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