What exactly do we mean by talking about structure, and just why is it so important?
In the most basic terms if you don’t have a structure, then you don’t have a story. Structure and plot are sometimes used interchangeably, but although closely interlinked they are not quite the same thing. Your plot is what happens in your story; your structure is a map for how that plot unfolds. Think of a plot as the bricks of your novel, and structure as the cement that holds it all together, as well as the overall shape.
In effect then, the structure is the shape of your plot and the foundation of it. It holds your story together. Your structure is your guide for what happens when, and it shapes your plot into a coherent narrative. Without a well-structured plot it doesn’t matter how beautifully you write or how wonderfully imaginative your original idea, you still don’t have a story. What you have is a pile of writing. It may be genius level writing, but it isn’t a story.
If you are the sort of writer who, rather than planning every plot detail meticulously, likes to take a good idea and run with it (which inevitably leads to far more editing later on) then having at least a basic plan in place before you begin ensures you won’t stray too far away from the path and end up, a third of the way into a draft which started brilliantly, scratching your head and thinking ‘now what?’
Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t alter your original structure. Or that you can’t make changes as you go along to your initial plot ideas; on the contrary. Having a basic plan in place before you get down to the main writing will help you identify where and when changes can or even need to be made, and the implications these may have on the story as a whole.
The very word ‘structure’ itself can sound off-putting. It conjures up something rigid and fixed, as in the wall metaphor. It certainly doesn’t sound very creative. Yet it is the very tightness of a well-structured plot that keeps a story moving forward. And your story should always be moving forward. Even during times of exposition or even backstory and flashback, the story should always be moving forward (more of this later). This is particularly true if you are writing for publication with the aim of producing a story with wide commercial appeal. In today’s ever changing market and fast-paced society even best-selling romances and family sagas are often as pacy as a Dan Brown or James Patterson thriller.
Think of your structure then as the lines of a motorway, guiding your story vehicle forwards rather than letting it meander off to do some sightseeing along narrow country lanes.
Exercise – Recognising Structure
Get a notebook and three of your favourite or most read works of fiction (perhaps even include a narrative non-fiction such as memoir, biography or travel writing if these are genres you are interested in). Try to choose three works that are very different in style, tone and genre.
Flick through and make notes on how each novel or book is structured. If you’re not sure where to start, ask yourself the following questions about each one.
Is there a defined beginning, middle and end?
Is the novel divided into parts and chapters and can you see an inherent structure in how this has been done? For example, a story told by two different narrators might have alternate chapters in the different voices.
Is the story linear? In other words, does it go from A to B or does it move backwards and forwards in time? What time period does it cover; a week, a year, a century, and is this made explicit? For example many novels, particularly thrillers, often use the time period of the story as the very structure of their novel. A chapter for each day of the week, for example, with the day as the chapter title.
Who is telling the story? If more than one person, how is this done? Perhaps the story switches between first and third person, for example.
Make notes on the above and anything else you can think of, and then compare all three stories and see what similarities and differences you notice. Do you think the structure of any of these works affected your enjoyment of them?
Put your notes away to come back to later; we’ll be using them again.
Extract from ‘Building Your Story; a Guide to Structure and Plot’ published August 2014 by Compass Books.