Structuring A Story

Structuring a story 1I’m at the start of a new book, about ten thousand or so words in. Needless to say, I’m giving a lot of thought to the invisible framework upon which the story will hang. My Penguin editors talk a lot about structure. In fact, the first and most crucial round of editing, the structural edit, is devoted entirely to the architecture of the narrative. Yet oddly enough, many writing workshops rarely seem to discuss this subject. (Apologies to Sydney Smith the story whisperer, for stealing that architecture of the narrative line. It’s from the title of her forthcoming how-to book. Sydney could never be accused of ignoring the importance of structure!)

Save the CatOther aspects of story such as characterisation, plot and pace for example are talked about all the time. But fixing up your characters or adjusting the pace of your plot won’t save a story if it’s structurally flawed. I roughly follow the three-act structure, much beloved of modern screen writers and ancient storytellers. Knowing how to structure a novel won’t stop it evolving organically, but it will save a lot of time later on. There are plenty of books outlining this method. I’ve previously blogged about my two favourites. Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and Alexandra Sokoloff’s fabulous Screenwriting Tips For Authors. However sometimes I forget, and breaking into a writing session to consult a text can really halt your momentum. So even though I’m a pantster at heart, I always keep a few basic elements of story-telling structure in my mind as I write.

1. The first turning point or inciting incident.
This needs to happen quickly, ideally in the first few pages. It’s the event that sets the plot in motion, a departure from our main character’s normal life. But in order for it to have maximum impact, you have to establish what normal actually is i.e. what is the character expecting to happen. If our hero is a teacher, she expects to find a classroom full of students when she goes to work. If our hero is a prisoner, she expects to be locked up. What if the teacher’s class is missing, or the prisoner’s cell is open? A choice is then forced on the protagonist. Beginning writers often open with fast-paced scenes that don’t mean much. Readers can only appreciate the unusual if they understand the normal.

Turning point2. Lots more turning points.
With a rough, three act structure there are generally three big turning points and lots of little ones, to ensure the story gets increasingly complicated. They happen when a character solves one problem, only to find they are faced with another, thus ratcheting up the tension. The big ones come at the end of each act and the final one brings resolution.

3. Character arcs.
Our hero must learn and change, and overcome inner and outer conflict. This is true of other main characters as well. The simplest way to make this happen is to establish their character flaw early on, and ensure they overcome it by the end. In my new novel Turtle Reef, my protagonist’s flaw is naivety – a willingness to trust too much, too soon. This often blinds her to the truth. Once you can name your character’s main flaw, it’s easier to write scenes that exploit it. Characters can learn things about themselves in all sorts of ways. There is the dramatic epiphany, the series of small insights, the recognition of themselves in someone else (not too early on of course!) Stories will resonate more with readers when characters grow and change.

4. Resolve things
Establish a new normal at the end. Or it could be returning to the old normal, but in any case, the mess you’ve created should be cleaned up somehow. Readers will be dissatisfied with a story that isn’t resolved well

So these are the simple guidelines I always keep in mind while writing. Every single scene is interrogated in reference to them, and if it doesn’t further the plot or a character arc, the scene is out, no matter how pretty the prose. It’s a lot easier to keep the elements of structure in mind while writing, than to be confronted with a whopping big structural report from your editor at the end, pointing out all the flaws in your story!

Don’t forget there’s still time to enter the book giveaway. Just leave a comment telling me who is your favourite fictional bad guy! Winners announced 30th March.

BB14

11 thoughts on “Structuring A Story

  1. A big thank you for this post, Jenny! The timing of these insights, guidelines and reminders is perfect for me, as I return to novel-writing after a two+ year break that was enforced by health issues.
    The fallow time has allowed me to read, very slowly, lots of literary fiction – my true love, and what I’m aiming for in my own writing. And it’s granted me sufficient distance from my completed draft to have clearer ideas as to what overhauling is required – turns out there’s lots!
    Now I can apply your guidelines to my reviewing as well; I can already see how valubale they’ll be.
    Good luck with Turtle Reef – and enjoy!

  2. Thank you Jen for that wonderful prompt and reminder. I shall post it on my wall – the physical wall, I mean, in my actual office. Now, back to it!

  3. An excellent summary, Jenny. Timely for me as well. I’ve completed Act I, had a two week break, and now I need to get busy with the rest of the draft. I find I’m always coming back to my story structure, whether it’s to refine or to make sweeping changes. Your summary of the key elements is very helpful. Thank you!

  4. Great tips Jenny. I’m currently using Hooked by Les Edgerton to help with some structuring issues and finding it really helpful. I always feel like I’m starting from scratch with each new book. Never hurts to have some guidance I guess.

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