Can a book have weak structure and still succeed?

Tricky question.

I say, yes. Remember I said, ‘weak structure’ not bad structure or no structure. Meaning the elements of the three acts are there, but they’re weak.

Examples of weak structure:

  • No distinct inciting incident.
  • The turning point/disaster before Act II and Act III aren’t obvious. I know I’m in Act II or III but I missed that life changing decision and huge disaster.
  • The first part of Act II covers the B story or subplot but the story isn’t moving forward much. (I fall asleep while reading.)
  • The big midpoint moment that I love is almost non-existent or it happens too late. (I think subconsciously, readers notice this kind of thing. They might think the middle is dragging.)
  • In the climax, the protagonist never really has that final fight with the villain.
  • The villain suffers from the Scooby-doo effect, meaning he/she isn’t really as bad as the reader was led to believe.

So why do some of these books end up on the bestseller list or receive 5 stars?

  • Incredible hook.
  • High stakes.
  • Snappy dialogue.
  • Terrific page-to-page tension and over-arching tension.
  • An extremely likeable main character that readers connect to.
  • Great sensory details that make the story come alive.
  • A well-developed voice that practically pulls us through the story.

The good thing is that structure is easier to learn and apply to your writing than some of the elements on the list above. In most cases, great structure can push your book from great to excellent and the reader won’t even know why.

Do you agree? Or disagree? Is structure worth studying? What might be the positive side effects of learning structure?


20 Responses to Can a book have weak structure and still succeed?

  1. Jessica Bell January 19, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    I think structure is very important otherwise readers don’t feel the need to turn the page, to know what happens next. Even if it is something really small, or an emotional step forward, there always needs to be SOMETHING. But I don’t mind much how dramatic it is, as long as it moves the plot forward. Great post!

  2. Stina Lindenblatt January 19, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Structure is worth studying especially since it’s the easiest thing to learn. It’s mastering the other ones that takes skill, practice, and determination. 😉

  3. Jill Kemerer January 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    Excellent! As a reader, I could break down most of the books I love and clearly see a strong structure. I haven’t read many books with a weak structure that I’ve actually enjoyed. Structure is a big deal!

  4. Creepy Query Girl January 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    I think it’s important to study structure. However, if you don’t have all the ingredients (including that ‘magical’ plot, setting, and character that hooks a reader in) then structure alone won’t do much for you, kwim?

  5. Angela Felsted January 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    I don’t usually think about structure while I’m reading. Instead I tend to get lost in the characters. Then again, if nothing happens, even I get bored. Scratch that–I get bored very easily. I couldn’t even finish Beautiful Darkness.

  6. Laura January 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Jessica – yes! there always has to be something that moves the story forward. Or I snooze.

    Stina – yes, structure is the easiest to learn, but I think also hard to apply with skill.

    Jill – Me too. Most of the books I absolutely love have great structure.

    Katie – You’re right. A book needs all of those magical elements!

    Angela – Hopefully structure is something we don’t notice unless looking for it. I can’t help but look for it now.

  7. Kelly Polark January 19, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    Structure is definitely important, but you need many strong elements to have a strong story. Thanks for breaking down the structure. It’s good to look at your story and examining what elements work and don’t work.

  8. Nelsa January 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    Totally, 100 per cent, agree. I liken structure to the skeleton in the human body. You can have a great head of hair, cute face, great abs, fabulous smile, whatever. But if your skeleton crumbles all you are is a lumpy mess of skin, muscle and fat lying on the ground. Yeah, um, kinda extreme visual there but you get my meaning…

  9. Jennifer Hoffine January 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    I do believe the character-driven story can have more leeway (like the strong protag example you gave above as a way weak structure can succeed).

    Like, if the main conflict is self vs. self then I believe that journey of self-discovery and change can be less structured.

    If, however, the main antagonist is an outside force then the author has more chance of publishing success if he/she pays more attention to structure.

  10. Laura January 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Kelly – yes, all aspects of the story are important.

    Nelsa – Nice visual – thanks for that! ;0

    Jennifer – I agree – the total character driven story might get away with weak structure – but why can’t it also have strong structure? It would just be in proportion to the story.

  11. Deborah Burns January 19, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    @Nelsa–LOVE the visual! ROFL. Seriously great and I completely agree.

    A writer may be able to slide by with awesome characters, but why not work to make one’s novel (and talent) the best it can be. Maybe I’m just not the type to settle for good enough. So I keep studying and learning the craft and structure is a HUGE part of that.

  12. Cinette January 19, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    I’m neck deep in studying structure right now.(Thanks for all your tips and insights!) I found another awesome site that offers great pointers on story structure: Larry Brooks breaks it all down and does deconstructions (like you did with HTTYD) of movies/books. Just incase you’re interested!

  13. Laura January 19, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    Thanks Cinette!

  14. Lydia K January 20, 2011 at 1:33 am #

    I can see how those other elements can still make a novel readable, but the structure makes such a huge difference.

  15. Carolina Valdez Miller January 20, 2011 at 7:23 am #

    Such a good point! A lot of readers won’t notice. They’re to caught up in the flash. But we writers notice. I say aim for better structure, and then maybe you’ll really take the cake. Why settle for less than you can do? Besides, I get frustrated with books that have those weak-structure elements. More often than not, it’ll make me put down a book. I’ve done it quite a bit, even with bestsellers.

    Great post!

  16. Amie Kaufman January 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    I definitely agree, but I still think structure’s well worth studying–in fact, I think it’s vital. For a start, the old saying that you need to know the rules before you can break them is an old saying for a reason!

  17. Sherrie Petersen January 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    I agree with you a hundred percent. You are rockin’ this series!

  18. Laurel January 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    Structure is worth studying, and as others have said, it’s easier to master than some of the other aspects, like voice.

    That said, I know some successful books that seem to have “weak structure” simply have an alternate structure. They don’t play by the traditional three or five act rules. By doing so, they can add some element of surprise and uniqueness–having a change happen earlier or later than we expect, for example.

    On a side note, I have a gift for you on my blog.

  19. Marcia January 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    I’m doing a lot of nodding here. Structure matters and is among the most learnable of these skills. Yet the elements on your second list can carry some stories if they’re eye-popping enough. Donald Maass seems pretty big on believing micro-tension can cover a lot of sins. I’ve read a few books lately that don’t have much plot. Often enough I end up putting those books down, but strong character, tension and voice can keep me going.

  20. Heather Sunseri January 20, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    I’d say novels succeed all the time w/ a weak structure, but the best books have well-structured plot and well-developed characters.

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