Monday, February 20, 2017

Story Trumps Structure with Steven James, Award-Winning Author


Today I’d like to welcome Steven James, the author of the award-winning book STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE. He is also the author of the thriller EVERY CROOKED PATH. I asked him 5 questions about writing organically, how to build tension, and more. Welcome, Steven!

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1. Why should writers worry more about story and less about structure?

Often, structure gets in the way of excellence. As soon as you sit down to write three or four acts, or whatever it might be, you’re using an easily-identified paradigm and could end up with a cookie-cutter story. Instead, focus on pursuit, desire, believability, escalation, and so on. All of the narrative forces that help shape a story, regardless of its length or structure. 

2. For writers who struggle to write organically, without an outline, what piece of advice can you give them?

Ask yourself four questions, and you will never be without the next moment of your story. First, what would this character naturally do? Then have him or her do it always. Allow them to act in character and to act believably. Second, how can I make things worse? This relates to the narrative force of escalation and allows the story to continue to build toward a climax. Third, how can I add a twist? Look for a way to end the scene in a manner that is unexpected an inevitable. Fourth, what promises have I made that I have not yet kept? Then look for a way to keep them. 

3. What is one writing rule that you hear all the time that you believe should be broken?

Plot out your story before you write it. This ends up forcing so many stories into a corner and into predictable patterns. Allow the story to emerge as you work on it, asking the questions that I just went through, and the story will have a vibrancy that you never realized before that it could have.  

4. Which elements should writers focus on to create engaging stories?

Write stories that have emotional resonance by looking for struggles that your character has that readers will be able to identify with. Keep everything believable and don’t confuse your readers. Confusion will end up trumping any other reader response. For example, if you want them to be in suspense but they’re confused, they won’t be in suspense. If you’re trying to build romantic tension and they’re confused by what’s going on, they won’t be engaged. 

5. What is one thing a writer can do to build tension in a story?

Allow readers to be aware of danger that the character within the story is not aware of. For instance, readers know that there’s a bomb in the car that will ignite when a key is placed in the ignition. Then, readers will worry as the character approaches the car, unlocks it, and positions himself in the driver’s seat. No matter what genre you write in, building tension and suspense will help with reader engagement. 


BIO:
Steven James is a national bestselling novelist whose award-winning, pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base.

Suspense Magazine, who named Steven’s book THE BISHOP their Book of the Year, says that he “sets the new standard in suspense writing.” Publishers Weekly calls him a “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” And RT Book Reviews promises, “the nail-biting suspense will rivet you.”

Equipped with a unique Master’s Degree in Storytelling, Steven has taught writing and storytelling on four continents over the past two decades, speaking more than two thousand times at events spanning the globe. In his podcast “The Story Blender,” he interviews leading storytellers in film, print, and web. Listen now to any of the dozens of archived podcasts for free by visiting his website www.thestoryblender.com.

Steven’s groundbreaking book on the art of fiction writing, STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE, won a Storytelling World award. Widely-recognized for his story crafting expertise, he has twice served as a Master CraftFest instructor at ThrillerFest, North America’s premier training event for suspense writers. 

Find Steven:


Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Steven. We are thrilled to have you as a guest. :)


QUESTION: Do you write with or without an outline?


25 comments:

L. Diane Wolfe said...

A confused reader is completely out of the story.

I always outline. Plotting a story isn't a rule, it's a preference. Not creating an outline first sounds very, very frustrating to me. The few times I'm only vaguely outlined, the story ran aground after the beginning because I had no idea where I was going with it or how to get to the ending I wanted.

Pat Hatt said...

I just go to it at my sea and let the story take hold. And yep, always see how to make things worse.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I create a general outline and then let the story deviate where it must. Good advice about the confusion thing. That happened to me when reading a few fantasy novels recently. I had to flip back pages and try to figure out what I'd missed.

Sandee said...

I've put books aside that are never read because of some of these mistakes. I can so relate to this.

Writing well is a very difficult process if you don't know the rules.

Have a fabulous day. ☺

Christine Rains said...

Excellent advice. I'm a pantser. No matter how many times I've tried to plot, my characters will take me where they want to go. And usually, it's much better than what I plotted!

J.L. Campbell said...

Great article, thanks for sharing your knowledge. I write with a loose outline, but don't tie myself to all the details.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Thanks for being our guest today, Steven. I don't consider an outline unless I'm stuck. Which has happened a time or two. The outline helped me see the next step.

Tyrean Martinson said...

I start with a character, a dilemma, and a structure style outline - character introduction, dilemma introduction, problem within the problem (something standing in the character's say), and an ideas the climax and/or conclusion. I start writing there and usually come up with at least a few other odd ideas per writing session. Some of these are rabbit trails that I have to go back and cut out. Some of them are useful for either character or plot development or complication. At some point, I print out the messy rough draft or even partial rough draft, tear it all apart and then re-outline the pieces I think it needs. It's messy, but it works better for me than a massive outline before I start.

Feather Stone said...

I love this advice. It makes me feel like I'm not too far afield from what the pro's might do. I took a course from J. Patterson who suggested that an author should write an outline - said it was a must for him. He continued to say that each author must determine what process works best for them. My only 'must do' is to know my characters deeply before I start. The best advice I received was to write a bio for each one, a very comprehensive bio. When I start the story, they are already talking to me and directing the movie in my head.

ascriptedmaze said...

Steven, I especially liked number five, something I haven't done thinking I need to keep the secret from everyone.

I'm mainly a pantser but I've noticed I spend a lot of time trying to decide what should come next when I write. For my next WiP, I'm going to try beats, still giving me flexibility but with direction.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I appreciate the Fifteen Beats from Save the Cat, but I don't pattern my stories after them. You're right, they would sound cookie-cutter.

Robert Bennett said...

Useful guide. Obviously both story and structure have their place and it highly depends on the writer to make both work in conjunction.

Lux G. said...

My brother's practicing his story writing with fan fiction. These are great advice that he can use for his story and characters. Thank you!

diedre Knight said...

This is enlightening! And a relief to know that others embrace the treasures discovered when stepping off a beaten path.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chrys and Steven - I haven't got to start writing a book yet - though have plenty of posts to put out a few - just not novels. The thing that irritates me sometimes is that the ending is never fully or satisfactorily tied up ... deflates from the rest of the book .. but excellent advice here - thank you ... cheers Hilary

cleemckenzie said...

I love the point you make about asking what the character would naturally do. So simple and yet so effective. When I'm stuck I walk around talking to myself as if I'm the character. Eventually something organic and human happens.

I don't outline, but I know where I'm headed before I start.

Mirka Breen said...

I LOVE Steven James's thinking. I'll see if I can muster the courage to throw away the crutches of an outline next time...

Sandra Cox said...

Great information here, information I agree with.

Michelle Wallace said...

It's really interesting to read the varied responses.
Different approaches for different authors.
An outline, whether loose or fairly structured, provides some much-needed direction.
Thanks for sharing with us, Steven.

Chrys Fey said...

Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and advice with us, Steven!

Roland Clarke said...

I do outline, although after I have got some clear ideas about my characters. They tend to drive the outline. I do roughly look at structure but at the revision stage when I have a problem.

Emilyann Girdner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emilyann Girdner said...

Very good points and I like Robert's comment about each author's unique ability to make the two work in conjunction. Great post.


http://emilyanngirdner.com/blog/

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I write detailed backgrounds for the characters, know where I want to start and where I want to end, and let them take care of the middle. It isn't always neat and tidy, but it's full of surprises. Whatever outline I may have is very loose and organic.

Donrazor Landon said...

How marvelous! How vindicating it feels to have methods I use that I thought violated literary rules be advocated so positively. Thank you!