Listen: All pieces of halfway decent writing–all jokes, all ad copy, all novels, all recipes, all news articles–are narrative, and all narrative is formulaic. There aren’t exceptions, just the rule. And that formula, at it’s base, is the Fundamental Three-Part Structure[*]
But, to be clear, I never draft anything beginning with the Structure. I don’t think the Formula is any good for generating “content.” That said, once I catch the thread of what I’m working on, I invariably start to break it down into its three parts, in order to get a sense of how I should develop the piece. This is basically automatic now with essays–because I’ve been writing them for so damn long–but I still very self-consciously seek out the parameters of the “Setup,” “Tangle,” and “Untangle” (my pet names for these parts in fiction) when I’m working a story (and it very much feels like *working* a story, not *writing* it or *drafting* it; you work a story like you work clay).
So, while you might not buy into that tired old “three-act structure,” I think you discount structure and formula, in general, at your peril. For me, the refusal to see writing fiction as being fundamentally the same as writing non-fiction–structurally–immeasurably slowed my progress as a writer of stories: All of my sales were happy accidents, all my failures bewildering mysteries.
But the thing is that not everyone’s formulation of the Fundamental Three-Part Structure works for everyone else. Like I said, because I had an early and thorough introduction to drama (esp. Shakespeare–a writer of *five* act plays), I rejected the “three-act structure” early (and lamentably).
But there are *tons* of ways of characterizing the Fundamental Three-Part Structure–just like there are tons of faces of the One True God (*zing!*) The trick is finding the characterization that works for you (I’ll share mine down the road–but tonight this needs to be short, so short I’ll keep it). Aristotle, for example, characterized the Fundamental Three-Part Structure as the audience–identifying with the protagonist–being guided through Pity, Fear, and Catharsis.
It’s in that spirit that I present this talk by Julian Friedmann. He’s a literary/screen(?) agent I’d never heard of before, but he has a somewhat novel spin on the Fundamental Three-Part Structure. He talks about structure and Aristotle’s Pity-Fear-Catharsis starting around 8:18, but the whole thing is a worthy watch. I also very much dig Friedmann explanation of why we consistently and deeply enjoy narrative, in that it is an opportunity to “rehearse our fears.” I think that’s important, esp. if you want to make some dough in this game, or are perplexed why something with abysmal writing–like THE HUNGER GAMES–is a bestseller, while countless beautifully written novels bumble along boring you to tears. A big part of it is that those lovely pieces of lyrical writing have failed to make sure their structure is sturdy and balanced. And part of it is that they are giving you no opportunity to rehearse your fear of what comes next.
[*] In narrative, at least, this is often called the “three-act structure,” although I prefer to avoid that title because it tends to imply that the “three acts” should be the same length, or that a story is literally limited to three acts (which is to say three discrete locations in space-time or three discrete pieces of action).