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

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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 narrative process to make your story believable, compelling, and engaging, and debunks the common myths that hold writers back from creating their best work. When you focus on what lies at the heart of story - tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, discovery - rather than plot templates and formulas, you'll begin to break out of the box and write fiction that resonates with your readers. Story Trumps Structure will transform the way you think about stories and the way you write them, forever.

306 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 21, 2013

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About the author

Steven James

129 books1,495 followers
Steven James is a critically acclaimed author of eighteen novels and numerous nonfiction books that have sold more than 1 million copies. His books have won or been shortlisted for dozens of national and international awards. In addition, his stories and articles have appeared in more than eighty different publications, including the New York Times. He is also a popular keynote speaker and professional storyteller with a master’s degree in storytelling.

Steven's latest series follows Travis Brock, a redactor for the Department of Defense, as he attempts to thwart a terrorist plot. BROKER OF LIES released on April 11, 2023. FATAL DOMAIN releases in 2024 and is available for PRE-ORDER now.

Since 1996, Steven has appeared more than two thousand times at events spanning the globe, presenting his stories and teaching the principles of storytelling to writers, speakers, teachers, and leaders. He also hosts the weekly podcast www.thestoryblender.com, on which he has interviewed more than 150 of the world’s leading writers and storytellers. In 2020, he was inducted into the Christy Award Hall of Fame for excellence in fiction writing. Publishers Weekly has called him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”

When he’s not writing or speaking, you may find him playing basketball or disc golf, or hiking near his home in the Appalachian Highlands of East Tennessee. He may or may not watch too many science fiction movies while eating bottomless bowls of chips and salsa.

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5 stars
392 (57%)
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202 (29%)
3 stars
63 (9%)
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13 (1%)
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11 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 169 reviews
Profile Image for Roni Loren.
Author 47 books3,393 followers
August 13, 2016
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 working in the unknown and the pitfalls that come along with that (writer's block, chasing bunny trails, rereading your previous pages constantly to get back into the mindset, etc.). But after reading this, I feel like I can take a deep breath and find a place of acceptance with my pantsing ways. Yes, my method causes me anxiety, but it's also been a successful one for me, so why am I always trying to change it?

And with this book, there are methods that may even help with the anxiety involved in "flying into the mist" when writing. There are questions to ask when you get stuck or come across a plot problem. There are guidelines on what needs to be clear in each scene and how to keep the tension up. There are pointers on how to include twists. And some of the character stuff--questions to ask about their secrets, shame, fears, etc--was brilliant.

I have five pages of notes from the book and put sticky flags on way too many pages because there was too much great stuff to hold in my head all at once. I'm kind of a junkie when it comes to books on writing and can be hard to please, but I have no qualms giving this one five stars. I know I'll be referencing it often.
232 reviews27 followers
October 6, 2017
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.
Profile Image for John.
51 reviews5 followers
January 29, 2018
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-outlining point of view.

While I got a few things from this book that I will definitely save and refer back to, I found myself struggling to finish it. Here's a summary of some of the gems and the head-scratchers/common sense bugglers*:


- Putty people / pebble people
- Keep your promises to your readers
- "How can I make things worse?"
- Discard every possible solution you can think of for your protagonist to succeed
- The plot twist section
- Humor is truth no one has noticed
- Some really good stuff about decision-making and the protagonist


- Give your characters quirks; everything else I have read says "don't give your characters quirks". I like the whole let's-take-a-different approach here, but the arguments against quirks are definitely a lot stronger. Quirks make characters seem 2-dimensional quite quickly. Like using Q's quippishly in a quirky review.
- "If things happen for no reason—plot flaw." Uh....?
- "You must provide an emotionally satisfying experience for your readers." Right?
- "In fiction, story matters more than anything else." Umm..... you don't say?
- And finally, his solution to many writing problems was to write and write and write and your story will start to flow naturally. I get there are some things you just need to dig into and write yourself out of, but I don't need a whole writing book to tell me to just write more and my book will get better.

Overall: 3 stars. Some parts were excellent; other parts didn't make sense or were common sense or were too long for the value they provided.

*Ya, for those who are scratching their heads, bugglers isn't a word. But how you felt about me using that word in my review is how I felt about this book. So there you go.
Profile Image for Josiah DeGraaf.
852 reviews203 followers
February 22, 2023
There aren't many books for pantsers out there. And though I'm an outliner myself, I appreciate hearing the perspective of other kinds of storytellers. So I was curious to see how James approached certain story decisions as a discovery writer (or "organic writer" as he likes to call it).

This book was excellent. James has had a lot of experience in fiction writing, and that becomes quite evident in his advice. His points on the importance of tension, natural causation, the roles a character fills, and reader expectations were all excellent. And while a lot of it was given from a discovery writer mindset, even as an outliner I found a fair bit of it valuable.

Outliners and discovery writers both have their natural weaknesses, and I found that James did a pretty good job at pointing out to me what some of those weaknesses were for plotters. I of course will disagree with him on the benefits to "organic writing" as opposed to outlining--but his perspective is a helpful one lest I get too obsessed with sticking rigidly to an outline.

Obviously discovery writers would get more out of this book than I did; but even as an outliner, this book was excellent.

Rating: 4.5 Stars (Excellent)
Profile Image for Steve Garriott.
Author 1 book12 followers
June 10, 2014
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 main character's unmet desires, constantly questioning as you go, and keeping the reader at the forefront of everything you do. This is about the reader, about telling a good story. If you follow these concepts, you can avoid the flood of half-baked and draft novels that have flooded the market. We are archaeologists and it is our job to meticulously excavate the story; you'll find out what kind of story it is once it's all revealed.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
Author 29 books131 followers
March 15, 2016
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, discovery and change. (I had hoped for some exploration of possibility of different structures which seem to be a dying breed these days). The book has many great insights that shed light on how stories work.

What I liked:
• Authors make promises to their readers which they need to keep.
• The story needs to escalate – though it’s more important to escalate tension than to merely escalate action. The reader needs to care about the characters and the stakes need to be raised.
• Planning often doesn't work because it takes time to get to know our characters deeply. The problem with planning can be that things can be made to happen that fit the plot but not the characters, which strains believability or seems gimmicky or artificial.
• The story should arise organically out of the characters, who they are, what they want and the challenges they face. There needs to be clear cause and effect.
• Authors need to meet the reader’s expectations which depend on genre, narrative weight, causality and believability, but at the same time, to surprise them. Ending, twists and plot solutions need to be adequately foreshadowed and inevitable but never predictable.
He finishes with common plot flaws and how to fix them.

I like James's exploration of story dynamics and reader expectations but he hasn't converted me from a tweener to the pantser. I think each writer must find his/her own method/s that work best for him/her.

Story Trumps Structure does give Pansters credible and cogent guidelines, but he also gives understanding of a deeper level of story dynamics. This is a great craft book and I'll be keeping it as a reference when looking at plot problems, structure and story dynamics.
Profile Image for Kate Lowell.
Author 14 books65 followers
September 1, 2014
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 understand that he's a thriller writer--that came across fairly clearly. What also came across during the book was his relative unfamiliarity with other genres, and there was a certain tone to the text when discussing these genres which gave the definite impression that he considered them somewhat...less. He made some assumptions that were patently false and that highlighted his lack of familiarity and lack of real interest in how those genres function.

The other was his attempt to brand the information under his own structure/naming conventions, which occasionally made it difficult to figure out what he meant until I was well into a chapter. I did a lot of rereading in certain parts, because I'd find a key piece of information tucked into the text about halfway through a chapter, and would go back to the beginning of that chapter with this new information in mind. (Rereading isn't a bad thing--I expect I'll be referring to parts of the book quite frequently over time.)

Despite those two issues, I do recommend this book to anyone who wants to up their writing game. I expect thriller and mystery writers will feel more at home with it, but there is information there for all genres.
Profile Image for Olena Rosul.
10 reviews8 followers
January 8, 2015
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.
Profile Image for Laurel Garver.
Author 14 books115 followers
June 26, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Michelle Styles.
Author 136 books194 followers
July 22, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Robert Robinson.
Author 27 books26 followers
December 28, 2014
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):

OUTLINE RULE: You must create a detailed outline before you begin to write, otherwise you’ll end up wasting time and throwing away a lot of pages.
TRUTH: You’ll waste time writing the outline, and then waste more time rewriting the outline when your characters want to take the story in directions you couldn’t anticipated.

THREE-ACT RULE: Your story must have three acts with specific plot points.
TRUTH: If you force your characters to stay within rigid boundaries, you may well end up with a cookie-cutter story that lacks momentum.

HOOK RULE: You must “hook” readers by blowing them away with your first sentence/paragraph/page or you will lose them.
TRUTH: You do need to “hook” readers early on—that much is true. However, if your first chapter explodes with over-the-top excitement, Chapter 2 may seem like a dud in comparison, and you’ll likely lose readers by Chapter 3. Instead, the tension must continually build from the first sentence to the climax.

THEME RULE: You must determine the theme of your story before you start writing. What’s it about? What’s the point you’re trying to make?
TRUTH: If your story can be boiled down to one or two sentences, why write the book?

Like a good novel, the value of this book cannot be condensed into a few paragraphs. I urge you to read every page and let it soak in, and then follow the author’s advice and create your story organically. Then you can analyze the structure if you like—after it’s written.
Profile Image for Jennifer Uhlich.
98 reviews8 followers
August 7, 2016
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, whether they have an outline tacked above their workspace or not.

But sometimes, in a book - in any book - there is something so startling, so jaw-dropping, that it obliterates everything said before and after. All through the subsequent pages you are left wandering like a nuclear survivor, your head jerking as you keep inadvertently looking back to the blast site, unable to fully comprehend what just happened. This section is a kind of review in and of itself, so I will end with it; I was going to say more, about perpetuating [invective] tropes being far more damaging than any slavish adherence to a three-act structure, but I think you'll understand.

"Characters who give advice need to do so from a place of weakness or vulnerability (low status) rather than strength (high status). (We'll cover status more in depth in Chapter 21.)
"So a child can tell an adult the meaning of life and readers will accept it because of the contrast between the character's youthfulness and the wisdom he's exhibiting. However, if the local megachurch pastor tells a character the meaning of life (and he nails it!), readers might (and probably will) feel that the author is trying to preach at them.
"Who can be the voice of truth, then? Minorities, the underprivileged, the physically or mentally impaired. I've even flashed back to a character who was dead and let her give advice posthumously. There's not much lower status than being dead."
Profile Image for Laura Maisano.
Author 8 books44 followers
December 30, 2015
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 and I shouldn't try to force myself to work in a way that is difficult for me. Steven's tips on how to organize your mind to write scene by scene really gave context in how I write. I actually do a lot of what's mentioned in the book, but now I have a term for the way I do things.

I recommend this book to anyone who writes without an outline.
Profile Image for Kamryn Koble Lockwood.
236 reviews41 followers
May 31, 2019
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, particularly on outlining. But the valuable outweighs the questionable, and it's earned a place on my shelf.
Profile Image for Schuyler.
Author 1 book71 followers
August 25, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Aubree Deimler.
Author 3 books49 followers
June 11, 2023
Super helpful guide to writing “organically” vs. from an outline. Practical, common sense advice to writing great fiction. Love how it keeps the reader in mind. In the end, that’s what really matters! 💛📚

“We are artists. We are writers - slightly neurotic and probably addicted to coffee, late nights, sunsets, laughter, tears and heartache. Creativity is a drug. We lose ourselves in the smell of old books. We are bewildered by how we live in a world this full of glory and grief and not to be awestruck by every moment. And we write stories to help wake people up before they fall asleep for good.”
Profile Image for Liz Fenwick.
Author 24 books506 followers
May 8, 2018
This is a writing craft book that deals with the way I write stories...it 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.
Profile Image for Taylor Clogston.
Author 3 books7 followers
June 9, 2021
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 says by discovery writing we rebel against The Man.

Not a terrible book on writing, just one which thinks it's more revolutionary than it is. Yet another craft book by a skilled and successful genre writer who believes conflict is before and above everything else in creating Story With a Capital S, who spends pages upon pages describing how to escalate conflict and make things worse and worse for the protagonist.

Negative points for referring to the second unit of Scene/Sequel as "I call them interludes" just to confuse newcomers (or their writing group partners) who will go on to read other craft books.

(bonus points for explaining causality in description better than almost any other craft book I've read)

The biggest eye-roll of the book:

"If you can summarize your novel in a theme statement or sentence, why on earth would you spend a year or a decade crafting a 500-page book? It would not only be a colossal waste of your time, but a waste of your readers’ time as well."

(James then explains how we do need one, but doesn't seem to realize that he's doing so)

This from a gentleman with an MFA in Storytelling. Oh well.
Profile Image for Dean Fox.
Author 8 books64 followers
August 20, 2020
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 have physical copies of the books I find most useful.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Even if you never plan to write anything, but just enjoy reading fiction, I think you'll find valuable insight in what Steven James has to say.
Profile Image for Brenda Clark Thomas .
Author 1 book3 followers
May 27, 2016
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 "subtleties of characterization."

Read the book. You will have a handbook on writing that you will return to time and again.
Profile Image for Gillian Kevern.
Author 35 books191 followers
June 30, 2014
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!
Profile Image for Jennifer Worrell.
Author 14 books114 followers
March 23, 2016
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.
Profile Image for DiAnn.
Author 143 books1,688 followers
October 13, 2014
One of the best books I've read - and studied - about the craft of writing.
Profile Image for Charity.
Author 20 books115 followers
July 21, 2023
I really enjoyed this refresher on good storytelling techniques. I took a ton of notes for about the first four chapters, then went back to an early draft of what I am working on and realized I needed better motivations for the main characters. The author also pointed out some problem areas that novelists struggle with, and helped me realize what was lacking from a book I wasn’t impressed with reading recently. It’s also great that he’s one of the few “pantser” writers so he knows what he’s talking about when he encourages me to keep allowing the story to happen organically, rather than force it into a three-act structure (all of my plots go there regardless). I did, however, have to stop reading after a point and walk away from it, otherwise it triggered my intense perfectionism with my WIP. It would be a terrific book to give an aspiring author, or one who is eager to deepen their craft.
Profile Image for Beth.
42 reviews2 followers
April 21, 2021
The writing craft advice in the book is insightful and helpful, especially for more organic/ garden type plotting rather than full outlines. It'd be five stars if not for the examples used - I'd expect patriarchal white-American centered ones in a book from the 80s, not something written in the last decade. The WASP indicators of status were especially egregious, but so was the example of "boy gets girl" as a , reward for the protagonist, or the insistence that sex scenes can't have plot relevance, or that a romance novel's couple can't be equal co-protagonists. If you can look past that, it's a very useful book, but I groaned out loud at least once per chapter.
Profile Image for Meg D. Gonzalez.
Author 3 books21 followers
July 24, 2018
One of the best writing books I've read in a while. It's got a fresh take instead of parroting old concepts.
Profile Image for Gökçe.
Author 7 books42 followers
April 3, 2019
Çok iyi fikirler var. Başucu kitabım oldu.
Profile Image for Crystal Crawford.
Author 43 books35 followers
February 18, 2021
A great resource!

This book gives a unique perspective on the elements of story telling. Lots of insight and helpful info in this book!
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