Stories Require Structure, not Gimmicks

Let’s talk about story structure. I recently edited part of a book for a client who overthought his structure, and I’d like to share this issue with my readers.

Don’t be Gimmicky with Story Structure

What I mean by overthinking story structure is basically doing anything other than straightforward storytelling. By that, I mean trying to get your story across with a gimmick. For instance:

  • using language that’s so poetic it makes no rational sense
  • mixing up the story structure so that the story isn’t told in any semblance of normal order
  • failing to thoroughly introduce characters, so readers don’t really know what they look like or what role they play

These are all structural issues, and many more writers have them than realize it. These are also signs of a writer’s insecurity.

When you get overly fancy in your story structure or style (see this blog about style), it’s because you doubt your story is interesting enough to engage readers without a gimmick. If the gimmick doesn’t work, your insecurity really shows.

Making Sense is Paramount

My recommendation for anyone who suspects they might be using a gimmicky structure to bring their story across is just to tell them to go ahead and write the story in the normal order of events.

Write it. It doesn’t have to be good. Show this to someone and see if the story makes basic sense. In this draft, don’t worry about being interesting or amusing, because if you’re going to use a tricky story structure (and many people have been successful doing that) you have to know the story’s reality backwards and forwards.

You have to use your unusual structure to enhance something that makes sense, not to try to hide something with major logical holes in it. Trust me, no one will be fooled by that.

Gimmicks Can’t Cover up a Clichéd Plot

The thing to keep in mind, if you find yourself being gimmicky with your structure, is that your story must have depth. It’s good if the characters have layers, grow over time, are in an interesting setting, and confront conflicts in unique ways. It’s not good if the story is cliché or predictable. That’s a pretty good benchmark.

If you feel strongly that your story has these qualities, don’t worry about whether or not people will like the story structure or plot. Whether or not they like the plot is not based upon the characters having fascinating adventures, it’s based upon the reader enjoying the author’s style, her voice, and her way of bringing across ordinary human emotions.

Gimmicky structure can be fun once in a blue moon, but only if it’s used in a story that readers can actually follow. Remember: if readers want poetry, they’ll buy it. If they bought a novel, it should read like prose, with a beginning, middle, and end, not a stone-soup mixture of events.

If you don’t like this advice, good. Use your anger in your work.

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