How to structure a story: don’t
I’ve been writing a novel for the past three years. So far no-one has read a word of it, so you’ll have to take me on trust. It has five drafts, each one started from scratch, and each one different. Sometimes it starts with a death, sometimes it starts in the lead-up to a death, and sometimes it starts years ago, in the halcyon days when death did not seem an issue.
It’s the same story. Just a different structure.
And it’s taken me three years to recognise that every dip into a book about plot, or story, or structure, is procrastination of the highest order.
The trouble is, unlike sharpening pencils and balancing paper clips and several rounds of Minesweeper, it FEELS like work. Every filled-out cell in a spreadsheet takes you one step closer to your goal: finally figuring out your story, so you can finally start writing it. The thinking goes, that once that gnarly issue is cracked, writing it will be a breeze.
Not true. The trouble with story, is that it is not one element of a novel, but the sum of all its parts. It only comes out when you put your characters to the test, in a certain setting, with a certain set of circumstances, and with certain preconditions.
That’s not simply to say character is the route to story, either; things happen beyond their control and too much characterisation can be the death of a good story. The thing that impressed me most about Gravity (though I’ve heard others say it was the thing they most disliked about the film), was that the screenplay employed just the right amount of characterisation – a humdinger of a backstory, referenced with the briefest of dialogue, but still powerful enough to bring another dimension and determine the main character’s fight for survival.
There is no short cut to story. The crucial thing about creating something in language – and not, say, something visual like colours or tangible like clay – is that it has to be sequential. It has to be readable. One thing comes after another. Not necessarily in the right chronological order, but one thing must follow on from the last one. It’s so obvious, I’m embarrassed that I’m still learning it after all this time. As soon as you think spatially – what must happen between now and that point, or how many words you need to fill up, or what act this belongs to – you’re dead.
Work out a good premise, by all means. You need a great setting, fully fleshed out characters and a strong ‘what if?’ question at the start, which should hold the kernel of all that follows. But that’s all. If there’s any advice I can impart from my time writing and rewriting and going around in circles, it’s ‘don’t waste your time on structure’. Certainly not on your first draft, anyway. It’ll leave you in all kinds of knots.
Ultimately writing a story is a creative not an intellectual exercise, and for me, that’s scary. I like to think there’s a spreadsheet for every book. After the fact, there is – structure can be applied retrospectively to a book or screenplay, and perhaps it had a place in the editing process. But when writing the story in the first place? It’s a waste of time.