Story Trumps Structure

Story Trumps Structure



In an examination of story structure, I could hardly leave out Steven James's excellent book, Story Trumps Structure,  which I greatly enjoyed and strongly recommendI will admit, though, that I put off reading it for a while because I thought I ought to gain a solid understanding of what story structure was before I read Mr. James's argument as to why I shouldn't worry about it.  If you want to understand a counter argument, it really helps to have a good grasp of the argument. 

Mr. James argues that using a story structure system of any sort is restrictive and artificial, and that it generally results in stilted, formulaic stories rather than an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of a character. He suggests that writers set aside their structures and formulas, and instead implement his framework with key ingredients that will ensure that the story flows properly from beginning to end. If you find yourself wondering what the difference between a "structure" and a "framework" is, or how mixing together "ingredients" differs significantly from following a "formula," well, so do I.  Nevertheless, I think James does a tremendous job of explaining how such a framework can be implemented so that the component parts of the story relate organically to one another, and transition the reader smoothly from one part of the story to the next. 

The ingredients that James identifies as forming the framework of a solid story are as follows: 



  • orients readers to the world of the story
  • locks in genre
  • gives readers a setting in time and place that they can picture
  • sets the mood and tone
  • introduces the author's (or narrator's) voice
  • introduces a protagonist readers will care for, an antagonist readers will fear, or both 
  • ends in a way that is both surprising and satisfying, and
  • snags readers' attention



Crisis / Calling

This is a life-changing event that disrupts the equilibrium of the protagonist's world, and creates a point of no return for the protagonist. 




Complications and obstacles come into the story that intensify the protagonist's struggles. This isn't just a laundry list of unrelated things that happen to go wrong, it's a series of causally related events that interfere with the protagonist reaching his or her goal, and raise the stakes, building tension until an inevitable climax is reached. 




The climax toward which the story escalates is a decision that leads to a changed situation, or a discovery that leads to a changed self. The protagonist "discovers" the key to solving his problems, or moving on from them. 




The problem is resolved, and the story reveals how the protagonist and/or his situation has changed. A new "normal" is established for the character.