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.

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

Writing is like meditation. It’s uncomfortable and hard, until it’s not

It's hard

The number one thing that stops me from writing my novels isn’t a lack of time, opportunity, or ideas. It’s how I feel while I’m writing.

The act of writing hurts.

It goes a little like this. I sit down and spend at least 20 minutes getting into a good headspace. And once I get going, it’s not necessarily any easier. The whole process, from beginning to end, is painful. It’s basically “this sucks this is bad and dull and uninspiring” on loop.

And knowing it’s like this almost every time is depressing because I start to question my life choices. Why couldn’t I have picked a nice, happy hobby, like knitting?

tina bob's burgers

There’s only one way I know to deal with this feeling. Not even to make it go away — just to get around it.

Write often.

Yeah, yeah. Easier said than done, I know. (Trust me, I know.) Because it’s a bit like a catch-22. You have to write often to stop the feeling from being so intense, but the feeling is so intense that it stops you from writing often.

In that way it’s a little like exercising. It’s terrible until you like it (or so I’ve heard). But exercising isn’t a perfect metaphor because it’s not so much that I like it or that it gets any easier. It’s more like meditation. It’s uncomfortable and hard — consistently, no matter how much I do it — until that moment when it’s not.

It happens when I’m maybe an hour in, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But when it does, I call it falling into the “writing zone” because that’s about the time when my husband is asking if I’m ever rejoining the rest of humanity because three hours have flown by. I get up from my laptop all groggy and wondering where I am.

everything is terrible

As a writer, I can only live for these moments. But it’s like getting in a car and every time having to drive with a blindfold on. You’re horrified and you want to get out because this is a bad idea, but then you can feel you’re on the highway, and you’ve forgotten anything is wrong because you’re one with your car or something. (No, I have not done this. Do not do this.)

If writing is meditation, it’s a struggle of trying to make it from one word, one sentence, one paragraph to the next while machete-hacking through a jungle of my own terrible thoughts. It’s a fight. It’s relentless. And then all of a sudden, I’m in the groove. I’m too deep and too focused to care or even notice I’m in the jungle anymore — I’m just there, slinging the words, too busy to complain about how hot it is or how hungry I am.

This is probably too many metaphors, but you get the idea.

Writing is hard. It’s hard. I don’t know that it’ll ever not be hard. And yeah, most of the time that makes me want to crawl under the blankets and never emerge.

But then I achieve that small moment — and it’s the tiniest indication that everything will be okay. That maybe I can do this after all.

So here I am. Still writing. Still going.

Reading your manuscript for the big picture, not the little stuff

After a two-month break, I’m ready to revise my latest manuscript — roll up my sleeves, uproot those big-picture problems with world-building and character and … ooh look, that’s a good place for a comma!

Turning off my grammar brain is hard for me. So hard that, when I took a developmental editing in fiction course earlier this year, the teacher schooled me on my first assignment. I was thinking too much like a copy editor. (Full disclaimer: I am one.)

I was seeing the trees, not the forest. As novelists, we gotta see the whole forest, because when you’re trying to take that first draft and hammer it into shape, all the pretty words and emphatically placed commas don’t mean a damn thing.

So I printed out my latest MS with the intent of reading through it with fresh eyes. I wanted to react like a first-time reader would. That way, I could focus on the story, rather than all my insecurities as the author.

And hey, it’s actually working. I can’t completely forget that I’m the author, so I’m jotting down little ideas and insights for how I can make the story stronger, given I know how it plays out. (Which is actually GOOD in developmental editing. You want to be familiar with the story in its entirety before you go making suggestions for how to fix it, so typically you do a clean read-through first, then only start marking up the MS on your second pass.) But I also have emotional distance now, so it feels more like I’m reading someone else’s manuscript, which lets me be more honest and free-thinking in my criticism, as opposed to crippled by doubt and pressure and self-loathing at being The World’s Worst Writer Ever.

So it’s awesome. Except for one thing. My MS is a middle grade, and I’ve noticed a lot of what I’m affectionally calling OPWs, or “Old People Words” — basically words or phrases that an adult like me would use, that might turn off kids and diminish the book’s voice.

Which is great, only now I can’t stop flagging them, or circling other words and marking them as “vague” or “awkward” — or striking out crutch words or whole sentences. Once I get going, I literally cannot stop myself. Full grammar beast mode activates, and I lose the forest for the trees.

This is bad. There’s no sense in caring about issues on the sentence level when it could all change depending on what needs fixed big-picture. Those words I’m nitpicking now? They could all get cut in the next draft anyway. There’s plenty of time to catch them later, when I’ve moved on to more surface-level changes.

So, memo to self — and let this be a helpful reminder. Don’t worry about perfect. Perfect is a trap. If you’re like me, that might take a lot of willpower, but first things first: get the story right. The characters, plot, conflicts, motivations, world-building, etc. See the forest first, in its entirety. Stand on a hill or something and get a good view. Make sure it’s a solid forest in every sense — that all the animals and plants and insects are doing what they’re supposed to. Then worry about pulling the weeds.

Doodle by my hubby

10 things writers wish that non-writers understood

OneDoesNotSimplyExplainTheBook

Being a writer is a profession nobody seems to understand. Do you sit around all day in your pajamas? Do you use a fancy pants typewriter? Are you just making elaborate fantasy maps all day?

The answer to all of these is “usually no.”

So what’s the deal? Well … let me clear up a few misconceptions.

Nobody has time to write

We make time. That’s how it happens. Magic, right?

Pretty much all of us have day jobs, social obligations, errands to run, and various other life responsibilities.

Writing the book is the easy part

You heard me. Writing the book is the easy part.

What’s hard is revising it multiple times based on feedback from critique partners and betas, perfecting your query, snagging an agent even after they request a partial or full manuscript, staying motivated / patient while you receive a lot of criticism and rejection or radio silence, getting a book sold to a publisher, etc. etc.

It takes more than an idea

Trust me, just because you have cool ideas and great life stories and your friends love them does not mean they will be golden when you sit down to write them out.

Telling a good story out loud and writing a good story are two very different tasks.

Sailor Moon Writing

We don’t do it to get rich

There’s very little money in writing. The Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world are the 1 percent.

Nobody becomes an author to make millions. Most don’t even make enough to quit their day job. We write because we love it — because writing, though incredibly hard most of the time, gives us an incredibly genuine sense of fulfillment.

Mental illness is not a prerequisite

We all know the stereotype: Writers are loners, losers, drunks, cat ladies/guys, and all-around crazy people who stick their heads in ovens.

While many famous authors have suffered from mental illness, most research on the link between mental illness and creativity is lacking. Writers can be gorgeous, happy, social people. They can be short, tall, skinny, fat, gay, straight, white, black, and every shade in between. Yes, they can also have depression, anxiety, or any other number of mental health issues. And yes, there’s a lot of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-loathing that accompanies the writing life.

But it’s important not to glamorize mental illness or position it as a prerequisite to being a legitimate creative person. A mentally ill person won’t “lose” their creativity if they get better. If anything, their illness is as much a detriment, if not more so, to their writing (and their life) as it is a factor in their success.

Asking us what we’re writing is a BIG question

Um, so, I don’t know if you realize this, but asking writers what our books are about is a question that FILLS US WITH DREAD.

Summarizing tens of thousands of words into a few sentences and making them sound cool is super hard. So hard that writers call that summary “the elevator pitch,” and it takes a lot of thinking and effort to make it good.

Of course, that means we need to actually create and memorize our elevator pitch before we can tell you it. So try to be understanding and kind if we’re not quite ready to share.

We work even when we’re not feeling inspired

Key word being “work.” Writers have deadlines. Yes, sometimes, if we’re un-agented, we set deadlines and goals for ourselves because otherwise we’d never finish our books — but rest assured, these are real deadlines and goals, and we appreciate when you respect them.

What we don’t do is write only when we’re feeling inspired or are on vacation or enjoying a perfect day or the kids are out. “This shit is easy,” said no writer ever. We write whenever we can, as often as we can, even when the words don’t want to flow and we’d rather be watching Netflix because writing is fucking difficult.

Writing is actual work. Legitimate work. Like, there’s business involved and stuff.

Being unpublished doesn’t mean we’ve failed

Probably one of my biggest fears — and I think a lot of writers’ fears — is that if we don’t have a big agent or a three-figure book deal and our books aren’t being made into movies (reality: 99 percent chance all that is not going to happen), then people will think we’re hacks and that we’re cute for trying but we should probably give up now and find a nice office job.

This is not a realistic measure of our success.

1) It takes years to write and revise a manuscript. Years. It’s a slow process.

2) Most writers’ debut books are not the first book they’ve ever written.

3) Sometimes, after you get an agent, your book goes on submission but then nothing happens.

4) Even if a publisher picks up your book, it takes years before it’s actually in print.

So if we don’t have “good news” or any real update for you and it’s been months since we last talked, please be patient. We have to be.

We really, really wish you’d buy our books

If we are lucky enough to get our book published, you buying it means more than you know. After all, as you just learned, we work on these things forever.

If you buy and read the book, extra points!

If you leave a review online — we’ll love you forever!

There are a lot of real, meaningful ways you can show your support beyond a simple congratulations.

What Real Writing Looks Like

What real writing looks like.

Writing is ‘boring’

If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the writer’s life is kind of boring. It involves a lot of waiting. In fact, when we’re querying or our books are on submission, we refresh our inboxes a lot. Like, A LOT.

It’s certainly not glamorous like on TV. Most of us aren’t Richard Castle.

So please, please, please — don’t ask us when the movie is coming out.


If you have any questions about what it’s like to be a writer, please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.