Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

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The title of STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE certainly got my attention. I was interested in how discovery writers, or “pantsers,” write a successful book without an outline. James promised instruction, insight, and a way to turn traditional story structure on its head.

STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE spends a long time convincing writers that structure isn’t as important as the story arc and the narrative flow. That is true. It’s also not something any writer would argue with. Even the most die-hard plotters treat outlines like the pirate code: more like guidelines than actual rules. I read on, hoping for the revolutionary insights that were sure to come.

And then, this:

“Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, for it to feel complete it’ll need an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climatic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character.”

I did a double take. Did James just name everything he’s supposedly fighting against? By listing the things a story needed, he just explained story structure in a nutshell.

James spends the rest of the book going into detail about these story elements. He teaches the same principles that are in a hundred other books but has given them cool new names. He then denies that he’s teaching those very same principles. That’s like telling people to hydrate instead of drink water and then claiming to have a bold new health initiative.

Then James bemoans the fact that people aren’t taught to write organically. (Taught to write organically?) Writers don’t need instruction to open their computers and follow their muses. They need instruction on shaping the narrative to make it as effective as possible. There is a reason there are a hundred books about story structure including–make no mistake–this one.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of arrogance and hypocrisy. It’s sad, because STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE is not a bad book for beginning writers. It’s just that there’s nothing new here, and giving the book an in-your-face title doesn’t hide the fact that James is teaching everything that’s been taught before, and taught better, by other writers.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain instead of this book.

5 thoughts on “Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

  1. Well, I guess the takeaway lesson is that neither trumps neither and the book is a waste of time. You must find a lot of this sort of same old same old hypocrisy. Interesting. I’m actually starting a new blog focused specifically on my journey as an author- why I write, how I write. Now, if I can just get myself organized!
    https://icanwriteanythingblog.wordpress.com/

  2. Was there anything particularly insightful about how pantsers write books? It sounds like the book set up a premise, but then delivered the instructions for something entirely different, or at least something not isolated to being an effective pantser. That, aside from everything else you’ve mentioned, bothers me!

    -aniko

    • Sadly, there was nothing about pantsing except to complain that it’s never taught. Which is too bad, because he could have provided insight into how plotters and pantsers differ. (My take: plotters like to shape the narrative ahead of time. Pantsers like to write a lot of raw material and then shape it later.)

      As you can tell from the review, it felt a bit like a bait-and-switch. He promised a bold new way to write, and then taught the same tried-and-true methods.

      • In addition, I disagree that “pantsing,” or “discovery writing” isn’t taught. It’s taught in MFA programs and it’s taught in books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or anything by Julia Cameron. I worry that Steven James is offering instruction, yet he seems unaware of what has come before.

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