Book Review – Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

Literary junkies like me appreciate iconoclastic works in the craft. How can any of us forget the first time we delved into Ulysses, Waiting for Godot or anything Claude Simon wrote? I found myself just as intrigued by a work on the craft just as innovative. Steven James wrote Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules as such a work.

Mr. James presented an oppositional take on several premises both writers and instructors accept as sacrosanct. Outlining a novel served as the main target of his criticism. The author takes a “seat-of-the pants” or a “pantser” approach to his own writing. He preferred the expression “organic writing” for this practice. He didn’t argue that outlining isn’t the best approach for him. He believed that it’s wrong for everybody. The author advised: “rather than outlining, focus on (1) narrative progression, (2) genre conventions and (3) reader expectations.” (Page 107)

The book contained suggestions that both outliners and pantsers would find useful. Mr. James even included a useful chart showing the issues both styles of writers would encounter. (Page 113) The author emphasized the importance of driving tension in one’s writing. (Pages 8 and 9) He kept returning to the idea of escalating that tension throughout an author’s work. Story Trumps Structure even introduced a new axiom to the principles of fiction writing: “the Ceiling Fan Principle.” (Page 7) Named after a story a fifth grader told the author, it meant that, “you do not have a story until something goes wrong.” (Page 7)

The author also objected to critique groups reviewing works-in-progress. He expressed several issues with the practice. For one, a reviewer may not be aware of all the narrative forces at work in the story. (Page 34) He added that, “any writing taken out of context will end up being critiqued poorly.” (Page 35) He summarized his disagreement with critiquing as such:

I can’t think of any other field in which people who aren’t experts critique other people who aren’t experts in the hope of everyone becoming an expert. (Page 35)

Overall, I found Story Trumps Structure full of solid advice for good fiction writing. I did have some issues with it. I disagreed with both the author’s advice and his pedantic tone on the subject of organic writing. I did extract value from his craft tips, however, so that issue didn’t dissuade me from finishing the book.

I’ve been a member of several critique groups over the years. I’ve neither considered anyone in any of them an “expert” nor did I ever hear a participant use that term. One must always keep in mind the knowledge and background of who reviews one’s work. I would add that any person reading a critique piece is a “reader.” It’s always possible or probable that other readers may have the same reaction when they encounter the same scene in an author’s story.

Mr. James undoubtedly presented a revolutionary take on organic writing. From his liberal use of clichés, I wondered if his next work would espouse their value. I write without hyperbole that Story Trumps Structure contained more clichés than I recall reading in a single book. They included the author’s use of expressions, “between a rock and a hard place” (page 229), “give it some breathing room” (page 89) and “in a nutshell” (page 87) just to cite a few. I thought Mr. James could’ve utilized more creative phrasing in a book about writing instruction.

Story Trumps Structure presented myriad suggestions on how to write fiction well. The addition of the unusual ideas made the book more memorable than most on the subject. Even though I didn’t share the author’s view on a number of them, he made me expand my frame of reference. Isn’t that what both great works of fiction and non-fiction are supposed to do?

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