Structure

It took me ages to understand the importance of structure. When I was a teenager, I wrote a series of fantasy novels called Felix Bones (coolest protagonist name ever, right?), and the main reason they sucked was the utter lack of structure. Allow me to explain.

            So get this: these badboys, four books in total, amounted to one hundred and eighty thousand words, and there was not a paragraph to be found. Each chapter consisted of walls of text thousands of words long, and the sentences were long too, and rarely varying in length. I told the story from third person focussing around the protagonist’s point of view and in chronological order. The chapters were all roughly the same length and weren’t divided into scenes or events. Instead, I would write until I got the feeling the chapter had gone on long enough and then I’d look for an opportune moment for a character to say something dramatic or the next action scene to be over, and then I’d end the chapter.

Why is this bad? Imagine a three hour movie done in a continuous shot from the same angle and focussed on one actor. You miss a lot of stuff, it’s boring, and it’s tiring.

Okay, so Jack Kerouac wrote an entire novel on a single piece of paper in a continuous stream of consciousness. It’s a good novel, but I still wouldn’t recommend the structure. It worked for him because of what the novel actually was, the story of a lost kid on a rambling trek across America with no destination in mind. Remember that: the structure worked because it matched the story. Do not write like Jack Kerouac. That structure will not match your story.

Here’s the thing. The posts I put on here in regards to writing are pretty much descriptions of tools. They are my explanations of how the tools work and how I understand they should be used or not used. In the end, though, they are tools – not commandments or templates or even guidelines. I can’t write a list of character types and say: ‘These are some really good characters to use in a story’, and I’m also not going to say: ‘Your books should always be written with Beginning Middle and End and have logical chapter breaks.’ That is one way structure can be used, it is not the only way.

Point in Case: Isaac Asimov. Ever read that guy’s books? His chapters are all over the place, and I don’t think any of them even play out in chronological order. Some of the initial chapters happen after the last ones, and they jump all over the place, touching on this and then that and then something else. Point is, he used structure for a purpose. His chapters were short because he wanted to show the reader lots of different things, some in the future and some in the past, some on Earth and some on Mars, and ooh look a squirrel! The effect is of a story coming together in bits and pieces, confusing at first and then becoming clearer, and all the while interesting because you know each chapter is about something new.

Structure is a tool, and it should be adapted for your story.

But how do you know what kind of structure to use? Should you follow five different characters and conclude all their arcs at the end? Or jump from villain to hero throughout the book to get two clear persepectives? Or should you have long in depth development and break it up with news reports and diary entries? The best answer I can give you is, it depends.

Structure has power, people, understand this. It can change a novel into a different novel. It doesn’t matter what colour wallpaper you put in your house, it’s the framework that decides whether you’re living in a mansion or a shack. Here’s a fun game: take your favourite novel and ruin it by changing the structure.

Fight Club told in alternating chapters, with each one being first person of Jack, Tyler, Marla, Bob, and the 7-11 guy. And each chapter is longer, with more in depth aspects of their lives. Now you can’t use Jack’s signature bleak tone the whole time, and you have to add details and character arcs that change the path of the story. It would be very hard to maintain any of the mystery and confusion that Jack feels. Probably you’d kill it, because the story is Jack and Tyler. If you give equal page space to other things, you’re neglecting what it’s really about. On the flip side, take Game of Thrones and change the structure so that every chapter concerns the same protagonist. I bet the new version would be unrecognizable.

Before you decide what structure you want to use, ask yourself what your story is. Do you have an original protagonist with an interesting personal philosophy/outlook? Longer chapters in first person would be my choice, advancing the action through his eyes. Are you worried about long sections where not much action takes place? I’d suggest shorter chapters, each with a different focus or point of view. Too many characters? Maybe you can use structure to focus on the most important ones. The others still affect the course of the book, but they do it ‘off screen’, and don’t steal page space.

If you’re still getting the hang of it all, though, you should do what I do: keep it as simple as you damn well can.

The first decent book I wrote had the following structure. Beginning, Middle, End. Each section was divided into about twenty chapters, give or take, and each was divided into three parts. Example: Beginning was: ‘Kid finds book that opens other universes, explores one with his friends, discovers a monster.’ I wrote seven dot points for the first section of Beginning, each outlining a specific event or scene that had to happen concerning the notes. Each dot point became a chapter. Before I started, I had the basic direction for Beginning, Middle and End, but only the sections for Beginning, and only the chapters for the first section. That way, I had a solid direction to head in, but enough freedom of movement that I could change if the book called for it.

I don’t plan on using the same structure for all my novels, but that one was an eye opener. If I was struggling in any chapter, I could just go to my notes and find the reason I was writing that chapter in the first place. Even though I had no idea how the book was going to end until I was about halfway through ‘End’, I always knew how each chapter was going to end, and that was enough to keep me writing day in and out until it was done.

Don’t be deceived: a simple story structure does not necessarily make a simple story. You can use the same three act structure to shape everything: novels, character arcs, subplots, whatever, and come out with something wildly different each time. The simplest structure, the one I used for Book of Worlds, follows the same principle as the rules of grammar: it’s a foundation. You can break rules of grammar, bend them however you want and flip them upside down, but you better not fuck around if you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to be certain it’s gonna work out.

Stephen King once said that Grammar is the pole you grab when you’re drowning. Something stable you can fall back on. Simple structure, for me, is the same. When I’m lost in some complex (to me at least) story twist or plotline, I can always sit back and breathe and repeat the three magic words: Beginning, Middle, End.

You keep your experimental continuous narratives and non chronological chapters to yourself, okay? I’m just fine over here in the corner with my three words.

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