We are into October and National Novel Writing Month is around the corner (November–NaNoWriMo). Thus, I am running my structure series to help you guys get prepared. Why write 50,000 words if, at the end you have an unpublishable mess? Some of you might have seen these lessons, but a good refresher can’t hurt.
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. Understanding structure helps us become faster, cleaner, better writers.
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.
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. 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.
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. Last week 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?
I do want to hear from you guys!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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 October 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: If you have won an edit from me and haven’t heard back, PLEASE resend to my assistant Gigi Salem (if you haven’t already). Likely, the wormhole (spam folder) ate your submission. I do look for them, but sometimes they slip by. Just send your pages to Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com and I will get you hooked up.
GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (6500 words) OR a blog diagnostic. Diane Henders
Monthly Winner of 15 Pages (3250 words) of Edit Joylse Barnett
Weekly Winner of Five Pages (1250 words) Ramblingsfromtheleft
All winners, send your words in a Word document to my assistant Gigi at Gigi.Salem.EA at g mail dot com
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.
You wrote this whole post about the need for structure without once mentioning the word “outline.” Wouldn’t an outline, detailed or brief, help ensure that a narrative has structure? For my work in progress, the outline was written as I went along, and not entirely planned in advance. But if I can refer to the outline to make sure everything works for me, as the writer, I am hoping that the reader will be able to see the structure I intended.
Woah – should say “jinx?” 😉
Before I start talking about tools for structure, it makes sense to help writers understand the concepts behind the tools.
Terrific post, Kristen!
I’m terrible at outlining, but I do it anyway. Inevitably, the outline changes — a lot. But….it saves a TON of time by keeping me from running far and away into a tangent. As I go along, I create mini outlines for sections — a few chapters at a time. Mind you, they’re messy plans, sometimes scrawled out on napkins or the back of a receipt. But it’s a way of organizing my thoughts and, yes, creating structure. (We creative types hate those “boring” words – ha!)
It’s certainly fun simply sit down and write and write… But I feel far better about a quality 80,000 page story that keeps readers hooked than a 150,000 ramble. Free writing can be ultra-therapeutic, but, I believe, seldom publishable. 😉
Hello Kristen. Newbie here, toe stuck in the water via WANA 1011. Maybe that’s more like up to my ankles. Wrote a first novel draft, which closely resembles the post-transport baboon above. I can’t even read it. Undaunted, I will now go to yoga class and absorb the lessons of Cause Effect Scene & Sequel, and then get back to it. GOAL CONFLICT DISASTER.
Note to other readers: see Kristen’s special on her books. I already ordered the two, including We Are Not Alone from Amazon to the tune of $14.99 each. More cash into the writing money pit. But it will be worth it! Right.
Excellent blog promotion by the way. Small problem: this post arrived on Oct. 3, and your name-in-the-hat promotion is for the month of September.
Julia W, WANA1011
Blech. Yeah, I hadn’t mentally transitioned over. Corrected and thanks for the catch!
I’ve learned a lot in the last year since my last NaNo dominance, structure is at the forefront. I am in the midst of the revision now, not sure I’m going to stop for Nano this year, but I really enjoyed it last time. Awesome stuff as always!
Thanks as always, Kristen. I am sure this series will be filled with great tips on structure and formatting that can help direct writers to build from the great story idea to a well thought out and interesting book. I have the curse of being born on the “cusp” of two signs, one compulsively organized and the other a total flake. In my life, career and even as a mother, I was able to blend these two to approach a sane middle. Get crazy with the kids, because we all need to let them see us as people, but never forget to give them the safe feeling of stability.
As a writer, I am also those two. My solution is simple. I begin with a character, put them somewhere (since I think setting is our second most important character) and then with one or two lines, I go off. Yes, that’s right. I go off like a bat out of a cave looking for food. I write down the entire story. THEN … my other, more logical side takes over. I believe that the best work is done in the rewrite, the next rewrite and the fifth rewrite. Edit, add, delete and in my case, get rid of all scenes that are not needed (no matter how much I love them) … However, without those first crazed few weeks, I might leave my other half naked and lonely.
August, it is a ton of fun to simply sit down and write. NEVER delete the 70K words you think you don’t need. Use your structured self to get to that great 80K and keep the rest for another day. I often take old drafts of something I wrote two years ago and “steal” scenes or characters that didn’t work in one book, but might in another. Okay, I am not the teacher here, so I say thanks “teach” … I look forward to the rest of this series.
Well said, Kristen. Love your blogs (but not so much the visual of the steaming pile of baboon goo!).
Thanks for your sage and witty advice.
Great post. I love the comparison to I agree with Ellis and August on Outline. Once you understand structure and how to Any way is there a chance we can have a cliff notes version of this post?
Please excuse the unfinished nature of that post. I meant to say once you understand structure and outlining it gets easier to write quality and there is more time to fill with fun stuff.
I’m learning more and more about novel structure as I read the experts. Some of this came naturally to me, but seeing the overall structure and planning it out can save headaches and rewrites later on. (Boo, slush pile!) I must put James Bell’s book on my to-be-read list because it keeps coming up again and again. Thanks for the tips, Kristen!
Something that I do when outlining is put a star or something where any twist in the story comes in, so that I can make sure they are adequately spaced and so I know I have enough of them. I make sure I have one at the end of each chapter and sometimes in the middle, so that I have a hook right at the end of the chapter to keep the reader turning pages. I’m starting to feel, though, that I should put more in. Another writer pointed out that they change the emotional climate of each chapter several times before it ends and the next one begins. I’m going to see how I can do this.
Thanks for this series. Can’t wait to read more!
Enjoyed your post on structure. Like you I am a fan of Bickham’s Scene and Sequel strategy. Look forward to more words of wisdom. Also looking forward to learning in your WANA 1011 class.
Enjoyed your post as usual. I look forward to the rest of the series since I’m in the middle of a rewrite right now. And man, I might have aced Chemistry if I had your high school analogy about the Periodic Table. I never did quite get it.
Novels without structure are about us. Readers want to see themselves in our characters, and they want to see themselves growing and accomplishing, not wandering around. They can wander around on their own. They don’t need us for that. Great post, Kristen.
Clear and clever blog; I learned a lot about how the elements of the periodic table work, or don’t work, together …oh, yeah there was good stuff about story structure. Hope to be pulled out of the hat!
Oh structure, yes. I’m a big structure guy. I used to write a short little outline and then write from the seat of my pants, but after a few drafts that just seemed to wander aimlessly, I discovered a book on story engineering. Now my outline looks like a schematic to some electronic device. Filled with questions to myself about story pregression and purpose. Instead of sticky notes breaking down every scene, I have a spreadsheet that I adjust as I go but with each set of scenes all working towards a certain goal within the plot. It’s had an amazing impact on my writing and I can write so much faster too. Excellent post!
I have numerous ms. boxes of ancient, abandoned prose–those “lovely vignettes” you talk about. Amazing how I could write so many words that didn’t add up to a story. Very useful post.
Good stuff. I’ve read so much about outlining, but had a hard time figuring out whether my outline was any good! But the cause effect model makes so much more sense to me. I’m starting my third Nanowrimo, and I’m excited to do so with a stronger skeleton to hang my story on. 🙂
I’m writing two short stories, simultaneously, of different genres and tone. It’s like being a comic who writes a joke two different ways.
I love character development more than story, for the most part. The people who read me tell me they like it when I concentrate on story structure. It’s a struggle. My mind wants to write about how great this character is. What his/her motivations are. I know you’re waiting to find out what they’re doing and where they’re going.
This is good advice for people who love exposition and exorbinant amounts of detail, when the people reading want story.
After studying structure for many months (I read almost every book available) what I learned was that structure is a powerful tool for relaying the changes in our characters. Structure is not just for plot, but also for the character arc. It provides the fuel that drives the arc. People don’t change for no reason, and neither do characters. When they do, it rings false. Thus, we master structure, we provide the impetus for change that resonates viscerally and authentically. Too many people (mistakenly) believe that plot and character are mutually exclusive when actually they rely heavily upon each other. If the character doesn’t grow, he won’t have the capacity to get past the next plot point. Without rising stakes, the character has no reason to grow, no fire to burn away the dross.
Ooh, I love this reply. It’s chock-full-o-good-stuff. Thanks, Kristen!! (I’m writing it down on a 4×6, word for word.)
As a dyslexic pantser who dropped out of school these posts hold so much value! Thank you. I look forward to the next one.
PS. I’ll gladly link back to you on my blog just as soon as I figure out how to link things on my sidebar.
Kristen, This is the sort of advice I resented when I started writing my first book–which I now refer to as the “tester pancake”. That book is congealing in a drawer somewhere.
But by now, after writing several more books, I love and am grateful for Scene and Structure and I recommend it to every writer I know. It doesn’t tell me what I SHOULD do, like a beady-eyed nun slapping a ruler against her palm, so much as it helps me understand WHY a passage might not be working so that I can go back and fix it. Thank God.
So shove over on that seat there and make room; I’m on the bandwagon with you.
award-winning author of Underdead and Underdead In Denial
Once I come up with a basic plot, to keep the story structure sound, I use Tables in word, but understand if you click on “wrap” on excel, it will open up the cells to contain as much as you wish to write.
The columns include Scene title, Goal & Motivation, conflict, workaround. If a sequel is needed, I put the word sequel instead of scene in column one, and work through it. I keep it brief as a guideline for crosschecking as I write. But things change … and it is a lot of work. As I newish writer, (third manuscript) I need the guidelines.
Problem for this pioneering story in 1864: Is it acceptable to have lots of small goals crop up as workarounds during the story, (situation forced) and not have the hero realize what love will force him to face much later in the story? His pride, tradition, and inability to forgive. The eminent loss of his wife will create his dark moment.
The goals of the women in the story are more powerful.
Awesome post, Kristen and thank you! Since I usually write mysteries, I have to create pretty detailed outlines or I’d never know that the gun that gets fired in chapter six should’ve been shown in some way in chapter two! I think some of the feeling of writing, even with an outline, is instinctive and those instincts aren’t always spot-on. It’s v helpful to structure the storyline such that I’ve got something besides just “a feeling” leading me (or my characters) on. I love the little formula: goal conflict disaster and now realize that I tend to think that conflict and disaster are the same and so often leave one out of the equation!
I am so excited for this series. I always see people talking about scene and sequel, but none has ever said what it actually meant. As always, thank you.
I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of structure. I read so many blog posts and forum comments from unpublished writers who say they “write by the seats of their pants” or “let the characters tell their own story.”
Sorry, that just doesn’t make sense. I have always found, writing non-fiction, that I can’t do anything without an outline. Like a house starts with a foundation and a frame, a novel has to have a skeleton first. Otherwise, you’re just rambling … something like this comment.
My rule: start with an outline.
Awesome post. I’m saving it for future reference. I need some serious structure help with my novel for NaNo this year.
Great post Kristen. I wanted to add my two cents. For those of you out there who are total structure geeks like me, you should look into the Dramatica Theory of story structure. You can find information at Dramaticapedia.com and Dramatica.com. Melanie Anne Philips and Chet Huntley have created a mind blowing way of looking at story and structure. I also recommend their book “Dramatica: A New Theory of Story” the tenth anniversary edition is available at Amazon. It is very daunting for the beginner, a huge learning curve, but well worth the effort. Have a great day. See you at @wana1011.
That’s a great breakdown! I’ll make sure to add this link somewhere in my NaNo blog. I bet lots of people will find it useful. Thank you! I am super-excited about NaNo, it seems people are starting early this year. And of course you are right, good preparation makes all the difference!
Great post about novel structure and why it is so vital. Yay for the pizza comparison 😀 So accurate and tasty.
Bickham’s book I haven’t read yet but James Scott Bell’s book I recommend heartily. It has many useful techniques.
Sooooo good Kristen … I’ve got to remember to refer to those pizza rules more often. I felt this post grab me by the shoulders and give me a bit of a shake, as your blog often seem to do. Thanks!
Sooooo good Kristen … I’ve got to remember to refer to those pizza rules more often. I felt this post grab me by the shoulders and give me a bit of a shake, as your blog often seems to do. Thanks!
Like everyone else says, great post! As much as I hate to do it – I have realised that I am a hardcore “outliner”! I must have structure and waypoints because if I don’t, my stories meander all over the place – usually leaving the planet! Not a fun place (even when I’m writing sci-fi!).
Thank you for this reminder! Nano has me nervous! (zero outline, not a clue what I’m going to write about – but making the plunge!) I must try and get that book. Mmm…boooooks…
Thanks for the amazing post and I’m looking forward to this series.
My first manuscript was a complete pile of poop. A sandstorm, offering no direction and ended without an ending. It turned out to be something I call unfinishable. The second was better with my micro-planning and outlining. I would outline a bit and write a bit. I bowed down to the planning gods, barely. The next of my manuscripts I planned and thoroughly laid out, and it went really well. Bottom line I am learning that you can plan while remaining creative.
Can’t wait for my next slice of pizza.
Great reading. As a former scientist I loved the chem references particularly. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.
Fantastic post! I’m working hard at grasping the whole structure concept. 😀 On one of your other posts, you recommended Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering to me. Seriously changed my writing life. I was stuck at the 2/3 mark in my MIP. Now, i’ve got my outline finished (save for fillilng plotholes and such) and I’m feeling excellent about finishing the writing part. It’s awesome to have yet another resourch in the Scene & Structure book. Gonna go get that right away.
I tragically missed the registration for your Platform class. Are you be teaching another (*clasps hands hopefully*) in the near future?
Teaching one in January so you can just jump in then :D.
Great post for some timely new learning for me as I learn to outline and move from the short story form to novel. I’ve had James Scott Bell’s book on my shelf to be read and pulled it out a few weeks ago. Fantastic reference. Without truly “getting” structure, I fear my book will be murky mess in the middle.
Great timing for me as I have just finished the fourth edit of book one and have sent it out to readers. I have ordered Jack Bickham’s book today. I think I have developed my structure intuitively, though I often pose myself questions about motive, usually for my long ‘thinking walks’. ‘Why would he have done that?’ ‘Where did she get that idea?’ But your post has reminded me I need to take a longer look at the storyline, now I can step back from it, and look at how the plot and subplots develop over time. Thanks for kickstarting my next (and hopefully last) revision.
Love how you make things like structure in novel writing easy to understand. Excellent post!!
Late in commenting, I know, but I want to catch up.
Thank you for your wisdom!
Have a great week!!
Timely post for me. I’m working very hard on the structure of my current WIP and resisting the urge to plunge forward as is my pantser habit. 🙂
Great post as usual, Kristen. I think structure has been (and is) one of the most challenging things for me to learn in novel writing. One thing that has helped me is to analyze a book that you like just looking at structure. Even starting with a single chapter and looking at something basic like goal, conflict, disaster, and its sequel.
Thanks, this is great information! Looking back on the novels I’ve most enjoyed I can see now how the writers wove these ideas into their stories.
First, I did link back to you from my blog at (stlscriber.blogspot.com)…I’m assuming we needed to tell you?
Second, I have a scene in which the view point character dies, leaving little “action” to be done. How would Bickham’s formula work in that case? I actually had a writing friend tell me he had to live, just so he could take an action. Now, the character did take an action earlier in the chapter after he knew he was going to die. Does this count or is his coming to terms with his death count as an action?
PS. If this sounds familiar it is – it is similar to the first scene of the DaVinci Code. I didn’t realize it until after I wrote it so I have to rework it any way…
Having a viewpoint character die is very risky. We need to limit viewpoint characters or we risk emotional dilution. Readers can only care about so many people. They also need time to get in the skin of a character, so we take a risk of annoying the reader if we kill off a main character. Yes, Brown employed this in the DaVinci code, but that was at the very beginning of the book and served as essentially a prologue. It is tough to answer your question with so little to go off of, but I would honestly ask if it is really essential that this person be a viewpoint character.
Great Post! I always enjoy it when you use Chemistry to spice up your posts. (for obvious reasons)
I am SO glad you are talking about this…very helpful! Bring on “Part 2” woooo!
Can’t wait for the January class!
Thank you for sharing this valuable information! Your advice helped me define where I stand in my writing progress.
Thanks for a great post! This is so helpful and gives me a lot to think about as I begin my second novel.
What I’ve learned about novel structure has been from writing (and reading!!) fantasy novels. One of the most important things I’ve learned is to have a good idea of the fantasy setting (and I mean a GOOD idea–have most of it mapped out before you start) before writing or even outlining. Otherwise, unless the causes and effects only impact the protagonist’s emotions and nothing else in the plot (which never happens) you can’t accurately write what will happen. The same “cause” in two different settings would have vastly different effects. This applies to real-world settings, too, of course. After having done a number of rewrites because of jumping into writing without knowing my setting, I’ve finally learned to sit back, formulate the world, and THEN go into outlining. What I’ve noticed is that formulating the world often gives me great jumpstarts for the plot itself.
I look forward to the next post in this series!
I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and this is my first comment. Your advice is spot on and your writing is excellent – so clear, concise and fun!
I bought your first book (We Are Not Alone) yesterday and I’m really enjoying it. I’ll follow up with the other one soon. I do hope, however, my blog won’t need reconstructive surgery. But if it does, I’m ready to bite the leather.
By the way, I could have lived without that photo of the baboon!
Excellent points, Kristen. There are many published books out there that don’t follow these rules. How do they get published? I wonder. Anyway, the first time I’ve heard you recommending Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure I’ve got it right away. Fabulous book. Thank you!
I can’t believe that no one else commented about your MOST EXCELLENT use of the periodic table as metaphor. Loved it!
Failed chemistry three times, huh? I guess that means I should try a future post using Statistics as a metaphor….hated that class with a passion. 🙂
As a scene writer, I have no choice but to pay attention to structure so I don’t end up with a steaming pile of crap (useless delicious scenes). Thanks for doing such a good breakdown of such an important topic.
I’m a bad cook so a pizza consists of anything I want to put on it. Of course, there’s going to be bread, cheese, sauce and some toppings. However, if I want to put some pomegranate or anchovy, then so be it. It’s still going to be pizza but it looks weird.
Weird can be either good or bad. It can be good if it gives people something they never experienced before–iPhone for Steve Jobs (may he rest in peace) when there was a cell phone. Or it could totally fail big time like the Mac Book Air.
Still, it should closely resemble what it’s supposed to be–a phone should resemble a phone. Otherwise, it won’t be a phone. Or in my case, a pizza.
I agree structure is very much ignored. As a non-outliner, I often only see notes about it accompanied by “You must outline.” I can’t outline, as in I’ve tried, and it really is something I can’t do. My brain just doesn’t work that way.
My biggest headache with structure is figuring out where the story should start. Most of the common writing advice is rather misleading; as a consequence, I struggled a lot with structure because I was starting with what I perceived was starting with the “action” — and starting so far into the story that the beginning’s setup was forcing itself in all the way to the end. On my next book, I’m probably going to have to back up the beginning at least three times to hopefully start where I need to.
Timing seems to be the challenge on the current project — but when I try to think about cause and effort or twists and conflict, I tend to overthink or try to keep it to very rigidly controlled. I’m a holistic thinker, so it’s extremely difficult for me to think sequentially.
By the way, the photo you used is not Jeff Goldblum from the The Fly. It’s David (then Al) Hedison from the 1958 version. I used to do his official website.
Thanks for this post, it’s quite useful. I look forward to reading Part 2. Sadly I don’t have even 5 genuine pages of my eventual novel with which to claim my prize, as I’m still working out some key issues and writing related short stories (to be sure, they are stories that work best in short form, and are just tangentially related to the novel).
Which causes me to ask: is the prize of your editorial comments limited only to the beginnings of our novels, or will you critique short stories too? (if they fit the word requirements you list)
I will also look at blogs and short stories. Just whatever selection of 1250 words you have :D.
I love your stuff, Kristen, but I found this post incredibly hard to follow. Lots of fluff and very little substance. I had to sift through a lot of humor, analogy, and ranting… and I still don’t feel like you ever got to the point. What structure is, what it is not, what it looks like, how to do it. Just 17 different ways to tell us structure is important, and no content on how to execute.
There might even be something here of use to make me a better writer but I cannot find it in this mish-mash. Terribly unclear. I glazed over repeatedly.
Editors talk a lot about slashing out unnecessary verbiage and “little darlings” (which I similarly never got any substantive content on) but I think this blog could have used some of that Editor advice about cutting through clap-trap and staying on point.
PLEASE keep your points concise.
I really want to get better.
Well, can’t please everyone. I know there is a lot of analogy, but many people learn through parable and image. I know I was told “the basics” time and time again and it just didn’t get through my thick skull. It was only when I was able to use analogy that I could grasp the idea. Sometimes the simplest lessons are the toughest to comprehend, but with analogy it makes sense.
Too many people scream that I am forcing them into formulaic writing when I teach structure. The analogies are so new writers can understand that there are fundamentals that are vital for structure to form. Yes, they are simple, but following rules doesn’t mean we ruin creativity….just like Chemistry.
It was interesting because simply mentioning “Timing” helped me immediately understand what was bugging me about my story. Usually when people start talking structure, they mention inciting incidents, plot points, and whatnot — but I’d never heard timing used before.
I actually love the analogies. I completely disagree with Samuel. If you are looking for straight forward lessons, go to class, or better yet, buy a book that teaches the craft. And actually, if you read those books, you will find a lot of the same thing:analogies. And if you go to class you will find that the teachers are very one-sighted, only teaching what THEY like, not what works necessarily. The way Kristen writes is very relatable and helpful. Yes, we would all like knowledge to cement itself into our brains all at once, but that isn’t the persona of this blog. If you want to read a blog, Samuel, you don’t tell the person taking their precious time to give YOU information how to do it. That’s plain bad manners.
(Sorry if I was too harsh, but there it is).
A few years ago I took an online class by Steve Alcorn titled “Write Fiction Like a Pro” and was introduced to scene and sequel. I hated those exercises. I could follow the scene/sequel progression for a few chapters, and then the story would shift from scene/sequel to scene/scene/scene/sequel. Something would happen and my main character would fail to respond, or her response was not appropriate.
This was my first book and my first class. But you know what technique I went back to in re-write–when I got comments that the tension didn’t build properly. Scene to sequel, action to reaction, cause to effect. It’s a great tool to help me stay in that deep imersion POV and delve further into a character’s feelings and motivations.
Why must scenes end in disaster? Why can’t the hero occasionally try something and have it work? I hate books where things the hero sets out to do never work out right. Am I missing something?
They must end in “disaster” meaning there needs to be conflict. Remember in novels you are balancing two arcs–plot arc (events) and character arc (people). Sure the hero might succeed in solving some problem that gets him closer to the tactical goal…but this action might spark conflict with his allies/love interest/mentor. If we tie things up too neatly the reader will have a logical place for a bookmark and that is bad juju.
Kristen, This is very cool. It is just about the first instructions on writing I’ve read that makes complete sense.
You have an ardent follower:)
Analogies work for me (Pizza fan) but detailed outlines haven’t. I do complete the first draft like a pizza though. I use a very general outline (the dough) that lists the beginning and end, then add conflicts, causes and effects, and how I think the characters will change (the sauce). Everything else is added when I’m writing ( toppings). It’s not ready yet.
When the first draft is done, I do another more detailed outline, from what I’ve written, and review whether the scenes make sense. Then I fill in missing information or delete stuff that’s not needed. Then I let it sit for a couple of weeks, take it out and read through again.
Your analogies are great, helps me visualize and I’ll definitely link back to your blog.
I think one of the toughest things for me to do is, beating up my protag… the conflict is never really harsh, it’s subtle. I have them stub their toes, but never fall flat on their face, hopeless of ever coming out on top. I don’t know if it’s because I am just a good guy or a lousy writer.
I dig how you relate novel structure to the Periodic Table, atoms, and carbon molecules. But I’m a science major and I think in terms of analogy, so I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, haha. I’m using your guide (and Plot and Structure) to help revitalize my writing. So thanks for writing this great series! It’s really helpful 🙂
Oh and I do find part of myself wanting to rebel against the structure even as I absorb the fact that it seems this is how things really work. I think though that’s a natural thing…the writer’s ego, if you will. I tell just tell that little niggling whiner in the back of my head to stuff it, that I want to REALLY be a good writer, not feel like I am without anything tangible to back it up, haha.