becoming more familiar with how it works; studying structure (on our six-month online Story for Novelists course for example) just makes you better at what you do instinctively.

Shake off misconceptions and turbo-charge your creativity

There’s a lot of nonsense written about story structure, so people are right to be sceptical about how useful it is. But don’t be seduced by the idea that you’re a maverick if you resist structure – you’ll find yourself fighting against a universal human language.

There’s also this idea that structure acts like a strait-jacket on your creativity. It’s a mistake to see structure as a restriction; I think it’s the exact opposite – greater knowledge of story structure turbo-charges your creativity. Rather than limit you, it can set you free to explore your ideas and create something genuinely compelling.

Think about Macbeth and Breaking Bad – while they follow exactly the same story structure, they’re so creatively different and rich in tone and theme. Structure offers an endlessly adaptable language for you to explore.

Break the rules – but with a caveat.

Once you know structure, of course you can break it. You can smash it up. But it helps enormously to understand why you’re smashing it up.

The reason Picasso was one of the most extraordinary artists of the 20th century is because he was a master of craft – he understood line drawing, he understood the rules of perspective and so on – and he smashed things up in full knowledge of what he was doing.

With writing, there are many people you’ll need to explain your work to and articulate your ideas and choices, whether it’s execs or literary agents and editors. Having the vocabulary and understanding of why you chose to break a certain ‘rule’ of structure, can be the difference between being seen as a novice or as an artist.

What common structural problems do you see in stories?

Most new writers often get lost in the middle. Without a clear sense of shape, stories will always sag.

One of the reasons that the book I wrote years ago – Into The Woods – is still selling is because it helps people understand the shape and the reasons why stories revolve around the midpoint. So you work towards the middle of a story and then away from it. Once you know that, it’s much easier to solve your writing problems. To know where you’re going and why.

The inciting incident… is effectively knowing what question this book is asking. Then the midpoint – the middle of the novel – where everything changes, where a truth is discovered.

– John Yorke

Take tips from screenwriters

For screenwriters there’s enormous pressure to keep an audience glued to their screen – because films are very expensive to make and there needs to be a guarantee that it’ll catch an audience. There are definitely lessons novelists can take from that for their own work.

This is especially important if you’re a writer who wants their novel to be adapted for film or TV. You’ll find that the authors of classic novels – like Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, E.M Forster – write perfect structure and that’s why their stories are so easily adaptable to the screen because they’re effectively films in book form.

How structure impacts your writing process

Some writers plan their novel structure intimately ahead of time, and work out their big turning points to use as a guiding principle, because it can be a great way to save time during the drafting process and avoid writers’ block.

For example, there are key points a story should probably hit: the inciting incident, which is effectively knowing what question this book is asking. Then the midpoint – the middle of the novel – where everything changes, where a truth is discovered. And finally the crisis point, where the protagonist has to decide, ‘Do I want to accept this truth, or do I want to reject it?’ Those three structural points are for me very useful, so when I’m writing you can use it as a shortcut.

But not everyone writes like that! Others prefer to stick a pen in their heart and bleed all over the page, and then come back and tidy up afterwards. Jimmy McGovern always said ‘you write a script twice’ – the first time is just a howl of rage and then you turn that side of your brain off, and switch to your rational brain to turn the work into something that’s essentially weaponised communication. If you just start writing, you’ll be amazed by how close to an actual story structure you hit because so much of storytelling is completely innate.

Learn the what and why of structure, then use it in a way that works for you.

Story for

Master narrative and apply the secrets of successful screen stories to your novel.

Next course starts on 23 September 2024

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