Super stoked to have Courtney on here! Courtney and I have been involved in other blog events together, and she’s truly knowledgeable on story craft. Read on to discover why she believes studying story is important for writers, whether they’re beginners or advanced!
When I first became serious about wanting to become a very good writer, I subscribed to all the good writing blogs I could find, read as many blog posts on writing as I could every day, and checked out piles of nonfiction books about writing from the library (only to skim through them and only read a few of them since this was my first dive into nonfiction around the age of 13).
What bothered me more than anything was how each author had his or her own opinions about writing that disagreed with the opinions of another author. Some believed it was okay to use adverbs while other authors condemned adverbs with a vengeance. Some authors believed in “Show, don’t tell,” but one of my favorite children’s books was written in a very telling narrative writing style (The Tale of Despereaux). I began to wonder: What was opinion and what was the truth? Or was some of the idea of excellent writing merely a matter of opinion? And if some of it was a matter of opinion, how do you figure out the difference?
Looking back, I notice that a lot of the books I had originally checked out from the library were more about writing craft, which is so varied and is filled with many differing opinions. In more recent years, I began reading books about story structure. One thing about story structure is that, while there are so many different ways to approach writing and editing, most books I read about story structure tend to overlap and agree with each other even while they differentiate, and that is very interesting to me.
Joseph Campbell was perhaps the first person to notice a lot of overlap between hundreds if not thousands of world myths, and this is how he came up with the concept of The Hero’s Journey story structure.
If writing craft is all about how a story is written, then narratology—the study of story structure—is the study of the story itself. Having a deeper understanding of the story you want to tell will inform the way you will want to present the story through your writing craft.
I believe that the study of story is important, but not because it will tell you how to write your story. There are so many ways to structure a story, even within the general story molds, that I don’t believe you should listen to any single author’s instructions, but to many of them, finding the overlap between their methods. Then, use what you learn as a tool to help structure your own book, but only as much as it helps you write the story that wants to be told.
On the side of plot, story structure helps writers be intentional when outlining stories. It helps writers understand how to improve their storytelling in the rewriting and editing stages of writing a book as well.
On the side of character arcs, story structure is the study of how people change, for the wiser or for the more foolish; it is the study of how people change the world around them, or how people let their environment influence them. The tricky part with this aspect is that it is hard to write a believable, realistic, and satisfying character arc. That is where writing craft comes back in. It is important to learn how to understand your characters so that they become real to you. And then it is important to know how to actually write them well.
Because story structure is so vast a topic, I wanted to provide a list of recommendations to help you get into it! All the books recommended are ones that have really helped me understand stories and the writing craft on deep levels. The blog posts are very informative. If you’re more of a visual or audio learner, I listed a few Youtube channels on writing that I watch for fun, even if I already understand a concept, because I like the people and am always looking to understand a writing concept from another angle.
- The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne (this book was SO helpful for me)
- The Irresistible Novel by Jeff Gerke
- The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
- If you are new to the history of story structure, I highly recommend this post:
- If you’re interested in learning about Japanese story structure, which is not centered in conflict, this is a good starting place!
- This page is in-depth and has links to all K M Weiland’s blog posts in her series on story structure. This is a great website to bookmark. You can get lost on her website for days if not weeks.
- If you are interested in different genres, Orson Scott Card’s Four Story Structures is about different types of stories.
Orson Scott Card’s Four Story Structures
- This is more of an academic article from a psychological perspective and for teacher application, but it’s still valuable for understanding stories.
An Interesting Academic Article on Narratology
- This is Abbie Emmons’ Youtube Channel—she is a new indie author and this channel focuses on story structure. It’s pretty good!
- This video is a good introduction to Joseph Campbell’s concept of The Hero’s Journey. Reedsy is a fun Youtube channel that I sometimes watch.
- Here is an introduction to the concept of story beats within story structure. This is a good author Youtube channel that has a lot of helpful information about traditional publishing in it, too.
Courtney Kleefeld is currently studying creative writing at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A lover of fairy tales and the works of Charles Dickens, she is always looking for parallels between folktales, mythology, and the Bible. If you ask her what her favorite book is, the book Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet will always come up first. Her first book, A Prayer Book for Writers, has just been released. You can find out more at her website here.