Story Structure

Most of the time when I comment that a book or movie is “formulaic”, I’m not being complimentary. I value originality. I like to be surprised. I don’t particularly want to know what’s going to happen next because a plot is painfully predictable.

But recently I’ve been rethinking that. Maybe following a formula isn’t really a bad thing. Maybe it’s more a matter of what you do with the formula than whether or not you follow one that matters.

For me, that comes down to character development. While I like to be surprised by the plot, it’s the characters that really draw me into a story. I’ll let a lot of other things slip by so long as the characters feel real and authentic. (This, I would argue, is what made Firefly such an amazing TV show. The characters were among the most interesting and believable I’ve ever seen on the small screen.)

What’s more, trying to deviate from the formula can be disastrous. Do you remember how every suspense movie of the 90’s (with the exception of a rare few) seemed to include about 17 different plot twists at the end. It got absurd. In an effort to keep audiences guessing, the “non-formulaic” thing to do was to spin the entire plot on its head several times in the final 20 minutes of the film. I think the hope was that viewers would repeatedly gasp as the tension mounted with each new reveal. My reaction, instead, was to roll my eyes after the first couple of twists.

That was someone trying really, really hard to be non-formulaic, and it was awful.

So, what’s the point? Simply this: in my opinion (take that for what it’s worth) formulas and standard story structure are neither good nor bad. They just are. What you do within the framework you choose is what matters.

Don’t get too hung up on trying to be 100% original. Just make sure that your story, even if it echos others or follows a classic structure, embodies authenticity in its characters and message. That, I think, matters more.


About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

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