‘Oxymoron’ has been one of my favourite words since I was about eight. Obviously at first that was because it has the word ‘moron’ in it; only later did I come to love oxymorons because they are a beautiful examples of the ultimate micro-fiction: character, voice and plot all implied in one pert, edgy little contradiction. If I could enjoy the stories conveyed by titles like Manfred Mann’s album The Roaring Silence – or my mum’s jokes like ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Tory Party’ – then why on earth would I worry later about how to structure an entire short story or novel? How hard could it be to get your meaning across with all the space and time you could ever want?
Writing Touchstone 3: Structure
The answer, of course, is ‘pretty damn hard, actually’. For many writers, infinite time and space are no less alarming than imminent deadlines. The pressure of merging your creative ideas with the technicalities of a clear delivery can be frustrating. Giving your creative work a clear structure means taking your organic, original idea and picking at it, slowing it down, measuring out how much to reveal at what speed, merging the art with the science. It can feel like external expectations threatening your beautiful idea. It can make you think sulky thoughts about the demands of your industry or genre and their repression of your individual voice.
Writing is like naturalism onstage, or realism in painting: it’s not natural, it’s not real life, it’s a simplified and clarified version because if you conveyed real life at its real speed with its real level of content it would be too busy, too bustling and too muffled for the even the greatest multi-tasker in the audience to have a clue what the intention was. You would represent nothing; engage no emotional response. That’s a long description of ‘boring’, but pity the manuscript reader who gets something to read where the writer hasn’t got used to the idea that it’s necessary to give artistic shape to the story they’ve created: not just spelling, grammar and formatting, without which no editor will have a good experience of your work, but the delicacy and control of a well-thought-out gradual relaying of time and story. If you’re not putting in this level of effort and attention, achieving this level of control before submitting your writing, then you’re disrespecting your reader.
Structure is not a straightjacket. It’s a framework to help you bring across your individual voice and message so they reach your audience to the full. Even better, the fundamentals are more instinctive than most of us expect. Narrative structure relates to the human experience of living in time and space and coming into contact with other humans. We expect stories to have a beginning, middle and end. We expect people to exist in the world, engage in conflict, find and experience resolution then go on with their lives (and/or eventually for those lives to end). We expect people to be different at the end of a journey to how they were before they began it.
A short story may only be one snapshot on that journey, while a novel can be the whole journey, but this is the wider process both are part of.
Here are two exercises that are maps for your creative journey, which after all is just what narrative structure is:
Exercise 1: Structure Triangle
First, choose a published book you know and love. Choose your answers for that book (there is no right or wrong answer, just what speaks to you). Then, do the same with your own work-in-progress.
If I were writing Pride and Prejudice* perhaps my concept would be ‘first impressions’ (its original title). Equally, it might be the dangers of underestimating others’ feelings, or paying too much attention to what your friends think of a potential partner and not enough to what you think yourself. If I were writing About A Boy*, my concept might be ‘relationships’ or ‘urban community and isolation’. Not exhaustive, not definitive, just what speaks to me. What do you feel your story is about?
Protagonist and Inciting Incident:
Pride and Prejudice:
The second of five sisters in a family with no prospects.
The letting of Netherfield Hall to a rich single man.
About a Boy:
A middle-aged batchelor and a socially-awkward teenager.
The batchelor joins a single parents’ support group to meet women.
Beginning, Middle, End:
Again, it’s up to you. Choose a sentence with each for a book you know, then for your own story.
Work top to bottom or bottom to top, whatever makes emotional sense to you (or sounds like more fun. Remember, there is no ‘right answer’ and therefore no ‘wrong answer’. This isn’t engineering: you decide the laws of your universe).
Write what you know, in the sense of what is most real and true to you about the story. For example, if you know you want your story to begin with a hairdresser being fired, write that for beginning. If it ends with him being rewarded for solving the mystery of the Queen’s kidnapped corgi, say so. Just a sentence for each. The structure triangle is a reminder to stick on your mirror or notice board as a reminder of what you’re fundamentally trying to say. This kind of structuring stops you getting overwhelmed by the detail and significance of what you’re trying to say.
Exercise 2: Torn-off Plot Sheet
There is no reason the page you use for this exercise has to be obviously torn out of a notebook. However, I do recommend it for sneaky psychological reasons. It’s a visual reminder that no one is holding you to this; it’s just notes. I always use torn coloured paper for this at Green Ink Writers’ Gyms because it allows people to think more freely.
1) Write a protagonist
A young Londoner whose mother is dying…
The owner of a record shop…
A rich, privileged only-child…
2) Write an inciting incident
…discovers a way into a wood between worlds…
…is dumped by girlfriend and seeks out former lovers to learn why they left him…
3) Character start-point
Wants his mother to get better and be free of his uncle.
Wants to know why they left.
4) Character finish-point
Finds a cure for his mother by fighting his uncle.
Re-evaluates himself and them, accepts change as part of life and stops resisting it.
Everyone and everything in life changes
If there isn’t change in a character, he or she has met the events of life with their fingers firmly in their ears. Out here in the real world, we may not have the clear-cut beginnings, endings, inciting incidents, resolutions and epiphanies with the clarity we can identify in fiction (and hindsight!) but a clear structure helps you to map out for yourself how and why your characters change thanks to the journeys on which you send them.
*I can’t write them, because they’ve already been written by Jane Austen and Nick Hornby respectively.
** The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I’m having a Nick Hornby day. So should you.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (Waterstones Piccadilly, Tuesday 18 October). She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. www.greeninkwritersgym.com