Discovering Structure, Moderating Ambition

I restarted a work journal for Camp Expendable today. I’d started one weeks ago and forgot all about it, but I’m trying again. This post is a slight reworking of the entry.

Story structure — I’ve paid very little attention to structure, just forging forward with the story, letting it take its own shape and hoping it works out. Structure may be the last big aspect of craft that I need to learn about and be aware of as I plan and write.

To that end, I broke the chapters down into scenes yesterday. I also named them as a way to remind me what’s in each without having to skim through every time to figure out where I am. The result of breaking it all down into scenes is finding that 1. they don’t always break neatly. Is that because I’m careful to include transitions, or is it a problem to solve? 2. Chapters vary wildly in the number of scenes they contain, and the length of the scenes varies just as wildly. The usual range is from two to four scenes, though one reached five. Another problem to solve?

It’s obviously time to find a good book on story structure.

The task took a whole day to get through, so that’s one more day of delay to publication, which is moving further into the distance with every day that passes. And I thought I was on the final run-through before proofreading. Trying to understand the structure of what I have here will take at least another day. Given the conflict between wanting to get the darned thing done and out of my hair, and wanting this book to be different in terms of quality and reader appeal, I’m starting to feel desperate. I hoped this one would be a true breakthrough, one that I could say was a real achievement rather than a decent job. So far, I haven’t felt that it’s anywhere near that point, and this sudden concern about structure makes it blindingly clear that I may be trying to accomplish something I don’t have the skills for yet.

I could laugh at myself and chalk it up to being an obssesive perfectionist, but it makes more sense to admit I still have too much to learn to aim for such a grandiose outcome. Maybe next time? So the work goes on, and if it takes a week or more past the deadline I tried to impose on myself, then that’s what I’ll have to accept.

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14 thoughts on “Discovering Structure, Moderating Ambition

  1. Have you read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler? It’s helpful, though of course, like everything that contains a formula, you don’t have to follow it. Certain points, though, i did find useful. I am in the same position as you are at the moment, trying to establish the strucure of the sequel to the cat book. I use catalogue cards, with scene titles to try out various combinations, But it’s a slow process that can’t be hurried; the mind can only take so much in one day.

    1. I had to look it up on Amazon. It’s the kind of book I might read for inspiration if I had more time for leisure reading. Not when I’m in need of cold, hard craft knowledge. I have a short list of possible books on structure, and most of them are too formulaic for me. From some of the Amazon reviews, I suspect this one is, too. But I’ll add it to the list.

  2. I dunno that structure at this point – when you’re proofreading – is a good idea. Could it POSSIBLY be a convenient thing to do instead of hit publish?

    Structure is something you and I do very differently; I don’t write a word before the whole structure is in place. I think it’s because I basically know what is going to happen, and need to put everything in its place.

    But if you wrote with the structure in your head, not explicit, but there (as I suspect), you don’t want to mess with your process, because it has worked for you – instead, you want to trust your instincts that you know how to tell a story.

    Are your chapters comfortable sizes, whether they have one or five scenes? Alternating long and short is fine – some scenes are almost like punctuation.

    Remember, perfect isn’t necessary for stories. Unless there’s something seriously wrong that has been bothering you for a while. I’ve had THOSE crop up.

    1. I’m not proofreading yet. Hmm. My structure is intuitive, but that doesn’t mean it works the way it should, for readers. But I finally (today) decided not to mess with it anymore. I’m running through to find and deal with the highlighted problematic areas, then it will go to PWA and I’ll let it deal with the grammar, punctuation, etc. After that, last proofread and spell check. And I’m done. Very, very tired and it has to stop somewhere.

      But I’m still going to be studying story structure and how understanding it better can work for me.

  3. One of my favorite books on structure is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. You learn how to get a firm structure in place to make sure all the essential story elements and plot points are in place. Works well for my left-brained tendencies. 🙂

    Thanks for visiting my site. Much appreciated!

    1. Story Engineering is on my list of possible buys. The first time I heard about it, I was put off by the idea of *engineering* a story, but I checked out the TOC and Amazon sample and decided it makes sense. My initial reaction was sort of “knee jerk,” similar to thinking about outlines as somehow inhibiting creativity.

      1. Some writers feel that way, so you’ll have to see if it’s for you or not. I outline in detail, but I still feel like a have plenty of room to change things up. For me, it’s easier changing them in the early stages than finding they don’t work later on. But whatever method gets us writing is probably the one we should use! 🙂

  4. Structure was my giant bugaboo–I had 200,000 words and no clue about structure. The two most straightforward books I have on structure are K.M Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, which also has a workbook, and Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. In his in particular, the first part is arguing *for* structure, and he goes over some other aspects of writing, but once you get to Part 5, he gets to the meat of it. Story Physics develops that more. I have a lot of books on that topic but those are the ones I return to when I’m feeling stuck.

    1. I’m about halfway through Weiland’s book, and finding it very helpful. I may also get Brook’s book. As usual, I’m having a bit of trouble converting abstract information into concrete action (a little slow on the uptake), but I’ll get there. I can’t even imagine writing a 200,000 word novel. I always have to crank up the word count.

      1. Well, it didn’t *stay* one novel… 🙂 I tend to over complicate things (massive understatement), one reason I needed to study up on structure. I had all the pieces but no real idea where to put them for maximum effect.

        I’m glad you’re finding it helpful. I had to take notes then put in my story pieces, then go back and make sure I got the concept, then go back to my story…. Constantly evolving.

        1. You overcomplicate, and I do just the opposite. And it does take some back and forthing to integrate understanding with practice. Maybe I shouldn’t mention it here, but your blog essays are intriguing enough that I may have to ignore my general lack of interest in your corner of SF. So I’m waiting for next Monday and Insurrection.

          1. 😀 I hope you like it. I decided to use it as a “reader magnet” (just posted about that on G+). You don’t have to sign up to get it, though; if you tell me what format you like, I’ll email it to you.

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