Notes from a Writer’s Life #17

I read an article in a writer’s magazine recently that offered opposing viewpoints when it came to structure when writing.

Is structure a scaffold on which to build creativity or a recipe for bland, formulaic writing?

The article in question specifically examined the Save the Cat formula, which originated in screenwriting before being developed for novel writing.

On one side of the argument, there was the view that formulas such as Save the Cat limited creativity in writing, while the counter argument was that having a structure gave the writer a framework around which to build their creativity.

This got me thinking about my own writing process.

Typically, when writing a novel, I start with an idea or a character or a mix of both and start smashing them together to see what sticks.

Essentially, the key question I’m asking is can this work as a novel?

To answer this, I do try to sketch out the story in the form of beats (e.g. inciting incident, plot point 1, mid-point, dark night of the soul, plot point 2, climax, resolution etc).

All very “Save the Cat”!

But… once I start writing… and the characters get involved… my “outline” tends to get tossed onto the scrap heap.


Because outlining for me is only ever a basic attempt to explore the idea in story form. It doesn’t take into account the actions and reactions of the characters and how they affect the story.

Once the first draft is underway, I become a pantser, I.e. I write by the seat of my pants with little of no reference to the outline.

As I write, the story grows and develops and takes on new twists and turns.

Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s chaos.

When it comes to editing and rewriting I don’t necessarily think in terms of structure unless something is very wrong with the story. At this point, structure may become a life support for a flagging story.

In terms of structure, and it’s use in writing, I feel I sit somewhere between the two arguments. It’s great in planning, but once the story is underway, I may never look at it again except in an emergency.

But, here’s the rub.

When I look back at finished projects like Badlands, I can see the structure underpinning it all.

Which is where Save the Cat and other structural ideas in creative writing come from.

Ultimately a lot of stories share common structural elements. I believe we absorb these structures through osmosis, by reading or by watching films or plays.

Books and methods like Save the Cat simply shine a spotlight on something that we are subliminally aware of.

If that helps you to write, that’s brilliant. But working without referencing those structures is just as valid.

And at the end of the day, a story may have the best structure in the world, but if it doesn’t create an emotional connection with a reader, it’s doomed to fail.

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