Want a way to stand out from all the other writers clamoring to get an agent’s attention? Want to be a best-selling author with stories that endure the tests of time? Learn all you can about the craft, particularly novel structure. 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. 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.
Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold
Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile
As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.
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 aspiring 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. You 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.
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. Back in September we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). 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. 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 weeks.
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 WTH? 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.
If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important.
We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.
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).
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.
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 intuitive 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?
Until next time…
And the winner of a signed copy of my book is….insert drumroll here…..ANNE BRENNAN!
Now the shameless self-promo. We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is designed to be fun and effective. I am here to change your habits, not your personality. My method will help you grow your network in a way that will translate into sales. And the coolest part? My approach leaves time to write more books. Build a platform guaranteed to impress an agent. How do I know this? My book is recommended by agents.
This was such a good article! It’s funny because I just recently put a book down that looked so promising because the story was all over the place and it was hard to stay interested in it. The characters and the setting were awesome but it went on too many tangents that I lost interest.
To help me keep my plot on track, I did a chapter outline of my first draft that states very briefly what happens and the character’s state of mind. That way I can take a look at it and make sure the storyline is moving and it makes sense. If something doesn’t, I know I have to rework it.
Great post, Kristen. It’s so easy to get caught up in snappy dialogue and character development and forget about structure.
Great stuff! This is kind of a natural story-telling method (fairy tales, fables, parables) of sharing a scene, and then saying what that scene essentially means (the ‘moral’ of the scene). I like how you simplified it with goal/conflict/disaster and emotion/thought/decision/action.
I have trouble writing sequels during the climax of my stories-because one disaster leads to the next so fast that I don’t think I’ve wedged in enough time for my characters to emotionally react-they are simply swept up in a storm of cause/effect. I was afraid it would slow things down, but from this post it sounds like it is essential. What do you think about sequels slowing down the story, especially during the climax?
I write thrillers, so I know what you mean. In this case, your sequels will just go much faster. You won’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the emotional implications until a later time when there is a logical pause. In the meantime, though, your interim sequels will be very very brief. Eventually you will have to employ a longer sequel. If you don’t, all the action will wear out your reader. Also, you risk losing the emotional connection with the reader. For instance, in my book, a cult kidnaps my protag’s sister. Not all of us can relate with the action component (the scene). Most of us have not had a cult show up and kidnap one of our loved ones, so limited connection there. But we CAN empathize with the panic and sheer grief of having a loved one in danger (the sequel).
Readers will naturally expect the sequels to diminish if not disappear completely in Act III until the deneumente. Act III is the wrapping up of the story and after the hero’s darkest moment. I don’t think a lot of readers want the author spending too much time on emotion (unless this is a literary work). You want the fastest pacing to be Act III….like a car rolling down a hill that just picks up speed until the BOOM-climax.
…then the deneument to show the wrapping up on an emotional level and demonstrate Normal Word Restored (more on that to come).
I hope this helped 😀
Great answer, Kristan. And reassuring. I questioned this myself a few years ago when my sequel was a mere paragraph long – a quick reaction for the protagonist – working as a bridge to the next scene. I kept wondering if a sequel could really be that short. Well, it can because it worked at that point in the story with the emotional processing occurring in bits and pieces along the way afterwards. But, like you said, if all your sequels are that way, the reader will get exhausted being thrust in one big scene after another without catching her breath. Love the blog.
Good words! A little sequel during the climax goes a long way. Thanks for the reply.
Being an expert on structure by the end of your blog session sounds GREAT. Do we get a certificate along with that title? Can we cite being an “expert on structure” in our credentials in query letters? lol. This really is an awesome topic that doesn’t get enough attention…thanks so much for teaching on it!
I couldn’t agree with you more! The number of times I read stories that fail because they lose their way is remarkible!
Terrific post, Kristen, even though I’m shuddering at the memory of those periodic tables. Guaranteed I’d be an arts major!
I appreciate your breakdown of why stories fail.
I am so happy you didn’t use examples based on Malrity and Molality. I would have stopped reading. LOL!
Molarity, I mean.
This helps me. Basically, I have a problem–either I write a short story that has a plot or I write a bunch of gibberish that I would put in my own version of rejects. Right now, to solve the problem, I’m borrowing from literature. Just in different settings, a few plot changes, and more description. I mean, if Shakespeare borrowed everything he wrote about why can’t I? I’m less experienced and needs more “help.”
Well, I will be walking you guys through plotting in the coming weeks. My goal is to make you “structure experts.” 🙂 Nail this and the rest of fiction boils down to whether or not you can write.
Really looking forward to the rest of this topic, Kristen. This is something for which I definitely find myself needing a walk-through! I hope, at the end of your blogs on this topic, that I find myself right on target in my current project!
I agree. To many stories loose their way. They go so far off the beaten path that I get confused of what’s going on. I loose interest, quickly.
Kristen, I love your blog. I’m learning a great deal about the craft of writing. Keep our lessons coming!
Great post, Kristen. I love playing with structure. A scene in one place will do one thing; in another those same events will might have a totally different emotional effect. Most of my editing is about playing with these elements to get the most out of the events. Then I prettify the writing.
Funny, my last blog post was on the subject of Plotless writing! It can be done but it’s not fun to do. Many of the events in my last book were not caused so much as catalysed, causes which do not bind to the effect.
Marc Vun Kannon
Brilliant post. This line is so true, and probably refers to writers like me; “Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most aspiring writers don’t understand it.” I think moving forward I’ll be focusing just as hard on the technical aspects of writing as well as the creative.
Thanks. Well, to be honest, the creative side is more fun. Hopefully I can help make the technical stuff fun, too :D. Thanks for commenting.
Kristen – thanks for this post and for sharing your expertise. I am at the point of needing to do exactly this for the first time and as a basically organised person, know I need the structure before I start to write. I have the overall structure, feel and content but need to know the map to guide the way. Look forward to the series coming up.
This is a very helpful post! I’ve discovered that even minimal outlining helps to give me a sense of direction as far as the story goes. Sometimes, the story will deviate from that, but it won’t go too far. Personally, I find the technical parts of writing just as interesting as the creative parts. I like learning and re-learning/analyzing how stories I like are put together and figuring out how to incorporate the same or similar techniques in my own writing. 🙂
Thank you so much for this article! I haven’t been able to really understand exactly what structure is. With your explanation it starts to make sense for the first time. Now I want to leave work and pull out that novel I’ve never been able to finish.
Well, stick with the series and I hope all your questions will be answered. For years, structure was my greatest weakness too. As an editor, it was easy to spot how and where and why another writer goofed up. Yet, when it came to drawing my own blueprints for my own “structure” it just ended up a giant mess. So I read every book I could on structure and I am hoping to help others with an area that is so critical to getting published…yet is often dry and difficult to grasp.
I love structure. I spent years not writing novels but always meaning to. Then I took the time to learn structure, and everything became so easy. And it’s much more fun, too. I think novels without structure are not only hard to read, they’re hard to write as well.
Don’t know if it’s just me, by the way, but the link to your book (‘We are not alone ….’) at the end of this post, and other posts on this site, doesn’t seem to work. That could be temporary, or maybe it’s a bad link – which would be a real shame.
Great post! I have both of those books you mention, which is maybe why some of my beta-readers said they couldn’t put my book down – although I did have to fix the denouement, which didn’t have enough “sequel” in it on the first attempt. Well, it _is_ my first finished novel, so I know I still have a lot to learn.
BTW, that link to your book is broken – I was thinking of buying it, but…
Ack! Link is fixed. My publisher recently redid the web site and it has been a sticky wicket ever since. Thanks for the heads up :D.
Really useful. And even better, I’m supposed to be revising for a Chemistry exam right now … meaning that when parents come in I can point to your chemistry analogies and say it’s helping me understand the periodic table! Ha ha 🙂
Great post, Kristen, though wading through the chemistry lesson brought back a lot of memories LOL. I love Bickem’s book. Another good book is GMC Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon. Keep up the good work!
For me plot is not an issue, but its actually putting the accursed thing on paper is where I fail at.
I know what I want to do
I know what will happen
But I am suffering from severe creative burnout, its worse then writers block as you have all your ideas ready and when you go to jot them down… you just dont feel like writing it out.
I even tried using audio recordings…
Nope, burnt out on writing anything creative.
Its fine in my brain but my hands dont want to co operate.
Hi Kristen…thanks for recommending this series; I’ve been taking furious notes and feel like I’ve come late to the party! This is going to be a HUGE help to me. I’ve enjoyed reading #1 and learning something valuable. Once I nail it, as you say, I’ll also discover if I have what it takes to write a good story. Wishful thinking just doesn’t make it so, does it? I appreciate your help so much.
I am following everything you can teach me right from scratch. I am simply aspiring to write well whatever I write. Thank you for sharing your expertise!
Wow, what an amazing post! Bell’s Plot & Structure is my absolute favorite writing book.
Your explanation on structure using carbon chains was perfect!
Interesting. I think one of the fiundamentals points you made at the beginning is that writers get so bogged down in the story they forget the structure and quite often even after the tenth rewrite it isn’t obvious. A critique panel (NOT one’s mother) and Editors are invaluable for scenarios such as these.
I look forward to the other parts. Bea
Concerning the escalation of change/conflict:
How do you know when to use external or internal? For instance, in screenplays, it’s easy: you’re writing a visual medium so conflict must have some external, realized goal.
But in novels, how can you order both the internal world of the character and the external situations to escalate? How do we go from plot point one to plot point two with the internal world in sync?
Then, in addition to all of that, what if we switch perspectives? How can we escalate from one chapter to another if we’re jumping times, locations, or characters?
I found this by googling “elements of a best selling novel”. As writers we do owe it to the readers to understand elements that make books great. Structure is one of the building blocks. Yes it is dry, yes it is formulaic, but you’ve said it best – it’s all for the readers, not for the writer.
I learned so much from this, and I have a long way to go. Too bad I already completed my very first 100k-word draft. I hope its not too late to fix it. Thanks for steering me the right way.
We all have to get that first novel out of us. You might just set it in a drawer and go to the next one. Also make sure you pick up Story Engineering. That book makes structure so simple. And so happy you are here!
Reblogged this on Kuro and commented:
I found this terrific article from Kristen Lamb about structure. As an aspiring ( and completely green) writer, this is about the equivalent of a big, bright neon sign pointing the way. There are several good bits of information, and a link to a an interesting book that I will need to read on structure.