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

4.42  ·  Rating details ·  600 ratings  ·  147 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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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
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
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. ...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
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
Steve Garriott
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
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.
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. ...more
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.
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. ...more
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
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 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I LOVE this book. I'm currently reading it for my book club, and it's so helpful while I'm writing.

If you want to join the book club, the link is below. It's free and you don't even have to have the book to join.
Oct 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I've read - and studied - about the craft of writing. ...more
Dean Fox
Aug 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
This book, I believe, is already having a profound impact on my ability to craft a story that readers will love. It is is one of the best, clearest, most concise books on writing that I've ever read.

I bought the paperback, but now plan on purchasing the Kindle version as well. No kidding. I want to be able to highlight and take copious notes-but I don't like doing that to the paperback books in my library. On the other hand, Kindle books seem to get lost in the shuffle with me, so it's nice to
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. ...more
Crystal Crawford
Feb 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A great resource!

This book gives a unique perspective on the elements of story telling. Lots of insight and helpful info in this book!
C. Brunson
Oct 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent! This book spoke to my pantsing heart.
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):

Taylor Clogston
Dec 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
The examples were refreshing. Instead of being told for the billionth time how A New Hope is the greatest story ever, we get bits from Dark Places and the book of Ruth.

Very cynical toward structure and outlines. James describes outlining as "not a whole lot of fun, and a very artificial way to approach an art form—sort of like telling an artist to use a paint-by numbers approach."

He describes the supposedly mocking attitude of Big Outlining toward discovery writing in a tone of disbelief, and sa
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
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. ...more
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
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.
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.
Oct 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
A fresh look at writing craft. Useful in my teaching of both fiction and memoir.
Jenn Bradshaw
Jul 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
It’s a hot debate: Plan your novel or Write by the Seat of Your Pants. And while there are hundreds of books on the market for novelists about planning your novel, there are precious few that offer helpful advice on writing without an outline or plan. Steven James’ STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE nails down the elusive art of “pantsing” your stories.

Does your writing stall out halfway through a plot? Do outlines overwhelm, frustrate, or confuse you? (Or do they simply suck the joy out of your writing pra
Hots Hartley
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 modern d ...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, was a finalist for an International Book Award in the sci-fi category.

Suspense Magazine, who named Steven’s book EVERY WICKED MAN one of their “Best Books of 2018,” says that he “sets the new s

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