Friday, 3 January 2014

On structuring a novel...

The writing process, as it is called, is very individual. Each writer has to find what works for him or her. Some writers write every single day for a set period, even if they end up throwing one day's writing away every now and again. Others only write when they are inspired. Basically, it's about whatever works for you as a writer.

But even for those who follow a more 'organic' process (like this author), there comes a time when you need to be a bit more structured about it, even if only for a while, to make sure that the novel you deliver doesn't end up chaotic, or with big holes in the plot, or with chapters that simply should have been cut. There is a need to balance the creative process with structure.

In former days, editors would do this for promising new writers or existing ones. They would point out holes, necessary cuts, or ask questions that would make an author realize their plot wasn't clear. Nowadays, for most writers, there are only two alternatives: writing groups (real or virtual {online}), and literary agencies/book doctors. The former are hit and miss, though, as often writer groups are made up of keen amateurs who are not published themselves. Even when this is not the case (the writers in the group I belong to are all published one way or another), writing groups often consider one chapter at a time, seeing a book evolve over a period of a year or longer, and are therefore not always able to judge its overall 'cohesion', its 'architecture', and its impact as a whole.

Literary agencies and book doctors are great for doing this, but they are not cheap, and it is better all round to give them something which is already in a pretty good state, otherwise you can end up going to them several times with revisions of your manuscript (as I did for my first book), which will cost you thousands of dollars/pounds/euros.

So, when to shelve creativity for a while and do some structural work?

Some writers spend six months diligently plotting a novel and working on characterization, before they begin the novel. This is great if it is your process and it works. For me, however, when I tried to do this, my writing ended up lifeless, because I knew too much of what was going to happen, and I felt like writing was just going through the motions.

For me, I get 'structural' when I am about a third of the way through writing a novel. Don't get me wrong, at the early stages of writing a novel I know its beginning and end, but often have no clue over the middle part, or the detail, or even key scenes in the latter half of the book. It is the undiscovered country, which is why I love writing; there is excitement, and also tension, because there is a risk I'll never pull it off convincingly. The structuring process 'de-risks' my writing, without murdering creativity. So, here is my process, which is top-down, using a thriller (not scifi this time)  I'm writing at the moment as an example.

Step 1: Defining the 'Cast'
These are the principal characters in the book, in order of importance.

  • Nadia – 24 year old Russian who is forced to work for a Russian mafia boss, Kadinsky, who is holding Nadia’s sister Katya hostage on the outskirts of Moscow
  • Jake – English diving instructor, who blames himself for the loss of his diving buddy, Steve, two years earlier in a diving accident
  • Elise – Jake’s former, and potentially current, girlfriend
  • Adamson – CIA agent hunting the device, who has his own agenda
  • Danton – ex-mafia freelancer, working for Adamson but forced to double-cross him
  • Lazarus – working for Kadinsky
  • Pete & Ben – two brothers who run a dive operation in the Scilly Isles
  • The dive crew: [Jake, Elise,] Gary, Fionnula, Claus, Alex and Cass

Step 2: Defining the overall arcs 
Arcs are important, because they answer two fundamental questions that readers may pose about your books: what happens, and what is it about? As a writer such questions are important because most books are still sold by 'word of mouth' (WOM), i.e. if a friend says 'this book was really good', you are going to ask these questions. If the friend can't say, then as far as WOM goes it is often a deal-breaker.

The four overall arcs for this book are as follows:

Nadia - she is forced to work for the mafia who are holding her sister hostage, and has to kill someone (a villain) in the very first chapter. Can she somehow turn around events for the better and remain good, or will she become a villain herself?
The device - it mustn't fall into the wrong hands - does it?
Jake - he seems to have a death-wish, due to guilt. When it all comes to a head in the underwater climactic scene at the end of the book, will he survive?
Nadia and Pete - they are attracted, but can they 'make it' given everything else going on?

There shouldn't be too many arcs. There has to be at least one.

Step 3 - Micro-synopses for each part of the book
Most books can be broken into 2, 3 or 4 'parts'. The most famous is the 'three act structure'. It doesn't matter which model you use, but you should be able to write a short paragraph for each major part or section of the book. Again, not necessarily at the beginning of a novel, but by the time you are a third or at most half-way through. Otherwise your novel can get out of control. You might end up finishing it, but you may have taken a circuitous approach to get there. Incidentally, this is often why editors say something like 'Can you cut 30% of your novel out?' (said to me twice by editors for my first novel), which is like asking an author to cut off a limb. Here is a micro-synopsis for the first third of the thriller:

A heist gone wrong leaves five dead and a young Russian girl, Nadia, in possession of a secret military device hunted by the CIA and the Russian mafia. As she heads to the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall to lay low, her boat is boarded by police, and she drops the device overboard in sixty-six metres of water. She plans to recover it, but the depth is dangerous, and she must find a diving buddy willing to help her and ask no questions. Nadia meets a group of divers who are on holiday, including Jake, an experienced instructor who is on the edge, with a secret in his past that’s eating away at him, leading him to take increasing risks. Meanwhile, both the Russians and the Americans are closing in on Nadia, neither side concerned with who gets killed in the race to retrieve the device. 

Okay, this one is actually like a blurb, but you get the idea. The conflicts are clear, as is what it is about. Rudyard Kipling's six basic questions are answered:

Who? [Nadia; Jake; CIA; mafia]
What? [heist; stolen device]
Where [Scilly Isles}
When? [this is implicit: it is set today]
How? [they must dive to retrieve the device]
Why? {aka 'So what?'} [the device is important; killers are on Nadia's trail; the dive will be dangerous]

Step 4 - Jeopardy / Conflict Check
Is the conflict rising at the end of each part? In the synopsis for Part One above, the Russians/Americans are both closing in. In fact the first Part ends with one of the key villains (Adamson) arriving on the island, maintaining surveillance on Nadia, and then calling in mercenary ex-SEAL divers as he works out what has happened to the device. There is also romantic conflict between two of the characters (Jake and Elise), who try to get back together but end up flying apart. The Jeopardy check is more for thrillers, and the Conflict check is more for 'mainstream' novels, but the principle is the same. It is like applying the 'page-turner' principle at a very high level (to the parts of the book) - why should the reader keep reading? It is also key to getting the reader through the middle part of a book, where it is often difficult to maintain tension. If it is a three-part book structure, the tension has to rise at the end of both parts one and two. Many books have a good start, but readers give up halfway.

Step 5 - Chapter Synopses
These are short paragraphs on each chapter, e.g:

Chapter 1 – The heist to steal the device while it is en route in Penzance goes sour, courtesy of Janssen, who tries to double-cross Nadia’s mafia boss, Kadinsky. Nadia is forced to kill Janssen. She and Sammy escape, then part company. Nadia takes the device.

Chapter 2 – Nadia takes passage to the remote Scilly Isles. Aboard the boat she has a fling with Mike, the skipper, as part of a ruse to prevent a Navy Patrol Boat discovering the device. She drops it in 66m of water, at the foot of a deep wreck (the Tsuba), and records the exact location.

Chapter 3 – Jake is at the end of his sabbatical in Norway, going for one last dive with his best friends there. It is a deep dive, breaking local regulations, and it goes badly wrong, but Jake saves the other two, and they return safely. Two days later, as he is leaving Norway, he is confronted by the local diving club president, and told never to return.

Chapter 4 – In Frankfurt, Danton has captured Sammy, and tortures him until he divulges Nadia’s name and whereabouts, then kills him, giving the information to Adamson, who is CIA but wants the device for himself. Adamson departs for the Scillies. Lazarus, who works for Kadinsky, visits his ex-partner, Danton, and forces him to give up the information about Adamson. To save his own skin, Danton offers to go to the Scillies, kill both Nadia and Adamson, and retrieve the device.

These are broad brush strokes, that is all. I have only written 6 chapters so far, but I have paragraphs like these for all sixteen chapters of the book. As I write the new chapters, things may change of course, but the point is that I have these 'waypoints', and can navigate towards the end of my book without feeling 'lost at sea' without a compass.

Step 6 - POV Check
If you are writing 'multiple points of view' (POV) as I do, it is important to consider the frequency of chapters with the different protagonists. My science fiction has many POVs, and the principle I use is that the reader needs to see the principal POVs at least every other third chapter, or else they will start to disconnect or 'lose the thread'. One way to do this is colour-coding the titles of each chapter according to POV. Here's an example from Eden's Endgame, my scifi novel in progress at the moment, with the chapter titles in sequence for Part One of the book. Each colour represents both an arc, and the key protagonists involved in that arc:

War Council 
Releasing Angels 
Plan F 

Step 7 - Entering the Matrix
This is the most advanced part, and might seem too 'structural' for some writers, but it is a disciplined approach.

You draw a table with 7 columns and as many rows as you have chapters. The columns are as follows:

  1. Chapter number (including prologue and epilogue) 
  2. Chapter title (unless simply '1,2,3' etc.)
  3. Where it takes place
  4. Who are the key protagonists in this chapter
  5. What happens in terms of drama/action
  6. What the internal conflict is inside a character or between two characters
  7. How the chapter moves the plot forward

That's it. Easy right? Here's what it looks like:

Internal Conflict
Plot Development
Heist; shootout
Nadia is forced to kill someone
Device stolen
Nadia, Mike
Sex; Boarded by Navy
Nadia takes advantage of Mike
Device lost
Deep dive goes wrong
Jake’s guilt over near-fatal dive
Jake gives up his dive instructor’s license

The first 4 columns are easy. The other three can show structural weaknesses, e.g.

  • A chapter with no real drama or action
  • A chapter (perhaps with action) with no internal conflict
  • A chapter which does not actually move the plot forward

All three of these are problematic, and should trigger an author to go back and re-write such chapters. This has happened to me in the past, where I'm quite happy with a chapter, but realize that it does not advance the plot. So why is it there? Similarly, I sometimes have 'action' chapters, but there is no internal conflict, and so no character development, so it reads like 'this happened, and then they did this, and then...' Will the reader care? And, rarer for my style of writing, I have had 'talking heads' chapters where there is intense dialogue (lots of character conflict) but no action, just a lot of talk. True, you can have such chapters, but they test many readers' patience...

The matrix (okay, it's a table, but Matrix sounds more fun) can also be used to review pace. When doing your own matrix, you will notice, for example, if there are too many 'action' chapters, or too many 'static' chapters (focusing on internal conflict/character development) next to each other. A novel is like breathing: there needs to be a rhythm between breathing in (internal) and breathing out (drama / action). At the least, for thrillers, the reader needs to regain their breath occasionally.

As well as identifying 'superfluous' chapters (that an editor might suggest cutting, even if the prose itself is great), Steps 6 & 7 also both help identify 'missing' chapters, i.e. gaps in the plot development. For Eden's Endgame, for example, while doing this analysis, I realize I had two missing chapters for Part 1. I have since written them, and now the plot's continuity, as well as the pace, flows better.

The matrix might be something that you develop as you go along. This is okay as long as you have done the other steps first, so that the 'waypoints' are already laid out. The matrix then becomes a validation check as each new chapter is added. 

Once these steps are done, you can go back to writing. It is not something that has to be done very often. For example, you can update it at the end of each major part of the novel, to check that there has not been too much 'drift', unless the 'drift now looks better than the original, in which case re-do the analysis and re-plot the waypoints.

I hope these ideas might be useful, but remember, it is about finding what is best for you as an author. Whatever works... 

The Eden Paradox Series
Eden's Endgame - due late Spring 2014

Thriller novel in progress: Sixty-Six Metres


  1. Why does nobody ever comment, does it work? David

  2. Hi David, yes, it works for me at any rate. I've just heard from a writing colleague that Samantha Chang uses something similar (a graphical method). Samantha is a top writing instructor in the US. I reckon quite a few people use methods like these, but the methods are not generally 'out there', so I decided to publish mine via the blog.


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