Wednesday 16 March 2016

Story Trumps Structure: Review

by Jeanette O'Hagan

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James, Writers Digest Books 2014

Award-winning novelist Steven James explains how to trust the narrative process to make your story believable, compelling, and engaging, and debunks the common myths that hold writers back from creating their best work.

I was excited when I first saw Story Trumps Structure and even more excited to use my Christmas Amazon voucher to purchase it.  I've read quite a number of craft books over the last few years as well as working on writing theory as part a Masters in creative writing. I’ve appreciated learning about the hero’s journey, three act structure, character arcs etc but the formulaic approach and 'one size fits all' some pundits propose has often troubled me. Surely there are other structures and approaches? Not all the books I’ve enjoyed are strictly three act structures with rising action and precise plot points at 12, 25, 37 or 88% marks. And if every author follows this formula, doesn’t the action become predictable? 'It must be time for the inciting action' or 'the major setback.' As Tom’s Gauld’s cartoon Hero says, ‘The quest was a lot more fun before you got that book on story structure.” 

Besides, what about slice of life fiction (like Alexander Smith Call’s Number One Ladies Detective Agency)? And then there are the theorists that contrast the ‘male’ mon-climatic novel with a feminine multi-climatic novel (Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray). Okay, I’m willing to concede that fiction written by literary theorists is not always very readable, but there’s also the question of non-Western story telling which is often structured differently (despite Campbell’s claims).

I feel almost like a heretic having doubts about the universality of the linear, three act structural formulas modelled after the film’s industry appropriation of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (e.g. Syd Field Screenwriters’ Workbook).

In Story Trumps Structure, Stephen James proposes an alternative approach to detailed planning based on a precise formulaic plot structure. Like Stephen King, he is a pantser and his organic approach focuses on the unfolding of the story based on certain story dynamics or principles and reader expectations. Thus he argues that the number of acts in a story depend on what the story itself needs. I was a little disappointed to find that he unequivocally supports a linear plot with orientation, crisis/calling, escalation, discovery and change. I had hoped for some exploration of possibility of different structures. Yet, I found that many of his insights shed light on how stories work with a number of ‘aha’ moments along the way.

Some of the things I liked:
  • Authors make promises to their readers which they need to keep.
  • The story needs to escalate – if you start with a dramatic beginning, you can’t drop back to something less exciting. However, it’s more important to escalate tension than to merely escalate action. The reader needs to care about the characters and the stakes need to be raised.
  • It takes time and incubation for both the story and the familiarity (as authors) with our characters to develop. 
  • The story should arise organically out of the characters, who they are, what they want and the challenges they face. There needs to be clear cause and effect. The problem with planning can be that things can be made to happen that fit the plot but not the characters, which strains believability or seems gimmicky or artificial.
  • We need to meet the reader’s expectations which depend on genre, narrative weight, causality and believability – but at the same time, we need to surprise them. The ending should be both inevitable but unexpected.
He also explores foreshadowing, narrative weight, twists, characterisation and finishes with common plot flaws and how to fix them.

At one point James argues that the organic method is the only method to use, and he is quite critical of planners. (Died in the wool planners can be equally as partisan). God made us all different, which I believe includes differences in our writing methods. Stephen King is the ultimate pantser, while J K Rowling is a planner – both write gripping and brilliant fiction. Personally, I’m a ’tweener and I don’t think James has changed me. I usually mull over a story, working out the main characters and at least some of the major ‘tent posts’ or plot points before starting writing but then important details emerge as I write (or continue to mull over the story). Like most writers – my characters can, and often do, surprise me.

Story Trumps Structure does give Pansters credible and cogent guidelines to help shape the free reign of imagination. Yet, I think it is also of value to ’tweeners and plotters in understanding a deeper level of story dynamics and of how to mould and polish one’s story so it becomes one cloth, a tapestry of great beauty and impact.  I’ve learned much from the book and can see myself dipping into it from time to time to remind me of its wisdom.

Jeanette O’Hagan enjoys writing fiction, poetry, blogging and editing. She is writing her Akrad’s Legacy Series—a Young Adult secondary world fantasy fiction with adventure, courtly intrigue and romantic elements. Her short stories and poems are published in a number of anthologies including Glimpses of LightAnother Time Another Place and Like a Girl.

Jeanette has practised medicine, studied communication, history, theology and, more recently, a Master’s in writing. She loves reading, painting, travel, catching up for coffee with friends, pondering the meaning of life and communicating God’s great love. She lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

You can find her at her Facebook Page or at Goodreads or on Amazon or on her websites or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .


  1. Great review, Jeanette. I have this sitting on my bookshelf to read. Looks like I should read it soon, as James sounds like my kind of author. May give me even more confidence as a pantser.

    1. Thanks Ian. Yes, I think James makes pantsing more than just a 'stab in the dark'. Would love to hear what you think when you've finished it :)

  2. Hi Jenny, as a fellow tweener, I understand the point you've made. I don't think I could convert to a total pantser without having my work suffer in the process. Yet I do like those points of his which you've mentioned in bullet points. Sounds like an interesting read with a lot to absorb.

    1. He makes lots of good points :) Thanks Paula :)

  3. Great review, JEanette! I'll be looking to purchase this one.

  4. Thanks Jenny. I'm a tweener and have been driving myself nuts about whether my transition points are in the right place. Sounds like I need to read this book :)

    1. I found it helpful and came away with some ideas on a couple of my stories :)

  5. Thanks for taking the time to read and review the book. It means a lot that you gave it your careful analysis. Good luck with your writing. —SJ


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