Commentary

Distinguishing Structured and Unstructured Advice

This post is 3 in the series: Navigating the Jungle of Storytelling Advice
If you’re reading storytelling articles on Mythcreants, there’s a very good chance you’re reading them on other sites. As with most crafts, you might reasonably expect to hop from website to website without issue. No one worries that if they check multiple recipes for the same dish, they will find instructions with no resemblance to each other.

Unfortunately, storytelling advice is more chaotic. In the first post of this series, I laid out how difficult it is for the industry to tell good advice from bad advice. However, that doesn’t account for all of the confusion. In this post, I’ll describe one of the biggest variations in good advice: the degree of structure.

The Divide Between Learners

The reason advice falls along a gradient from structured to unstructured is simple: writers who want to learn also exhibit this spectrum.

In the structured corner, we have:

“Please tell me exactly what to write, so I don’t have to make any judgement calls whatsoever.”

In the unstructured corner, we have:

“Best-selling author X didn’t follow any rules, so I don’t need to. You can take my sales, but you’ll never take my freeeeeedooooom!”

Most writers fall somewhere between these extremes, and that’s good; I don’t think either end is the best for learning. The writers at the structured extreme are trying to avoid the hard thinking that is an ingrained part of storytelling. Writers at the unstructured extreme don’t want to believe that storytelling has to be learned at all. Regardless of the merits of either side, different websites often cater to one or the other.

What Structured Advice Looks Like

Websites that cater to more structured learners tend to have step-by-step guides, often following some kind of “patented process” the advice giver has invented. For instance, the advice giver might tell you that this is how your story should start:

  1. The protagonist is unhappy in their normal life.
  2. A stranger from the world outside appears to offer a call to adventure.
  3. The protagonist rejects this offer.
  4. Something disrupts the protagonist’s life. Now they can’t continue as normal anyway.
  5. The protagonist accepts the call to adventure.

You might recognize this. It’s the beginning of what’s known as the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is popular and easy to follow. However, it’s not the only way to construct a story, not by a long shot. It’s just one combination of specifics that we know can form a strong story.

There are many story templates like the hero’s journey out there. Personally, I like to call them “formulas,” because they are specific directions that aim for a specific result. Some writers find formulas restrictive, but other writers appreciate how it gives them a ready-made plot structure. For writers struggling with plot, they can be a welcome relief.

While Mythcreants does not focus primarily on formulas, we do have some you might have seen:

When we write formulas, we try to make it clear that our directions are only one way of doing something. In the wilds of the internet, not everyone is so kind. It’s good business to let customers think that you alone have the answers to success, so some advice givers may insist that their formulas are mandatory.

You can spot other types of structured advice when you run into rules that feel strangely arbitrary – particularly if they have numbers attached. For instance, “your protagonist must fail three times before they succeed” or “your novel must have an inciting incident no later than 20% into the book.” While clear-cut recommendations like these may technically be false, they can still be helpful. With advice like “your inciting event should occur as soon as possible,” it’s easy for writers to convince themselves they need that extra prologue.

What Unstructured Advice Looks Like

Unstructured advice generally prioritizes a greater level of accuracy and flexibility over making the writing process simple and straightforward. The downside is that if it’s too broad, the answer to every writing question becomes, “First, consider these other complicated questions.”

When we’re not deliberately writing a formula, Mythcreants is more on the unstructured side of the spectrum – or at least, as much as we can be while still giving practical advice. Most of our posts aim to highlight common storytelling rules that apply to almost all stories. For instance, instead of laying out a hero’s-journey-like structure, I describe plots as having a problem, a turning point, and a resolution. Just those three things. Everything else is optional.

We do this not only because we don’t want to invalidate good stories or restrict your creativity, but also because we want you to understand how stories work. When you learn a formula, it’s difficult to tell which details are important and which aren’t. Plus, their ease of use can keep writers from doing the hard thinking they might benefit from. Formulas are fun and useful, but they’re much like training wheels on a bicycle. At some point, you’ll want to take a ride without them in your way.

That doesn’t mean our advice will always be easy to understand and follow, especially for newcomers. If we say “only include characters that are necessary for your plot,” that means that next you have to figure out which characters are necessary. We try to make up for our vague and conceptual directions by using examples. That’s where analyzing all those popular stories and doing critiques fits in.

As vague as we sometimes are, the occasional commenter still protests that we are outlawing great stories with basic rules. I wonder why they are reading advice online, but I won’t try to convince them. You either believe that storytelling is a rigorous craft with innate principles, or you don’t. If you don’t, we can’t do much to help you.

Even Unstructured Advice Has Limits

Unstructured advice aims for broad applicability, but it can’t cover every possible scenario in storytelling. Storytelling is a complex craft with many factors and exceptions to almost everything. For instance, let’s take something Mythcreants strongly recommends against: first-person omniscient. We think this point of view is generally unworkable.

  • Hearing an omniscient narrator use a mysterious “I” to refer to themself is really distracting. This is only justified if the identity of the narrator is important to the story.
  • Since an omniscient narrator knows everything, any omniscient character that’s important to the story would be so powerful that they’d make problems in the story trivial.

Technically, if you had a character who wasn’t omniscient while the story took place, became omniscient at the end of the story, and finally recounted the whole tale to the reader, you could do it. But how many writers interested in first-person omniscient do that very specific thing? And of those people, how many could write an omniscient voice that feels consistent with the character it’s supposed to belong to? I don’t know of anyone who’s even tried. Using first-person omniscient, a writer is much more likely to sabotage their story.

Many storytelling scenarios are just like that. In these cases, 99% of writers would benefit from learning a rule. Since a significant number of writers in that 99% want to believe they are in the 1% exception, the best thing we can do for that 99% is not mention the exception at all. Plus, we don’t have time to explain exceptions in many cases.


Altogether, the best advice for you may not be the advice that’s the most technically accurate or the advice that gives you the most freedom. What you benefit from could also change over time. Structured advice can help new writers with the steep initial learning curve, whereas unstructured advice can help more advanced writers experiment.

In my next and last post in this series, I’ll discuss one more confusing difference you could run into when reading advice: dueling terminology.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

 

Comments

  1. Kel

    Thank you for all the great articles on this site!

    In regards to first-person omniscient, the author of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” does it very well (the narrator is a part of the world, recounting the story to readers). The character he puts into his writing is fantastic.
    I collected the books as a child, and I’m thoroughly enjoying re-reading them as an adult.

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