Do Writers Really Need to Know Theory?

theoryFor as long as I can remember, I’ve always had ideas for stories. When I was young, many involved Gary-Sue-ing myself into my favorite TV shows and movies, as a security officer with Borg implants on ST:NG or as a cryogenically frozen Jedi from the Old Republic.

As I got older, my desire to explore my own universes grew. ‘Original’ ideas filled my head, and I believed I could tell a fun tale or two. Unfortunately, I thought stories only came from the magical places in my head called talent and creativity, and once tapped, the words would flow like a river. I expected the story to appear on the page complete and perfect and ready to publish. And when it didn’t, I felt like a failure and a fraud.

From my late teens and into my thirties, I would try, struggle, and fail to finish anything beyond a few short stories, which weren’t very good. Then one day I heard the phrase ‘just write’. So, with nothing to lose, I did, to the tune of 275,000 words. I learned so much from finishing that novel, but in the end, it sucked. S-U-C-K-E-D, sucked…like a Hoover pulling a golf ball through three-feet of garden hose.

“Now what?” was the question.

We all have instincts that tell us when something isn’t working in a story. If we’re lucky, we can spot the problem right away, but other times, we just know there’s something not right we can’t put our finger on. And even when we’re lucky enough to spot the problems, we don’t always know how to fix them.

When I finished my first novel, I didn’t have the tools to reliably identify or fix problems. Heck I didn’t even know what tools there were for the job. So, I turned to writing books and the theories and thoughts within.

Is Writing Theory Important?

When you delve into theory, some of it sounds like mumbo jumbo dreamt up by some academic, or someone who wants to make a buck by claiming they have the 10 secret steps to writing a bestseller. Or some random, no-name article writer, with no credentials, who thinks they know what they’re talking about and somehow slipped into a spot on the article writing team on Mythic Scr…err…*ahem*.

So, is it important? Should you even care? Maybe. There are some people who are just natural storytellers, and require little to no theory. For people like me, theory has been an invaluable tool that has taken me from a doe staring at the headlights, unable to move, to one that just steps out of the way, spits on the ground, and flips the car the bird…or hoof…or antler… OK, the analogy kind of falls apart there, but it just means like any writer, I still have a lot to learn.

The truth is many people just want to sit down and write their story. They don’t want to go back to school and read textbooks. After working your 40-hour, 9-to-5, it can kill the fun. Many of us just want to be in the moment with our wisecracking, foulmouthed, big-dammed-heroes, who ride rough-shot over the bad guys across the galactic wastelands of Silkyway, and not worry about act breaks, inciting incidents, or midpoint climaxes.

But, if you have dreams about being published, I think theory is important to know, not just because it helps in your writing. It helps you communicate with those in your field. Let’s say you meet an editor, agent, or another writer while typing at a coffee shop. They take peek over your shoulder and mention your sagging middle. If your immediate instinct is to glance down at those love-handles you’ve been meaning to work on, then the exchange of ideas now becomes more difficult, and you may miss out on a critical point being conveyed.

Every field has jargon, shorthand used to encapsulate a greater collection of ideas and/or concepts, which makes communication been two people in the field quicker, simpler, and more concise. That, at least in part, is what writing theory is.

So instead of being embarrassed about your gut at the coffee shop, you know they’re talking about the second act. And instead of needing them to explain what a sagging middle is, you can both get right into it and talk about the quality of your midpoint and the effectiveness of how things build towards and spring off of it.

But how do you make sense of it all? The number of writing theories out there is more numerous than explosions in Michael Bay film. Some of the ones I’ve come across are the classic three-act structure, seven-beat story structure, fifteen-beat structure, scene/sequel format, four-act structure, five-act structure, Dramatica Theory, Iceberg Theory, Hollywood Formula, Hero’s Journey, etc.

But, which one is right? Which one is best? And do I have to use them all?

As I edited my first novel, I tried to apply the tools I learned from each theory I encountered. But with each new theory came a pile of tools, not all of which I completely understood. It was like I kept going to the hardware store and suddenly I had this pile of tools, but I didn’t know how to assemble them into a functional or practical toolkit.

I was the doe staring at the headlights again.

Then one day, I was listening to author Tracy Hickman on a podcast and he was talking about how he used the Dramatica Theory of writing. He said he didn’t use it for first drafts but applied it later on in the process to figure out what was missing from his stories. That started the wheels in motion, and what should have been obvious to me became clearer.

I started to notice the commonalities between some theories and realized each was just a view of story taken from a different vantage point, like viewing a car from front, back, top, bottom, driver side, or passenger side. Each vantage point revealed features that couldn’t be seen from the others.

I realized it didn’t matter which theory I used. I just had to pick one or two to be intimate with and use the tools from them. Then, if I came across problems that couldn’t be fixed with those tools, I just had to apply a different theory to my story, and it would usually reveal something I was missing, like stepping from the front of the car to the side.

Like putting tools in a toolbox, there isn’t room for everything, so you have to pick your favorites, and then cherry-pick what else goes in. Because as long as you have a solid set of tools, it doesn’t necessarily matter what they are as long as you know how to use them.

That’s because story is a craft, like woodworking. You start with the raw material of your ideas. And you work and shape them with your tools into whatever you desire, be it beautiful, ugly, awe inspiring, or heartbreaking. The possibilities are limitless.

Unfortunately, even after using all my newfound tools on my novel and seeing it improve, I realized I was too inexperienced with the tools to take the novel to where I wanted it to be. The novel was too big and unwieldy for my inexperienced hands, so I set it aside and moved on to the next novel.

By applying theory from day one on my second novel, things came out much better. I was able to organize my thoughts and ideas more clearly into an understandable story. In fact, I had the first 50k of what would eventually be a 110k book written in a month. There were rough patches along the way, but it all worked itself out. Rarely did I feel like I was lost with nothing available for me to try.

When I was done with the final draft, the novel came out, for the most part, like I wanted, and I came away with some things which I think can only be found through experience. I learned that if I put my nose to the grindstone, I can finish any story I start. And no matter how well or poorly I write, I know I can always make it better in the next draft. It just takes work.

Many probably already know what I’ve been talking about and are saying to themselves, “Isn’t it obvious?” But for those like me who struggled, hopefully this will be helpful.

For those who are looking for some nitty-gritty stuff on structure, I’ll have more articles coming down the pipe touching on story structure, scene structure, and plot weaving using some of my favorite tools. This is just the starting point, the ground floor so to speak.

So, how do you use writing theory? Do you find it useful, or do you just follow instinct, and it works out for you?

If you do use writing theory, which are your favorites, and why do you find them helpful?

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5 years ago

Thanks for an informative and entertaining article. Looking forward to the next in the series!

Woelf Dietrich
5 years ago

Although I regularly read articles and books on theory, when it comes to actual writing I go on instinct. And, as expected, it doesn’t always work out. I’ve been participating in an online workshop for two years now and having other people critique my work helped me to focus and zoom in on my problem areas in terms of structure and pacing. It somehow created a bridge between what I’ve read on theory and actual implementation of that theory. Hopefully, my instincts are improving, but as we all know, mastery is a lifelong quest.

Thanks for a wonderful article. I’m looking forward to more.

5 years ago

One of the most entertaining and helpful articles I’ve read in a while. Thanks for that!

Celia Reaves
5 years ago

I’m the ultimate academic, a college professor, so I started my writing journey by reading books and taking a class. I then ran into the second problem you mentioned: too many tools. Snowflake method? Beat sheets? Hero’s journey? Three-act structure? Finding my way through all that to something that works for me has been my struggle. Your point about learning the language of the profession is key here. Knowing what the midpoint reversal is makes it easier to understand when a reader describes a problem, and can help locate the tool needed to fix it.

Ciara Ballintyne
5 years ago

I felt much the same way you did. I was frustrated, knowing something was wrong with my stories, but not understanding WHAT. I could see that published novels were better, but not HOW. When I did some courses (and they were just short, online workshops but made all the difference) my writing accelerated sharply. Not only could I see what the problem was, but I was able to more consciously use tools. A lot of the ones you mentioned didn’t appeal to me, but GMC Charts felt very natural and intuitive to me, and so now I use those. It made plotting novels a lot easier and my stories came out more consistently without needing so much rework. Which is not to say I revise fewer times (I still easily do 8 drafts) but more fine-tuning happens now that massive rewrites.

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