I’m currently in the throes of yet another draft, which came after what I thought was an “almost-there” draft. As in, my novel was complete, front to end; my characters had their adventures, survived, changed a bit, and were looking ahead to the future.
Then… I realized my structure was weak. Well, I SUSPECTED my structure was weak, but hoped my readers would ignore this. But readers, as it turns out, have no tolerance for wobbly supports and back I went to my index cards and notebook.
At which point, a question arose from one of my friends–what is the difference between structure, plot, and beats?
Hmm… GOOD question. I found that although I knew the answer instinctively, I still stammered when attempting to explain.
This is the form the story takes. A plot may have different structures and different genres sometimes require different structures as well. The most basic example of a structure is three acts:
- Act 1: Introduce the problem
- Act 2: Have your protagonist contort themselves into a pretzel whilst attempting to solve this problem
- Act 3: Solve SOME problem, which may or may not be the original one, depending on your genre and philosophical leanings.
Within these acts you may have additional structural supports, such as the inciting incident, which upsets the good or bad equilibrium introduced in Act 1, and forces your protagonist to move on to Act 2, and the climax, which is the culmination of all of the protagonist’s efforts in Act 3.
None of this is the Plot.
The plot is the story.
For example, Alice follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole, eats some suspicious cake, has a psychedelic experience with playing cards and an invisible cat, and then comes home.
Or, a bunch of British schoolboys end up shipwrecked on a deserted island and try to govern themselves
How you tell your story is the structure.
This term came out of screenwriting and novelists have now widely adopted it to flesh out and shore up their structure. Often, a critique partner will tell me “this chapter needs an extra beat to finish it off”.
A beat is anything from one scene to a combination of scenes performing the function of taking the plot from structure point to structure point. The beat can illuminate a moment of change (Alice decides to eat the suspicious cake), or show a problem (the British schoolboys alone, no adults for thousands of miles).
But what the heck are novelists doing nowadays?
Several times now, I have read books, popular books, with rankings and ratings to die for, that don’t seem to follow these structures. They have plots, sure, but the story kind of just… potters along. We are introduced to crackerjack protagonists, people, and sometimes animals, who are good and special and have plenty of obstacles to overcome. And then we just follow along as life happens to these characters. We root for them. We want them to have a nice life. But they don’t battle monsters, or bad guys, or even ill health. They simply live.
In another instance, I came across a character that didn’t even change at the end of the book. The character’s flaw was explained and justified in back flashes, but their own understanding of what made them did not help them change.
In other words, more and more, books are being written that don’t seem to follow these structures I’m trying so hard to stick to, and these books are POPULAR. Readers LIKE them. Critics like them. I like them.
So… what to do? Follow the rules? Break the rules? Does it depend so much on genre conventions and author credentials? I’m genuinely seeking answers. Let me know what you think.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.
When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.
This was a great overview for any writer, and I confess, I like to follow the structure of a traditional novel. Perhaps it’s because I like to have my questions answered at the end of a book. The ones that don’t have an aimless wandering feel to me – for me, it’s best to write the type of book you like to read!
Yeah… I realized if I really wrote what I like to read, I’d end up with a vampire crime novel :-).
And what would be wrong with a vampire crime novel?
Ooh, that sounds good. I believe you should write what you like
Yeah, it does sound good :-). Thinking about it!
Act II: LOL!
Literature writers get away without telling a story with a deflated arc. Some people like that. Obviously. There’s a market for it.
I’ll stick with what you got here.
I have to confess I get a headache when I try to think about structure and rules. As a pantser, if I think about anything before I sit down and write, it’s the context in which the crime occurs. By this I mean things like white nationalism or child trafficking which require research before and during writing. Other than that, I follow my characters as they investigate the crime. I don’t think about arcs or beats or any of the technical aspects of writing.
I get so stuck, that I end up using outlines to rescue myself
I like thinking about structure because it’s so foreign to me. I always start off thinking about characters and write and write and then I realize that they’ve all been sitting in the house, chatting. For months. So I view structure as a help. My characters can still chat. They just have to do something, and hopefully there’s a climactic scene.
Yes, exactly. I have a similar problem
I usually just write, but I try to have “tent poles” as Hallie Ephron calls them. They’re 5 points in the novel where something important happens. It may an event or a character breakthrough. Then I write from tentpole to tentpole. And then I go back and make everybody do stuff in between that isn’t sitting around eating and taking.
I, too, get very frustrated by novels where there either is no plot, or it doesn’t take me somewhere new.
They are like riding a roller coaster: ups and downs, but you wind up at the same place.
Knowing that I didn’t understand story structure, early in my process for my WIP (and first novel), I studied, and watched a lot of movies to study the 3 Act Structure (much faster than reading).
Now that I’m mostly done, and have started an editing pass, I have become aware that, having plotted before writing, the character motivation is sometimes lacking. I had decided they were going to do something, but it didn’t organically come from the story up to that point that they would.
So, having started out as a 100% plotter, I’m now thinking that a rough outline (a few tent poles) may be a better way to go. Then I’ll let the characters tell me how to go forward to the next one. (As in the analogy of driving in the dark, only seeing as far ahead as the headlights extend).
In some ways, this is going to be easier. When I plot, there are hundreds of possibilities. When I take a point in the story and think forward, there are only a few.
Doug, I found this formula to work when I have a plot but I’m hazy on the motivations:
– What does character want?
– What is character willing to give up for it?
– What does character actually give up for it?
– What does character get in the end? (usually it’s an inverted or sideways version of what they started out wanting)
I’ll use that as I go forward. Thanks Emilya.
I like Hallie’s tent poles, but since I think of a book as a journey, I tend to think of major plot points as stopover destinations. I know where I want to go, but I’m not always sure what route I’ll take to get there. I use a very flexible four-act structure. For years I avoided learning about structure. But it’s really based on the human brain and how we like to have tales told. An author can break the rules is he/she knows what they are. Just my opinions!
some of my favorite authors wrote some of my favorite books this way, so it certainly works.
It’s funny to read this discussion while taking a “real” literature class and listening to the teacher and students dissect a particular work as if the author sat down and wrote with a formula. I doubt it happened in the past and think good writing and storytelling may be more organic. I guess that brings us back to the question about whether good writing and storytelling can be taught, which is a question for another day.
I think it comes down to how we all tell stories. Even if you’re sitting in someone’s living room, and they tell you about something that happened to them, it has a beginning (setup), middle (challenge), and end (resolution). If it didn’t you’d probably stop visiting that living room pretty soon.
I think the salient point here is that just because some finished novels have a well-defined theme and structure DOES NOT MEAN that they were plotted out that way ahead of time.
I’ve read many interviews with pantsers where they talk about what a mess their first draft was. When they went back to edit, they found out what the theme and main story was, and then structured the story around it.