How Could Learning More Lead to Knowing Less?

I really miss the show Lie to Me. Chap named Cal Lightman (played brilliantly by Tim Ross) is a lie expert. He reads what are called microexpressions in the human face, and can determine whether or not a person is telling the truth. (Based on real science, pioneered by Paul Ekman, the reality is not quite as TV crime show, but is never the less fascinating.)

In the first episode he hires a TSA inspector named Ria Torres. An abusive childhood has taught her to read facial expressions. She is what Lightman calls a natural.

Although the occasional scene where Ria catches something Lightman misses is injected for humorous effect, the dynamic of their relationship is very much mentor and apprentice. Even as a natural, it is assumed that she will expand her knowledge, understanding, abilities through training and experience.

Music Theory Destroys Creativity?

For many years I participated in February Album Writing Month. Every February, a group of us (which eventually grew to thousands) gathered at FAWM.org and wrote 14 songs each during the month of February.

Each year in the forums, neophytes would declare they had no intention of learning musical theory. They did not want to “pollute their natural abilities” by “learning too much”, as they put it.

This puzzled me no in end. I was a natural songwriter. Immersed in music my entire life, songs came naturally to me. Songs with decent form, smart lyrics, and memorable melodies.

When I learned music theory, my songs improved exponentially. This explanation made little impact on those neophytes who still feared that more knowledge would cause them to know less.

Don’t Fear the Structure

Talking to writers about story structure elicits the same response. Storytelling comes naturally more often than songwriting. Those naturals cry the same cry: “If I learn theory it will destroy my creativity.”

Learning more will not cause you to know less. Story structure is not simply a tool for writing. You’re thinking of outlining. Outlining, beat sheets, 3×5 cards and Post-It notes: those are all writing tools.

Story structure? It’s a law of physics. A natural phenomenon. How our brains are wired.

Story structure is as fundamental to writing fiction as melody, harmony, and rhythm are to music. When a performer hits a wrong note or their rhythm is erratic, you notice. There’s more to great songwriting and performing than not making mistakes. Those who excel understand every detail of what they’re doing.

The same goes for writers.

Understanding story structure will not reduce your creativity. You don’t even have to use it as a tool in your writing. Stephen King doesn’t necessarily use story structure as a writing tool. But does he know story structure? I would have to say yes.

Learn story structure. Understand how stories interact with human psychology. This is how our brains work. Stories are powerful. History, life, the future: stories tell us all.

Understanding how they work cannot help but make you better writer.

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