25 January 2021

When Does Story Structure Become Predictable?

I've recently been reading the Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo. I've always had a soft spot for fantasy. I previously read the Six of Crows duology that takes place in the same universe, which I absolutely loved. I'm a sucker for really strong characters, and those books were chock full of them. While I preferred Six of Crows, I am still enjoying Shadow and Bone, and I'm definitely going to watch the upcoming Netflix series. But I digress...

While reading the first book in the series, Shadow and Bone, something occurred to me. I was around page 300 of 356, and while things weren't great for the main characters, there was a brief moment of hope. That's when it hit me: 

Something bad is about to happen. 

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder calls it the "All Is Lost" point. I can't tell you how many movies and books I've notice this moment in since reading Save the Cat. This is the point story where it seems like the hero has been defeated, that all hope is lost, only to lead of the climax of the story that eventually results in the hero's triumph. 

Just as I get this feeling, sure enough, the bad guy shows up, the thing the main character has most feared actually happens, and it feels like all is lost. That's when a question entered my mind: have I learned so much about story structure as a writer that nothing can surprise me as a reader? 

Which led me to another question: does every story have to follow this basic story structure? 

I guess it's not a 100% yes or no answer. Not every story is going to follow the story structure (such as outlined in Save the Cat) with every moment of its plot. But on the other hand, keeping to this story structure is often expected of writers if they want to have a compelling story. 

I think about story structure a lot, actually, especially when I'm trying to figure out all those missing pieces in Uneven Lines. The part that has always vexed me is the third act. I've gutted it and rewritten it and rethought it more times than I can count, but I still feel like I'm missing something. And whenever I've read anything about story structure, the first two thirds of UL follow it perfectly. I even have an "all is lost moment" in Chapter 18. But rather than wrapping up a few chapters later, the story keeps going for about ten more chapters. So, obviously, it doesn't follow that story structure that we've come to expect. But is that a bad thing? 

Of course, I'm not saying my book is the perfect example to break story structure. Maybe it will be when I actually figure it out. I just wonder how much creativity and freedom we can actually have as writers if every single story is supposed to follow the same basic structure.

In the end, I think there's a middle ground. Does UL have to follow that perfect Save the Cat structure? Maybe not. But will learning about it help me figure out what's really necessary, and to trim down my long third act? Maybe. It can't hurt to learn. But I just have to keep brainstorming and rethinking while I learn, too. And maybe at some point it will all click. 


  1. I've not read Save The Cat, and I love to think I'm breaking the rules all over the place, but I'm probably not.

    I do the same maths when I'm watching a film - uh-oh, there's 20 minutes left, something bad's going to happen! (Or in the case of superhero films... Oh, that epic fight scene wasn't the climactic EPIC FIGHT SCENE :-D)

  2. Now that you mention it, a lot of stories follow that pattern. (I am a big fan of that book.) However, altering it a little isn't a bad thing. That big moment came several chapters before the end in my last book and it still worked as most who reviewed it were caught off-guard by the twist.

  3. Yes, a lot of books follow that basic plot line, and it's a great way to keep the tension up in a story. It seems like we need to follow the rules in the first book we try to sell but may be able to break them a bit when we're a published writer if our books require it. Good luck figuring out your Act III.

  4. I notice that, too, when I watch movies, read books, and even hear/read poetry. Even music can have that same structure in songs that tell stories, albeit in miniature form.
    I try to read all over the place in genre to see when/where this structure is broken or circumvented, and I think it does happen, but it's hard to satisfy readers when the structure we're used to is broken. At the same time, it can be immensely satisfying when things are a little different than expected.
    Okay, so that was as confusing as mud. Hmm.
    I think your book could break it and it could be good. But, Natalie has a point, too. I think it depends on your audience.
    Best wishes on Act III!

  5. That is a good point. You do reach a point in the story--maybe 80% through--when it's going to explode or the story is going to bomb. Good discussion on that, Sarah.