Mixed Review

Monday, February 29, 2016

I just finished reading Story Trumps Structure by Steven James, and I give the book a reluctant 3 out of 5. Or, if I can do halves, I’ll make it 2.5.

The rating recognizes that there is some helpful information in this book. Chapter 2 is a good primer for writing openings, and the chapter on causality addresses problems that I come across frequently when critiquing other writers. There were even several places in the book where I stopped to make notes for revisions to my current work in progress.

But Story Trumps Structure also has some serious flaws. The first is the book’s mostly unwritten (but clearly implied) assumption that all writers are alike.

James disdains outlines and favors what he calls “organic writing.” He does give a brief nod to outliners at the beginning of Chapter 8, where he admits that there are some things outliners do well. But the nod turns into a shake of the head during the questions and answers at the end of the chapter.

Q.  “Are you saying organic writing is best for everyone? Doesn’t it depend on the person?”

A.  I wouldn’t feel right suggesting that anyone approach writing a story in a way that I believe is counterintuitive to the creative process. So yes to the first question, no to the second.

I believe he has those answers backwards.

James tends to preach in this book, and his strongest sermon comes in Chapter 20, where he tells writers that they need to stop writing to a theme or they will lose their readers. Unfortunately, James doesn’t practice what he preaches. The chapter would be almost funny if it weren’t so boring.

Worse yet, James fails to follow through on the promise in the subtitle: “How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules.” The entire book is a set of rules, each repeated over and over and over and . . . You get the point.

Still, some writers may find that Story Trumps Structure is worth their time and money.

I’ll leave you to decide whether you are one of them.

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