I realized that I was behind a week in my blog promises, so today’s will be a double-feature. Well, at least in length because I could talk about story structure all day. Let’s get started with my own experiences…
When I started writing short fiction, I would sit at the computer and watch the blinking cursor of doom until I typed out a first line worth keeping. Then I’d add a second, third, and fourth lines and let the story flow like water from a burst dam. Stay with metaphor for a moment, okay? If you ever built a dam as a kid, you know that eventually, the water is going to get out and it’s going to go downhill. However, the actual path it takes is not known until the water flows over rocks, dirt, twigs, and seeks out the lowest point. To me, that’s what my early short fiction felt like. I would write and let the story find its flow and then see how far it would take me.
Believe it or not, this worked fairly well. And, it’s still something I use for short fiction especially if I have a crystallized idea in my mind and can’t figure out where to start the story. This is called getting out of my own way, which is a really good thing for a writer to do. I’ve written over forty short stories now and most of them came from this method. Given that success, when I started to write my first novel I thought I’d easily knock it out by doing the same thing.
I failed miserably.
Runs In The Family (Strigidae Publishing, 2015) is a military science fiction novel that follows a young woman named Mairin Shields. After volunteering for a classified military experiment, she receives a memory imprint from a long dead ancestor and must blossom into the warrior he was meant to be. As the idea for the novel formed, I started hearing Mairin’s voice in my head. I’d write snippets of dialogue or descriptives for scenes and the like. Using my previous method of story writing, I began piecing those bits together because, hell, it had to be that easy!
I struggled mightily with that manuscript – for eighteen months. Eighteen months! When I finished the manuscript, I knew it was a train wreck. Until I started having the ideas that became Sleeper Protocol I’d pretty much given up on writing a book. And then, I reached out for advice and went through an amazing transformation. That advice was simple – study Hollywood Formula. The transformation? I wrote the first draft of Sleeper Protocol (Red Adept, 2015) in six weeks. Six weeks equates to 7.9% of the time it took to write the first book – why was it so much faster?
I’ll discuss Hollywood Formula more in the next post, but my speed in writing Sleeper Protocol had two causes. One, the story structure inherent to Hollywood Formula and the focus on characters and their motivations. I flesh out my characters by asking about the goals and their dreams. Once I had that, I was able to structure the story for maximum emotional impact. Now, if that sounds different that what you know of the traditional Hero’s Journey, well it is. The two are very similar, but the Hero’s Journey is built to move you from place to place. Hollywood Formula makes you connect with the characters.
The bottom line was that the structure necessary to build characters effectively pulled the story elements together. I planned the book and wrote the book with a clear intent for every scene. That’s what planning around structure does for you. There are a myriad of example structures for romance, science fiction, thrillers, and all other genres. If you’re not a planner, try it. You might surprise yourself. Likewise, if you’re a pant-ser give story structure a try.
The reality is that there is no perfect structure for short fiction or novels. The idea that you have to check every box to make a story is ludicrous. Structure is important, but only if you forget that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The rest is up to you.