NaNoPreMo 2018, part 3: Structure

Once upon a time there was a writer who wanted to break into the romance market. They researched what was in print, looked at what had been printed historically, what was selling at the time, and then wrote something which tried to avoid repeating the tropes of existing stories — they wanted to produce something fresh, something that everyone would be eager to read because it was new.

But no one wanted it because it didn’t fit: in trying to develop something different, they had abandoned the form that the readership was looking for.

The point here is that people love stories that are, to some extent, like the stories they already know. They want a twist, but only a twist, and people have a strong sense of what makes a satisfying narrative and will drop a book which doesn’t pay that off.

This post is not going to be an exhaustive treatise on structure, but I want to talk about two structural components that I have struggled with and continue to work on.

But first…

Why Structure At All?

Every story has a structure. Readers are looking for structure to help them navigate the narrative, to guide them in understanding the events being related.

Even if you set out without a plan, your story will have a structure. It might be a messy and incomprehensible structure, but one will be there.

If you want to write stories that people want to read, then you should think about a structure you want to use and be intentional about what that structure is.

Because (as I know from years of experience) trying to add structure later rarely works well.

Three Acts

The three act structure has been used as a baseline format on television for decades. It’s not the only structure available, but variations on it deliver stories that make sense to readers.

The version of these three acts that I use is:

  1. Act 1
    1. inciting incident — the thing that happens that starts the story.
    2. first attempt to deal — the protagonist tries to make things better, but makes things worse. Or they do something which should fix the problem, but the antagonist is revealed to be doing things that thwart those efforts.
  2. Act 2
    1. protagonist realise that something is up and gathers resources to try again
    2. second attempt to deal — another go at fixing things, another thing which (mostly) fails. This can include a small victory for the protagonist, but overall the protagonist should understand that there is a lot more to be done.
  3. Act 3
    1. darkest hour — the antagonist takes something from the protagonist thinks they can not do without: their mentor, their lover, their shiny new sword. But in their defeat lie the seeds of victory.
    2. final challenge — the protagonist and antagonist face off and the antagonist is defeatad… for now.
    3. denoument — aftermath of the final challenge, where the protagonist has to accept the changes that have happened.

There are lots of variations on this including pinch points, structures with seven acts and so on, but this is a serviceable form which will produce a sufficiently compelling story.

To give a specific example, Livia and the Corpuscles was built around this form.

Point of View

When we talk about points of view (POV), there are two things we could discuss: voice, and multiple characters. They are related but distinct elements.

The voice choice is usually between one of first person, close third person, distant third person, and some variety of omniscient third person.

  • first person — the words are those of the character. Good to make characters sympathetic because self-image tends to be positive, but very difficult for relating events that don’t happen to the character directly.
  • close third person — a narrator is describing the character, but there is direct insight into the character’s thoughts. Focusses on a single character at a time.
  • distant third person — the narrator describes the character but in a more remote way: unlikely to have visibility of the inside of anyone’s head, allows for more broad descriptions, opportunities for dramatic irony, and so on. The focus is on a single character, but can zoom out to describe things which are a little more distant if need be.
  • omniscient — the narrator knows all. This is where head-hopping can pop up, but basically the narrator relates everything that is relevant to the story.

Changing voice is entirely possible, but always fraught. It’s been two years since I changed Song from close third person to first and I still find incorrect pronouns.

Narrative distance from the character dictates things about how the story is told, but another element of POV which has given me trouble over the years is multiple protagonists. I have tripped over two significant issues:

  1. giving each POV character a meaningful narrative arc. POV characters need to learn and grow, or at least change over the course of the story, so it is important for each of the characters telling the overall story to have their own narrative structure. What I do here is to consider each character independently of the overall story and to prepare three act structures for each.

    This has been particularly valuable as an approach with Song. That is in fact a single POV story, but I found that describing the narrative from supporting characters’ point of view helped me to sharpen the narrative when those characters were getting page time.

  2. handing off from character to character. My early work structures multiple POVs as: each character does a complete thing, then jump to the next character. I am telling multiple independent stories, effectively time-slicing between them*.

    Unfortunately, that isn’t compelling story-telling.

    Switching POV characters should be timed to answer a question raised in another POV. The idea is that the other POV might have information that the first doesn’t have, or might learn something that might be useful if only the other one knew…

    This is something I still struggle with. I have successful short stories with multiple POVs, but no functional novels yet.

Final Encouraging Words

Structure is hard, and as a new writer it felt like too much work, but believe me when I say it is much more work to write an elaborate narrative without a structural plan and then have to try and corral the story into something that a reader might want to actually read.

Go forth and struct your stuff!

[*] consolidating narratives per character is how I will try to rescue that story.

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