This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
Now that we’ve looked at scenes, I can finally start talking about what structure is.
When you’re building a scene, how long should it be? Who should be the POV? What tense should you write in? Should you have a separate scene for each POV? Should your chapters have one scene or multiple scenes? How much plot goes into each scene? When I look at a story idea, how long should I make it–is it a novel or a short story? How can I even start to tell? What do I do if I get stuck in the middle of a novel? Should I pants or should I plot?
What is structure? And how is that different than plot?
Structure is how a story is arranged. There are a couple of Russian terms that apply here: fabula and szuchet. I may have talked about them already; I can’t remember if I have yet or not. But they’re relevant here, so let’s look at them.
- fabula: the raw material of a story.
- szuchet: the way a story is organized.
Fabula is the story in strict linear order–backstory goes first (for example, when someone says, “Let me begin in the beginning. First, there was light…” Szuchet is when you rearrange things so that the reader doesn’t have to suffer too long in the boring yet still relevant parts and so that backstory is delivered when it’s actually relevant. No story is pure fabula. That kind of thing is purely unreadable. Every story has a little bit of organization to it.
That organization is structure. Every choice that an author makes that isn’t directly related to the fabula is a structural choice.
These include but are not limited to:
- Timeline told in linear order or otherwise
- Framing devices
- Scene vs. summary of events
Any element of how the story is told, rather than what is told, is structure. Some people will talk about “plot structure,” but that’s a whole different ball of wax, and, honestly, you’ve probably heard all about that stuff before. If you’ve ever seen graphs of rising and falling tension or the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (adapted or original), Save the Cat!, Story Engineering, or anything like that, you’re looking at plot structure, not at what we’re talking about here. Please set aside “plot structure” as a concept for now. “Plot structure” is a basic of fiction, and you’re working on intermediate stuff at the moment.
No, I changed my mind. Let me talk about where you should be with plot structure as an intermediate writer:
- You have a favorite plot structure.
- You are able to plug ideas into the plot structure and come up with events to fit the various steps in the plot structure.
- When you sit down to write, you may or may not use that plot structure consciously and deliberately, but you know how the basic concept of how to put events in some kind of order to make a story with a beginning, middle, and ending.
Early writers often go, “I have an idea!!!” and then get stuck almost immediately in trying to write it down. They don’t yet see the difference between an idea and a plot. Intermediate writers will see people like this all the time. “I have an idea for a series; I just need someone to write them for me, and we’ll split the profits 50-50.” If you think coming up with the idea for the story is just as much work as the process of turning that idea into a series of events (whether you’re outlining ahead of time or not), then it’s time to back up and go over the basics of plotting.
No worries; every writer has strengths and weaknesses. If and when you identify a weakness, concentrate on the basics in that subject for a while. You’re still an intermediate writer! But there will be places where you have to do some remedial work.
Structure isn’t plot; plot isn’t structure; they influence each other, but for now let’s keep them separate.
Structure issues at this level:
- Trying to turn a short story into a novel or vice versa.
- Getting over five thousand words into a story and deciding to change the POV character(s).
- Being unsure of who the main character is or claiming that there’s more than one (or two, in certain romance novels).
- Flabby middles.
- Readers feeling lost.
- Unsure of whether to add/remove a subplot.
Structure is a very deep subject; I may be missing some significant issues. But these are the ones that I hear from other writers most of the time.
The biggest issue with structure, however, is something that I can’t really list as an issue. I believe that structural questions are what hold people up on their way to becoming an advanced writer. If you don’t have a grasp of structure, you can’t write at an advanced level, where the story that you write is told through not just plot and character, but in how you tell the story.
This isn’t a matter of style but of structure. The Princess Bride cannot be told the way that Pulp Fiction is told, and vice versa. Part of The Princess Bride is that the frame story–the grandfather and the grandson–is essential to the overall story. Take the frame story off, and you have a decent movie, but not a masterpiece. Ditto with Pulp Fiction. Put all the events in linear order, and you no longer know things that the characters don’t know yet–that is, you lose some of the suspense–and you no longer have the joy of watching it a second time and realizing the characters know things in certain scenes that you didn’t–you lose some of the foreshadowing.
In the end, I believe the gateway to advanced writing is making the structure fit the plot fit the characters fit the style fit the…and so on.
You know how I keep saying something or other is pretty straightforward or simple, when you strip it down to the basics?
Structure isn’t one of those things.
Here’s my tentative plan for covering things:*
- Unreliable narrators/tabula rasa.
- Scene vs. Summary.
- What order to tell things in and why.
- How many things to shove into a scene and why.
- Story lengths.
- How many POVs?
- Framing devices, two-timeline stories, reverse stories, completely-out-of-order stories.
- Flash fiction and other illusions of proximity.
- Breaking down structure.
Next time: Beyond the 1st/2nd/3rd/omniscient question, or, what can I get away with in my POVs?
*Note, if you haven’t read the pacing posts, I’d do that before moving forward. I’m going to put pacing after scenes but before structure, I think.
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