Story Trumps Structure

Twelve years ago, I had an idea for a series of mysteries featuring a one-armed detective. At that time, I attended a seminar by a well-known novelist who taught us to outline our fiction carefully and meticulously and then stick to the outline as we crafted our stories. In some cases, he would write a forty-page, single-spaced outline and then spend his actual novel-writing time pretty much filling in the blanks.Well, I didn’t get very far in the one-armed detective project. In fact, it went absolutely nowhere. The process of outlining seemed daunting, not a whole lot of fun, and a very artificial way to approach an art form—sort of like telling an artist to use a paint-by-numbers approach.I realized that in my heart of hearts I’m a storyteller, not an outline maker.You’ll hear the importance of outlining, or “plotting out your story,” taught at writers’ conferences nationwide, and when you don’t follow their formulas, you’ll quickly be labeled an SOPer (that is, a “seat-of-the-pantser” or sometimes just a “pantser.” And no, I’m not making this up).

At some point when we were growing up, most of us were taught to outline our stories. Whenever my teacher assigned an outline, I would write the story first and then go back and create the outline so I’d have something to turn in for my grade. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of other people who did the same thing. So why is this process taught if it’s not helpful for so many writers?

Honestly, I think it’s because people haven’t been exposed to organic writing so they simply don’t know how to teach it.

Story Trumps StructureAbandoning an outline isn’t something to be ashamed of. You don’t have to “confess” or “admit” that you write without one. It’s a natural and bold approach to your art form.

I love how David Bayles and Ted Orland put it in Art and Fear: “Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending . . . Many fiction writers, for instance, discover early on that making detailed plot outlines is an exercise in futility; as actual writing progresses, characters increasingly take on a life of their own, sometimes to the point that the writer is as surprised as the eventual reader by what their creations say and do . . . Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable, and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.”

If you don’t have an element of trust in the process, you will never become an artist.

I have a feeling that if you asked folks who teach three-act structure if they’d rather have a story that closely follows their format, or one that ends up with more acts—such as Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries who wrote plays in five acts—but intimately connects with readers, they would go with the latter choice. Why? Because I’m guessing that deep down even they know that, in the end, story trumps structure.

Another writing instructor once told me that the three acts form the skeleton of a story. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that until I was at an aquarium with my daughter later that week and I saw an octopus. I realized that it got along pretty well without a skeleton. A storyteller’s goal is to give life to a story, not to stick in bones that aren’t necessary for that species of tale.

Give yourself the freedom to stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life (internal, external, and interpersonal) of your character.

Writing a story isn’t a straightforward, step-by-step, mechanical process. In my view, it’s more like growing a houseplant than drawing up the blueprints to the house.

When you nurture a plant, you provide the right environment by watering it, giving it the nutrients it needs, making sure it’s in the sunlight, and then you trust that it’ll grow.

Even though you know what type of plant it is, in the end, it’ll never look exactly as you expected it to, but it’ll have a life and beauty of its own. Though you might have had a general idea, its leaves and branches will unfold in ways you would never have been able to predict.

The more you try to force the plant into your preconception of what it should look like, without giving it time to flourish, the more you’ll interfere with its natural growth. You need to trust the process. And you need to give it time to grow.

I’ve found that when I tell people to stop outlining their stories, I get strange looks as if writing organically is against some sort of “rule” of writing.

Well, in that case, I invite you to the rebellion.

Discarding your outline and uncovering your story word by word might be the best thing you can do for your fiction, just as it was for me.


Steven James is the award-winning, bestselling author of many novels including The King, Singularity, and Blur. His book on the craft of novel writing, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules, was released in the summer of 2014 through Writer’s Digest Books.