First, let me apologize for this blog post being late. I have successfully moved to the Moon, but have lost a bit of time to a black hole, it seems. Am I forgiven? Yes? Excellent. Let us proceed with the curious topic of novel structure. I got this question from a reader in the email:
"I'm writing my first novel, and it's based on a true story that I experienced, but of course it is fiction so I can tell it better. I'm struggling with the structure. At first I thought I could form it as letters/emails to one of the other characters, written by the protagonist. Yet, that only lasted a page before it turned into "journal entries" by the main character. It still feels off as I write. Do you have any suggestions?"
I haven't written over 30 novels to be able to claim that I'm a novel structure expert, alas, am only writing my 4th, ROSEHEAD. However, I do have some ideas about it. For what they're worth, here is what I go by.
Every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is so simple, yet in the frenzy of daily writing so easy to forget. Some people call this a three act structure, others call it something else. The point is to create a world for the reader to be able to plunge in, sail through, and get out with a sense of something major being accomplished. Think of it this way. Remember the story that you heard recently that grabbed you. It can be anything, even a news article, like, this morning a mutant raccoon ate Mrs. Shlaugbauer in her own backyard. Wow. You want to know more, right You're like, what the fuck, mutant raccoon? I hooked you. In a sense, that's the first act, or the beginning. Something happens. In this sense, it doesn't matter how you write it, be it in the form of the main characters's diary or journal entry, like in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky. What matters is, what happened? Why would the reader want to keep reading? This initial event is the beginning of any story, be it a teenage conversation ("OMG, did you hear about Johnny getting wasted yesterday?") or a fantasy series beginning ("The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."). Both examples introduce a character we're curious about, either because we know him (Johnny), or because we want to know him (the gunslinger). The entire beginning is the expanded setup on this idea, to let us know where we are, what happened, who are the main players in the story, and so on. Once we get comfortable, BAM! Something drastic happens, and the meat of the story begins, where we know who is doing what and what they want out of it. The end is essentially the characters getting something they wanted, or not. Hence comes the payoff for us. It's why we read books. In life we rarely get a chance for things to resolve to any satisfaction, things are in the air, even the end of our lives is in the air, because we still don't know for sure what happens after we die. That's why the ending has to be clear, for us to have that awesome resolution feeling.
Clear story structure comes not from writing, but from rewriting. All first drafts are piles of mumbo-jumbo higgledy-piggledy stream of consciousness that can be simply called SHIT. The goal is not to obsess over structure, the goal is to dump it all out on the page, to start seeing any structure at all. So it's okay if you feel your writing has no structure. Keep writing until you've got it all out, until you feel like your story has come to an end and there is nothing else you can add. You might start out with the idea of wanting to write a novel, and it might end up a short story or a novella. It's okay. It's better to write a good novella than a poor novel. Size doesn't matter, story does. After you write it and have a chance to sit down and read the whole thing from beginning to end, you will start seeing patterns. Stephen King said something along the lines of, you're unearthing a skeleton buried in the ground, you start seeing bones, and a skull, and you keep cleaning the debris away until the whole thing is out. I would suggest a radical approach, something I did with SIREN SUICIDES, not because I knew how to do structure, but precisely because I didn't know how to do structure. I simply wrote and rewrote and rewrote until I started seeing order emerge. In the end, I think I might have overwritten it (did 5 drafts), but I learned a lot, and with ROSEHEAD I'm only doing 3 drafts. It's a feeling you get, and the more you write, the clearer it becomes. So don't worry about novel structure, just write. It will come.
Read a lot, to find books that will teach you structure. I don't mean reading books about writing. Forget those. Uh-oh. Did I just dare say this? Oh no, I know what's coming. Dear esteemed fellow writers who have written books on how to write books, please don't take this as an insult. It's not. It's simply my way of dealing with my own insecurities as a writer. I'll explain. The only book on the craft of writing I like is Stephen King's ON WRITING. Why? Because it didn't down talk to me. Stevie simply shared his life and his findings on how to write books. Most books about writing I read make me feel like an idiot. I get depressed, thinking, great, there is so much about writing I don't know, why the fuck would I even try writing? Forget it. It makes me depressed. So I blatantly ignore them. I AM SURE THERE ARE A TON OF AWESOME ONES OUT THERE. It's just that, every time I get depressed, I lose writing time (it usually kicks me out of my normal creative state for about a week). What does help me, and I think will help you, is reading a lot of novels. And I mean, A LOT. I try to read a novel a week. The thing is, the more you read, the more structure you will see in novels. You will pick it up on some gut level, that feeling that you know what the writer is doing. The problem is, we're all different, our senses are attuned differently, so it might take you a while to find your types of books, your types of authors, whose books talk to you. Just keep reading.
After all of this being said, my only two rules are, to write for at least 4 hours a day and to read for at least 2 hours a day. I don't think about structure or character development or any of those other fancy terms, I concentrate on getting the story out, hoping that one day I'll learn all there is to learn, and stubbornly moving forward no matter what.