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

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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.