Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Searching for the structure

When I wrote my first novel, I gave very little thought to story structure. I had a beginning and an ending in mind, and I figured the middle would take care of itself as I wrote. Which, it did--the characters totally took over the plot, and by the time I got to page 150, we'd gotten so far off the beaten path that the ending I'd been aiming for was just a distant memory. I threw out my old ending and wrote my characters into an ending that fit their story. Then I went back and rewrote the entire thing to make the beginning match the ending, and, voila! Book done.

Three years later, I was still rewriting that book. I had taken a class on story structure, which led me to write an outline for the book I'd already written, and then try to cram that outline into the teacher's idea of a good plot. That got me stuck for a year, because writing somebody else's plot doesn't work. Then one of my writing group buddies helped me come up with a few minor changes, which gave my protagonist a clearer motivation throughout the book without feeling contrived. After that I gave in and cut another character and her subplot out, which I think (when I finish the job) will pull everything together into a novel that's the right length. The characters are terrific, and their story is important--it's just a matter of getting them from point A to point B in the way that will pull the reader through the story, instead of dragging them hither and yon along the deer path of my mind.

With my most recent project, I got smart and started with an outline. I got my basic plot points onto the outline and started writing.

Once again, characters evolved as I wrote them, and by page 50 my outline was about as relevant as a tuna sandwich with extra mayo. I wrote my way into the middle of the book, and then I started writing towards the ending, and then I was stuck so I went back to the middle...

And then I took another story structure workshop, and realized that the problem was that I was avoiding writing a pivotal scene--my second plot point--because I didn't feel like writing any of the ones I could think of, so I'd convinced myself my story didn't need it. I had all sorts of great stuff going on, but it was background stuff without there being a foreground.

I've spent the past week on a camping trip, reading (when I had time to read) the story structure section of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and thinking about my characters and the end point they need to get to. Someone I had to determine what pivotal thing needed to happen to get them from the middle to the end. I had all sorts of ideas that struck me as sort of predictable. I could have made them work, but they weren't exciting me, so chances are they wouldn't excite a reader either.

In the middle of a day-use area, while children and adults walked past by me with inner tubes on their way to float down the nearby river, it came to me. At least, I think it did. When looking for the proper plot twist, the thing that makes you look up from your notebook and say "Holy s&*!--no way! Really?! Whoah." is probably It.

And, I don't believe I'd have thought of it if I hadn't been working with these characters for months. But maybe one day an outline (or other plotting device) will work for me. It would definitely be faster!

by Alison Jakel


  1. I didn't realize you're writing a book! I wish you much luck and hope to be reading your published novel one day!!

  2. Thanks, Kathy! Yes, I've actually been writing prolifically while my blog-writing, -reading, and -commenting has been neglected. :-)

  3. HELLO! So exciting to see you again. And this is a very interesting post - when can I read your book(s)?

  4. Thanks, Care! Um...You can read these as soon as I finished them, get an agent, snag a publisher, and...yeah. So maybe, 2015?

    I'm hoping to blog more about my writing here, though, so maybe I'll post an excerpt at some point.

  5. It's ALL about story structure. Watch Kal Bashir's youtube videos.

  6. Thanks, Anon. I found his speaking style a little hard to follow (I watched his analysis of the Descendants) but it's great to have so many examples and I'll definitely check out more of his.

    Dan Wells has a presentation on YouTube that was really helpful for me as well (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcmiqQ9NpPE&list=PLC430F6A783A88697&index=1&feature=plpp_video), which uses the same terminology that Brooks uses and offers quite a few examples.