Monday, February 10, 2014

Thoughts on Structure in Writing

Good morning. I recently sent off a short story to a very brilliant writer friend of mine. I was very excited as I was going to submit that story to a magazine. Unfortunately, she wrote back that the story had no structure. It wasn't what I expected to hear. I expected to hear that perhaps my humor wasn't conveyed the right way, the adverbs needed to be culled, the POV was a little 'iffy' in chapter three. But structure? Who knew.

We all have had it drummed into our heads since we were little kids --  a story has a beginning, middle, and end. Pretty much all you need to know when you're nine. As we progress through school, we learn about dangling modifiers, adjectives, clauses, punctuation, etc. We get the difference between fiction, non-fiction and essays by the time we graduate high school. In college we "learn the rules" of how to write and hope we do not get a D. There's a formula for writing well no matter what you do in life. From resumes, law contracts, complaints to HR or customer services, doctor charts and reports, or just a simple thank you note -- there's a way to write it correctly. Beginning, middle, end. You know what I'm talking about.

To get back to my short story. Seems it was all middle. My friend likened it to a private conversation with no quotation marks so you never knew who was speaking. It had nothing to stand up to, nothing to push back against. No beginning, no end.

Hmm. I thought about. I thought about it some more. I reread the story. *face palm* She was right.

Flash forward to now. I'm finally at the end of my latest WiP. I am about to finish the first/tenth draft (I edit as I go) and send it off to my beta readers. (Once that comes back, I adjust and send to my critters.) I was thinking (as I was writing) "Gee, this book is taking an awfully long time to finish, but I still have so much left to say." And I did. I had five threads that needed to be tied up. So why weren't they?

Please, bear with me as I try and explain.

As we all know, different genres have different formulas. In cozy mysteries, the dead body is usually off stage. In romance, the hero and heroine must meet within the first five pages. In science fiction it's all in the world building. We also know, that in the back of any writing endeavor, we have  beginning, middle, and end. That small, simple fact is encoded into our DNA.

In any kind of fiction writing there is a definite formula. So many climactic scenes per act. The longer the word count, the more climaxes you could fit in. With three acts, you have the minimum of three dramatic climaxes with all the lose ends being tied up at the close of the book. Within each act there could be one or two other threads (sub-plots) running as well with their own drama. Within each act the tension must rise until the final culmination or climax where everything is resolved. (Including all sub-plots, unless you're leaving room to write a sequel.)

Okay, so you with me so far. (If not, Anne R. Allen had as her guest yesterday, Paul Fahey, a very distinct short form writer. However, he also has the exact diagram of what I tried to explain above. If you haven't read the post yet, you should. Step 4.)

In thinking on the structure of this novel THE CAPTAIN'S COINCIDENCE before I began writing, I presumed it would have a beginning, middle, and end. After reading it through the other day, I think I've written beginning, end, middle. My hero's journey ends smack dab in the middle of the book with this huge daring rescue/sea battle. (Plot spoiler ahead) The villain dies. After that, nothing. No more "big" moments or discoveries. As a matter of fact, this is where I'm tying up my loose ends. However, here's the kicker -- the hero and heroine are apart. And my reason why

-- I short changed the heroine in almost the entire book. However, there's more at stake for her now.  So over the course of the last three chapters in trying to give her POV more consideration (as well as tying up those threads) I have a long drawn out waiting game for the heroine -- will he or won't he return to her.

Not the way it's supposed to go. We MEET at the BEGINNING. We WAIT in the MIDDLE (because generally in a romance, something has to keep the hero/heroine apart). BIG stuff (like daring rescues and sea battles) usually happen at the END.

Hmm. What is it with me and middles?

I'm not restructuring the story to fit the formula. I don't think the story would work that way. I don't know what my readers will think. I guess I'll find out. As for the short story I wrote, I know what she means now about it being all middle and I know what I need to do to fix it. (Yes, the obvious, write a beginning and end.)

Tell me -- Do you ever think about structure when writing? Or do you just write and see where it takes you? Do you write beginning, middle, end? Do you ever find the occasion to chuck the formulas?

Anne Gallagher (c) 2014

Do join me next Monday when Bish Denham is here to talk about her new book.


R. Mac Wheeler said...


The whole thing about structure and formulas drives me out the door screaming.

There is one question to ask: "Is it entertaining?"

Cut what doesn't add to the story. Strengthen what does.

Okay...I go off and smell the flowers and follow the critters that wander about in my world.

-love ya, Mac

Stacy McKitrick said...

Stucture? Formulas? Plot points? If I use them, I'm not aware of it. But short stories are HARD when you're used to writing long, so don't punish yourself too much!

Anne Gallagher said...

Mac -- Yes, I agree the story needs to be entertaining. However, if there is no structure, it will fall apart. Or just not be that good. But I know what you mean about running for the hills.

Stacy -- No, no punishment here. Just a *face palm*.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I usually have no problem with the ending or even the middle. The most difficult part of a novel for me is always the beginning.

Laurel Garver said...

I get kind of tired of one writer after another saying you "have to" write stories with the traditional three act structure, because I know of plenty of books that don't.

Then during a weekend bookstore visit, I discovered _Story Structure Architect_, which outlines 11 different structures and more than 50 kinds of story situation tropes (and outlines how the plots typically work). It might be a helpful resource for you. I'm certainly getting a lot out of it.

Anne Gallagher said...

Susan -- See I never worry about my beginning because that's where the story starts. I know it's going to change eventually -- maybe not the whole thing but bits and pieces -- as the story progresses and I make edits. This whole "middle" thing is messing me up though.

Laurel -- Yeah, I know those pesky "writer rules". I don't mind that I'm not following the structure, I just want to know why it's so important it comes at the end.

So maybe the end is REALLY the middle, even with a giant sea battle, and the end is just the end. Hmmm.

I read that Architect book once. (I thought I actually had a copy, but I looked and it was a different architect.) I'll have buy a copy.

I really also like that writers shouldn't be afraid of bucking the traditional rules when need be. We all have our own style.

Linda Cassidy Lewis said...

I have a new writer friend I'm sharing drafts with. She's strong on structure, so I've been having a million thoughts on structure lately. I hope to learn from her without becoming enslaved to "rules." I'll have to check out that book Laurel mentioned.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I think about structure a lot, especially as it relates to pace. If things are too slow, usually for me it's a structure problem

Liza said...

Without structure, the story doesn't flow. I wish I could be more of a planner, but I tend to write the thing and then go back and uncover where it doesn't work...or someone does it for me. :)

J.B. Chicoine said...

I was never really aware of a formal structure when I started writing, and even now, I don't think about it much except to shoot for several climactic moments throughout the middle, knowing I will throw in the big moment at the end, and hopefully that will tie up most of the loose strands.

I think that if you're writing commercial fiction, you're kind of shooting yourself in the foot if you don't give attention to structure. Your Regency and Women's Fiction are not an experimental so stick to the program!

Jennifer Hillier said...

I'm terrible at middles! Beginnings and endings I can do, but middles? That's where I struggle.

A lot of my structuring happens in later drafts; therefore, my first drafts are always awful. I write organically from the beginning to end, weaving in whatever subplots feel right... and then do major cleanup in drafts two and three. Fun fun!

Linda G. said...

I try not to think about structure at all when I'm writing--when I do, it paralyzes me.

Middles are tough--I do consciously try to make "important" stuff happen in the middle, just to keep readers on the bridge (so to speak) until the end.

Donna Hole said...

I guess I pretty well just write. Sometimes I notice the missing structure during the writing, but I always go back looking for this after I complete the first draft.

Sometimes you just gotta get the words out before worrying too much where it is or should be going. Hey, that's what editing is for ;0