At the Willow Grover Writers’ Coffeehouse this past weekend, we discussed the structural “rules” of writing. I put “rules” in quotes because we all can point to an author or book that broke the rules and was still wildly successful and wonderfully written. Some people said that following these rules made their work felt formulaic and bland.
I am the first one to say that, yes, the rules can be broken. They are more like strong suggestions. But it still matters that we know and understand them.
Human beings are wired for story—and it is well known that certain story structures resonate more deeply with readers than others. So it behooves us to understand those structures so we can tell our stories in the most compelling way possible.
When we are new writers, writing to rules and formula is a necessary part of the learning curve. We have so many things to earn about as writers, it is a huge stepping stone to follow the time-honored structures that will make our story compelling while we work on the nuances of character and dialogue and description and theme and subplots and…you get the picture.
So does this mean we are constrained to a life of beat sheets and hero’s journeys and three-act structures? Yes and no. I suspect that if you write your story “organically” you will find that it more or less follows one of the story structures people talk about in craft books. We are wired that way.
But that does not mean we can’t break the rules when it benefits our story. Authors have bent and broken and tweaked story structure throughout time, as the story demands. The reason you need to know the rules is to know not only how to break them, but to know why you are breaking them. Breaking them randomly for no story-related reason will result in a badly-told story no one wants to read. Breaking the rules for a story-related reason, for a reason that will elevate the story and bring it home, will result in a compelling read.
The “rules” of story structure are like a scaffold. As we are building our knowledge and our craft, the scaffolding supports us. At some point in our career, we can take the scaffolding down and stand on our own experience and instinct. While most of the time we will still instinctively follow the rules of story structure, you can break out and experiment—the key is to experiment with purpose.
That’s why the “rules” matter—they help us stand when we are young writers and when we have matured we can use them as a springboard to launch our writing in new directions.
How about you? Do you feel constrained by the rules, or do they help you soar?