As I mentioned before, the words ‘structure’ and ‘plot’ are used so interchangeably and so often in discussions of story crafting that they can come to mean the same thing, or even mean very little. In this chapter then I’m going to briefly strip things down to the bare bones before looking at more complex aspects of plotting and structure.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, these are the definitions of the words ‘plot’ and ‘structure’ as refers to story-telling;
Plot – ‘the main events of a play, novel, film or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence’
Structure – ‘the arrangements of and relations between the parts or elements’.
The three-act structure
The typical story narrative is divided into three parts; beginning, middle and end. Sounds easy enough, although many writers struggle to divide their major plot points up between the three acts and end up with that well-known and dreaded phenomenon of a ‘saggy middle’. This occurs when everything happens in the beginning and end of the narrative and not a lot goes on in the middle of the story. Having a well thought out synopsis and/or chapter breakdown beforehand helps guard against this happening, as does using Aristotle’s interpretation of the three act structure.
Rather than dubbing it simply ‘beginning, middle and end’ Aristotle termed the three acts ‘set-up, conflict and resolution’. This immediately dubs the ‘middle’ of the narrative as the place where most of the story unfolds, and structuring your story in this way can be a big help in unfolding your plot in a way which ensures your story never loses momentum.
Thriller novels – naturally full of conflict – are often excellent examples of well set up three act structures, as well as genre romance novels, which are often written to fit a certain formula. To take my first in a series of Renaissance romance novels for Harlequin Mills and Boon, ‘Borgia Fever’ as an example, I deliberately used Aristotle’s simple but effective structure to help my plot unfold. Although it required more forward planning than I was previously a fan of I found my story flowing effortlessly once I had a basic plan to follow, and my editor was both pleased and surprised to find it needed virtually no alteration.
If you are interested in a more in-depth look at this deceptively simple way of planning your story, I look at Aristotle’s three acts in more depth, along with a detailed step-by-step writing exercise, in my guide ‘Passionate Plots’ (Compass Books, March 2014).
As I mentioned earlier, to many writers the idea of mapping out your story beforehand may feel alien and overly formulaic if you are typically a ‘seat of your pants’ kind of writer, but it really does make the whole process more streamlined and without necessarily compromising on creativity. The trick, as with so many things in life, is not to go to extremes, as the following two examples illustrate.
In many of her interviews and non-fiction novels, acclaimed author and writing coach Natalie Goldberg has confessed that writing her novel ‘Banana Rose’ was the hardest thing she’s ever done, mainly because she launched herself into the first chapter without any forward planning whatsoever. After both friends and editors described it as beautifully written but completely plotless, it took Goldberg an incredible six years to whip Banana Rose into a publishable novel. Which just goes to show; no structure, no story. At some point this work needs to be done, and it’s generally more efficient to get your structure and plot in shape beforehand than to spend months or even years on revisions and rewrites.
At the other extreme, an editor of crime fiction once told me a story about a submission she had for a contemporary thriller. The author described – in pages of detail – how he had read all the bestselling thriller novels he could find and drawn up a graph of all the similarities so as to map out the ‘perfect plot’ and then applied it to his own novel. The result? A generic, rigid, formulaic story that didn’t capture the reader or lead them to care about the characters or the outcome.
So how much planning should you do? It will obviously vary from writer to writer – or story to story – but the bare minimum I would recommend is a brief synopsis of the plot and a breakdown of the structure as described in the first writing exercise when you looked at your favourite books. To give an example, here is the plan I used for the writing of ‘Borgia Fever’.
Setting – Santa Maria Palazzo, Rome
Timeframe – Over the course of one night, from a ball to the next morning. Year 1501
Chapters – Five, roughly equal length
Tense – Third-person
Viewpoint – Third person, but switches between Bella’s viewpoint in chapters one, three and five, and Marco’s in chapters two and four.
I followed this with a brief synopsis/chapter breakdown covering the main plot points, bearing Aristotle’s framework in mind to ensure the first chapter effectively set up the story which then unfolded through the three middle chapters – no saggy middle in sight! – and was resolved with all conflicts and loose ends tied up into a satisfying ending in the final chapter. The synopsis doesn’t have to be pages long either – mine consisted of bullet points. Just make sure you get down the main events and turning points.
Many writers do prefer a more detailed plan, especially if writing a more complex story, and certainly when you get to the stage of submitting your work you will be required to produce a more detailed synopsis, but this is fine as a starting point. I think of this as a ‘skeleton structure’.
Exercise – Skeleton Structure
Take a story you have in mind, one you are currently working on, and one you have previously written (that remains unpublished) and write out a ‘skeleton structure’ for each as described above. If you like you can also – or alternatively, though I would recommend you include at least one of your own stories – do this for the three books you made notes on in the last exercise. Compare the three, and in particular take note of the following;
When working with a previously written story, writing a skeleton structure should be very easy. If it isn’t and you find yourself getting confused, it’s a sign this work has structural issues. By applying a skeleton structure to it you may be able to rework it and even resubmit.
When working with your idea for a future story, see how devising a skeleton helps you plan it more effectively. Contrary to the idea that structure and planning implies a rigid approach, many writers find that giving their work this kind of detailed attention gets those creative juices flowing.
Extracted from ‘Building Your Story; Structure and Plot’ published by Compass Books August 2014.