Structure Is Not a Formula

StructureFormulaMany writers think that structure is formulaic. In writing groups, they scoff at structured, ‘formulaic’ writing because it lacks creativity. Maybe you’ve scoffed; I know I did.

The Formulaic Misconception

Formula fiction does exist. It follows highly structured paths in the form of often-used plots. Change a few key details, use good ‘show vs. tell’ skills, and you have a highly saleable manuscript.

But in looking at formula fiction, you can get the wrong idea about structure.

Structure is like a skeleton. You need the spine, limbs, a head, and a ribcage. From there, the possibilities are infinite: pick a species, and create a unique individual within that species.

Formulaic writing is more like the breed standards at a dog show. It has a skeleton, but it goes further, choosing species, race, and defining exact standards. …It must be this height, this weight, and have this fate.

Writing can be structured, while also being original, and even ingenious. Take a look at Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.

The Benefits of Structure

There are points in the tension or the emotionality or the characterization that stand higher than the rest. Those are your skeleton. The role of these high points is to deliver a shift at the right time, -to believably stretch out character growth, to make the reader suddenly see deeper, to deliver the ideal amount of tension for the progression of the story.

Without those high points, too many unrewarding actions or discoveries in a row become boring.

With the high points in the wrong order, the reader becomes confused or annoyed by the tension being jerked around.

The story thread needs to be wound tighter at the right times or it can break.  Wind too tight too soon and the reader still expects it to grow from there; if you don’t fulfill that expectation your readers will ask why they should care, because something worse is already at stake.

Structure isn’t about predictability or shoring up your creativity. It’s about hitting the right notes at the right time to pull heartstrings. It’s about knowing when to kick things up a notch, and when to release the tension a bit. It’s about keeping the reader engrossed rather than bored or overloaded.

Structure makes you consider the story as a whole. It assures that your character couldn’t just ignore the mess and go down a jolly different path. It props up the character arc and creates believability. It helps the story, though it can be hard on the writer.

What Structure Does Not Do

You can’t build a book on structure alone. You have to consider the inner and outer conflicts, the side plots, the character arc. Structure supports all of these things, but a skeleton doesn’t move without flesh.

Structure Strengthens Creativity

Working within a structure will expand your creativity. You have to find ways to shape and control the magic flowing from you. The tool that you use is your creativity.

Using structure is hard work. Hard work builds creative muscle. Are you using the ‘formulaic’ argument to shield yourself from that work?


Are you a staunch supporter of structure? – Share your position with your friends, even if you don’t share this article.

Are you still against using structure? Make your case in the comments.

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.


  1. I love this article. I’m an English teacher and find this sums up what I try to tell students all the time: planning is a strength, not a weakness that stifles creativity. Planning also means you can end a piece easier- something a lot of writers dread!

    Thank you for this.

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    • You’re welcome! I think it’s an assumption that holds back a lot of writers. Good luck and thank you for teaching your students the reality. =)

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  2. I’m looking for some advice. One of the things I am working on in my novel deals with my MC’s past. Information for his past is a collection of individual chapters interspersed throughout the story, each one revealing a key scene in his past. The MC himself has undergone horrific events that caused him to shut out many of these memories as best he can, to the point of not remembering them at all. What is your suggestion to introducing these chapters, or at least a way to feel that they don’t take over the story?

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    • That’s something that should be discussed with an editor that’s seen what you have and that you’ve fully discussed your vision with. Without that close familiarity with the story, I can’t answer. Most likely the right answer will be determined on a chapter by chapter basis. Some will fit into the story. Others might well be implied through things (and people) around him. It just depends on the story.

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