There are countless ways to go about writing a novel, as many ways as there are writers, and more. No two stories are brought into this world in exactly the same manner. Still, there are patterns.
We crudely divide ourselves into plotters and pantsers, or—most likely—somewhere in between. But truth be told, we all do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, aware or not, and while the order and balance between the different activities may vary, the story needs both. And, there are patterns.
Every culture from the dawn of time has told stories. In fact, telling stories is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, to be sentient. Different cultures have had their different story-telling styles, preferences, methods, themes. But all over history and geography, there are patterns.
So, how best to prepare for writing a novel? I'm going to argue that the answer to that question is this: learning and practicing the patterns and principles of story design.
I personally come from the domain of software development, and, for almost two decades, I've taught courses on both technical and design-oriented aspects of programming and system development. In this domain—while not nearly as old as storytelling—a similar picture reveals itself. Patterns emerge, showcasing what makes a good, successful piece of code, and what should be fed to the monsters that live in the deletion bin. And these patterns are recognized and codified.
In software development—as well as in many other domains, like architecture, clothing, or landscaping—the aspect of design is considered central. No one would argue against the obvious fact that studying the principles, knowing the patterns and best-practices, invariably makes you more skilled at what you do, in these domains. Know the rules before you break them.
I argue that storytelling is no different. Storytelling is somewhere between an art and a craft, where design is paramount. So why don't we focus on design as a big part of crafting a good story?
You may argue that since art is subjective, why can't we just write any story, and not worry about codified design? True, art is subjective - but even if my 3yo's drawing once in a while could be mistaken for modern abstract art, I dare say my own practiced hand is still far more likely to garner approval. Art is subjective, but that doesn't mean there aren't also objective aspects to it.
But story design is so overwhelming, it would take ages to learn, right? Wrong. Learning just a little bit of design will take you a long way; and, even better, will make story creation feel a lot less overwhelming. In fact, I hope it will feel far less overwhelming already by the end of this article.
Let's tackle the most important question: why? What do successful patterns in story design help us accomplish? What is so timeless and intrinsically human about story design, that the same patterns reemerge time and time again?
My short, crude answer is this: tension, and satisfaction. To grip readers, a story needs both, well balanced against each other, in an intricate dance of tug and release. The nature of the tension will be different for every kind of story, every genre, every era, but it has to be there. A story with too little tension will fail to grip readers; but a story with too much tension without any release will make readers fatigued. Instant satisfaction makes a story uninteresting; no satisfaction of any kind makes a story frustrating. And it doesn't just apply to whole stories either; every scene depends on this dance too, to be its most gripping version of itself.
This is where concepts like story structure, scene structure, and character arcs come into play. It is easy to look at a particular story structure, such as the Three Act Structure, or Save the Cat, or the Hero's Journey, and feel like they are too prescriptive, too rigid, and is that really the way a story has to be written? The answer to that is definitely a resounding "No"—but followed by a not so humble "but...".
What these structures represent are well-tested and time-honoured success stories. They are recipes that will guarantee the right ingredients are present, in the right amounts, and that your story will taste delicious. They are architectural patterns; frameworks that, if you start from them, guarantee you won't mess up in certain ways (but don't worry, there are tons of other ways to screw up). These are the most overarching, fundamental design patterns in story design.
Each well-known story structure may do things differently from the others. Some, like the Three Act Structure, may be more broad and general and vague, leaving the specifics up to the author; others, like Save the Cat, or Romancing the Beat, go into far more detail, giving more guidance but leaving less wiggle-room. But common to all is that they lay the dance steps down for you, the tug and release coming in just the right patterns, to keep readers interested.
Story structure is the most overarching, and arguably most powerful of storytelling design patterns. There are, however, design patterns on many different levels, some of which we know under different names. What we call tropes, for instance, are classic design patterns, on a content rather than structural level. Action beats in dialogue. Putting the most important thing last in a sentence. Alliteration. Foreshadowing (for which there are patterns in their own right). Etc etc. All these things are design patterns. All these things are connected.
You may be a rare, talented story choreographer for whom the intricate dance of tension and release comes naturally. You may not feel the need to be given steps to follow, and so you may feel story structure is not for you. You may not feel the need to know about tropes or tricks or transformative truisms. But even if that was all true, even if you truly could not improve by learning more about design, there's a second reason as well: our writerly language.
The terms introduced by these patterns—Inciting Event, Redemption Arc, Fun and Games, Want vs Need, Dark Night of the Soul, Unreliable Narrator, Enemies to Lovers, and so many many more—become the vocabulary that allows us authors to communicate and disseminate story ideas efficiently among our community. It is our lingo, our trade tongue, our lingua franca. By not knowing these terms, and what they entail, you will have a harder time joining the conversation.
You'll never hear me say that you have to follow some specific story structure in order to write a great book. But the more you know about design and structure in general, the better a writer you will become—regardless of whether you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser or anything in between. These principles and patterns can be applied before, or after, or simply kept in mind during drafting. They guide revisions, spark inspiration, and help you learn better from reading the works of others. They can be applied deliberately and in full, or simply used to support and guide intuition. But however you want to use them, you assuredly stand to benefit greatly from learning about them.
If you want to take the next steps towards becoming a story designer, I would love it if you headed over to IG and my #DesigningYourNovel hashtag - see you there!
Meet Nik Bright
Nik Bright is a resident of Gothenburg, Sweden, but spends most his time travelling countries like Faerie, Middle-Earth, and Neverland. A full-time professor by trade, Nik loves to spin a good tale to make students and readers laugh, or cry. Programmer, pianist, poet, painter, papa of two, passionate writer, and pluviophile, Nik is a wannabe polymath with too little time on his hands, and too many voices in his head.
Follow him on IG at @nikhastowrite and share the wild stories!