The only story structure you need (hint: it’s not the Hero’s Journey)

👋 Like this post? Sign up to my TinyLetter for more writing advice and personal updates.

I’ve never liked the Hero’s Journey, but until recently, I always felt like I was alone in that opinion.

Mythcreants writer Chris Winkle sums it up nicely when he says, “Three acts don’t add up to a plot.” I ran into this problem with my second novel, where I tried to rigorously follow a three-act structure, beat by beat, and pair my story elements to the Hero’s Journey. I had the Call to Adventure and the Mentor. I had the Road Back. So why didn’t I have a good novel?

Well, the Hero’s Journey (or whatever other story structure you want to follow) is sort of like a blueprint for constructing a standard model house. You can use it and put all the pieces together in a way that looks more or less house-shaped. But that doesn’t mean you know how to build a house, let alone how to build a good house.

If story were as simple as a plug-and-play equation, authors wouldn’t need to spend years of their lives improving their craft and studying description, character, conflict, and so forth. We could invent a story calculator where you input variables and whirr, whirr, whirr, out comes a literary masterpiece.

But in case you haven’t seen some of these algorithmic story generators, they’re not meaningful. They’re more a series of random, disconnected events. And that does not a story make.

The question, “What do you need to write a good story?” is a lot different from, “What’s the structure of a good story?”. The first question is a lot more complex and nuanced. The second can be broken down into parts, none of which need to be numbered and cookie-cuttered into 15 beats, but rather explained in terms of essential story elements.

Instead of thinking about mentors or resurrections, think about:

  • what the problem (conflict) is
  • why your character cares about solving it (motivation and goal)
  • what will happen if they don’t (personal and external stakes)
  • how you can make it continuously hard for them to solve it (more conflict)

Remember high school English? It had one thing right: rising action and climax and denouement. It starts with a conflict, then things get harder (complications), and then they resolve.

https://www.literacyideas.com/narratives/

3 simple tips for world-building, whether you’re writing fantasy or fabulism

👋 Like this post? Sign up to my TinyLetter for an honest look at a writer’s creative life, with weekly inspiration and advice from the trenches.

Jessica Townsend, author of the Nevermoor fantasy series, once said that building a fully realized world is a product of treating “things that are overblown and ridiculous” as “everyday things.” What defines a world like Narnia is as much about the food and where the characters sleep as it is the White Witch.

But you can’t info-dump everything, so which aspects of your world do you call attention to, and when do you glaze over details? How much time do you need to spend world-building even before you start writing Chapter One? Here are three guiding questions to help you find the right balance for your story.

#1: What type of story are you writing?

Genre can determine how much time you need to spend on world-building — and whether a few selective details or more complex descriptions better serve your story.

For example, if you’re writing an epic high fantasy for adults, you’re going to need to touch on many different facets of your world as your characters visit diverse locations and navigate society’s rules, as well as any magic. You’ll need to invent a lot more energy than you would than if you’re writing fabulism (a real world story with fantasy elements), where you can rely more on the familiar and expectations that readers already have about how the world works.

Blogger/author Janice Hardy says you should “describe what will be assumed incorrectly,” as well as “what’s unique to the world or situation.” This is scene-level advice that applies to broader world-building. The more different your world is from our own, the more you need to draw the readers’ attention to those details, because otherwise they’ll fill in the blanks you leave with their own reference knowledge.

But you could world-build forever and only put in 10% of it (the iceberg model), so how do you decide what’s relevant to share? That’s when character and conflict come in.

#2: How does your character fit into the world?

When you write scenes, you’ll want to avoid info-dumping and instead weave in details that are relevant to your character. A good way to do this is to filter everything through your protagonist’s point-of-view. What would their eyes glaze over, and what would they notice and why?

This is a good rule of thumb for taking your iceberg amount of world-building and finding the right percentage to surface in your story, because you should only be mentioning what’s relevant and important. Your protagonist is a good filter because their occupation or hobbies, status in society, and feelings and opinions (what motivates them; what they love and hate) will guide what to focus the narrative lens on when revealing details about your world, and how deeply.

You definitely want to paint in what’s going on around them, but here’s the difference: If a protagonist has visited a market countless times, describe the hustle and bustle in passing, for as long as their eyes would pass over them. If a protagonist is seeing something for the first time, think of how real-life tourists soak in every detail and idle a lot longer. You only need what the scene calls for.

#3: What’s the goal and conflict?

What your protagonist care about is one measure of determining what world-building to do and share. But you also need to consider their goal (focus) and the conflict.

Let’s continue with the market example. If your protagonist’s goal is to find an assassin lurking in the market, they’re going to pay closer attention to everything happening around them, and they’re going to be on the lookout for suspicious people and activity. They may be scrutinizing the actions of others and questioning what’s normal. Because of this, you’ll want to understand the inner workings of the market, because you’re going to need to describe it down to exact details. At this point, the market is less background noise and more the focus of the story.

This can apply to scene-level or story-level goals and conflicts. For example, say there’s a whole league as assassins in your story, and there’s a political conspiracy to kill the king. As the author, you should probably know the intricacies of the court and league more than the market when it comes to the broader scope of your story, because you probably plan on staging more scenes in the castle or assassins’ den than you do the market.

TL;DR

The TL;DR (too long didn’t read) is this: Your story’s characters (especially the protagonist) and conflicts are like a magnifying glass revealing what you should focus the bulk of your world-building energy on. There’s no need to spend hours inventing an agricultural system for your novel if your characters aren’t going to spend any time near a farm or the people who work there. You might need a few details to sprinkle here and there if they’re passing through, but only as much as their attention warrants.

Write what you need for the story you’re telling; forgo the rest.

Signs you’re growing as an aspiring novelist

Growing as a writer

Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.

This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)

My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.

This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really, upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.

I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.

Writing pencil twirl

It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.

That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.

Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.

As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.

And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.

I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.

How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?

4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.

Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.

Stop giving a shit about the rules

You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.

But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.

Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.

I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.

Put a twist on everything

It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.

The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.

But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.

In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.

But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.

Make everything harder, and force characters to act

Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.

Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.

Nail their voices

You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.

Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.

Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.

All in all …

The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.

And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.

What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?

Cool Story