Structure Matters: Building Great Stories to Endure the Ages
Yesterday we talked about great stories and why the world craves them and needs more of them. It’s easy to assert the world needs more great stories, but how do we go about writing them? Glad you asked.
Great stories that endure for generations are not the result of whim, accident or even a lot of ‘rising and grinding.’ There’s an end vision, a planning phase, and a way to make sure all the parts come together to create what was originally imagined (or perhaps something that surpassed all hope).
This is true of all enduring structures. Can you imagine the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Mayan temples, or the Nazca Lines being the result of whim? Hey, lets go pile some stones and chip away at a cliff and see what happens?
Great stories possess an inherent architectural design unique to building with words. In fact, the more vast and complex a story we desire to write, the more structure skills matter.
Mastering how stories are fundamentally put together will increase our odds of crafting a story readers love.
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail
Narrative structure is fundamental, especially for any writer who longs to craft great stories that can withstand the test of time and Goodreads trolls 😛 .
Structure, sadly, is probably one of the most overlooked topics even though it’s the most critical.
Why? Because structure is for the reader. The further an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect and resonate.
When structure is missing, incomplete, or flawed, the easier it is for readers to become confused, frustrated and finally give up. Structure isn’t simply for function, but for beauty as well (refer to jacked up Ikea fail above).
Sadly, too many emerging writers want to get to the ‘fun’ stuff (for them). Pretty prose, descriptions, characters, using new words are great imaginative play. Unfortunately, that’s all it is. Play.
Crafting great stories is work. Too much play and too little planning is the reason many ‘novels’ are Literary Barbie Dream Houses or Literary Holodecks (if you prefer).
While the writer is vested in the ‘story,’ no one else cares because the ‘book’ was written to entertain the creator not the consumer. Hey, I am not judging, for the record….
Story that connects to readers = lots of books sold
Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile or Amazon purgatory
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, agents and readers 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 craft series simple easy and best of all FUN.
Great Stories Possess Intrinsic Order
I get it. Learning story 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.
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. If we fail to understand this, then crafting a great story becomes more accident than intention.
Dunno about y’all, but I prefer odds I can control, thanks.
Great Stories: Back to the BASICS
Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure (non-linear structure), turning points, rising action, and darkest moments, etc.
Often, structure is the stuff most new writers don’t understand, but I’m going to save you a ton of rewrite and disappointment. Again, prose is not a novel. Just because we can write beautiful sentences doesn’t mean we have the necessary skills to write an 60-100,000+ word novel (or a 300,000 + word series).
That’s like saying, I can build a birdhouse, so I can build a house! Uh, probably not. Or, I can build a house, so I can construct a skyscraper! Um…no. Different scale, different skills.
Do they share some basic components? Sure! But a novel (or series) requires 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 the skills to create a great short story are the same for a novel. Or the same for a novel are the same for an epic ten-book space opera.
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.
Simplicity Births Complexity
Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they’re also essential for lotuses, lions, and lemmings. Today we’re 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’m boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be further 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—peach or poodle? 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.
The Micro Scale of Structure
We’re going to first ZOOM IN and place the novel under a literary electron microscope.
The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. 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 a nucleus with orbiting 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 people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that ‘seed’ needs 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 chat more about that later.
Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we’ll 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.
***I know carbon chains also make some dead things, but great stories are living ‘creatures.’ Dead stories are, well, dead and deserve to rot in a slush pile. Ah, but living stories are immortal!
Anyway, carbon chains and various elements from that Periodic Table act like Legos—put together differently, in innumerable ways…but always using the same fundamental blocks.
Assembled in the wrong order—>steaming pile of goo.
***Lest I remind anyone who saw The Fly about that baboon that didn’t quite ‘make it’ through the teleportation pod.
Carbon chains create flowers and ferrets and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries, romances, fantasies and thrillers and all things literary.
Order Matters: Scene & Sequel
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 and read and study).
- 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 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.
Meet & Exceed Expectations
On some intuitive level, all readers expect some variation of this structure. When things happen for no reason, or there are actions that should have consequences then don’t? Formula for a book mark.
Readers eventually grow weary and move on, especially these days when humans have the attention span of a crack-addicted spider monkey.
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 sun-dried tomatoes or feta cheese.
But, on some primal level, a patron will know what to expect when we ‘sell’ them a pizza. They will know that a fried corn tortilla stuffed with shredded bison and a raspberry chutney is NOT pizza…even though it is certainly ‘creative.’
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 we can BREAK and BASH them!
For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .
Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen.
I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?
I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of FEBRUARY, for 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).
***January’s winner is Maria D’Marco. Please send your first twenty pages (5,000 words) double spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font (12 pint) with one-inch margins in a Word doc to kristen at wana intl.com.
Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, February 15, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST
Being a professional author entails much more than simply writing books. Many emerging authors believe all we need is a completed novel and an agent/readers will come.
There’s a lot more that goes into the writing business…but not nearly as much as some might want us to believe. There’s a fine balance between being educated about business and killing ourselves with so much we do everything but WRITE MORE BOOKS.
This class is to prepare you for the reality of Digital Age Publishing and help you build a foundation that can withstand major upheavals. Beyond the ‘final draft’ what then? What should we be doing while writing the novel?
We are in the Wilderness of Publishing and predators abound. Knowledge is power. We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate. This is to prepare you for success, to help you understand a gamble from a grift a deal from a dud. We will discuss:
- The Product
- Types of Publishing
- Platform and Brand
- Marketing and Promotion
- Making Money
- Where Writers REALLY Need to Focus
A recording of this class is also included with purchase.
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $99.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, February 16, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to go KDP Select or wide distribution with Smashwords as a distributor? Are you going to use the KDP/CreateSpace ISBN’s or purchase your own package? What BISAC codes have you chosen? What keywords are you going to use to get into your target categories? Who’s your competition, and how are you positioned against them?
Okay, hold on. Breathe. Slow down. I didn’t mean to induce a panic attack. I’m actually here to help.
Beyond just uploading a book to Amazon, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that can help us build our brand, keep our books on the algorithmic radar, and find the readers who will go the distance with us. If getting our books up on Amazon and CreateSpace is ‘Self-Publishing 101,’ then this class is the ‘Self-Publishing senior seminar’ that will help you turn your books into a business and your writing into a long-term career.
- Competitive research (because publishing is about as friendly as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones)
- Distribution decisions (because there’s actually a choice!)
- Copyright, ISBN’s, intellectual property, and what it actually all means for writers
- Algorithm magic: keywords, BISAC codes, and meta descriptions made easy
- Finding the reader (beyond trusting Amazon to deliver them)
- Demystifying the USA Today and NYT bestselling author titles
- How to run yourself like a business even when you hate business and can’t math (I can’t math either, so it’s cool)
Yes, this is going to be a 3-hour class because there is SO much to cover…but, like L’Oréal says, you’re worth it! Also, a recording of this class is also included with purchase.
The class includes a workbook that will guide you through everything we talk about from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution, and much, much more!
Time is MONEY, and your time is valuable so this will help you make every moment count…so you can go back to writing GREAT BOOKS.
BOTH classes for $129 (Save $25). This bundle is FIVE hours of professional training, plus the recordings, plus Cait’s workbook to guide you through everything from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution and more.