Many writers balk at words like structure, form, or plot. Such folks seem to believe that this implies some type of formula or predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.
That’s a lie. The truth is that a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns actually liberates you from worrying about the wrong things, allowing you to concentrate your imagination on characters and events rather than on such stuff as transitions and moving chapters around, when to begin or open a chapter, whether there ought to be a flashback, and so on. Once structure is understood, many such architectural questions become irrelevant. And structure has nothing to do with “cornflower blue in all the nineteens.”
Structure is nothing more than a way of looking at your story material in an organized fashion that’s both logical and dramatic.
Structure is a process, not a rigid format. Structure in fiction isn’t static, it’s dynamic.
Structure in fiction is necessary for two reasons:
- As a writer, you need structure so that your stories will “hang together” and make sense.
- Your readers need structure so that they can understand this story they’re reading, and feel something as a result.
The story structure is internal, as opposed to the form of the story, which is external. The two interrelate, but they’re not quite the same. The internal structure is like the frame of a house, the beams, braces and other appurtenances inside the walls. The external form has to do with what’s been done with the structure, whether it be a colonial or a contemporary, large or small, one- or two-storied.
For obvious reasons, it’s hard to consider one without the other. An architect of a ten-floor office building wouldn’t use the same structural materials as he would in a split-level ranch. As with the office building, if the form of your story is a mammoth 100000 word epic, but your structure is only enough for a 65000 word romance, your story will fall in upon itself.
Fortunately (for the architect and for you as a writer), many of the same principles of construction apply to both projects. Thus, the elements of structure, properly applied, are scalable to whatever form you can imagine. A span can only support so much weight and tension without additional bracing. A solid foundation is essential. A good roof keeps the rain and snow out and the heat in. Thus, no matter what the form, the fundamental principles of structure are the same.
In a story, elements such as story length, author intention, traditional genre expectations, and many others may affect the final form a story may take. But underneath most forms lies the same structure, the same unchanging principles, and the same creative laws. This is the geometry and trigonometry of writing.
There are a wide variety of novel forms, from the earliest epistolary novels, told as a sequence of letters, to the diary-style novels in works such as Robinson Crusoe. Novels are told from first-person and third-person (and more rarely second-person), and from omniscient points of view and limited points of view, or follow the stream-of-consciousness through one or many characters’ thoughts. In a later post, I’ll explore the various forms in more detail.
But no matter what the form, most successful fiction today is based on a structure that uses a series of scenes that interconnect in a very clear way to form a long narrative with linear development from the posing of a story question at the outset to the answering of that question at the climax.
Most non-writers who talk about form and structure tend to put the cart before the horse, looking at book-length elements, or even non-structural elements like theme, and never get down into the nuts and bolts where modern fiction structure really lives.
You can’t afford to that. You need to understand structure in the larger elements, yes. But we’ll get to that in a later post. To begin with, you need to understand how the same structural principles work on a line-by-line level in your writing.
Cause and effect
Everyday life is full of accidents, coincidences, happenstance, and fate, all of which play a role in determining “how things work out” in one’s life. Bad things happen to good people for no discernible reason. Given such seemingly random meaninglessness in real life, people grow cynical, join the bad guys, or just plain give up. Life just doesn’t make much sense.
But in popular storytelling, fiction must make more sense than real life. General readers just won’t find it credible or interesting if it doesn’t. Can the workings of luck, coincidence, fate, destiny, and happenstance have a place in your work? Sure they can. But in real life a person might fall ill for no apparent reason. In fiction, the character has to be depressed about recent events, tired from overwork, despairing over his rocky marriage, walking into an office or home full of already sick people, and maybe even sneezed on before the reader would find it credible. Don’t believe me? Re-watch Contagion, where a sizeable portion of the screen-time is devoted to all the things Gwyneth Paltrow did — every drinking glass she touched, every person she came in contact with — to contract the signature plague of the film’s premise.
To put this differently, in fiction, effects (plot developments) must have causes (background), and vice versa. For your character to fall ill, you must first establish the background (stress, exhaustion, exposure), then provide the more immediate (present story time) cause, before your character can suddenly succumb to the flu, the plague, or the walking zombie rot.
Is it possible to write a moving fictional narrative that doesn’t rely on this kind of cause-and-effect? Sure. In literature, it’s called absurdism. Catch-22, Malone, Waiting for Godot, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis, these are only a few works of great literature in which s**t just happens for no reason. But when was the last time you saw an office drone on the subway reading The Metamorphosis? Probably not recently. I haven’t been on the subway lately.
My point is, if you want to write popular literature, cause-and-effect have to be evident to the reader. Much of your plotting from chapter to chapter has to deal with this kind of juggling of events so that one thing leads logically to another, cause-and-effect fashion. How do you motivate Charlotte to open that locked door? What next might happen after she does? Once you’re good at this as a writer, you can make most anything happen in your story. All you have to do is figure out what caused it. And once you’ve had that particular thing happen with good reason, your next plotting step becomes infinitely simpler. All you have to do is take the next logical step and ask yourself, “Then what next?”
Why is this important? Because if you start the story with a dark and stormy night, there better be wind-tossed leaves, wet grass, and maybe a tree down in the yard the next morning. If you describe a cause, it better have an effect. And if it doesn’t, if there is no structural reason for the storm, if it doesn’t somehow advance your plot, then it’s just one of those damned things. The reader will lose faith in your writing, and lose interest in your story.
Action and Reaction
We’ve all heard the scientific maxim that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. This applies not just to the flight speed of un-laden swallows, but also to fiction. The same cause-and-effect logic that is operative at the macro level of fiction in elements such as background, character motive, and so on, are also at work at the micro-level in the form of action and reaction. Action and reaction are cause and effect made more specific and more immediate. They function right now in the story, at this instant — the thrust that requires a parry, the question that requires an answer, the lightning bolt that makes Charlotte jump out of her shoes as she contemplates that locked door.
Again, in real life, causal actions aren’t always apparent. Sometimes people burst into tears in the middle of an otherwise innocuous conversation, or suddenly reverse their course through the library. Charlotte might jump out of her shoes for no reason we can see or hear at all. Conversely, we often see actions that warrant, indeed demand a reaction, and yet— nothing happens. (Ride the NYC subway sometime if you don’t believe me.)
Such actions without reactions and reactions without actions are believable in everyday life. After all, there it is, it just happened. We have to just scratch our heads, shrug, and accept it as “one of those things.”
But to make fiction credible, you must always remember a few simple rules:
- Actions must be external— that is, something that can be witnessed if the transaction were on a stage.
- Reactions must also be external in the same way.
- For every action, you must show a reaction.
- Reaction must usually follow action at once and immediately.
- When reaction to action is not logical on the surface, you must ordinarily explain it.
But what about those action-reaction exchanges that make perfectly good sense if only we know what the receiving character is thinking and feeling before reacting? Glad you asked. In such cases where the action-reaction exchange is complicated, you have to keep things clear for the reader by showing the character’s internalization—the feeling-thought process that goes between the action and the reaction.
Because honestly, yes, even the most basic action-reaction exchanges require some kind of internal messaging in the mind and body of the receiving character. But if a character picks up a hot pan with his bare hand, the internalization is pretty obvious, instinctive even. It doesn’t require an explanation. The complication arises when the reaction is out of character to the action. If the character picks up a hot pan with his bare hand and doesn’t drop it, despite the evident sizzling of his own flesh? That might require some internalization presented to the reader, like so (internalization in bold):
“Joe grabbed the hot pan with his bare hands. He would prove his love to Amanda, even if it meant maiming himself. He refused to let the scalding pan go, even though he could hear the sound of his own flesh sizzling.”
The rule is that you present the internalization to the reader when necessary (between action and reaction) to make an otherwise incredible exchange understandable and believable.
But that’s just the rule. Sometimes, you’ll want the reader to be shocked and puzzled by a reaction for a moment. You might do this in order to goad the reader’s curiosity, or to build suspense. This is perfectly fine, so long as you explain the bizarre action-reaction exchange within the next few paragraphs. But this is a technique best used with care. For the most part, the action-internalization-reaction exchange should be presented to the reader in their natural order. Writing them out of order can present big—or more subtle—problems later.
So now look at your own writing.
- For every action, are you showing a reaction?
- For every reaction, have you provided an immediate, external reaction?
- In complicated exchanges, have you provided the reader with an explanatory internalization?
- Are the parts presented in the correct, textbook order (action-internalization-reaction), except when you want to connote confusion?
And now, one final clarification. Throughout this post, terms like “external” and “physical” have been used. This is intentional. Actions must be something on the stage in the story “now,” something that could be seen or heard or otherwise perceived with the senses of the audience if you were to put the exchange on a theatre stage. Reactions, too, must be external and physical. You must show the actions. You must show the reactions. If John’s reason for punching Bill is the lingering sense of anger he’s been feeling over the last several days, you have to show John’s anger, his pacing around the room, his clenching and unclenching fists, his flaring nostrils and labored breathing. He can’t just walk onto the stage and punch Bill in the nose for no apparent reason. Likewise, to simply say, “Bill was surprised,” is not an external, physical reaction. It’s an internalization. “He clutched his nose between his hands and howled. ‘Jesus, John, WTF?'” That’s an example of an external reaction that connotes the surprise Bill felt internally.
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Bonus Post: Balling the Jack