Fooled by Mr. Keating: Embracing Plot Structure

Previously, I wrote about how I defied rules and structure in my writing in Fooled by Mr. Keating. Some might call this style “post-modern” writing and I certainly had my head entrenched in that school of thought. It was not to my benefit. I think it makes sense to dig a little deeper. Let’s talk about plot structure in fiction writing.

Before we get into it, I want to make clear no potential genre novelist wants to be a post-modern writer.

Why not?

Because readers of genre writing (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, etc…) demand certain formulas and structures in the books they read. An unstructured stream of consciousness that’s difficult to understand will immediately turn off your readers.

If you don’t care about having readers, then go to town and write whatever post-modern fantasy masterpiece you want. But you likely want tons of readers and a huge market for your work. In that case, you can’t be a post-modern writer (until maybe after you’ve become a known name and can do whatever crazy ideas come out of your mind).

With that said, let’s talk about my pitfall of wanting to be a post-modern writer.

I loved writing whatever came out of my brain with very little planning or thought. It was thrilling to go by the seat of my pants and create without the chains and shackles of formula and rules. However, I quickly learned early readers hated everything I wrote. My stories were underdeveloped, pathetic, and shallow.

Gradually, I decided to go back to basics and really learn what made a great story. I studied the classics and read more about what makes good writing.

Good stories can be broken down into very basic structures, formulas, and rules much like a recipe. It can be tweaked and changed but the larger skeleton should remain.

In fact, one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, (who is known to be more post-modern and a rule breaker) admitted there are essentially eight-story plots:

  1. Man in Hole
  2. Boy Meets Girl
  3. From Bad to Worse
  4. Which way is up?
  5. Creation Story
  6. Old Testament
  7. New Testament
  8. Cinderella

I would recommend clicking the link above to get the full details of each of these plots.

Of course, there are different ways to explain these plots but, more or less, this sums it up. Since we know plots only contain a limited number, it helps to pick one which best fits our story idea and move forward, structuring it out.

So, why did I embrace structure?

Again, the more I structured the plot and built my stories around a skeleton I designed, the more the stories improved and my readers enjoyed them. It also helped in my enjoyment of the writing process. Knowing where I was going gave me more confidence in the story and it helped me break writer’s block easier. Lastly, structure helped me complete a story from start to finish.

Usually, I’d start a story from pure excitement and inspiration, but when I put the story down, the fire died. I didn’t care to finish it and it sat on my computer forever (those stories sadly still do).

Structure killed this problem easily. With structured writing, I knew the path and could feel confident going down it. Writing the story wasn’t dependent on euphoria but a solid foundation based on notes and planning.

So, when you want to write your story, find a plot structure from above and start with it. Use it as a compass to guide your story. Tweak as you wish but never veer too far off course. In the end, you’ll have a much better story and a much happier readership.