I thought I would do that looking in one of my writing books today and seeing which page I landed on and I landed on story structure.
I have talked about this before of course but it’s actually a key component to why some short stories and novels fail and why some really work. And I found not only did I have to get a real grasp of this for my own writing — but if I was to define what doesn’t work in someone else’s story I needed to really ‘get it’.
Some stories oddly, like one I looked at recently, kind of broke the rules, it moved over a large time gap in a short story, it also used an authorial voice shifting from one character to another and it’s structure was slightly skewed in terms of arc and the conflict driving it — yet it worked and so it forced me to look more closely at how it was structured. And it also proves we need to know the rules, we need to ‘get it’ before we then play around. And while we might say with something like the arts, there has to be room for subjectivity (and who’s arguing) at the same time we need to know how to build our houses — so they don’t fall down. And there are many ways to do that right? But while there may be many types of houses, they all need the same key features — good foundations, support work, roof etc and this metaphor can be applied to how we structure our stories.
Actually when I did tease apart the structure of the story mentioned, I saw that what ran through it was something that connected each character, in different times and places and almost took on the role of the character the reader engages with even though it’s not a person, it’s not even a living thing. And here formed the skeletal backbone around which the other components assembled. And that’s why it worked. It did follow the rules!
Structure is key. Might sound obvious but trust me when I say how many stories I read that fall down, literally because not enough attention is paid to this very thing. It isn’t always enough just to tell the story in a linear way but at other times it’s exactly what’s needed to help along a limping,meandering, overcomplicated plot. So as you can see it’s no exact science.
For me it’s about making sure the basic structure is totally sound and then starting with a simple arc, a strong story and then add the complexities to it BUT never tear up the foundations (the THEME) or the joists or the walls that hold it together or it will fall down.
If you do it right you will feel it and you will measure that in the reactions to it. And if you think it was more by fluke than design take a closer look. Study the structure — do the same with books and stories you love and think how you can use that in your own work.
When I do my second bit edit on a completed first draft it’s the structure I look at before I start getting pedantic about the words and the way I develop voice and use language (also integral to the story but more interior design than stabilising walls). And since you might well lose characters and whole plot points in the ‘redesign’ then start with the structure and redecorate later.
So what you ask is structure precisely? Well it’s how is the story told? Three first person narratives at different time points? Multiple narrators chronologically? Using the past and the present in an alternating way? Time slip … etc. And again this all boils down to the question I ask my clients all the time BUT IS THIS THE BEST WAY TO TELL THIS STORY? Look at voices, who’s telling the story? Does the tense work? Do the voices sound different? Would it be better to start at the climax and work back? Do you need all the build-up, why not start in the action and then go back and build to it? Do you need all the exposition (back story) at the beginning (NO!) — you carefully drip feed on a need to know basis?
And how is your scene placement and function tied to the theme — how does it explore it since everything needs to EXPLORE THEME — and REVEAL CHARACTER AND MOVE PLOT. So does it?
There are many ways novelists and short story writers structure their work and so the only way to really grasp it is to read what other writers do well and not so well and write, write and oh er — write. And if you have a story written one way, let’s say a very articulate first person monologue of let’ say a woman talking about the loss of her child — now see if you can tell the same story in a different way. Can you use a different voice, alternating narrators to show a whole other perceptive, start at the end and move backwards and now see what works the best?
In a world of infinite possibilities, there is an exciting assortment of methods and techniques and structures out there — you won’t be reinventing the wheel, but the more you play, the more you might just hit upon a masterpiece in structural engineering. And it might feel new. I think that’s the magic agents and publishers are looking for — that thing that’s so hard to define. But they know it when they see it and so will you. And the odd thing is when I come across a novel like that, or its film adaptation even though it might feel new and innovative and exciting — it also feels like a story I know! And one I wish I’d written. Do you get me?
So always worth mixing up your writing and trying something new.
And won’t it be fun trying.
One that falls down?