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Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules

4.41  ·  Rating details ·  478 ratings  ·  115 reviews
Don't limit your fiction - LIBERATE IT

All too often, following the "rules" of writing can constrict rather than inspire you. With Story Trumps Structure, you can shed those rules - about three-act structure, rising action, outlining, and more - to craft your most powerful, emotional, and gripping stories.

Award-winning novelist Steven James explains how to trust the narra

Kindle Edition, 306 pages
Published April 29th 2014 by Writer's Digest Books (first published May 21st 2013)
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4.41  · 
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 ·  478 ratings  ·  115 reviews

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Roni Loren
Jun 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Finally, a book for pantsers! And not just one that mentions pantsing but validates the process as a legitimate (he even ventures to say superior) process of writing. I have long been a pantser with plotter envy because it seems like every book on writing I read talks about "organic" writing as the immature/impatient process and plotting as the panacea, the "professional" way. Of course, that always makes plotting sound like this lovely method that is going to take away the constant anxiety of w ...more
Aug 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
In Story Trumps Structure Stephen James proposes an alternative approach to detailed planning based on a precise formulaic three-act plot structure. He is a pantser and his organic approach draws on the unfolding of the story based on certain story dynamics or principles and reader expectations. Plot points develop from characters and situations. The number of acts in a story depend on what the story itself needs. He still supports a linear plot with orientation, crisis/calling, escalation, disc ...more
Oct 06, 2017 rated it did not like it
While there were a few good tips in this book, the overall tone was very condescending and some of the examples in writing were a little sexist. I was interested in learning more about organic writing, but not at the expense of outlining; both are valid, and James didn't really make me feel like he thought so.
Jan 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: season-12
This book is a quagmire to review. On one hand, it truly has a handful of literary gems (that easily are 5 starworthy). On the other hand, it has some real head scratchers (1 star) and long portions that just slog along (2-3 stars). I found myself asking over and over to some sections of writing advice, "Isn't this just common sense??"

I read this book because I have read a handful of books on storywriting from a structural point of view, and I wanted to balance that with a book from a non-outlin
Kate Lowell
Jun 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing-books
I liked this book. I thought it had a lot of good information, well presented, and not overly complicated. The language is clear and plain. It was very comprehensive and did an excellent job of explaining what to look for and what you could do to fix it. He even includes a chart near the end to help you find the specific sections of the book you need, once you've identified what the problem you're trying to fix is.

This would have been a five star for me, except for two specific issues.

I underst
Laurel Garver
Jun 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Superb tips for authors for whom writing an outline first is creatively stifling. James gets the so-called "pantser" mind and makes the process of writing based on intuition and following one's storyteller instincts much less painful. Best of all, he never ever tries to convince you to change into a plotter. Instead, he helps you harness your powers to get that story written without getting stuck too hard or too long.
Liz Fenwick
May 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a writing craft book that deals with the way I write shows what I do instively and provides means (normally in the form of questions) to make the process and the story stronger. It is a book I will return and even if you are a planner there is plenty to take from this book.
Aug 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book was lit. I underlined, wrote in the margins, realized how awesome the storytelling in Ant-Man was, and actually tried out the concepts James preached. I feel encouraged and equipped to tell better stories. Highly recommend.
Michelle Styles
Jul 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent and provocative book on writing which deals with how I write books -- mainly into the mist and with the vaguest nods to an outline. Definitely read a sample and see about the Ceiling Fan Principle -- it convinced me to buy the book. I loved his approach and his detailing of the process. He is a kindred spirit in hating the Lady and the Tiger's ending and disliking character worksheets. It is a refreshing change to find this book.
Jennifer Uhlich
Aug 07, 2016 rated it did not like it
I'm gearing up to do a panel on structure (I know, I know, me of all people), and an acquaintance kindly recommended this book. It has the Donald Maass gold star introduction, and the intent here is good, though my quibbles began with the title itself as story structures are not "rules," they are, well, structures. I would also argue that what he calls "organic writing" is in fact just writing, and the lavish descriptions he provides of this writing process are what folks are doing, period, whet ...more
Jun 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read Stephen King's On Writing and then pick up James's book, a great combination. As a seat-of-the-pants writer who hates the whole idea of planning your novel and character worksheets and outlines (never liked outlines for essays either!), this is the kind of encouragement I need. There are few books out there that encourage writers to discover and let the story develop as it will. Don't get me wrong: James provides a trove of concepts to consider, but his style is based on discovering your ma ...more
Gillian Kevern
Jun 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Another really great writing resource.

At first, I'll admit that I was unimpressed. It didn't seem like anything that I hadn't heard before and a lot of the author's advice didn't seem relevant to the stories I want to tell. However, once the information had time to digest within my brain, I realized there was more there than I had first thought! In fact, only two days after finishing the book I was referring to it to help me revise the opening of my current WIP. I highly recommend this book!
Oct 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I've read - and studied - about the craft of writing.
Meg D. Gonzalez
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: on-writing
One of the best writing books I've read in a while. It's got a fresh take instead of parroting old concepts.
Kamryn Koble
I read this for my Professional Writing commercial fiction course at Taylor University, and I'm thankful this major makes us buy textbooks instead of renting them. Story Trumps Structure is a wonderful writing how-to that works against some hard-and-fast "rules" that may not be all too beneficial.

It's full of practical, applicable advice in a digestible format. I'll definitely be keeping this on hand, and I encourage any novelist to pick up a copy.

I disagree with some of James's points, particul
Robert Robinson
Dec 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I’m currently writing my tenth novel, and have read several dozen writing books, most of which were helpful. Some were excellent. I understand the concepts of plot, three-act structure, archetypes, motifs, symbolism, etc. But those are analytical terms, useful for studying a work of fiction AFTER it’s been written. The author recommends that you break the rules espoused in many of these books. Not ALL the rules. Just some of the “most important” ones.

For example (I’m paraphrasing):

Laura Maisano
Dec 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I got this book at DFW Con after speaking with the author, Steven James. I absolutely loved his take on organic writing, and as someone who has written a couple books without an outline, this spoke to me. I was actually in the midst of attempting to force myself to outline my next book when I picked this up and read it. I realized that I was using my outline as a way to procrastinate starting the story, and I was having writers block without even writing a word. I'm an organic writer at heart an ...more
Brenda Clark Thomas
May 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Hey all you pantsers (hate that name, it reminds me of pantsing someone, I prefer SOP'ers--Seat of the Pants writers). Here is a book about writing without an outline.

Steven James' book is about "organic writing" where the narrative shapes the story. I found the book to be amazing. Among many other things, I loved the part about the three questions that can solve every plot problem you may ever have.

He talks about narrative forces that shape your story. Also, I loved his chapter on the "subtle
Roger Mendoza
Dec 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic book! In this book the author gives excellent examples of good and bad writing. But much more than that, he explains specifically the hows and whys of writing great fiction. I've book marked several sections that I'll be referring to as I write my next novels. It's a great reference book. I especially like the section "Plot Flaws and How to Fix Them." In this section he has a table with common plot problems. It has how to fix them along with the chapter that explains in detail. This is ...more
Jennifer Worrell
Nov 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: craft
Though the cover is a bit of false advertising (this craft book is loaded with rules) it great to hear that everything does not need to meet a certain number of pages, does not to follow cookie-cutter format, etc. Basically, worry less about rules than writing the best book you can. James offers comprehensive chapters covering how to do that. He goes on to answer questions that aren't often covered in craft books. Worth a read. One of the better books I've read on the subject of fiction writing.
Olena Rosul
Dec 21, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: writing
It's not a bad book, but the problem is that at the beginning the author says, "Break the rules", and then he gives us TONS of his own rules about what exactly characters must do, think, and feel.

In other words—as the author puts it himself—he doesn't fulfill his promises.

And it is kind of disappointing. Though, again, if he skipped that first part about breaking the rules, it would be a great book on the craft of writing.
Oct 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
A fresh look at writing craft. Useful in my teaching of both fiction and memoir.
Karen McQuestion
Jun 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is an excellent book which delivers exactly as promised. Much of it I already knew or have done instinctively, but I would recommend this for someone just starting out.
The writing advice isn't bad, but Steven James is prone to listmaking (of arbitrary counts), making advice difficult to remember and internalize. I also dislike all the crusade differentiating plotters & pantsers. I don't care what the debate is, or what all the challengers or devil's advocates have said against the author; I just need tips that I can apply. Finally, almost all the examples are drawn from mundane daily life -- mysteries, thrillers, whodunits, romances, crime novels, and mode ...more
May 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
On a scale of cotton candy to Brussels sprouts, Story Trumps Structure by Steven James is bubble and squeak cakes with red onion gravy. Not only hearty, this recipe is whimsy, too. Carrots and parsnips sewn together with butter and red onion gravy.

Story Trumps Structure might not provide steps 1-89 of how to write the best book ever, but it does teach writers to take note of details in their writing. Most of us understand the idea of a story, but no one quite articulates facets of writing like
Oct 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 6-screenwriting
"You do not have a story until something goes wrong (...) To uncover the plot of your story, don't ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. To uncover the meaning of your story, don't ask what the theme is, but rather, what is discovered"

Steven James gives us METHODS for writing stories. His approach is practical and precise. He covers the basics in a fresh way by making you think about your story at hand. There are some great check lists in the book to help you identify problems in you
Blue Coutell
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: writing-books
This book did not live up to it's title. It basically promises to teach you how to write without an outline-- it does not. It gives you story essentials but these apply to writing in general (outline or no outline) and that can be a positive or negative depending on what you're looking for. While there are some gems of advice it also comes off as very preachy and the organization of the book seems a bit haphazard (perhaps because he did not use an outline?) I wanted a lot out of this book, I'm n ...more
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm going with 4 1/2 stars because it took me a long time to read this. The book requires a lot of mental work to get through it, and as always, there is plenty of information readers will already know. This is not to be avoided, however.

The fact is, there is also much information that is truly useful as well as some topics I've never heard discussed before (such as character status). This is something we sort of understand intuitively, but thinking about character status in a very direct way w
Pat Camalliere
Sep 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read this as a library book and plan to buy it as a reference. Since I can’t decide if I’m a plotter or a pantser, the techniques in this book, if used selectively, are helpful for both approaches in my opinion. Although the author advises no outline and daily rereading to keep the writer on track and improve flow, he contradicts himself by throwing in other techniques that smack of planning. It is also frequently repetitive, and, as already implied, writers should pick from the techniques he ...more
Nov 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
If story theory sounds boring, you haven't read Steven James. Story Trumps Structure takes a 30,000-foot view of the craft of storytelling through novel writing. Much more readable than Robert McKee's Story, James shows us the backside of the art of storytelling. He emphasizes the creation and escalation of tension as well as the logical development of a complete story. Chapter 7 alone, subtitled "Eight Secrets to Discarding Your Outline to Write Better Stories" is worth the purchase price. I re ...more
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Steven James is a national bestselling novelist whose award-winning, pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base.

His latest novel, SYNAPSE, a near-future thriller, is set to release on October 8, 2019.

Suspense Magazine, who named Steven’s book EVERY WICKED MAN one of their “Best Books of 2018,” says that he “sets the new standard in suspense writing.” Pu
“We are artists. We are writers—slightly neurotic and probably addicted to coffee, late nights, sunsets, laughter, tears, and heartache. Creativity is our drug. We lose ourselves in the smell of old books. We’re bewildered by how we can live in a world this full of glory and grief and not be awestruck every moment. And we write stories to help wake people up before they fall asleep for good.” 4 likes
“Organic writers are never directionless because we can always work on scenes that fulfill the promises we’ve made earlier in the story or go back and foreshadow the fulfillment of promises we think of as the story takes shape.” 1 likes
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