Story structure is perhaps the most essential element of fiction. Without a solid structure, it’s nearly impossible to sell a piece of fiction. Unfortunately, story structure is often one of the last things an author learns. I didn’t study it until I’d been writing for a few years. Had I realized how important it was, or even that it existed, I would have started off much stronger.
The challenge with learning story structure, however, is that it’s rarely taught. It isn’t as compelling as characterization or world building. It’s not as obviously essential as good sentence structure and basic grammar. It isn’t as well known as GMCs (goal, motivation, conflict). For me, it was years before I even knew I needed to study story structure beyond the basic rising action, climax, etc.
The other challenge is that story structure isn’t obvious. The best way to learn anything in writing is by studying other authors’ work, but when you look at a tome of adult fiction or get caught up in the tropes of a specific genre like romance or mystery, finding the bones of good structure can be difficult. However, there is an easy solution if you’re willing to read outside the norm.
This solution didn’t hit me until recently when I was traveling via car across multiple states. The kids were in the back seat, and we had audiobooks playing to keep down fights and as a defense against the inevitable, “Are we there yet?” Naturally, we listened to children’s books: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson. As I was listening, it struck me how straightforward and solid the story structures of these books are and how, as an author, they’d be perfect for study.
Thinking back to other children’s and YA books I’d read, I realized that, as a general rule, these books are much easier to follow structurally than most adult fiction. They tend to have fewer subplots, and what subplots they contain are often straightforward. Characters’ goals are clear. Much like real life children and adults, the motivations of the younger characters are less muddled that characters in adult fiction. This isn’t to say that adult fiction doesn’t have plenty of characters with obvious goals and motivations, but children characters tend to be more upfront and honest about their purposes. Too, because these books are geared for children, they don’t have all the frills adult books do. Frills like extensive descriptions, playing with sophisticated literary devises, and layering of all the complexities adults bring to life can obscure good structure from view even while that structure is solid and well-crafted. The clarity of children’s and YA books makes them ideal for study.
So, once you acquire a basic understanding of story structure from an instructional book like Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K.M. Weiland or a class, read a number of children’s and YA books to see the techniques in action. Once you get a firm grip on how it all works, move on to more complex, adult novels.
(By the way, Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Series had the advantage that the narrator occasionally inserts witty observations about stories and writing into the series. Yes, he breaks the 4th wall constantly, but in a highly amusing way.)