Okay, it’s time to start a story. Or is it? Because before actually writing anything, you need to decide on what structure the story will have; or don’t decide: just take off instead.

Let’s look at these two approaches:


a) Rigid

A lot of writers like to stick with the same structure, for example:

1.         CHARACTER in a

2.         SETTING with a

3.         PROBLEM

4.         TRIES and FAILS

5.         CLIMAX, FINAL TRY

6.         SUCCEEDS (or fails)

7.         RESOLUTION

Writers that use a rigid structure tend to claim it works for any kind of story. However, if that’s true, then an obvious problem will be that their readers will eventually know exactly what to expect.

b) Fluid

A writer can use a structure like the one above but deliberately push it back in their writing mix, rather than letting it control too much. So the story will end up (possibly) being resolved but its journey through the other six elements can be flexible according to what the writer wants to explore.

Or to put it another way, say you decide to go on a day trip. You plan exactly where to go, the time you’re going to leave and return; you hire a guide to show you all the key sites; eat your meals on time, and so on, right through to the resolution which is you lying down in bed and saying to your partner, “Well, that all went exactly to plan.”

Or, you could go the same place but become so engrossed, say, in the conversation you’re having with your partner, that the wonderful scenery and slightly over-knowledgeable guide’s take on his role become just background and contrast points. Now, you have two dynamics that play off each other: the trip and the conversation which may actually be the antithesis of the highly ordered event.

Yes, of course, you could create the same contrast within a rigid structure but the danger is that your subconscious will rush the in-between points’ magic, because it’s too keen to get to the next stage; to complete its homework successfully.

Not deciding on structure:

It’s very difficult to make a story work that has no structure. Yet the attractions are clear. If you don’t know where the story’s going, neither will your reader. (Well, that’s not entirely true: readers can be better aware in a genre than the writer and therefore spot a trope he’s following even when he’s blissfully unaware of it.)

Now, perhaps a slightly controversial view: the degree to which a writer can produce work that surprises, elevates and enriches is determined by how fixed he is in his career objectives. If, for example, he has decided firmly that he’s going to be a commercial writer who makes a good living, that’s fine; however, such a goal will probably mean he’s never going to approach a story without a pre-determined structure to ensure he doesn’t waste any words.

Of course, the weakness of a writer who isn’t so sure of his objectives, is that he may actually waste a lot of words following no-structure leads that don’t result in a story that makes any sense. What this kind of writer needs is a different kind of objective; just as strong as the desire to make money but not so easy to follow, to map out, to rationalise.

So, at this point we need to re-arrange the starting categories into:




What I’ve tried to do with this post is add some clay to the kind of semi-solid tools I use when writing a story. Of course there has to be a plot of sorts, and characters, and a setting; and a writer has to understand how all these work, to the point their facilitation is instinctive.

However, if he then wants to produce work that isn’t ultimately more of the same, he needs to find ways to limit the rigidity of these principles. This rigidity is inevitable, if only through centuries of teachers showing ‘how to’. But a great story is one that seems to flow without a fixed structure, with characters that appear to have chosen to attend, rather than have been moulded by their creator.

Finally, of course no one wants to be thinking all this at the point of writing a story. That’s like being on a date, operating from a guide book.

The way it works, I think, is something like this:

1.         Write some stories without thinking about it.

2.         Realise you need to learn how to; learn how to.

3.         Write some more stories without thinking about why.

4.         Develop some skill and the beginnings of your own voice or voices.

5.         Go back to the start and think about the sort of stuff raised in this post.

6.         Write some more stories while thinking.

7.         Let the stories begin to tell you why you’re writing and what you want to achieve.

8.         Steer in the direction you want to go – e.g. commercial or artistic, or both.

9.         Keep learning from your chosen direction; keep improving.

10.       Do what you love to do.


Nige and I are in the Tavern for the first time since it’s been renovated. We’re sitting at a corner table, Nige for once foregoing the action at the bar, because he wants to take in the overall effects of the changes.

“It used to be a real pub,” he says, “now it’s trying too hard to pretend it’s one.”

He’s got a point. Whereas before the furniture didn’t match and the lighting was uneven, the place at least possessed non-corporate charm. Now, the eating area to our right looks like an American diner, and the furniture throughout can’t hide the fact it was bought as job lots. The bar staff also wear matching white shirts. Oh, and the prices have gone up.

Although I agree with him, I decide to use the situation to wind him up a bit.

“Come on,” I say, “at least now it’s providing for a wider demographic, not just embittered builder/decorators who still bring their own spit and sawdust in with them.”

He’s half way through a long swallow of beer and I take advantage to move the conversation on before he can launch into a long rant about how the present economy is very good at producing wealth for the wealthy while at the same time trying to kid the general population that it’s actually getting what it wants.

“I take it the date didn’t go very well last night,” I say.

He puts down his glass, frowning.

“She was a very nice woman,” he says. “Really intelligent; runs her own IT company. Took a genuine interest in me. Beautiful, too.”

He reaches for his glass again, still frowning.

“And?” I say.

He withdraws his hand, says, “And nothing, really. I mean, there was nothing wrong with the date, or her. Everything was nice and normal.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I thought it was. But I guess for it to be special, there had to be something different there. It don’t have to be perfection; in fact, that’s a killer when you think about it. And it don’t have to be laugh a minute, although that can help. It could be you have one hell of an argument but it’s a row with backbone, if that makes sense. Where you’re really sussing each other out at a deeper level. But when everything’s just okay and pleasant, well, you ain’t going to remember that for very long, are you?”

This time he picks up the glass, and I take a moment to think about what he’s said.

“Oh no,” he says, “you’ve got that look again.”

“Which one is that?”

“The one what says you’re going to use Nige’s love life as an analogy for your bleedin’ blog about writing.”

“Yes, but this is a good one. I’ve been talking about short stories, and so far only about what has to go on before you even start writing.”

He laughs. “I get it: there has to be something.”

“Yes, exactly. I read a lot of short stories that are perfectly okay but they don’t have anything different about them. They don’t give the reader something to remember, even if it’s an argument.”

“Just like one of Steve’s stories?”

We both look round quickly to make sure Steve isn’t in tonight. Steve likes to corner anyone he can and tell them stories about things that have happened to him. This might be the time he travelled first class on a train accidentally because he thought he was in second class and the ticket clerk didn’t even notice, or how he took over this slot machine in a pub, just as the bloke who’d been playing it all night went for a pee, put in a quid and won the jackpot then nipped out before said bloke came back from the loo, and so on.

“You wait for the punch line,” Nige says, “but it never comes.”

“And,” I say, “he tells the story the exact same way to whoever he’s telling it to.”

“So, in your damn analogy, Steve is someone who shouldn’t be writing because he ain’t got that anything worth saying.”

“Yes, he’s like a lot of writers: they want to be story-tellers more than they have a story to tell. Steve isn’t interested in the content, just that you listen.”

“So, the lesson is?”

It’s my turn to swallow some thinking-time beer.

“That if you want to be Steve the Story-teller,” I say, “pouring out mundane ‘stories’ to anyone who’ll listen and, who knows, one or two might actually get excited by mundanities, then you don’t need to do anything other than write about any old crap that comes to hand. You can just reach into your memory bag of other people’s stories, take out a few, swap around the details a bit, change the names and places, then call it your own.”

“Or?” He’s grinning because he senses nails and colours and masts appearing on my internal horizon.

“Or,” I say, “you respect the reader by taking the trouble to make sure that there’s something in your story that’s not ordinary. It can be a character you wished you knew in real life; or a plot that twists brilliantly in a way you didn’t expect but which holds up when you go back and read the story again; or it actually makes you laugh; or cry; or has a transcendent element that pings the feeling in all of us that we can be better somehow than we are.”

“Hey, now I’m feeling guilty,” says Nige.

“How come? You’re not a writer.”

 “Yeah, but I expected that woman last night to bring something to the date. Not sure that I did, though.”

I suppress the urge to tell him it’s not like that; that he’s an interesting bloke just the way he is. But I don’t, because he’s right. So often, we go on dates or attend business meetings, or just meet a mate in the pub, leaving the something to others to bring.

I think a lot of writers do the same. They want to be The Writer but they expect the reader somehow to bring the something different, extra, unusual to the relationship, or not. And maybe many readers do, or like the writer just don’t bother. For whatever reason, they’re happy to be The Reader, listening to Story-teller Steve. Or rather, not really listening, more endorsing the two easy, convenient roles.

“So, what are you going to do on the next date?” I say.

He finishes his beer and stands, ready to get two more. “Man up,” he says. “Stop farting about expecting women to be glamorous and dangerous and fascinating. Make sure I’m those things first.”

“Glamorous?” I say.

He pulls his long hair behind his ears. “Well, the manly equivalent: wash hair, shave nose hairs, put on clean underpants.”

He points to my glass. “Same again, Tel?”

“No, get me something different this time.”

He grins. “Anything?”

“Well, anything without an umbrella in it, obviously.”


I’d like to explore a bit further the background processes that govern what we write.

First, I was thinking about how the selection of a particular genre to express a story through might at least in some cases be a substitution exercise. I believe that for a story to carry real power, the author has to make a connection to truth of one kind or another. Which, unless he spends all his time trying to figure out the truth behind people and things, is not easy to do to order. But he knows he has to have something powering the story; so he reaches for a truth substitution that’s already in place and guaranteed to produce at least the simulation of power, magic, connection.

So, for example, he selects the literary genre where he can find ready-made power-simulations, like gloomy allusions to the meaningless of life expressed through the minutiae of dreary characters’ every day lives.

Second, somebody sent me a link to series of paintings by George Bush. Most of them were, not surprisingly, of world leaders he knows. To me, they lacked any kind of truth, emotion, power or connection, and showed an amateur level of skill at best.

So, I thought perhaps it goes something like this, where creative arts are concerned:


2.    AMATEUR, then either progresses to


3.    PROFESSIONAL, then either progresses to


4.    TRUE CREATIVE CONNECTION, EMPLOYING GREAT SKILL, EMOTIONAL CONTENT, TRANSCENDENT QUALITIES (very rare, needless to say, and may or may not make money, etc)


The very nature of the life Bush has led would preclude him from 3 to 4, and to get to 3 he’d have to re-learn to paint properly, start again, etc, and it’s not likely he’d do that or could even if he wanted to.

Getting to 4 may be about total immersion. Like Sibelius was reported to have said: when he went walking in the mountains and forests he heard the music of the mountains and forests. Bush spent decades immersed in his need to survive politically, win ground for the US, decide whether or not to go to war, etc. Which means he can’t turn on creative/connected immersion at his age.

Truth substitutions and simulations expressed through genres or styles can of course make a lot of money, far more than a real truth connection. Jeffrey Archer is a good example, producing work that isn’t ever intended to do more than badger a genre into producing a derivative framework on which he can hang stock plots and coat-hanger characters.

Perhaps the problem with aiming for 4 is a) it’s hard to get to so you may waste years of earning time trying and even if you get there, b) you may find that hardly anybody wants it anyway.

The other problem with 4 is that it doesn’t inhabit a community. It’s an individual response, and requires leadership not collaboration to bring it home in a story or poem or piece of music. Yet today everybody is socially networked; there is no division between writers and fans; everyone owns all parts of the creative process.

There isn’t an answer here, obviously. But I believe it’s important to consider why we write in the first place, even if the result may not always hit the target.