Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story—Structure Part One

Structure Matters
Structure Matters

Writers must understand structure if they hope to be successful. Yes, it might take five years to finish the first novel, but if we land a three book deal, we don’t have 15 years to turn in our books. Also, in the new paradigm of publishing, writers who produce more content have greater odds of making money at this writing thing.

Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers. Structure is essential to all stories, from screenplays to novels to epic space operas.

Plotters tend to do better with structure, but even pantsers (those writers who write by the seat of their pants) NEED to understand structure or revisions will be HELL. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy.

 

I’ve run my 20 page Death Star Critique contest for a few years now, and I will say that the #1 problem I spot is that the writer clearly doesn’t grasp structure fundamentals. Yes, I can generally spot that in less than five pages 😉 . Strangely, readers can too, only they may not be able to articulate why a book failed to hook them. Structure helps stories make sense on an intuitive level.

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital.

Kristen's First Novel
Kristen’s First Novel

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth. Trust me, I hear ya.

Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most pre-published writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. We have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Image via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Location, location, location.

See, the elements were a lot like the groups at high school. They all had their own parts of the “lunch room.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. Metals liked to date non-metals. They called themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounded cool.

Metals never dated other metals, but non-metals did date other non-metals. They were called “The Covalents.”  And then you had the neutral gases. The nerds of the Periodic Table. No one hung out with them. Ever. Okay, other nerds, but that was it. Period.

All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit….like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Novel structure can be very similar. All parts serve an important function. Normal World has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I am going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Again, prose is not a novel. Just because we can write lovely vignettes doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 80-100,000 word novel.

That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, ergo I can build a real house. Um…no. Different scale, different skills. Are a lot of the components the same? Sure! But a novel needs a totally different framework of support, lest it collapse….structure.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that can create a great short story are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be butterflies and barracudas and bull dogs. Today we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming posts.

Now before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—banana or butterfly? Paranormal Romance? Or OMGWTH? 

Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

***Though, I will say this holds true for all variations of story, just the novel tends to be the BUGGER due to length, so we will talk about that here.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

Before it went BOOM!
Before it went BOOM!

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book. We’ll talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters” but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Leggos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients.

Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of this structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Pinterest Fails
Pinterest Fails

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sundried tomatoes or feta cheese.

But, on some primal level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a fried quail leg served on filo dough with a raspberry glaze is NOT a pizza.

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share? Resources? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Will announce the Dojo Diva winner on next DD post.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

110 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story—Structure Part One”

  1. mypersonallthingmypersonallthing

    Reblogged this on my personal thing and commented:
    Great advice for writers at all levels to remember when writing/editing their work. Thanks for the post Kristen 🙂

  2. kimberlywenzlerkimberlywenzler

    Thanks Kristen. Always trying (and worrying) that structure is sound. I’ll pick up Scene & Structure too. Appreciate it!

  3. EDWEDW

    Thank you, thank you! This is exactly what I need right now. Looking forward to your next post.

  4. EDWEDW

    Reblogged this on E. D. Watson and commented:
    I am in the throes of writing a novel, and it aint easy, folks. This advice from writer Kristen Lamb couldn’t have come at a better time.

  5. Doug PageDoug Page

    Thank you, Kristen. Your pizza analogy relating to structure is helpful to me. Appreciate your guidance and support. Kind regards, Struggling Doug.

  6. Daven AndersonDaven Anderson

    Structure is a “walking on eggshells” balance. You don’t want most readers to be able to predict your whole plot in advance (like how I felt when I saw “Avatar”), but you want to keep them interested and not WTF’ing, either. Most fiction novels are not quite as structured as a Harlequin paperback, nor should they be, but you should always follow the basic logical setup/build/climax/resolution structure.

    • Matt BowesMatt Bowes

      I think your point here is valid, but perhaps you’re being tough on Avatar. Avatar does story structure and plot correctly. Break it down and look at the scene/sequel presented in each scene.
      1. What’s the protagonist’s goal?
      2. How is it blocked by conflict?
      3. What’s the disaster?
      Then the sequel-
      a. what’s the protag do to recover from the disaster?
      b. What’s their Dilemma?
      c. What choice from the dilemma does he make?

      And back to 1. Goal, conflict, disaster.

      Was avatar predictable? Perhaps. We’ve seen Dances with Wolves and the concept of someone rejecting the Empire and going back to the primitive isn’t new. I don’t downgrade a movie for being predictable. We often see trope-laden plots that are standard and dull and we can see where it’s going, like Star Wars Ep IV, a New Hope, which is a retread of the epic hero journey, that piece of fakery called the Iliad and the Odyssey. Luke is really Bilbo Baggins, but less likable.

      (But how do we know those are really Homer’s words? It’s been rewritten so many times, you can see the eraser marks in the margins. I don’t think any part of the Iliad was really written by Homer. Did Homer even exist?–Things you never hear critics of the Bible say.)

  7. Becki J. KiddBecki J. Kidd

    Thanks for going back through the basics. I “think” I’ve done it, but often times need reminding.

  8. newfsullnewfsull

    Taxes, boring! Oh, is that why I have also become an author?

    I think I understand the need to create a “pull” that will bring the reader in. I struggle with character development in the early stages. Too much and it appears contrived. Too little and the reader may not have any empathy or connection to the character.

    It is a most peculiar dance. I would love to see examples of how that balance works. I read Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Thomas Moore, et al – they have no need for brevity.

  9. lizaperratlizaperrat

    Thanks for another great post, Kristen! Dwight V. Swain advocates much the same thing – scene & sequel – in his book: Techniques of the Selling Writer.

  10. Lanette KautenLanette Kauten

    As always, this is an excellent post, but I’m still stuck on the picture of an elephant pooping out children.

  11. C.E.RobinsonC.E.Robinson

    Great way to get the info across. Even elements of writing need to hook the reader. Love your teacher writing style. Structure & continuity are forefront in my brain when I write, and edit! Christine

  12. conniecockrellconniecockrell

    Excellent post. My editor just sent back a short story with that similar question. Why? Why is the protagonist doing this? Why does he care? Time for me to figure that out.

  13. AshleyAshley

    I am majorly second guessing everything I’ve written down.
    Throw my name in the hat, I’m determined to do this the right way!

    • Matt BowesMatt Bowes

      I confess I laughed at this comment. Not because it’s good that you’re second-guessing, but because this kind of shook my confidence, too. So it was nervous laughter. I think Kristen’s blog is fantastic, encouraging, and gives a plethora of advice well worth the time in reading.

      Some of the posts are warnings. This one, I think, is a warning. “Don’t go into dark forest alone,” she advises. “There’s dark magic in those plot structures.” Yes, you may want to take a practitioner of strong magic, a developmental editor, with you. Don’t go without them. As you’re walking through the forest, look to your left and your right. There’s an author ensnared in a huge web and they cannot escape. Over there, that one is wandering in circles muttering “I don’t want three acts” and “I’ll show them who’s boss” over and over. In that pit full of tar, there’s another author, waist deep in the muck, shaking his fist angrily at anyone near enough to hear him: “I don’t need rules! I’m a pulitzer prize winner for sure, if they’ll just look at my books.”

      It’s good to question. Am I doing it right? Or am I spinning my wheels?

      • AshleyAshley

        I agree with everything you said – especially the Pulitzer Prize wanna-be winner. I archive a lot of Kristen’s posts for referencing later while I write, and it’s been extremely helpful. And you’re right, there’s a vast expanse of dark magic in these woods, and having an expert mage accompany you is super useful.
        Laugh with me, because that’s exactly what I did when I finished reading this post the first time around! 🙂

        • Matt BowesMatt Bowes

          It’s got a maniacal tinge to it, Ashley… this writing thing, it’s not exactly sane, is it?

  14. AshleyAshley

    Reblogged this on The Optimist and commented:
    Great words to be read – extremely helpful for any writers out there!
    Comments disabled, please see the original post 🙂

  15. mirymommirymom

    More good advice! I’m a pantser, but after that first draft, the first thing I do is sit down and map out the story I’ve got so I can see the holes and fill them.

  16. mirymommirymom

    Reblogged this on Mirymom's Blog and commented:
    Us creative types don’t always like to hear it, but structure is part of the art!

  17. Diana ManleyDiana Manley

    Structure, structure, structure! I’m tattooing that on the back of each hand to remind me as I type. Great post. Keep ’em coming.

  18. Jean M. CogdellJean M. Cogdell

    Reblogged this on jean's writing and commented:
    Prose is not a novel. Kristen Lamb explains why we we can write lovely vignettes but fall short completing a 80-100,000 word novel. Can’t wait for the next helpful post.

  19. Lynette MirieLynette Mirie

    Did my best to write my first novel using the scene structure you are talking about. In a major rewrite now and your breakdown of how to apply structure will be essential. Perfect timing, thanks.

  20. Jean M. CogdellJean M. Cogdell

    Reblogged, can’t wait for next post. Keep them coming, I need all the help I can get.

  21. Eileen DewEileen Dew

    Once again, you explain it all. Thanks!

  22. s.a.klopfensteins.a.klopfenstein

    Reblogged this on S.A. Klopfenstein and commented:
    I don’t always think enough about the elements which make a story work as I write. Whether you write more organically or with more structure and intent going in, it is wise to think about the elements of novels which make them work and catch reader’s eyes. That is proper structure!

  23. Janice WilliamsJanice Williams

    Thank you so much for this post! I have started writing pretty late in life so simplicity is the key to understanding things for me. Looking forward to more of these posts and will share on my blog
    http://readingwritingreviewsandcoffee.blogspot.com/

  24. Melissa KeasterMelissa Keaster

    I bought K. M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel before I read your recommendation of Bickham’s Scene and Structure a couple of weeks ago. I’m reading the chapters on scene and sequel now. Does Bickham’s book offer different, possibly clearer, perspectives than Weiland’s, or is the content comparable? Also, I don’t know if you plan to elaborate on scene and sequel (oh, please, please do!), but I have an easier time grasping concepts when I have familiar examples to learn from. I’m thrilled you’re covering structure. Now I can learn and laugh at the same time!

    • Matt BowesMatt Bowes

      Take a look at Oxygen by Randy Ingermanson. http://www.amazon.com/Oxygen-Science-Fiction-Suspense-Novel-ebook/dp/B005P2HB3M/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1431031963&sr=1-2&keywords=oxygen

      You can look at the first 4 chapters for free.

      You’ll see faithful scene and sequel applied in each of the chapters. Goal/conflict/Disaster, emotionally reel, dilemma, choice.

      In the first chapter, Valerie the scientist is choking to death from SO2, sulfur dioxide, exuded from a volcano.
      1. Her goal is to breath.
      2. The conflict is that she has nothing to breath.
      3. She puts on a gas mask. The filter is bad! Disaster!
      a. She doesn’t mull about it long,
      b. but now has a dilemma: Where to get oxygen to survive? How to escape the gas? She falls and hits her head, so now she’s injured, as well.
      c. She recalls sample bags full of air and uses one of those to breath.

      Then we’re back to another scene sequel. There’s no chapter break, but we can see that Valerie still needs to escape. Her goal is to escape, but she doesn’t have much time. She runs to and tries to start her jeep. Disaster! It won’t start without oxygen. She takes pliers and rips the valve stem out of a tire and breathes the air from that. Soon, she’s out of air from the tires and facing another scene/sequel.

      The third and final scene/sequel of the first half of the chapter is that her goal is to find oxygen/escape from the valley. She starts off on foot. Disaster! She runs into a tree. This inspires her to climb another tree and gain the heights where there is oxygen. She thus survives.

  25. s.a.klopfensteins.a.klopfenstein

    I really appreciated this post! I am reading Donald Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” and it has a lot of great insight as well to the elements which make a novel gripping, whether genre fiction or something more literary. I think the cause and effect is so key! Earlier on in my writing, stuff just happened and a lot of it didn’t happen for a reason or to propel the story forward. I have gotten better, but still need to be very intentional. In my current WIP, I am try to write the first draft simplistically, to keep every scene focused on moving plot forward. I can be too rambling sometimes.

    • Heather HeyfordHeather Heyford

      s.a. klopfenstein, I was just about to add that Donald Maass taught me that in high concept fiction, the sequel is shorter/less obtrusive. As I understand it, it is more modern to just keep moving to the next action without slowing down, IF high concept is what you are trying to write. On the down side, in my experience, a protagonist’s lack of introspection can also come off as too flippant or lightweight. The challenge is finding that balance that’s right for your book. Thanks for another great post, Kristen. Looking forward to the rest of your Structure posts.

  26. sabrinawrites1sabrinawrites1

    Will reblog this on my next post, found it v. interesting especially as I’m in need of a little guidance of how to push further with my sequel. Must do some homework, and practise getting that structure down by writing a few shorts I think. I enjoy your posts a great deal, seriously I read them all, and if I haven’t got the time I save them for later! Thank you

  27. ontyrepassagesontyrepassages

    Reblogged this on Christina Anne Hawthorne and commented:
    It’s quite easy to become lost in the woods relaying a series of events as if they were dry dust settling on your tongue in a poorly written history text. Fiction, of course, has different requirements for attracting (and keeping!) the reader.

  28. lukeythekidlukeythekid

    “Oh but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing and I want to be creative.”

    Not only are you right about structured != formulaic, but it’s also important to understand the rules before you break them, which is something I think many people fail to realize.

    On the subject of structure, here’s a fantastic video about Pixar’s structuring process (the whole series is good).

  29. JaneJane

    I needed to read this today. Elements and timing. I’m going back to restructuring my novel with a clearer head now. Thanks.

  30. Jaime O. MayerJaime O. Mayer

    Great post, and I feel like I learned some chemistry at the same time :-p

  31. Tiffee JassoTiffee Jasso

    Great information that I know I will be using daily. Posted your article link on our Wordsmith group on Facebook and twittered it too.

  32. ninakimani11ninakimani11

    Thankyou. Am delighted to have read this. Am writing my first draft and this has come in handy at the right time.

  33. Russell J. FellowsRussell J. Fellows

    Love the return to the basics. Great reminder, and I think areas where I need to work.

  34. sherryhowardsherryhoward

    I hope you’ll spend more time on this topic. I’m curious: do you believe that every individual scene in an entire novel should fit this exact structure? I feel like I’ve missed something.

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      Scenes and sequels can be moved around like Legos. There is no ONE structure, but the broad strokes need to be there or it’s like having extra cogs.

  35. bevbairdbevbaird

    Loved your comparison to periodic table – I still think of it with some dread! But such good advice. Looking forward to more posts by you.

  36. blondeuskblondeusk

    Great post! Have learnt a lot in one read – thx

  37. acfloryacflory

    As a pantster I do a LOT of restructuring because my creative bursts rarely happen in the right ‘order’.
    Back when I was using Word to write my magnum opus[es?][opii?], restructuring was a, um, pain. But since buying my first dedicated writing software, restructuring is a breeze. The two I’m most familiar with are StoryBox and Scrivener and I’d recommend either to any writer.
    With the right tool, many of the most common stumbling blocks to good writing disappear because they take the drudgery out of making /changes/, especially important ones like restructuring what goes where and when.

  38. Irene KesslerIrene Kessler

    Great post. Keep them coming. More, more, more!

  39. Ms. Stretchy PantsMs. Stretchy Pants

    Reblogged this on 10 Minutes Past Coffee and commented:
    Want to write a book readers will not be able to put down? Kristin Lamb gives us the first in a series of post regarding a novel’s “structure” – vital and she does it without boring you to tears! Enjoy!

  40. Dave S. KosterDave S. Koster

    This was a good article. I look forward to the next. I find myself stuck most often asking myself ‘but why did ____ go to _____ and _______’. I will hang sometimes for days because the beginning of a scene doesn’t have any justification for being. To me, the situation can’t just be compelling or plausible, it has to be inevitable. Of course, I still don’t always see where the problems are, I have to rely on beta readers to help me find them.

  41. EliseElise

    I am a substitute science teacher, and definitely appreciated the periodic table analogies! Helped me understand the structure needed. I am using Evernote for my big story, and trying to organize things in an outline before starting. However, I feel like I have so many ideas on lines and how to fit things together in one chapter that I go ahead and start writing that chapter without establishing my outline first. It’s all so scattered, and I am struggling to actually get everything done and flowing!

  42. hsryan237hsryan237

    I write fiction, so I use the snowflake method. You just type out a brief description of each chapter and what’s going to happen. then if they don’t fit well together you just change the order, it really makes it easier. and you can make sure you put all the events in the right order.

  43. Hanna ElizabethHanna Elizabeth

    Thank you, Kristen, this is a good reminder for writers at any point in their careers.

    When I wrote my first book over a decade ago, I bought a how-to book (not sure which one or by whom) that taught how to structure a novel. I read it from front to back, and then sat down and did the graph the way the book showed for the book I was working on. It was very helpful and it left enough of an impression that now, as I write, I keep the graph in my mind’s eye. For me, it’s much like writing poetry (something I’ve done since I was a child) with it’s various rhythms and structure. I’m also an avid reader and you’re right, you might not realize why a book feels like it’s dragging, but it can almost always come back to basic structural issues that have bogged down the flow.

  44. Shea McIntosh FordShea McIntosh Ford

    I’m a pantser, and lately have taken to writing historical fiction. That’s makes pantsing HARD. When I get stuck, it’s because I can’t find enough info about my historical interest to make a realistic plot move. I’m definitely getting better about structure though. I’m working on my fourth book, and am able to recognize that I have a better grasp of structure than with the first one. 😀

  45. Cher GattoCher Gatto

    Thank you Kristen! Your analogies are glue to my dislocated brain! Chemistry makes so much sense now!!! As does structure in a novel :). I am a classic pantster and have spent many hours rewriting rabbit trails. Four years on the same novel and I would love to see it finished! I get stuck allowing things to “happen” to my poor character (he gets beat up a lot) and not giving him the reins of action- to be the causal agent. Thanks for the guidance and insight. Pick me! Pick me! for May 😉

  46. Kristina StanleyKristina Stanley

    I use a spreadsheet to keep track of plot elements. It helps me check every scene to make sure I’ve at least thought about the structure. Thanks for the tips and book recommendations.

  47. SAOSAO

    I’m a creative type who hated structure, but I started too many plotless wonders or got halfway through and realized I didn’t have enough plot. Understanding structure helps you know if you have enough plot for your book, or whether you have a premise, not a plot.

  48. Christine HendershtChristine Hendersht

    I need more, maybe a simple example of a plot written wrong and then corrected! I get the chemistry example, but in my brain there is still a gap. Please, write a part 2 to this post! Also, I’ve read books that I can clearly see are more plot driven as opposed to character driven. For example, thrillers seem to be more plot driven and Chick Lit more character driven (at least in my brain.) I realize “stuff” needs to happen in both. In character driven novels need stuff to happen to the characters for the characters to change. In plot driven the “stuff” should cause a change in the characters, but that doesn’t always seem to occur. Otherwise why do we have the same essential story over and over, like in Janet Evanovich’s novels. I know she is a very talented author and has sold millions of books, but after a few….I’m bored. I realize I’m the minority, most people like the familiar. I like stories where at the end I can see a major lesson or change in the characters because of what happened! A good example of this is a book I just finished, The Paris Architect. I loved that book! What are your thoughts on this?

  49. Lara NanceLara Nance

    When I started plotting more, my writing improved dramatically and and I had less issues with writers block. This is looking at another aspect of the development that will help as well. Thanks!

  50. nancysegovianancysegovia

    Reblogged this on Nancy Segovia and commented:
    Structure is the periodic table of novel writing. What goes where, why and when

  51. nancysegovianancysegovia

    Hi Kristen, Do you believe it is possible for some writers to also have an instinctual feel for structure, i.e. knowing what goes where and why and when? I am just asking because like the comment you made that readers have this instinct, I think writers that read a lot can pick up this knowledge sort of like the process of assimilation. What do you think?

    Smiles to you, Nancy

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      I can tell writers who don’t read. When you read a lot, structure becomes more intuitive. So yes.

  52. jamostellerjamosteller

    Hi Kristen, I truly appreciate your blogs posts. Love the blunt, humorous manner in which you try to help those of us who are writers who would love to be published authors. Thanks, James

  53. Sue ColettaSue Coletta

    Amen! I love structure. Admittedly, I think I’ve become a bit of a structure junkie. I just can’t get enough of it, and there’s always more twists and turns to learn. That’s what is so great about writing, IMO. You never run out of things to learn. Scene and sequel, MRUs, plot architecture and physics… good stuff!

  54. Ann HeitlandAnn Heitland

    Thanks. Useful info. Have reblogged at annheitland.com

  55. Judy Hudson / WriterJudy Hudson / Writer

    I’ve been writing in circles for years, Agents and editors all say “you really can write,” but don’t take my ms in the end. Finally I got to the point where structure makes sense. A lot of it we know intrinsically from reading (a lot) but that is not enough. I am really enjoying the ah-ha moments as I re-read all the books you have mentioned and this time – they make sense. I would also add to any reading list James Scott Bell’s relatively new book, Write Your Novel From the MIddle.
    Looking forward to going over it all again with you.

  56. SheilaSheila

    Reblogged this on COW PASTURE CHRONICLES and commented:
    I’m in between being one of those “by the seat of my pants writers and a plotter. This is an excellent reminder. No matter what you’re building, foundation and structure matters. Thanks for another great post.

  57. emilyardenauthoremilyardenauthor

    I like structure, and finding a way to connect it to creative flow is paramount. Thanks for sharing your tips and insights.

  58. MelanieMelanie

    Very useful. And also many of the comments where people have suggested of hater books. As a newbie novelist I need all the help I can get.

  59. Amber AdamsAmber Adams

    Thank you! Great article

  60. Frances HousdenFrances Housden

    I wouldn’t be without Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure and the art of setting the question the reader needs an answer to—page turner. Thanks for this topic.

  61. lauraboon2014lauraboon2014

    Thank you Kirsten. I have never understood scene and sequel before despite trying several times. Your simple yet eloquent explanation has opened up a whole new world for me.

  62. Miranda AndersonMiranda Anderson

    Where were you when I was taking high school chemistry? ?

    • Miranda AndersonMiranda Anderson

      … your post is right on time to help me plot my first novel, though! Thanks a million for this helpful lesson!

  63. R. A. MeenanR. A. Meenan

    I was one of those writers who was like, “EWWW structure!?! Really?” but as I really worked on developing my craft, I realized how important it is.

    I will say though, I struggle to actually write out an outline or a novel with those scene and sequel steps in mind. I always thought I just avoided structure when I started writing. But I’ve had friends and beta readers tell me I stick to the structure quite well. I think it’s just something I do subconsciously and fix when I recognize a problem. o_0 Hopefully that’s the case anyway, lol.

  64. Jonathan VernonJonathan Vernon

    Reblogged this on Mind Bursts and commented:
    This is so good I wanted it somewhere handy to refer to – like in my blog.

  65. Laura IrrgangLaura Irrgang

    Figuring out that I couldn’t put structure on the back burner has made a BIG difference in my writing. I was also thrilled to see how much it speeds up the process for me. Obviously, no one wants to seem formulaic or like they’re writing from a template or something. However, when you can see those guideposts, it really helps you find your way through the story. When I have a section that isn’t working, it’s frequently due to a structural mistake. Thanks for reminding us and helping us stay on track. I LOVE your posts…they’re so motivating!

  66. JackieJackie

    It was a very interesting article. I like how you explained the scene and sequel components of a story. Thank you!!!

  67. JackieJackie

    I also enjoyed the pictures you used to keep me interested about structure!!

  68. Another TakeAnother Take

    Great topic, Kristen. My question is can this be taught? I suspect the best writers know this stuff intuitively and never think in terms of structure. They simply know that to tell a story there must be a beginning that introduces the characters and a situation that is unique enough for the reader to want to learn more, a middle where things advance, but not in a straight line and often with unexpected hurdles thrown in the way, and an end where things get resolved to one degree or another. If a writer doesn’t know that in her/his bones, instead of teaching them a formula, I’d tell them not to write another word until they’ve read at least half of the books Jane Smiley discusses in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Agree? Disagree?

  69. Vitor MachadoVitor Machado

    Whoa, that was harsh. You just flicked a matchstick inside a tinderbox. You’ve elucidated us about structure importance until the point we are ready to get that knowledge fully open-minded… and the post ends. =(

    I’m going to part 2, lets see.

  70. realnerdwormsrealnerdworms

    I always love reading your posts. Not saying that to flatter. It really breaks writing down in a way that makes perfect sense. It makes people (or at least myself) take what they have written and begin to view it through a filter. Does this work? Will it make sense and hook the reader? So many really useful thoughts to help all writers. I love sending other writers over to your blog for ideas on how to be a better writer. And it’s always encouraging me to KEEP WRITING.

  71. SarahSarah

    I’m having trouble getting this. Are you saying every chapter needs to end with something having gone wrong? What about the times the character succeeds at their goal? Thinking of books I’ve read, I feel like these guidlines are true for most scenes but not all… Not that I’m questioning you, I just don’t get it.

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      If there is no conflict, how can the character succeed? A scene is by definition ACTIVE which means there is a GOAL and something should stand in the way of that goal or we have no conflict. Now, this doesn’t have to be MAJOR, just don’t make things come easily.

      For instance, I just beta read a novel for a friend and the ONLY scene I razed involved questioning a street kid who’d witnessed a shooting. In her scene the kid just cooperated so it sounded like a kid playing with action figures. Talking Heads. ZZZZZZZ.

      NO. The kid shouldn’t cooperate, at least not easily and not for a while.

      “I didn’t see nothing.” “What’s it to you?” “I’m not a snitch.” “How much you gonna pay me?”

      Eventually, YES, the kid coughs up the information and the scene ends with a win (the protagonist gets a description), but let the reader worry or it’s a ticket to Snoozeville. Also note, though there is a suspect description, everything is not resolved because the shooter is still at large and the party is still in danger.

      Yes, the character should have some wins, but there should be a parallel setback or we kill the tension in the story and leave the reader too comfortable. I recommend never leaving a good place for a bookmark.

      Think of Lord of the Rings as an easy example. Yes, they make it to the Prancing Pony. The party of Hobbits pass the boundaries of The Shire, outmaneuver the Dark Rider and finally get to the pub to meet Gandalf. That is a win, but the story isn’t over. Other unresolved problems are present.

      Does that help?

      • SarahSarah

        Yes that helps! Just needed the clarification. Thanks to your articles on structure I’ve noticed how often I leave things too resolved at the ends of my scenes. It’s really making me rethink my writing, so thank you!!

  72. MandyMandy

    Makes sense!

  73. katkent2014katkent2014

    This article is very helpful. Structure seems to encompass some sort of timeline; whether its in the form of signposts or detailed flowcharts and I seem to have a lot of choices the same as characters in my novel. I just have to decide what the choices will be or what works best for my style of writing. Does this sound correct, Kristen? I look forward to reading your other blogs. Thank you.

  74. SunnyKnightSunnyKnight

    I have had a great distraction from writing these past few years, but I save all of your blogs and use them to find inspiration and clarity. My novels are now officially haunting my every waking moment, so it’s time to lesson my distraction. I just read this blog on structure and a roadblock just crumbled. I’ve had critiques where I was told to cut the first few pages because nothing was happening, but I couldn’t understand the basis for those critiques, now I do. I feel like you have opened my eyes, once again, and I just want to say thank you!

  1. Writing with Expression | jean's writing
  2. Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story—Part Two | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  3. Why do we need to worry about structure when we write? | Emily Arden, author
  4. Mind Sieve 5/11/15 | Gloria Oliver
  5. Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story 3—Opposition | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  6. Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story—Structure Part One | wwwpalfitness
  7. Is Your Story PRIMAL?—Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part 6 | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  8. Links on Writing « amiecus curiae
  9. Let’s get ready to write a novel in November! | Inklings
  10. In It to WIN It—Preparing for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  11. Ten amazing posts on story structure | Steve Boseley
  12. Mastering Conflict—Hook Readers & Never Let Them Go | Kristen Lamb's Blog

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *