Just as in fiction itself, the writer’s life is marked by several major turning points–perhaps the most important of which is discovering story theory.
In the story of your writing life, the Hook, of course, is that moment when you find yourself entranced with your first story idea. Maybe you were three years old–as I was–spinning yourself a tale in a treehouse at a family reunion (which just happens to be my earliest memory). It’s the beginning of everything: a tantalizing fascination with the unknown possibilities of what’s gonna happen. It pulls you in and never lets go–just as a good story should.
The Inciting Event is when you first put pen to paper. Now you’re not just an Imaginer–you’re a Writer.
Then comes the First Plot Point: the moment when you realize there’s actually a method to the madness of writing. There are rules to follow. Goodbye, head hopping. Goodbye, telling instead of showing. Goodbye, random, episodic storyline. This is a moment of much excitement–a whole new horizon opens before you. But it’s also a little scary, as you realize how much you don’t know about writing.
Then commences the Second Act of your writing life, a long period of reaction and struggle and, yes, conflict. There are pinch points along the way, as you realize how hard writing can be when you have to try to measure up to millennia of literary knowledge and evolution. You’re steadily improving as a writer, but this is also where you’re probably writing some of your worst stuff.
And then comes the Midpoint–the Moment of Truth–when you encounter what is arguably the most important revelation in your story. This is where you learn about story theory.
For me, my introduction to story theory arrived on the day when I first learned about story structure. Light bulbs flashed. Angels sang. There was no going back.
What Is Story Theory?
“Story theory.” It’s a term that might make make your eyes glaze over–redolent as it is with the the misty concepts of philosophy and experimentation. But, then again, if you’re like me, it might just make your eyes light up like the 4th of July.
I’ll play doctor for a second and say that if you’re eyes are glazing right now, then it might just be because you’ve yet to reach that Midpoint Moment of Truth where it all becomes clear.
I did a little bit of googling to prepare for this post, only to discover something interesting. There really isn’t much info out there on the subject of story theory. (Google the phrase and what you get is all Dramatica, all the time. Exclude Dramatica from the search results and what you get is mostly fan “theories” about Disney movies.)
To define story theory, let’s paraphrase Wikipedia’s presentation of music theory:
Story theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of story. It is derived from observation of, and involves hypothetical speculation about howwriters make stories.
In other words, story theory is all about analyzing the existing body of literature to find its patterns and rhythms. What makes it work consistently? Naturally, a lot of these theorized patterns come down to plot structure. There are many different systems that all teach variations on basically the same universal approach to storytelling. We have such approaches as:
All are different approaches the same journey of story–rising and falling action–and all are worth studying, since they all bring their own insights to the table. (What I teach is primarily the Three Act approach, with a lot of Dramatica and a little of the Hero’s Journey thrown in.)
Think of story theory as the heart of storytelling. Although theory has connections to just about every actionable part of writing, it is primarily concerned with the nature of story itself, rather than the finer mechanics (such as grammar, the do’s and don’ts of POV, and dialogue).
Why You Should Hang Onto Story Theory Like a Drowning Sailor to a Lifesaver
Do you have to learn about story theory in order to be a good writer? No, not officially. But think of it like this: story theory is creative instinct actualized. It’s talent transformed into skill. Following are 7 vital reasons every author should be chasing story theory like a kid after a kite.
1. Story Theory Helps You Organize and Understand Your Writing
Here’s a possibly provocative statement: organizing your writing andunderstanding it go hand in hand.
Writers find themselves in vastly mixed camps these days when it comes to the idea of organization–aka plotting–aka outlining. Many writers contend that over-organization kills the creative spark.
An understanding of story theory does not impede creativity: it accelerates it.
But here’s an interesting trend I’ve been noticing. Every time I run upon an article or a post written for pantsers (those writers who prefer to “write by the seat of their pants” rather than outline their stories), it always ends up being a not-so-subtly-disguised means of seducing the pantsers over the Dark Side of outlining and organization.
Easy. Because, ultimately, almost all the problems pantsers struggle with come down to a lack of organization and therefore a lack of understandingabout the nature of story in general and their own stories in particular.
Story theory can help with that. Since theorizing is all about learning to understand something, it’s also inevitably about learning to organize the nature of storytelling. This doesn’t mean pantsers still can’t pants (the ability to pants is as important to all writers as is the ability to plot). But it does mean that an understanding of how story works–everything from structure to character arcs to theme–will show you how to understand your own stories’ needs, and to plan them accordingly.
2. Story Theory Eliminates Writer Confusion by Revealing Applicable Patterns
Raise your hand if you’ve ever found plotting overwhelming.
For all that stories are frequently reduced to the old fairy-tale formula of Once Upon a Time/Happily Ever After, they are absolutely, convincingly, 100% not simple.
Just the opposite. Stories are tremendous vast, complex, sprawling beasts. Indeed, as reflections of life, they are just as vast, complex, and sprawling as life itself.
In short, they’re complicated. Creating a seamless, perfectly resonant story can sometimes feel like looking at a tabletop scattered with puzzle pieces and being expected to immediately know exactly where every piece fits. No wonder we end up juggling pieces and dropping them all over the floor half the time.
Sometimes trying to understand a story is like trying to see where every puzzle pieces belongs all at once.
But story theory helps with that too. Story theory is all about identifying the universal patterns that exist in storytelling, across the globe and throughout the ages. The better you understand these patterns, the more clearly you can see where the pieces fit in your own stories.
You learn story theory by studying other stories–books and movies. You learn to identify the patterns–what works, what doesn’t, what makes you feel and react in a certain way. You begin to be able to break down the patterns in other people’s stories so you can better understand and study them.
3. Story Theory Helps You Identify and Avoid Mistakes
So many of the frustrations of the writing life come down to the instinctive knowledge that something is wrong with your story–only you don’t know what. How many times have you ripped apart a broken story and put it back together again, only to realize it’s still not right?
Without an understanding of story theory, you end up ripping apart your manuscripts and putting them back together, time and again, without understanding how to actually fix their problems.
A writer’s instincts are incredibly powerful. Indeed, the truths of story theory are already deeply ingrained within the human psyche. But instinctive knowledge can only take you so far. Your untrained conscious brain will get in your way. It will make you doubt the wrong things and believe in other wrong things.
After all, how can you ever know you’re doing something wrong if you don’t know how to do it right? Story theory teaches you what is right and why it is right. It allows you to harmonize your powerful storytelling instincts with story knowledge upon which you can act confidently and purposefully. It harmonizes your creative instinct with applicable skills.
4. Story Theory Shows You How to Mimic the Masters
We’re all trying to write the perfect story. The previous generation of writers didn’t get it right, so we try to learn from them–both their mistakes and their successes–just as the next generation will try to learn from us. Story theory is firmly grounded in the actuality of story itself. You can’t study story theory without studying stories.
The single best way to learn story theory is to read books and watch movies.
But it’s also true you won’t learn much from the masters who have gone before if you aren’t able to understand what it is they’ve actually done. As Jeff Somers said in the May/June 2016 Writer’s Digest article “Plantsing: The Art of Plotting and Pantsing”:
It’s tough to replicate a trick you didn’t understand in the first place.
An exploration of story theory will teach you how to get the most out of every story you encounter–good or bad, written or visual, your favorite genre or not. Every story ever written feeds into the overall study of story theory. It first teaches you about theory, and then allows you to use that theory to analyze what you’re experiencing. In his article “10 Reasons to Study Music Theory and Aural Skills,” David Werfelmann makes a comment that is as pertinent to writers as musicians:
Music theory is nothing more than a codification of the works that are the most meaningful to us. If we neglect to show why the rules and procedures are so important–that is, how they produce effective works of art–we miss the point of theory entirely.
5. Story Theory Takes You From Storyteller to Storymaster
Anyone can tell a story. But very few people are masters of storytelling. What’s the difference?
You know it: story theory.
If you want to take your writing to the next level–if you want to write more than forgettable potboilers–if you want your stories to matter–then you’ll need story theory to get there.
And there’s a bonus: the better you understand story theory, the easier your writing gets. You have more control over what you’re doing. No more flailing in the dark, wondering how to fix your story. You know how to fix it. (Even better, you’ll have far fewer problems to correct in the first place, since your understanding of story will have accurately guided your decisions all the way through the outline and first draft.)
You lose nothing in creative energy. Instead, you learn to harness that energy in the most effective and powerful ways.
6. Story Theory Is Awesomesauce!
Okay, this is really a bonus reason. But it’s big! Story theory is a.maz.ing.
Seriously, it’s totally addictive. The deeper I get into story theory, the more it enhances not just my writing, but also my enjoyment of stories in general, and even my own understanding and approach to life.
Story theory can sometimes sound like homework when you’re first getting your brain around the idea. But it’s not. This is what algebra is to Will Hunting, what physics were to Albert Einstein, what gorillas are to Jane Goodall. For writers, this is the stuff of life. It will suck you in, pull you under, and never let you go. And you’ll love every second of it.
7. TL;DR: Story Theory Will Teach You Everything You Need to Know About Writing
Let me sum all this up: story theory is storytelling. It is all of writing in a nutshell. It is everything I teach on this blog. Story theory shows you how stories work and how you can apply those lessons to your own writing. In short, whether or not you’re consciously chasing after story theory yet, you’ve already been immersed in it up to eyeballs all this time.
Story theory is a concept as big as the world itself. The more your knowledge and understanding of the theory grows, so does the theory itself grow. It’s a never-ending playground for writers–a never-ending opportunity to become a better writer every single day. You need story theory. ‘Nuff said.