Did the Classic Authors Use Story Structure?

Today’s guest post is by K. M. Weiland. Katie has a terrific blog called Helping Writers Become Authors, and provides mountains of great novel-writing instruction. I have been blessed to get to know Katie and highly recommend her as a writing teacher. Her new writing craft book, Structuring Your Novel, has just been released, and I encourage all serious novel writers to add this to their collection of great instructional books. And don’t forget to also grab her book Outlining Your Novel.

Here’s an interesting question for you: When was story structure invented?

I think many of us tend to believe structure is a recent development. After all, the likes Jane Austen and Charles Dickens could hardly hop by Amazon to buy the latest writing how-to book or zoom over to Writer’s Digest Workshops for an online class. The whole notion of learning how to write fiction seems to be a relatively modern invention. And structure, more than almost any part of storytelling, would seem to be something that must be learned.

But here’s the brain tickler. If writing how-to books and workshops weren’t available in the olden days, then was story structure (and, indeed, all of story technique) something the classic authors had no notion of? And if that’s true, how come they wrote books that are still selling the pants off some of us modern whippersnappers?

Is Story Structure a Modern Convention?

Few of us will argue that the art of the novel has undergone some rather dramatic changes since its invention in the 1600s and its early boom days in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The kind of stuff Jane and Charlie were writing back when probably wouldn’t get past the weary intern at the agent’s office these days. But perhaps you’ll be surprised to learn that this is not because they had yet to discover such trendy new things as structure.

Take a look at popular early novels. You’re going to see a very different approach to prose, narrative, and even dialogue. But you’re also going to see the very same solid story structure we use today (and which I discuss in more depth in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story). Check it out:

  • Pride & Prejudice adheres perfectly to the three-act story structure.
  •  Jane Eyre? Spot-on structure.
  • Wuthering Heights? Guess yes for bonus points.

At a glance, this tells us several interesting things.

Story Structure Is Inherent to Good Literature

Whatever Austen, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and Gustave Flaubert were doing, we’d be wise to follow their example. Any story that can last centuries beyond its author’s lifetime is obviously built on a framework that resonates with a deep inner core in humanity. It’s no coincidence that all the great classics adhere to proper story structure.

Pick up any good book—from this century or any past—and you’ll find that it follows this same pattern. Does this make these fantastic books formulaic? Did it stunt the brilliance of their authors? Hardly. Rather, structure is what has allowed them to rise above the millions of forgotten books into the rarified air of successful and meaningful fiction.

Story Structure Is Important because It Is Instinctive

This is all fine and well, but it still leaves us with a question. Did the classic authors structure their stories on purpose? Perhaps some of them did. But most probably had little notion of the whole idea of structure, and almost certainly not in the terms we’re familiar with today.

So how did they, one and all, write such perfectly formed stories? Was it an accident? Did they just do it on instinct?

The answer to that last question is yes. The reason story structure is so important is that it is instinctive to people—and not just writers, but all people. That means readers. Most readers have less knowledge of structure than do writers, but they still judge stories on how well they are structured. Why? Because structure is what ensures that a plot is both entertaining and emotionally resonant.

When I first learned about structure, I flipped back through my already published novels and was delighted (and a little astounded) to discover they all adhered to proper structure. I certainly didn’t do this on purpose. But I, like most authors (and certainly all successful ones), possessed this innate human understanding of how the narrative arc of a story must be made to rise and fall.

If we want to write stories that might someday stand a chance of being shelved alongside the classics, we need to borrow a page from the literary greats and make certain that not only are our plots and characters scintillating—but that our stories are also structured for optimum power from beginning to end.

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

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  1. Susanne, you must have been reading my mind! A new service of mine extracts all the words in a document and gives percentages of certain writing skills, such as the use of “ly” adverbs, “ing” verbs, etc.

    Anyway, I’ve started extracting some of the “classics” that are in the public domain at the Gutenberg Project – Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and more. It was interesting to find that these authors rated very highly against contemporary writers in these percentages.

    This belies the modern-author complaint I hear in many LinkedIn writers’ groups that these “rules” are simply fads that have cropped up in the last few decades and writers are justified in ignoring them.

    In a serious discussion about why these classic authors did so well – did the writing “rules” come from them or are they inherent to good writing? – I just mentioned this morning that these authors didn’t have Google, writers’ groups, or fiction writing books, and some of them, like Jane Austen, were relatively isolated.

    Keep up the good work! 🙂

    1. That’s fascinating – but I guess really not that surprising when we think about it. There has to be a reason these authors still appeal to readers so strongly today. Jane Austen is probably more fanatically loved today that she was even during her own lifetime. That’s not due to just one or two solid factors; that’s due to solid writing across the board. That kind of solidity appeals to readers, no matter the era.

  2. Lovely post–esp. as I’m just about finished “Structuring Your Novel” and very excited about it. Here’s a question though: what about “The Count of Monte Cristo”? For almost half the novel it feels as though Dumas was just throwing in filler for the sake of word count (notably in the long and convoluted backstory about the bandits which had nothing to do with the plot, and didn’t add any extra charisma to the actual bandits who survived the backstory). But readers loved the book in Dumas’s day, and it continues to fascinate readers (including me!) today. How did he manage to side-step structure so effectively? Or did he?

  3. The idea and formula for dramatic structure was around long before novels came into being.

    The structure of the Classical Greek and Roman plays is an example. In many ways, the novel follows the same structure.

    I suggest you read the Wikipedia entries on Aristotle’s POETICS and Horace’s ARS POETICA.

    And a warning should be added that classic writers like Dickens and Austin lived in a different time, and narrative and reader expectations have evolved since then. Readers, for example, don’t have the patience to read convoluted plots or books with an abundance of narrative.

    1. There’s a reason Aristotle was a genius. His thoughts on story – and certainly structure – ring true centuries later. And you’re absolutely correct that the narrative form of the classics is largely no longer applicable to modern standards.

    2. Marilynn,
      You are absolutely right. This stuff goes back to “The Odyssey” and other such stories. All the Greek myths and of course, the plays would follow the 3 Act structure.
      But, you are also right that each generation tweeks it a little. My husband & many of my friends are still getting used to the movies like “Crash” and all the stories that movie back and forth between characters and only discovering at the end how they are all related.
      Many books and movies influence each generation and their ability to follow a story. But, like Katie says, the structure is ALWAYS there.

      1. I like stories like Crash (although I’ve yet to see that one) that interweave seemingly disparate storylines. They’re tough as heck to plot, but, as a viewer or reader, it’s always fascinating to see all the storylines pull together into one solid structure.

  4. This is really quite fascinating. When I first mentioned story structure to my work-mate (not a writer) he was quite put off by the idea, but without realising it, he’d been reading books that fit into it. No wonder publishers want writers to follow good structure – it’s been proven over centuries.

  5. I just found this blog and the interview. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will definitely follow the blog as well as Helping Writers Become Authors. Thanks!

  6. It feels like coincidence, but I’m reading Joseph Campbell’s “A Hero with a Thousand Faces” right now that covers a lot of the same territory. The theories behind myth and storytelling structure are very old and many believe are rooted in the human psychology.

    The common tropes are older than modern readers recognize. Great article.

  7. I absolutely love K.M. Weiland’s book, “Outlining Your Novel.” It was the first writing how-to book I purchased! I still use it to this day.

    This is a wonderful article, and I do believe that outlining can save your writing in so many ways. It gives you a road map, and saves so much time!

    Thanks for another awesome article!


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