narrative structure know the rules then break them

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Pat James
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narrative structure know the rules then break them

Postby Pat James » Tue Sep 05, 2017 4:11 pm

This is part 1 before the cockroach race.

Discussions about structure tend to offer formulas, though formulas often lead to formulaic stories. But an understanding of narrative structure is important: you have to know the rules before you break them.

As a developmental editor, the number one problem I see in manuscripts is a lack of structure. These books feel like they are meandering, rather than driving towards a destination. It’s a common problem because structure, unlike plot, is hard to see. It’s behind the scenes, figuratively holding up your story, and many authors don’t understand it. So, let’s take a look at structure and how to use it to create a novel that keeps readers reading.

Structure vs. plot
According to Wikipedia, narrative structure is the “framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented.” Structure deals with generalities; plot deals with specifics. For example, one common structural element is called, in Hollywood lingo, an “inciting incident.” It happens early on in your tale, and it’s something that disrupts your protagonist’s life, creates a new desire, and/or sets them off on their journey. That’s structure. In terms of plot, this is when Luke buys the droids in Star Wars, when Neo is taken to meet Morpheus in The Matrix, or when the tornado whisks Dorothy away in The Wizard of Oz.

Every story has a different plot; many stories have the same structure. The movies Gladiator and Erin Brockovich seem like they couldn’t be more different, but, as you can see in this post on, they have the exact same structure.

Because structure is so elusive, everyone has different ideas about how many structural elements a story needs (number of acts, number of turning points, etc.). People will even argue about the structural elements that exist in famous stories and movies. (“The ‘inciting incident’ of The Godfather is when Vito Corleone is shot, on page 32.” “No, it’s on page 64 when Michael visits Vito in the hospital.”) I’m not going to go down those paths. But there are some common elements that every theory of structure has, and these are important for you to learn.

see the other post for breaking the rules.

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