You gotta have a system...

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...
I've just spent the better part of this afternoon watching England being knocked out of the World Cup and listened to every pundit in the land comment upon how they never stood a chance because of the structure of the team chosen by Capello.
To be fair, structure is something that takes up an inordinate amount of my little grey cells. Not the footie, you understand, but structures in writing. It's fair to say I'm a geek and I sometimes worry about the things that might have had to make room in my brain for my mini obsession.
Would I have been able to read a map? Or remember my Wedding Anniversary?
You see, where a footie fan watches a match and immediately disects the teams' systems, I disect every book I read.
No matter the beauty of the prose, I just can't help myself.
In my view, structure is what will make or break a story every time. A bit like putting John Terry on the wrong side. Doesn't matter how good he is. The structure just won't work.
Whenever a writer tells me about a new project, the first question I'll ask will be what structure they've chosen. The next will be why.
If a blank look follows, I know the writer either has an instinctive talent for structure, choosing the right methos for the story without too much brain ache...or it will end up as a stream of consciousness, which might have some interesting ideas, but won't hang together.
So what then is structure?
Well, let me tell you what it's not. It's not a set of writing rules that have to be obeyed. It's not a formula. It's not a template.
I've often read blogs and writing forums where writers set out the actual structure that they believe a successful story must have.
There is they tell me, a winning system. Follow it and you have a blue print for a best seller. I find it depressing to imagine the legions of would be writers going along with this rubbish, all chained to their system.
Step one: introduce your MC.
Step two: the inciting incident.
Yadda, yadda.
Look, one thing I know about this game, is that trying to shoehorn a story into this system won't work any better than Rooney on a bad day.
True, most stories have a familair pattern. It's the one we humans have in our DNA. Most writers know it without giving it any thought.
Take it as given, that if you like books and have spent any time reading them, you already get it.
You don't need to think 'aha, this is where I need my inciting incident,' you're already thinking about introducing your old lover/dead body/long lost relative, at the right point cos...well you are.
So why then do I bang on about structure's importance?
Her's the thing. The steps and systems aren't it. They're not the decisions that we, as writers need t make.
What I'm getting at are the fundemental questions that need to be asked at the beginning of any piece of work.
How will this work best?
A multiple POV?
A collection of letter?
How about two narratives running alongside and meeting deliciously at the end?
An unrelaible narrator?
Go to any book you like and check the structure. Then ask yourself what would have changed if anyother structure had been chosen?
Trust me it becomes addictive. Apply it to all your own work.
Soon, you won't remember your Mother in Law's birthday and you'll have joined the ranks of the obsessed. But at least you won't have just lost 4-1 to Germany.


coffeeaddict said...

I'm so glad to hear someone say that. I'm undertaking a creative writing course, and read writers' magazines and they all seem to echo that very sentiment. I don't know if I have what it takes to write well, I just know that I love it. I find these structures and rules stifling but who am I to argue? I'm just a novice.
This is why I blog. I can write what I like, with or without the sacred rules and even though my writing is far from literary genius, it helps me improve.
I have become very annalytical of the books I read too. I was beginning to think I'd ruined the enjoyment of fiction for nothing!

Paul said...

". . .ruined the enjoyment of fiction . . ."

Pretty good observation, and something of a universal for us fiction writers. It's hard anymore to read a novel with the analytical system turned off and simply enjoy the story. But it's all for the good, I suppose.

Helen Black said...

I wouldn't say ruined - just that we read in a different way.
Perhaps even, we get more out of a good book because we can see how well crafted it is.
Very often when I read a book with a difficult structure pulled off well, I think, yep, that is genius.
Before my addiction I might not have noticed- which is of course the true mark of genius, when everything seems natural, not forced or - horror - forced.
HB x

Helen Black said...

Should also say here, that sometimes a simple structure is equally convincing.
The writer could have gone for something tricksy and showy, but put the reader first.
That's also the hallmark of a great writer...
HB x

Keith Havers said...

I have the same problem when watching TV drama or films. I often think 'wouldn't it have worked better if...?'

Helen Black said...

Ooh, I don't do it for telly.
Probably because I don't know enough about structure for that media.
Would love to learn more though, if you have any recommendations...
HB x

Fidelity said...

Good point but still...methinks structure isn't everything! Stories that rely on structure to work usually have poor characterisation - not all but most - because the writer is keen to leave out details that don't give a precisely organised plot with a 'knockout' ending. These stories are tight and have none of the meandering and intricate detail that some readers want. Crime and horror writers are adepts at structure, but who's interested? not me, yuk. (sorry :))

Helen Black said...

Fidelity - I could not disagree more.
And, with respect, feel you have completely missed the point.
HB x

Caroline Green said...

I'm slightly in awe of you for having the ability to recognise the structure so clearly Helen...

But maybe that's because I've never tried to look at stories in that way? This is a fascinating post and you've really got me thinking here [runs off to bookshelf PDQ]

coffeeaddict said...

Yes, I was focussing on the downside there, sorry! I do marvel at the genius of some things I read, and wish I had written it!

Karen said...

It's very true that if you read a lot you do get an instinctive feel for what works.

I couldn't understand why my story kept stalling and it wasn't until I'd given up on it and started something else that I realised it should have had mulitiple viewpoints.

Maybe I'll go back to it one day!

Fidelity said...

I'm not sure from a writer's pov because I don't write all that well.

I speak only from a reader's and I prefer novels/stories in which character predominates over structure, plot etc.

My favourite, just about, is Portrait of a Lady because of the character James creates in Isabel Archer, and I like Clarissa from Richardson though I think everything else about it is hopeless, certainly there is hardly anything in it you could call 'structure'.

I think the Woman in White by and Dombey and Son have good structures, and plots, but not much that is memorable.

Structure/plot based novels/stories I think are usually called 'page-turners' and this is the type of story we are looking at here.

It's always a personal choice for a reader but I'm not so keen on 'tricks of the trade' that get readers 'hooked' on p1 and not let off the hook until the final 'incredible' ending; tricksy stuff but not for the type of reader I am.

Presentation of charcter in a life-like setting gets my admiration; 'hooking' me and keeping me wondering 'what happens next' just gets my goat.

Helen Black said...

Fidelity -I think you're misunderstanding what strcture is and why it's important.
As I say in my post, I don't believe it has anything to do with plot or hooks or racy stories.
Structure is how the story is told. The nuts and bolts that hold it together.
In stories that rely heavily on charcaterisation as opposed to action, I would say the structure a writer chooses is more vital than ever.

Thake for example The Curious Incident. This book isn't about what happens as actually, very little does happen. It's all about the MC and his condition.
So the fact that the author chooses his structure so carefully - first person POV, so close it never ever deviates, adds to the beauty of the work. If the structure had been multiple POVs telling us how the MC reacted int eh world, would it have been so very powerful?
HB x

Fidelity said...

I was reading about plot and structure and it seemed that plot has to do with the 'elements' in the story and structure the ways in which these can be arranged to tell the story.

I can see that every story has to have a structure all right, only I thought that it was emphasised more in one type of story than in others. I like good style myself and admit to being very chary of anything 'gripping' or 'thrillers' because they rely on suspense more than on revelation.

But I think you must be right since you are actually succeeding at it all the time.

I'm reading a literary biography of Maria Edgeworth at the moment and was impressed by how well she knew how to tell a tale, the extent of her committment to 'getting it right' and her fine 'craftmanship', wheareas in reading her the stories just seem to roll out casually.

Thanks for taking the time to explain. v. interesting.

RosyB said...

This post was really interesting - I am looking at screenwriting structure at the moment and I have always wondered how much all these terms have come to novels from screenwriting "rules". Inciting incident is definitely the big term.
But it seems to me that screen structure is not the same as novelistic structure - although some novels lend themselves so well to screen adaptation.

I have always wondered this about Show not Tell as well. With the screen you have to show - it is a medium of action if you like. But with prose there IS tell available to you as well and tell CAN be wonderful and achieve different effects.

And tell - after all - can even work for the screen. I was looking at "Brideshead Revisited" - the very famous Granada adaptation - for VL recently and it is amazing how very long it is in comparison to the novel and how so much of the prose is used as a narration with Jeremy Irons' wonderful mesmeric voice. And how well it all works. To create an "inciting incident" and lots of pared down action wouldn't have worked half as well. So whilst I see why these screenwriting "rules" have their place - they don't always work for screen even, let alone novels.

Enjoyed this piece. Thank you Helen.