Structure is necessary and integral to fiction

without structureDO YOU WANT A TALE – OR A STORY?

I’m not only an extreme plotter, but I’m a structuralist.

I’m working on the first scene of Book 2. And making very, very sure that it works structurally, with the book, with the beginning, with the plot, and especially with the ending.

The brain craves storytelling, but it craves more than content, it craves analysis.

And analysis is structural. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. My mother used to drive me crazy when she’d tell me about someone, and then, when I’d ask, ‘what happened?’ she would say, ‘I don’t know.’ or ‘that’s all I heard.’

She had illustrated a point, given me information, but wouldn’t give me a resolution I could hang onto.

She was telling me tales, and for those, the fact that it happened is enough.

Story is much more than that.

How is structure important?

Here’s an example from non-fiction:

Imagine I’m talking about the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, whatever, and you’ve come to hear me because I’m supposed to be an expert.

But I tell you about four contributing factors, and I do a short one, a VERY long one, and then another two short factors, briefly, because I’m running out of time.

What are you left with?

NOTHING you didn’t already know.

And it drives you crazy because I told a tale, took your time – and didn’t make a point.

Now, imagine I started with the smallest point, continued to the next shortest, then the next, and finished by spending my time telling you about one of the causes. Wouldn’t you expect that to be the most important cause I have to talk about? And wouldn’t you expect me to say something significant and important about it?

By giving it space and time, I have made it important – and the rest of my presentation had better support that.

Or I could start with the important point, spend time on it, and then tell you in quick succession other possibilities, followed by a quick conclusion. Wouldn’t you end up wondering WTF? Did I run out of time – or why did I not eliminate the easy ones first?

How does this work in fiction?

Storytelling is presenting information in such a way as to emphasize WHY you’re telling the story.

I expect you to reach a conclusion, tell it to me, support it, and teach me something I would otherwise have to figure out on my own.

Structure is intentional. If you need to tell a story in chronological order (a common requirement), you still have to choose which parts to tell, and how to make them fit a structure that will let the reader absorb it. Or you are getting in your own way, and are telling an anecdote.

So it is very important that I consider the structure I’m going to foist on the reader, from the very first scene. Or the reader will notice. And not like it.

That’s not what I promised.

Are you happy when you notice a story has no real structure?


Thanks to Stencil for the ability to make graphics for these posts – I use the free account, but they have far more capabilities if you get the paid one.


Remember, if you like a blogger’s prose, consider that the blogger’s fiction is written by the same person. Try it – you might like it.

I’m trying to get myself to put up some short stories; it’s on the To Do list.

Pride’s Children. On Amazon.

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6 thoughts on “Structure is necessary and integral to fiction

  1. Bun Karyudo

    That’s an interesting point. I guess structure in books is rather like editing in movies in that when it’s done perfectly, the reader (or viewer) doesn’t even notice it because it’s so seamless. 🙂

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story, talks a lot about our brains being predisposed to seek story in what we hear, and how to use that.

      Structure is an important part of that. For something to be useful to others as a vicarious experience, it has to have the structure that makes it a lesson: this happens, this is how it develops, this is how you deal with it in life – so you don’t have to live it yourself to learn the lesson.

      Story structure isn’t haphazard when done right – it is deliberate, controlled, and guided. A good writer takes you from where you might be to where she thinks you ought to go. And makes it highly entertaining and compelling on the way (or you skip out).

      Something to aim for.

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      Reply
      1. Bun Karyudo

        Yes indeed. I’ve heard before that human brains are particularly good at looking for stories and particularly bad at other things, such as estimating probabilities accurately.

        I think you are completely right. A deliberate, controlled and guided story structure absolutely must be the ideal to aim for.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I know I’m disappointed if I get to the end of a ‘story’ and it fizzles out, wrapping up things either too fast, too loosely, or not at all. It ruins the whole story for me, as if the author couldn’t make up his mind what the point of the whole thing is.

          Ambiguous stories – Henry James and The Turn of the Screw – drive me crazy. Literary stories with the ending left up to the reader strike me as precious and pretentious. I don’t have time for them. If you’re going to tell me a story, then do so.

          Imagine if Conan Doyle had let ‘you be the detective’!

          Liked by 1 person

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