On Structure

Apparently, there's a term floating around for writers who don't plan ahead in their writing--pantsers. As in, these writers fly by the seat of their pants, I suppose, although it sort of sounds like these writers run around stealing other people's pants like frat boys during pledge week.

As unflattering as the term is, the basic idea is that there are two types of writers: planners (who plan everything) and pantsers (who plan nothing), and many writers fall somewhere in between. Although I object to the term, I think the basic concept is sound. But this model fails to take into account the process.

At the beginning of a new project, I am a pantser. I start with a character and an idea of what the book is going to be about* and once I feel like I know who the character is, I start writing. What's going to happen? No clue. What is the conflict? No idea. Just writing. As I said in another post, for me a good book is all about character, so that's all I need to get started. The rest can come later.

Then, about a third or half of the way into the draft, the ending typically comes to me, which is awesome, because now it means that I'm working toward something. Once that happens, I'm pretty sure I'm going to finish the story.

Then, after the first draft, I change into a different writer altogether. Jay, The English Major takes over and I start to structure the story. The scenes get shortened or lengthened or rearranged or taken out. Characters get built up or taken down. Events get heightened (they almost never get...de-heightened in my drafts). This is me planning, and it's essential for me to produce anything that's remotely readable.

Recently, Stacia Kane had a post on Fangs, Fur, and Fey about how she looks at structure that I'm thinking about using for my second and third draft revisions on my new projects. She thinks of her books in three acts, and focuses on what each act needs to do in order for the book to work as a whole. This, she says, helps her avoid the "sagging middle" problem, where the characters are just diddling around waiting for the next big conflict scene.

Obviously, Kane's idea isn't going to work for me as a first draft structure,** because that's very restrictive to me. But once I get a draft down, I think it could be very revealing to break the draft into thirds and see what's happened at those spots.*** I'm not one of those writers who thinks that structure is everything,**** but without a good structure, the whole book just feels like a saggy washcloth to me. And who wants to read a saggy washcloth.


* A very basic idea, like "this happens at an amusement park." Seriously, it can hardly be called an idea, the things I start with. For example, I'm currently toying with a novel idea that was inspired by a quote from a movie review (which is SUCH a good quote that I'm not even going to say it here). That is the "idea" of this novel.

**I'm not sure if that's how she uses it or not.

***True story: I just pulled out the manuscript of The Book (it's about 250 pages at the moment), and looked at what happened on page 80 and 160. On page 80, the first major conflict, where the main character realizes Things Are Not As They Seem. On page 160, the second major conflict, where the main character realizes Things Are Worse Than She Thought. I have to say, I'm really happy about that. I pay a lot of attention to the narrative arc, but this just reinforces my idea that I might try Kane's structure as a revision tool. It seems to fit in with my natural process already.

****Obviously. CHARACTER is everything. :)


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