In Defense of Story-Structure

Some time back, I conducted a series of workshops on story-telling in Sydney and Brisbane, attended by aspiring writers — a cross-section of folks whose age ranged from late teens to late forties. Some were new to writing. Others had been writing for a while. During the introduction to the Brisbane classes, I mentioned that I’d be spending some time talking about story structure — that without a deep understanding of the functional and structural aspects of a story, one’s writing would be the poorer. This seems to have touched a nerve because someone in the audience objected to this statement. What about the intangible creativity, the ineffable inspiration that comes from the muse? What about the poetry? How can all this talk of turning points, inciting incidents, and mid-points, lead to good writing? Surely great writing comes from wisdom, empathy, and observation?

The simple answer is: of course it does. Certainly, without these qualities all the tinkering and fidgeting with structure is shallow, much like music is shallow without the emotional depth which grants it resonance. But if narrative content, guided by the sorts of qualities mentioned above, provides the raw material, structure provides the shape and the means of delivery. The point is surely that the muse and structure are not mutually exclusive.

As a young writer starting out at Elmo De Witt Films in South Africa in the ’90’s, I remember feeling uncomfortable at Elmo’s suggestion that I read Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, Lagos Egri, and Syd Field on story structure. Surely, Elmo couldn’t have been implying that someone who had spent every free moment since childhood either writing stories or dreaming about them, and had graduated from the London International Film School with distinctions in writing and editing, needed to improve his writing skills? Surely my stories sprung perfectly formed from my brain, like lithe and nimble ninjas, ready to conquer the world? Wouldn’t all this left brain activity merely stifle the magical outpouring of an unfettered and spontaneous mind?

Such, at any rate, was the tenor of my argument against Elmo’s suggestion. Happily, it was an argument I lost thanks to the experienced director’s gentle persistence. Truthfully, I was lucky to have kept my job. Sadly, Elmo passed away in March this year, but his quiet wisdom lives on through the many South African actors, writers, and directors he helped to foster. I see now that my motives had sprung not only from a poor understanding of the many layers enfolded into the craft of writing, but from a deep-seated fear that if there was so much I hadn’t thought about, so much still to learn, I’d be better off denying its validity all together. Yet, if there was ever a definitive moment in which I become a writer, that must have been it.

My intention here isn’t to suggest that my personal journey is more meaningful than any other’s. Clearly, it isn’t. And certainly, there have been many writers who wrote superlative works without ever mentioning inciting incidents, turning-points, and mid-points. But even those great merchants of spontaneity and intuition, the great Romantics — Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth — used verse, rhyme, and rhythm to give form to their poems. Besides, truly great writers are children of the gods with an indelible instinct for such things. I’m a lesser mortal. In an age of evolving social, technological, and scientific complexity, reflected in the equally complex stories we tell, I can ill-afford to ignore the rich vein of literature on the subject of story-structure. That’s my journey. Perhaps it’s yours too.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Story-Structure”

  1. so what did someone who graduated from the London International Film School with distinctions in writing and editing learn there?

    1. Hi “Nervous”. Thanks for asking Well, I learnt plenty. Technique in general film-making, got to mix with other cultures from across the world in a creative enviroment. My screenwriting tutor was Gerry Wilson — a great guy who taught me how to seek out the drama in my writing. And of course, all in the environs of London! Couldn’t get much better than that for me, back then.

  2. I have to admit, before attending your screenwriting classes I was quite arrogant about my own writing. I’ve been told my whole life that I’m a good writer so I kind of took that and ran with it. I’m guilty of criticising a lot of other peoples’ writing styles and, in retrospect, perhaps should have looked at my own work more clearly. But with your classes and all that they offer, I personally found that there was still so much I was missing. I can definitely say that learning more about something, whether it is on purpose or by accident, does help someone become better at whatever it is they are attempting to do. In this case, I really feel that coming to the screenwriting classes has brought me to a much higher level of understanding of the craft. And for that I am extremely greatful. Hopefully now I don’t squander what I know and write crap.

    1. I’m glad you enjoy my classes on screewnwriting, Russ. I think the only way to “squander” knowledge is to refuse to use it. As long as you keep writing, you will keep improving. The point is to keep at it, and never, ever give up!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Krystal. I think it stifles creativity to be thinking too much about structure off the bat. But, yes, after that first outpouring of material I too go back and fire up the left brain, using structure as a guideline.

  3. Thanks for the cool post Stavros, Really inspiring stuff. R.I.P Elmo De Witt. Much respect to your families and friends. Finding this stuff so cool.

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