Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Formula vs. Structure

As a teacher, I know how difficult it is for students to write. Often, they need graphic organizers to begin any nonfiction writing. The issues only multiply when it comes to writing fiction. I have found that students like to write, but they often need a structure to guide them. Ever since I was a student, the traditional plot structure has been what is usually taught: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and falling action.

For the most part, this structure is helpful. Students know where they need to start and where they need to end up. However, it can be daunting to know how to fill in some of those steps. Students begin with a sequence of events that are often linked together, one after the other, until they ask, "What should I write next?"

This is why I have begun to teach the structure of the Hero's Journey in my classroom. It shows them that at their most basic elements, all stories share common character archetypes and elements. As students begin to see patterns, they also understand how events in their reading are structured as well, aiding comprehension.

Of course, as soon as someone mentions the Hero's Journey, objections arise as to the use of "formula" in writing. Some insist that by using a common structure as a guide can lead to formulaic stories. This is true, in a sense. If not understood correctly, any structure can become a formula. However, there is a difference between formula and structure.

I choose to look at the Hero's Journey as a structure, the basic building blocks for what makes a story "work." It's comparable to the foundation and walls of a house: all homes have the basic structure of concrete, walls, wiring, and plumbing. For the home to function appropriately and conveniently, it needs these basic elements. But this is simply a structure: writers can shift elements around based on their needs or ignore some completely. In a home, the architects and designers can shape the interior and exterior to their tastes as well.

Writing becomes formulaic when the author sits down with a structure and simply "plugs in" the elements just to make it fit. In reality, the focus should be on telling a good story, with the structure as a guide. When a story doesn't "feel right," or when the author wonders what might be missing, reflecting on the common structure of storytelling can guide them toward what is missing.

I love teaching the Hero's Journey. I love how it helps students see the underlying structure that all stories have, and how they begin to identify them in the books they read and in the movies they see. Most of all, I love to hear them say that writing is easier to them now because they have learned a structure that guides them more than the traditional (yet useful) plot structure.

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