So far this summer, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading, which is something I should do more of but usually don’t because I always feel like there is something else I should be doing. Reading is so indulgent that I often feel guilty taking the time. However, as a writer I should be reading daily.
In addition to various novels, I’ve been reading craft books. In just a few weeks, I’m heading to the yearly RWA national conference, where Lisa Cron will be giving a workshop, so I picked up Story Genius. I’ve only read three chapters so far. Since it’s so dense, I’m taking it slow to make sure I grasp everything.
In chapter three, the following section resonated.
“But here’s a counterintuitive fact: the prospect of endless possibility isn’t freeing, it’s paralyzing. Myriad studies have shown that the more choices we have, the less likely we are to choose anything. Not only that, but limitless choice tends to trigger anxiety.”
She discusses this concept in relation to standardized writing prompts that students are expected to develop. As a former teacher, I can say that this is indeed true. The more open-ended an assignment, the more trouble my students had. They performed much better if I gave them limits.
Limitless possibility is both a crutch and boon for an author. On one hand, see above. On the other hand, authors create wondrous characters, worlds, and stories all because they have no limits.
Yet, any author who their salt has studied story structure—it’s inescapable. There’s Michael Hague, Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, the hero’s journey…the list goes on and on. Romance in particular is usually accused of being formulaic.
I recently took a workshop with Alexandra Sokoloff, author of Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. She argues “dramatic structure has been around so long it’s in our DNA.” Readers/viewers expect certain things in a story and if authors/writers don’t deliver, the readers/viewers will become bored and dissatisfied.
In Story Trumps Structure, Steven James asserts “our job as writers [is to] give [readers] what they want, when they want it—or add a twist so we give them more than they ever bargained for.” James is not in favor of outlining or adhering to a set formula. However, he also notes that experienced writers will intuitively include the required elements for a successful story. In other words, writers will intuitively structure their novels.
Cron states “the brain craves certainty.” As someone who loathes uncertainty, I agree with this assessment. Is story structure the brain’s response to the limitless possibility of story?
I don’t have an answer to this question but it’s certainly something to think about.