The Structure Spectrum

As a writer, I’m curious about other writers. Talking process is something I love to get into with a fellow author. In the way an engineer might admire a building or bridge, I look upon the novel as a technical structure. One that’s supported, reinforced, made possible by many, many intricate working pieces that bring the whole together into one glorious final edifice.

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I’m forever in awe of someone who has the compositional skills to create an opus that delivers on its early promise.

Knowing the struggles of getting from initial idea to finalising a draft, what fuels me is connecting with other writers. Learning how other writers tackle challenges that arise in the writing process helps me understand their mind and also my mind. It often gives me a third perspective on situations I’ve found myself in and only too late realise my approach has been too black and white, too all or nothing.

There’ve been times over the past few years where I thought I understood the type of writer I am. What I never saw at the time and that I see now, is that the blinkers are on. The times when I’ve felt most certain, have too often turned out to be the times when I’ve been very naïve, cocky and even ignorant. Getting caught up in the prestige of being a ‘writer’ I’d forgotten why I write and the type of writing that really jazzes me.

During a moment of reflection a couple of weeks ago I had an epiphany. Such a simple and clear insight, it brought me to a halt and gave me immeasurable peace. This realisation comes at a time when I’m progressing steadily through the first draft of my next novel. For weeks I’d had been having a conversation in the background of my mind, never fully conscious, never fully addressed, all relating to novel structure and planning.

How much time and effort should I put into planning and plotting?
How detailed should my first draft structure be?

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Then it came to me:

As a writer I like to know where I’m going. I just don’t want to know how I’m going to get there.
Destination is important. Landmarks and signposts along the way for me are crucial. But as a writer, I’m happy in my ignorance of how I’ll get from plot-point to plot-point.

I need there to be an element of surprise in the actual writing of each scene. An unexpected discovery.

A character coming a little more to life. Links in the chain of the story connecting, sometimes by design, sometimes by chance.

That’s where the excitement is. That’s where exploration and discovery occur. Struggle and realisation. The magic of writing.

In years gone by my attempts to plan a story down to its final detail prior to starting my first draft have always ended the same way. I’ve half a dozen manuscripts in various states of incompleteness to prove it.

On the flipside of this spectrum, my last novel was written largely as a free-writing exercise.

Signposts to aim for – yes.

An overarching structure with plans as to how to develop both the characters and story – no.

At this stage in my development as a writer, that’s where the project crumbled in my hands. There were so many holes I encountered in the re-writing phases – 5 drafts at last count – that I hadn’t the skills to overcome and fix. Instead, I dug myself deeper and deeper into a formless, shapeless abyss where everything ceased to exist.

This simple realisation about how I approach structuring and planning was both timely and reassuring. And like any spectrum I’m trying to find where my sweet spot is so I can become the best writer I can be.

Where are you on the structure spectrum?

 

Ken Ward

Prepare for Unauthorised Entries

partyWriting a story is a bit like throwing a party. If you’re a plotter, odds are you’re also a planner, the date chosen well in advance with plenty of notice given to intended guests. Your menu will be detailed and practical, catering for vegans and meat lovers alike; music will be playlisted and honed to an exact number of themed songs, timed to finish at the appointed hour. Invitations are always mailed (e- or snail-), RSVPs ticked off a corresponding list; mathematical precision will allow for just the right amount of alcohol and mixers, having ordered all necessary glassware from a catering company. Neighbours will be apprised and the function will proceed in an orderly fashion. Naturally, the police will never be called.

At the other extreme is the pantser. They’ll throw out a casual invitation to pretty much everyone they meet, the start time will be vague, and the menu an unplanned and artless display of potato chips and questionable dips. Depending on that day’s mood, music will range from soulful eighties ballads to heavy rock. They’ll buy too much alcohol or, worse, not enough. The few plates and glasses they manage to scrape together won’t suffice and trusted guests will be dispatched on arrival to fetch ice and other essentials. The pantser will forget they even have neighbours and the police will be summoned. Several times.

But whether it’s planned with military precision or left to chance, one thing neither plotter nor pantser ever allows for is the unwanted guest — that unexpected character. Some are harmless; a visiting relative, too insipid to be left alone, is brought by a friend too dear to admonish; a work colleague tags along on the vague assurance that the host ‘won’t mind at all’; both are fillers and assume cursory roles.

And then there’s the other type, a plotter’s worst nightmare: sauntering into the room (and onto page two) with fuck-you confidence, they settle without apology and demand everyone’s attention. It’s easier for pantsers. Having had no real command of the situation in the first place — and still a little vague about who was invited — most will welcome the intrusion, flinging the door wide.

Just as there are social constraints placed on a host — do you insist firmly that the guest leave, or endure their presence with stoic grace? — so writers face the same dilemma: stick to your hard-worked plan and hit the delete key, ridding the scene of this unwanted person, or offer them a drink (watch as they snatch the whole bottle) before introducing them to others? Most likely they’ll have come armed with an intriguing life story and a slew of bawdy jokes, and they’ll quickly divide the audience, charming or horrifying everyone they meet. And there’s every chance they’ll slip your darling a mickey, or stab them in the coat closet, but that alone might be the just reason they’ve appeared.

Just like your party, if you want your story to be memorable, don’t kick out the most interesting characters before you’ve made an effort to get to know them.

Jane Abbott