Okay, last week I promised that we would resume talking about antagonists today. Well, I lied. My blog, my rules :P. Actually, I want to teach you guys more about scene antagonists and how they ratchet up the tension and drive the story’s momentum. The thing is, however, a lot of new writers don’t understand the core of structure. Today we are going to have a quick overview of structure. Why? Because if we don’t understand the big picture, we won’t understand how to effectively use antagonists. And yes, most of this lesson is a repost from last year, but I assume most of us can use a refresher.
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. To be great writers, we must understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this simple and 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 then I will give you a list of resources to help you.
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.
Some books to help you understand structure: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. This is a fast read that makes plotting simpler than you ever dreamed possible. Another WONDERFUL book is James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. My final favorite is Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. This is a book about screenplays, but the lessons are just as applicable to novelists.
What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?
I love hearing from you! And 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
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Until next time…
Always good to be refreshed on these topics. Now, that I am plotting my WIP this is invaluable so I don’t have pointless scenes of two characters talking about a third or having convenient things happening. Great job as always.
I recently attended Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference where I took a mentorship class with Randy Ingermanson. Scene structure was one of the topics he covered, and it’s been a great help with my current work in progress. When I run a scene that “didn’t feel right” through this framework, I can usually now find what was going wrong and fix it.
I get the basics of structure, but I’d like to know your thoughts on two things. First, with a strong understanding of narrative structure, how do you recommend plotting out a brand new idea? Once you’ve got a big series of ‘what-if’ questions and have a pretty general idea of the basic plot?
Second, about scenes. What’s the best formula (bad choice of word, I know) to decide if they really are necessary or need to be cut?
I need help with sequel. This is where the character actually becomes someone the reader cares about. Right? Understanding how to go about pulling a character’s thought process out is really hard for me. To get the reader to care without my character’s feelings sounding “out there” in the realm of make believe.
I’m also having problems with melting wax in my microwave to rip the hair off me. I don’t think you can help me with that though.
The sequel is the part after the scene where your characters get a chance to evaluate what happens. It’s where thought processes happens. It leads into the next scene.
Example. Scene: Man goes to a bank to get a loan, but the loan officer denies him.
Sequel: The man stands outside the bank pondering what to do next and what happens if he doesn’t get a loan. Before he walks off, a shady loan officer comes and tells him “I have an offer you can’t refuse.” This leads to a new scene.
Terrell – thank you! You’re the first person on the webz to delineate scene and sequence quickly and clearly.
Kristen, the clarity of your explanations is amazing. I can hardly wait to finish my first draft so I can incorporate all of these ideas into the initial rewrite. And you realize, of course, that if my YA novel isn’t a bestseller, I’m holding you personally responsible. LOL, just kidding. BTW, your description of the periodic table is GENIUS! 🙂
I agree 100% on Larry Brooks…heck just his blog series on the subject is huge. I’m finding the implementing of all the scene/sequel and structure info sometimes easier said than done but that’s what practice is all about.
I’m also curious about your thoughts on Stacy’s second question, “What’s the best formula to decide if they are really necessary or need to be cut?”
Save the Cat is good for learning this. Also using Bob Mayer’s conflict lock. If there is no conflict, no scene. CUT. That’s what we are going to talk about next week, but if people don’t understand what a scene really is, the lesson won’t make any sense.
You’ve posted this before, haven’t you? Because I DEFINITELY remember the periodic table thing. I must be missing something, like where you said you’d repost, but these last few have been sounding REALLY familiar…
But thanks anyway. I probably needed it 🙂
Yes, a large protion of this was posted last year. But most of us can use the review and if people aren’t familiar with scene and sequel next week’s lesson won’t make any sense :).
Okay, I can’t help but like a post that compares writing to Chemistry and the Periodic Table. I’ll have to use the “lunch room” idea next time I teach a chemistry class, assuming it’s all right with you.
Keep up the posts about plot structure. It’s an area I really need to work on.
Maybe I’m just weird, but I love structure! It comes much easier to me than trying to remember grammar rules or refining prose. But I’ve always been more of a big picture type person.
Janice Hardy(blog.janicehardy.com) is awesome at teaching structure as well. I highly recommend visiting her blog and spending a few hours soaking up her genius.
Thanks for the informative post Kristen!
Okay, the inside of my head is spinning, but I get what you’re saying. Thanks for the reminder.
I’ll echo the sentiment about Story Engineering. One of the best books on structure I’ve read!
And good to know I wasn’t going crazy about reading the periodic table jokes again!
Kristen, I really enjoyed reading this post. It comes at a good time for me, when I’m about to dive into editing the first draft of my current novel. I’ll definitely be looking into the books you recommended. You get a commission for selling these, right? 😀
Wow – the analogy to chemistry was fantastic!! I read it a few times since I wasn’t exactly a chemistry standout myself:) This really hit home and will impact my WIP. Thank you!
Kristen: “Help meeeee! Help meeeeee!” be a better writer. 🙂
I still don’t get it!
I’ve read Bell’s book, and a bunch of other stuff about structure, but weirdly, stupidly, idiotically, I still don’t get it! It’s like there’s this billion-ton block of concrete sitting in the way of me understanding something that really isn’t all that complex: cause –> effect, rinse and repeat. I mean, how hard is it really to put your inciting incident at the 1/3 mark and closing incident almost at the end? Look! I can TELL all the elements but I can’t DO the elements. I cannot figure out how to write a scene with goal, conflict, disaster. Intellectually I know about structure but I cannot put it into practice. SO FRUSTRATING!
Anyway, thanks for explaining it yet one more time to this incredibly dense, idiotically stupid wanna be writer who will never ever ever write anything because I can’t figure out something is basic as structure. Gawd I’m such a DUNCE!!!
You aren’t dumb. Structure is a big reason most writers never make it past the “aspiring” part. Have you tried Save the Cat? I had a horrible time with structure until that book. Maybe it was taking it to a visual medium that helped unclog my brain. Let me know.
Chemistry! Now that’s a language I understand 🙂
I’m definitely going to have to pick up Scene and Structure, because I know my structure could use some work. I’m trying to stop being such a pantser and start learning this business of writing.
Get Story Engineering first. Much easier read. I like Scene and Structure but it is dense stuff.
Thank you so much for writing this. You are so clear and entertaining! As I TRY to start my novel I can not agree more with your points. The reason I get so confused and flustered is because I don’t have a plan. I just started Story Engineering…boy is he taking a long time to get to anything substantial…but I know, he’s making a point 🙂 So I’m trying to be content with going slow, having plans, and getting it done right(ish) the first(ish) time. Thanks again Kristen…you are…invaluable.
I know one issue I had to learn was how to do a sequel correctly. If we’re missing the decision/action stages, then a character *only* thinking about a problem comes across like whining or dithering. Great post!
Kristen – Upon your prior recommendation, I read Scene and Structure. As a newbie to fiction writing, I finally understood the process for structuring a novel logically. He connected the dots for me. Next in my pile is Plot and Structure – starting it tonight!
Wow, how do you remember all that stuff from chemistry. I’m impressed. 🙂
Thanks for the refresher. (Actually, it’s still kind of new stuff for me (however, it makes sense because I’ve done all the newbie mistakes…))
I always need a refresher on structure. But, it’s one of those things, if I think about too much before I write, I think myself into NOT writing. Yet, so helpful after the fact, I can read over my scenes and see if they follow cause-effect — I’m sure I end up with too much re-writing, but, better that than no writing.
I also follow Larry Brook’s writing blog — lots of good material there.
I love the comparison to a pizza. That analogy is spot on. I know I’m guilty of putting a quail leg on phillo dough and trying to sell it as a novel. (I skipped right over the selling it as pizza part.) Thank you, thank you, thank you for saving me from myself.
I’m also impressed with how much active knowledge you have retained from chemistry class. If you ever get tired of writing, you could always be a science teacher. 🙂
It’s original but add the cheese. 😉
Very useful post for me since I just started following you a few weeks back. I have most of the books mentioned, except the Larry Brooks one. I saw one of the comments mention they still did not get structure. Would it help everyone to break down a sample of a book to demonstrate this structure? Some learn better by showing than telling, and some need both. I tend to like to have both but I think I understand it pretty well. What I would give to have someone read some pages of mine. Thanks for you time and knowledge and I look forward to the next one.
Kristen, I am not sure how I found your blog, it was by accident I think, but you are amazing and you are the only blog I will take time to read (and that includes the ones I write for). I loved this article and it came in a fantastic time. I have been struggling because I forgot the basic rules of structure. Now I feel like I am back on track and have direction. Thank you so much for #MyWANA and all of your sage advice. Make no mistake, you have an impact.
Pizza has rules. Perfect analogy. Also, sometimes I read your blog and think, “Can Kristen read my mind?” I have been thinking a lot about structure (and my need of it) lately. This is very helpful, thanks!
Like Piper, I too am guilty of putting eggs in phillo dough. However, the only way for us to learn how to make pizza is to study and practice, practice, practice.
Love the pizza and the chemistry analogies…except now I want pizza for dinner and am remembering that evil o-chem prof who used to throw candy at us when we answered his questions wrong…the candy might sound good, but not when it pegs you between the eyes. Ugh. LOL
I’m getting a much better feel for structure now. I tend to be a pantser. I can outline…but only so much before I need to work it out on the page. Once it’s worked out though, I can go back in and plant the seeds. I’m working on that with my MIP right now…that and actually finishing the part before the ending that I’ve left dangling for awhile now. Got to work it out on the page. 😀 An understanding of structure absolutely helps though.
And I love Save the Cat!!!
Kirsten, great post.
As a new writer who is not schooled in such things as structure I am terrified to read such pieces lest I realise a fundamental error of my ways. Thankfully not, which is something of a confidence boost.
Thanks for your great posts – you’re a priceless help!
I think this was one of the first posts I read on your blog. The one that drew me in to the greatness of Kristen Lamb. Structure is the one thing that every writer needs, be they a planner or a pantser, without properly understood and planned structure nothing we build will ever be as great as it could be. The Taj Mahal was not built off a napkin sketch after all.
Thanks for the wonderful “don’t forget the basics” reminders Kristen.
I read this post whilst sitting in my lecture. I was meant to be listening to something about statistical modelling of thermodynamics. On the desk was a piece of paper titled ‘the electron microscope: an electron’s eye view’, a potential project for the next academic year. Made me smile.
Structure scares me, mostly because of the difficultly I have recognising whether it is there or not. I’ve written a first draft and started trying to work out what the structure of my novel should be for the rewrite. Which book do you think explains structure best to someone like me who is quite frankly clueless?
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is the best. Very simple and easy to understand and assimilate. Also Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.
Alternative-Read.com: A Writers World: Cause and Effect http://bit.ly/myFNOS, you inspired me Kristen, hope you approve!!
I even found links to Cause and Effect worksheets!
I’ve seen Story Engineering and Save the Cat bandied about the blogosphere but it’s your recommendation that cinches them for me and pushes them ahead of other craft books.