Posts Tagged structure
Do you write with an outline? I was asked this by another writer at a book event last weekend. ‘I like outlines,’ she said, ‘and I don’t like them. I want to know where I’m going. But if I make a scene-by-scene breakdown, I find I’m not interested in writing the complete book.’
I thought it was worth a post.
Because I believe outlines don’t have to kill your interest in the book.
You could try the barest possible directions – an opening, a pivotal middle and a surprising but elegant solution at the end. Those three markers might be enough to keep you on piste and still let you explore.
Certainly I’m not a person who can tolerate boredom or predictability. If a writing session hasn’t confounded my expectations in some way, I’m disappointed. Yet I’m a fan of detailed outlines. Indeed, I find they don’t stultify or restrict at all. Au contraire.
I think it’s because planning is not the same mindset as drafting. Drafting is experiencing the story moment by moment – and that’s when the surprises come. Here are some examples.
- Immerse in a description and you discover certain practicalities that add more life to a scene.
- As you build a location, you realise it forms a resonance with what’s going on. You might then make your characters use it more frequently.
- As you flesh out a set-piece of dialogue, you realise it won’t work the way you assumed because there’s an interesting hitch in the characters’ attitudes to each other. Their reluctance to follow your orders – or vice versa – which you have not felt until this moment, opens rich possibilities.
- You might try to write a piece of action that seemed straightforward. But you realise you need more of a build-up. Or you know the character would do it but they need a stronger reason. Or maybe they won’t do it at all. Or maybe they do it and it’s not interesting enough.
All these moments seemed clear and logical in the outline. But everything might change when you’re with the characters breath by breath.
So I find that outlines are like a question. I think the character might do this? I put it in the plan and find out.
If the outline is most concerned with the ‘what’, the draft is interested in the ‘how’. And ‘why’. And whether the reader will care. If you like that kind of work – and I do – you might find outlines are not a hindrance but a stimulating provocation .
Here’s some provocation in action. Here’s where I wrote about a major twist I fell over in the first draft of Ever Rest. I had not considered it – even remotely – until I wrote something from the outline and decided it wasn’t enough. The characters had a sudden rebellion that kicked everything over. Amazingly, it worked very well with the rest of the book.
But why bother with an outline?
You might ask, why bother with the outline if it’s so likely to change? What’s all that planning for? I’m asking myself that. My gut reaction is that I need an outline or I’ll bolt madly off into my imagination and never finish.
But actually, there’s a good underlying reason. It’s structure.
Stories work by structure. Resonances, crescendos, misdirection, clue-planting. That’s what you’re really building when you work on an outline – a structure that is robust. And when you’ve done that, you understand what you can easily change, what the fallout will be and whether you’ll need other elements. There’s a lot more about structure in my plot book.
Your outline, your way
We’re all different. So this is the real secret. Write the kind of outline that gives you a star to follow, and makes sure you don’t forget the important steps, but still leaves you plenty to discover and enjoy.
Psst… There’s more about outlining in the original Nail Your Novel.
Psst 2… Outlining is one of the ways to nail Nanowrimo. Here’s my post of resources for that
Psst 3… If you’re curious to know how Ever Rest is doing, this is my latest newsletter.
I first suggested it in my purple writing book Nail Your Novel, as part of the section on revision, and it must have struck a chord because time and again it gets picked up by other writers around the blogosphere. Here’s KM Weiland and here it is most recently being passed on by Larry Brooks, at all stations from Jenna Bayley-Burke to Porter Anderson.
Since it’s proving so useful, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at why we might do this.
But first, here’s what you do (from Nail Your Novel)
Imagine you are writing a blurb or a review and that you have understood everything the writer was trying to do. Be specific about the story, the themes and the mood…
When might you do this?
You could do it when you embark on major revisions, to firm up your ideas before you hack and slay. Or any time you’ve got in a muddle and lost faith. What you do is step back and write how you would like the book to work if all problems were solved. If you step away from the details and look at the big picture, you often find you are not as lost as you think. Whether you knew it or not, you have strong, specific ideas about what the book would be.
What should you put in it? Everything distinctive and exciting about your novel. This might be any or all of:
- how the themes will work
- the influence of the setting and what it brings to the story
- the functions the characters might perform; perhaps whether they will be likable or not – and why that will be enjoyable
- what the set-pieces are
- why the big reveals will pack such a punch
- the literary traditions the novel might fit into, if that’s your bag
- the kind of readers who might enjoy it
- if you’re planning a non-linear structure or something tricksy like two narrators, why that was a clever move.
You can probably see you have to do a bit of head-scratching, so this exercise is good for making you justify – and understand – your creative decisions.
The title of this post suggests you do it when stuck, but it’s also a very useful exercise to do it at the start, as a mission statement for what you hope the book will be. Especially in that first flush of enthusiasm when the idea is seductive and brilliant. When you’re courageous and undaunted – you simply know it will be good. It’s good to harness that for later when the honeymoon’s over.
Novels take so darn long to write that there usually comes a time when we’ve lost perspective. We confuse ourselves with infinite possibilities. We may even suspect we’ve ruined everything. If you wrote your ideal version review to start with, you have something to pull you back together. Even if the novel changes substantially in the writing, it’s useful to have a record of this early, optimistic vision. (It might have got richer, more sophisticated. Or you may find that fundamentally you’re still on course.)
Most of all, this exercise gives us confidence. By confidence I don’t just mean feeling better; I mean clarity and boldness in the way we handle our material. We can pitch the mood, decide what themes to highlight, what word choices fit, what’s superflous. We can strengthen character motivations and plot. Novels that work well know where they’re going.
So if you’re feeling lost, write yourself a rave review. Spoil yourself and strengthen your novel.
Thanks for the pic Bidrohi >H!ROK<
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available on Kindle and in print. Sign up for my newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.
The most F of FAQs that I’m being asked at the moment is this: was it easy to split my novel into four parts? Did I originally write it that way?
When I first had the idea of releasing My Memories of a Future Life as episodes I was wondering how on earth it would work. Perhaps it wouldn’t go.
But when I divided it according to page numbers I found that, give or take a few, at the end of each quarter was a major shift. The stakes changed, or what the narrator wanted changed. I did some minor tweaking to punch up the episode beginnings but the structure was there already.
I might add that I was rather thankful.
But if you’re not planning to release your novel in episodes, why is this relevant to you?
Because all stories need these major shifts.
On the count of three…
Hollywood talks about the three-act structure for movies. Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the inciting incident. Act 2, the second two quarters, is where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution.
Now Hollywood movies have pretty formalised structures, but that’s not just because they like formulae. The three-act structure isn’t just a matter of convention. It comes from the way the brain naturally looks for change – and the way it likes to see a problem explored.
For the character’s journey to feel significant, we have to feel we have gone a long way between start and finish. That’s not done by dragging them through a lot of pages. It’s not done with the number of characters you whirl in and out, or the number of locations you visit like a James Bond movie. It’s done with an internal shift for the character. It’s done by altering what the journey means.
The stakes can’t be the same at the end of the story as they were at the start. The character must change what they want.
Three acts, four episodes?
Hang on, classic Hollywood structure is three acts. I’ve got four.
That’s because there’s also the midpoint.
I refer you to Blake Snyder, of Save The Cat fame. He explains that in his early days of movie-writing, he used to tape movies on C90 cassettes and listen to them in the car. At 45 minutes, where he turned over, he realised the most compelling movies had another crucial change – the midpoint.
The midpoint shifted the whole dynamic of the story. It was the threshold between the beginning and the beginning of the end. It was, to quote the great man, ‘the point where the fun and games are over and it’s back to the serious story.’ (And fortunately I had that too.)
Once you understand what the reader psychologically wants at each point of the story, you can give it a really thorough workout.
You can even tell if you’ve misunderstood it. In this post, Darcy Pattison discovered that her second act began far too late, did some soul-searching and realised she was focusing the story wrong. She thought she was writing a quest, but her structure told her her story was actually about the characters maturing. When she revised with this new focus in mind, it helped her create a tighter, more compelling manuscript.
From now on, I’m going to try splitting all my novels into four.
Have you ever analysed your novels by splitting them into acts? Share in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life, Episode 1: The Red Season. Launched 30 August.
What’s the purpose of a chapter break? Is it to split the book into manageable chunks? Is it to give the reader a chance to have a rest?
If that’s what you think, you’re missing the point.
Sure, the breaks make the book look like an easier read. But what you do with a chapter break is offer the reader a point to stop – and then convince them to stay longer anyway.
So how do we know where to end a chapter?
Narratively, a chapter has to feel complete, and the ending needs to shift the story on a gear. There are probably three natural ways this happens, depending on the type of novel you’re writing:
- a cliffhanger
- a question
Some manuscripts I see end too many chapters with closure. For instance, the character moves to a new town. That’s quite an old-fashioned way of writing, and worked fine in the days when everyone finished books as a point of principle. But these days, if we don’t feel a little tug of tension too, or enough curiosity about the consequences, it’s a sure opportunity for the reader to slip away. Possibly for ever.
You might think cliffhangers are the perfect solution for keeping the reader gripped. And they’re de rigeur for certain types of genre, of course.
But some writers misjudge them. To take the expression rather literally, if you send a hero over the edge of a ravine we know very well that the chance of them splatting at the bottom is slim. The reader knows, if only subconsciously, that what awaits over the page is a rather dry sequence of physical explanations and that the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.
Physical action is not what prose does best. Unless you can pull out a real surprise that makes a significant change (eg it’s the point where someone discovers they can fly) it’s probably not going to keep the reader addicted.
But these types of endings are focussing on the wrong outcome. Instead of ending the chapter with the question of whether the hero will survive (which is no question because they will), end it on the real moment of change – the point where they soar away on the breeze and think ‘oh my, I didn’t know I could do that’. That’s the real surprise for the character and the reader. It’s the story-changing point that’s worth grandstanding as a chapter ending.
If you’re ending on a physical cliffhanger, is there a more interesting development that comes from it? Should you move a few paragraphs on and end on the really interesting development?
(Interlude: In case you’re thinking this is an indication of the shenanigans in My Memories of A Future Life, it’s not. No one flies in that book, except with the assistance of an aeroplane. Various rules are broken in that story, but not the laws of physics. Now back to the post.)
What prose does best is emotions and questions. They’re what binds us to characters and stories – and they’re the best ways to keep your reader sitting up that little bit later. Most of your chapters won’t end on cliffhangers or closure, they’ll be lower key. But you can make sure every single one feels complete but tugs the tension tighter, answers a question but poses another.
When to put them in
I don’t split my books into chapters until very late in the editing process. I don’t think it can be done until I know the whole book inside out in its final form. Then I spend a lot of time chopping and rejigging, assessing where the natural turning points are for maximum intrigue. Sometimes I find an episode in the book is too long to be a chapter on its own, so I rework it and slip in a break half-way. All this helps maintain the pace of the story and give it irresistible pull power.
Your chapter endings are not where you give the audience a break. They are where you get them to recommit to the book.
Thank you, Dave and Leo at Mirabilis, for the picture!
My Memories of a Future Life will be available from 30 August, 2011
We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.
That’s back story.
Here are the two main problems with back story.
- Most writers fling it in too early.
- Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.
Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.
So how do you judge when is the right time?
First woo your reader
Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.
In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?
This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.
Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.
So where do you put it?
I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.
Cut it all out
I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.
Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.
Make the back story part of the action
What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.
Leave it as late as possible
As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.
Use back story as bonding material
As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.
So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.
Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.
There’s lots more about back story in my book Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3
Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!
One day I want to write a story that runs backwards. I’ll start with the protagonists in a mire of disaster, and then tick back through time, unpicking their mistakes, until they are blithe and bonny.
So I devour all I can about backwards narratives, and the other day I was listening to the actress Kristen Scott Thomas interviewed about her part in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. The play is a love triangle; husband, wife and wife’s lover. The first scene takes place after the affair has ended and the final scene ends when the affair begins.
Aside from indulging my long-range planning, her comments about playing the part clarified something fundamental that writers do when we create any story – backwards or forwards.
Scott Thomas said that Betrayal’s chronology stripped away the tools the actors normally used to carry them through a performance. Usually, the actor plugs in at scene one, and what they experience there carries them, changed, into the next one. This domino taps that domino. In each scene their character learns something, commits to something, discards something, and that sets them up for the next. Changing all the time.
This relentless momentum, the decisions and acts that cannot be undone, the words that cannot be unsaid, are the pulse that gives a story its life. It’s like a shark who must keep moving otherwise it will die.
That change in every scene is what the actor looks for. It might be gigantic or it might be just a grain. And it is what the writer must look for too.
Thank you, Mrpbps, for the picture. Does each of your scenes have that momentum of forwards change? Do you think there are any situations where a scene can coast without anything changing? Let’s discuss!
John Rakestraw of Unbridled Editor invited me on his Blog Talk Radio show today. John used to be an actor before he became a freelance editor, and we had a great time nattering about fleshing out characters, creativity, where a story starts, the liberating influence of story structure and how to create a story that pulls the reader in.
We also waded into the big questions facing writers today. What becomes of publishing if epublishing is as easy as hitting a button? As the classics of the future are written on computer and manuscripts disappear, will there be a fossil record for how our books evolved? And speaking of what is on record and what is not, there’s a little chit-chat about ghostwriting and not being able to tell people I wrote the books they loved… Proper post tomorrow, in the meantime – hope you enjoy our natter.