Narrative Structure

Note:  It took us a while to get traction on this chat, so prepare to skim. 

JENNY: Narrative Structure. Hmmm, big topic.

First, you can use any narrative structure you want, even make up your own. (Translucent linear, anyone?) I think the majority (although by all means not all) of modern stories are linear, in the way of the Red King’s “start at the beginning and go on until you get to the end.” It’s a very male way of telling stories, but it’s also been the predominant form for centuries (hello, Patriarchy), so pretty much everybody recognizes it.

  • The beginning is the point in the story where everything but the action is finished. The ending is the point in the story where the action is finished.
  • The beginning is the point in the story where the stable world is disrupted. The ending is the point in the story where a new stable world is established.
  • The beginning is the point in the story where the conflict (not the trouble, the conflict) begins. The ending is the point where the conflict ends.

That means that those prologues that tell you what happened before the story began and those epilogues that tell what happened after the story ended are bad, bad, bad, bad.

Why, you ask?

When readers open your story, they are on your side, they are looking for a fascinating protagonist, a compelling conflict, a world they can believe in, they really want this book to be great. This is the place in the reader/writer relationship where they are yours to lose. SO GIVE THEM WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR. Give them that great protagonist on the first page, the hints of a fascinating conflict, great supporting characters, a setting with a lot of promise. Do not say, “Yeah, but before I start the story, there’s some back story I want you to know, just some stuff I need to get out of the way, and then I’ll give you the real story.” This will annoy readers. I know some readers who just skip all prologues, knowing they’re not part of the story so why bother. All a prologue does is squander that perfect first page that will make the reader invest in the book. And what do you the writer get in return?  Absolutely nothing. From a narrative strategy point of view, prologues are just dumb.

Yeah, but what about epilogues? Bob and I used to argue (may be still arguing, we’ll find out in a minute) about the most important part of a book. He argued that the first page is the most important because that determines if the reader is going to keep reading. And that’s true (so why are you writing so many damn prologues, Bob?) but it’s not as important as the last page because the last page determines if you’re going to read that book and that author again. Did you ever read a book that had slow beginning and a great, great ending? Did you go back to that author? Ever read one that had a fantastic beginning and an unsatisfactory ending? Ever go back to that author? The last thing you read determines your satisfaction with that book and that author. It’s the part you remember most, it’s the part you read the whole damn book for. It’s the most important part of the book.

Which is why an epilogue is such a waste. I will allow a denouement, a sigh space at the end that shows the stable world, but I bar the “three months later” or “one year later” epilogue, especially if somebody has given birth during that time. At that point, you’ve become a helicopter author, hovering over your reader to make sure they see the future of these people as you see it. But reading is collaborative, the reader has been interpreting your story the entire time they’ve been reading, let them have the future they want, don’t dictate their happily ever after. Let go of the damn story and move on. Do not step on your perfect ending.

So the plan for a linear plot (not frame plot, not patterned plot, only the cause-and-effect linear plot) is

  • start where everything but the action in finished, where the real conflict starts
  • build that conflict through escalating action and rising stakes until
  • the final obligatory ending between protagonist and antagonist that decides the conflict for once and all and establishes the new normal, the new stable world.

And don’t garbage it up with prologues, epilogues, time shifts, flashbacks, or any other twiddly bits writers stick in there to get information in that the reader is going to skim anyway. Sheesh.

BOB: Thought we were on point of view today?

JENNY: We did point of view last week.

Wasn’t that the whole translucent omniscient debacle?

BOB: Nope. We did community and relationships. I think.

JENNY: Well, there’s a PoV hashtag for a chat there in the sidebar.

BOB: Yeah. It’s from 15 June and just us chatting. Community already published so somehow we’re behind or actually up to speed. Let me check.

JENNY: PoV goes up Saturday.  We’re one week ahead.

Here’s what you started with:

“Point of view is the most difficult topic to discuss in writing. It’s your voice. I use the camera analogy—where is the camera the records the scene? Who has it?”

BOB: Okay. So we’re on Narrative Structure. Let me bring that up.

JENNY: I had to look it up, too.  About two hours ago.

The quarantine is playing hell with my ability to think.

Want to do this tomorrow?

BOB: I’ll find it. I did it a couple of weeks ago.

[Time passes]

JENNY: My favorite color is blue.

I haven’t watched any TV in months.

The best Glee song was “Smooth Criminal.”

If I was rating vegetables, onions would be at the top, then mushrooms, then bok choy.

I’m just filling dead air here.

You know, life is really weird lately.  You go out and everybody is masked.  Which is good but strange.

Everything’s drive up windows.

BOB: At the store they are here, but not elsewhere.

JENNY: Kathleen and I tried to eat out yesterday.  That was an adventure.

Of course, we’re in NJ.  They’re not messing around here.

BOB: I don’t even like doing take out

JENNY: I just like food.  Take out works for me.

There’s only so much bok choy I can chop before I start craving french fries.

BOB: Okay found it.  Hold on.

JENNY: I’m here.  Faithful and true.

And god knows, patient.

Soooooooo patient.

BOB: In my original post on this I covered the five part of structure and that’s what I teach. The reason I teach it is because we need something solid for craft before we put our black berets on and stand on the street corner smoking cigarettes discussing what great artists we are.

But the reality is the first books I wrote, I had no clue what I was doing and just regurgitated all the thrillers I read.It’s better to know what you’re doing.

These days I’m more freeflowing with plot and just let the characters take me where they’re going to take me.Why? Because I trust myself on plot. I’ve never met a plot I couldn’t make work. Seriously. There are a lot of things I don’t do well, but plot ain’t one of them.

That’s not helpful to you, but my point is that you have to study plot in everything you watch and read. Every evening my wife and I and Cool Gus and Scout pile into bed and my wife has the remote (although Scout and Cool Gus occasionally push buttons we didn’t know existed) and I watch what she puts on. And it’s always interesting and seems on target for the story I’m writing.

Lots of great writing on cable TV. I always analyze the plot. What worked, what didn’t.The writers of Seinfeld said an interesting thing: they’d always worry about the plausibility of their plot until the episode where Kramer is golfing and hits it into the whale’s blowhole and then George later rescues the whale and pulls out the golfball. Pretty implausible, right? But it worked.

Is that helpful? In a way, yes. Because if you can get people into the story, there’s no limit to what you can do.

JENNY: You have a black beret?

I am terrible at plot.  Left to my own devices, I’ll just have characters doing snappy patter.  Which everybody on my blog knows because they saw all the noodling around I was doing on Surprise Lily.

Tragically, snappy patter does not a story make.

BOB: Okay, after reading Jenny’s post I will admit I was wrong and she was right. I now believe the end of the book is the most important part. What do you leave readers with? You especially want to leave them satisfied, but also wanting your next book.

JENNY: Wait.  I was right?

BOB: I even went back and tweaked the ending of my very first book to make it more positive because it was originally a bummer. Which is my tendency that I have to fight.

JENNY: What?

Did you fix the ending to Cut Out?

BOB: No. She still dies. My wife is pissed about it to this day.

JENNY: Your wife isn’t the only one.  WTF were you thinking?  “I’ll just negate the entire principle of this book because nobody will see that coming?”  If you’d been in the room with me, I would have thrown that book at your head.

What’s your first book?

BOB: Eyes of the Hammer. Horrible, terrible title.

JENNY: My first title was Manhunting.  Also a horrible, terrible title.  Not my idea.

BOB: Snappy patter is fun, but it has to serve a purpose. I wrote a mirror image of the JT Wilder finding Althea in bed scene in Lawyers, Guns and Money, but it went in a different direction for the character.

2 LGM NEW

JENNY: That was a great scene.

Did I ever tell you that Jen thought I wrote that?  You really hit that one out of the park.

Ignore the ego in that last part.

Fix Cut Out.  What were you thinking on that?

BOB: Yeah– there are some scenes that flow. My two vampires, Nosferatu and Nekhbet have some great scenes in the Area 51 series as they banter back and forth, because she always wants to kill someone and drink their blood and he’s more like– hey, we need to talk to this guy.

 

JENNY: I mean, there must have been a plan there.

I completely screwed up the romance plot in Wild Ride, but at least I had a plan.  Poorly executed but a plan.

BOB: Nope. No plan in my early books. Just kill people left and right.

GOT Everyone dies

JENNY:Right, that’s when you were stuck in Korea.

BOB: Wild Ride was my idea and it wasn’t the best idea I’ve had.  DLD and Agnes we started with characters. Wild Ride we started with my idea.

JENNY: It wasn’t the idea.  Okay, the idea was out there but we made that part work.  it was the romance.  I completely borked the romance.

Agnes was our gold standard.

BOB: We should have just killed everyone.

JENNY: No, Bob.

I really like Wild Ride.  Except for the romance.  Give me another shot at the romance.  I can FIX IT.

BOB: Anything can be fixed.

JENNY: Until it’s published.  Let it go, Jenny.

Okay, we’re talking about structure and so far we have two rules:

1.Snappy patter is not structure.

2. Don’t kill everyone.

Especially when the point of the whole damn book is that SHE LIVES.  Jesus.
Cut Out: Such a good book, right up to the end.  Sigh.

BOB: I like IT LIVES. Lots of potential there.

JENNY: IT LIVES has been done. I think.  Off to google.

Yes, 1978 Horror Film.

So, STRUCTURE.  The thing about structure is that it makes writing EASIER.

BOB: The thing about structure is to study it, especially when someone does something really weird with it. Pulp Fiction had a totally messed up structure. It wouldn’t have worked except for snappy dialogue.

JENNY: Pulp Fiction is patterned structure.  Lots harder to pull off.

Linear cause-and-effect makes everything easier.

BOB: Are you talking outlining?

JENNY: No, I’m talking cause and effect.

BOB: I prefer time travel. And prologues. And epilogues.

JENNY: Imagine the gesture I’m making now.

BOB: Absolutely cause and effect. That’s why the characters dictate what happens next.

JENNY: It’s like poetry.  Free verse is a lot harder to write than sonnets, because sonnets give you a structure to follow so all you have to think about are the words and the sounds and the meaning and the emotion.

Yes, cause-and-effect is driven by character.  Easiest structure there is.

BOB: I always use the example of when Blue Duck kidnaps Laurie in Lonesome Dove. Based on the characters he’s introduced us to, Larry McMurtry has no options on what will happen next. They’re going to do who they are. Gus is going after her. Jake Spoon is going to San Antonio and getting drunk and gambling. Call, even though he loves Gus, keeps the cattle moving north, albeit slower.

All of those reactions lead to further reactions.

JENNY: But you need a wild card in there.

BOB: Oh yea. I love wild cards. When it isn’t what you expect.  But it has to be plausible in retrospect.

JENNY: You need a plot that makes a reader say, “I did not see that coming, but now that it’s here, that’s the only way this could have played out.”  Expectation and surprise.  Which is what we’re talking about next week.  (Head’s up, Bob.)

BOB: Let me make a note.

JENNY: Turning points are good for surprises that in retrospect are inevitable.

BOB: I’ve got Escalation, Expectation and Exposition. Close enough. I’ll have to look up exposition.

JENNY: It’s legal info-dump.

And should be curtailed SEVERELY.

I don’t even know why it’s in there.

Delete “exposition.”

BOB: Yeah. It’s there all along, but the reader doesn’t see it. I like when my protagonist is surprised by something he should have seen coming, but didn’t. And neither did the reader, but when it does hit, everyone goes: Duh!

JENNY: The surprise that’s inevitable, not exposition.

We’re agreeing too much.  This is boring.

You don’t do turning points?  (Not trying to start a fight, just curious.)

BOB:  I think I do them organically. You want an example of structure? My Time Patrol books are a nightmare. Six missions, on the same day, in different years, each mission broken into five parts.  Essentially six short stories inside a larger structure.

JENNY: So few writers are willing to say, “My structure is a nightmare.”  In public.

It’s important to align the reader with the protag/PoV character.  That way if the character does something the reader agrees with, if it turns out to be something dumb, the reader’s stuck with, “Yeah, that was TDTL, but I’ have done it, too,” and you don’t lose the reader.

BOB: Hate TDTL. Watched Old Guard and they were TDTL for immortal warriors but everyone else appeared to like it.

Old Guard

JENNY: I heard good things about the Old Guard.  Is that Theron?

Immortal warriors?  I always wonder: don’t those guys get tired?  Centuries of sword fights.  Everybody dying around them.

BOB: Yes. All they did was screw up after screw up for people who’ve lived hundreds of years. And their military tactics totally were wrong. They’d have flunked Ranger School for sure.

JENNY: You’d think they’d just say, “Fuck it” and go get a slushie.

I just wrote a hero who was 500 years old.  He was pretty much in slushie territory.  Until the heroine showed up.  Perked him right up.

BOB: I liked the original Casca the Eternal Mercenary. But anyway. Plot?

JENNY: Plot? I’m for it.  I think all stories should have a plot.

BOB: I did like Highlander. The original.

Which brings us back to everything’s been done.

JENNY: Everything has been done.  We just have to do it better.

BOB: Anne Rice blew it out the water with Interview. What a great title, what a brilliant story.

JENNY: Frame structure.  Brilliant use of frame structure, too.  High weirdness level, though.  Claudia?  Very creepy.

I did a book of literary criticism on Anne Rice.  The only book I’ve ever published under my own name.

BOB: She framed that story perfectly– which the title tells you. And that, folks, is how to plot.

JENNY: That’s how to plot if you’re doing a frame story.

BOB: Did you cover the Beauty books?

JENNY: No, I stayed away from the Beauty books.

BOB: Good idea.

JENNY: I did the early vampires.

Well, when I wrote the criticism, they were the only vampires.  Long time ago.

Frame story.  See also Heart of Darkness.  Broken frame: Turn of the Screw.  I don’t know what the hell James was thinking of there.

BOB: As far as plot, watch Memento. Two storylines, one forward, one backward. But there was a very good reason for it.

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JENNY: Patterned structure.  See also Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies.”  Perfect short story.

BOB: Short stories are so hard to write in my opinion.

JENNY: Much harder than novels.

You know, the important thing about structure is, it makes writing easier.

(Yes, I know I’m repeating myself.)

There’s no point to teaching structure just to tell people about structure, although we did that, too.

The point is that your story tells you the structure it needs to be told in.  If you have no compelling reason to write patterned, stop fucking around and write cause-and-effect linear.  It’s the easiest for people to understand, and you gain all that real estate for straight story telling.  (Structure makes things easier for readers, too.)

And if you have a reason to go patterned–say you’re writing Out of Sight–then you cowboy up and do the hard stuff.

Frame structure is somewhere in between.

BOB: A simple rule Jenny showed me early on was look at every scene and find the conflict in it. If you don’t have conflict, it isn’t moving the story forward.

JENNY: I remember that.  It was when we doing scene lists and I kept log-lining them with the conflict: Agnes vs Shane in kitchen.

BOB: I saw a writer the other day on twitter saying she hated most writing workshops at conferences because they were what she called “Writing 101”. I wanted to tell her we all need to go back to Writing 101 every so often.

JENNY: You know, that’s true.  I told Mollie last night that talking this stuff over with you again, rereading the posts we made, it’s all affecting what I’m doing in my own stories right now.

BOB: I wrote the scene with Shane walking around the house just seeing things and there was no conflict.  So we put Doyle in the scene. There was conflict.

JENNY: That was a good scene.  Terrible Irish accent.  Good scene.  Rhett was in there, too.

You know, we did a damn good job on Agnes.

Agnes and the Hitman

BOB: Same with the scene with Wilder and his buddy in the SCIF that we moved to the strip club.

JENNY: Oh, I remember that now from DLD.  Yeah, that improved tremendously.  His buddy was an important addition to that book.  Ficelle character.

BOB: Which shows that if a scene isn’t working, think about all the options you have to fix it: add a character. Change the setting. Whatever. I just did the change the setting thing today in a scene.

JENNY: I tend to look at how much front loading I have in a scene before the dialogue starts.  Cut the beginnings to get to the interaactions.

Hallows Eve NEW

BOB: It ends with Mary Todd Lincoln screaming.  But not dead.   Yet.

JENNY: Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

BOB: Exactly.

JENNY: My aa key is still sticking.

So annoying.

BOB: Try writing a book without an X key

JENNY: You just make this stuff up, don’t you?  The last time it was the Z key.

BOB: No. Always been the X key

JENNY: Zounds.  Last week it was the Z key.  I asked you about Uzis.

You know, these chats would be infinitely more valuable if people asked us questions.

We’d also not natter so much.  We natter a lot.

BOB: I know. Weird that people don’t. We must have gotten boring in our twilight years.

JENNY: We are agreeing a lot.

Is it in the nineties where you are?  Because I’m melting.

BOB: But that doesn’t mean people reading it should agree.

JENNY: It’s hard to be interesting when your brains are turning to liquid.

BOB: It’s horrid. We were looking at houses today in Nebraska and Wyoming.  Because the warming ain’t gonna get better.

JENNY: Planning on a future with cattle?

BOB: Sheep

JENNY: There are so many ways I could go with that information.

BOB: Absolutely.

JENNY: You know it’s possible we said everything we had to say about structure fourteen years ago.  It’s not like the basics have changed.

BOB: Nope.

JENNY: Possibly we’re beating a dead sheep here.

BOB: True. Same old, same old.

JENNY: And I think we’re done.  Jesus, we have to do better than this.  We’re boring each other.

Not that I find sheep boring.

BOB: Yeah. We’ll figure it out.

JENNY: Good night, Mr. Optimism.

BOB:  Good night

 

6 thoughts on “Narrative Structure

  1. I’ll allow prologues, I just think they should be held to the same standards as other scenes. Namely:

    – Since it’s the start of the book, is this where the conflict starts?
    – Does the story fundamentally change if this scene is cut?

    Most of the time prologues should be cut because they aren’t where the story’s main conflict starts, and deleting them doesn’t fundamentally change the story that follows. But not always.

    Most of the examples I can think of where prologues work are fairy tales. In Disney’s Tangled, it starts with Rapunzel being kidnapped as a baby by the witch. The story conflict is Rapunzel verses the witch as she tries to reclaim her freedom, so that is where the conflict starts. And if you delete that scene, it becomes a much more psychologically dark story, since the audience would be finding out at the same time as Rapunzel that the person she thinks is her loving mother is actually her kidnapper. Not a worse story, just very tonally different.

    I know a lot of Crime dramas start with a body being found or someone being murdered, maybe only a few days/hours before the protagonist solves up on screen to solve the crime. I would argue that while those scenes are where the conflict starts since it sets the criminal against the crime-solver, they count as prologues that should be cut, because most of the time they can be deleted without changing the story.

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    1. It depends on the story. You can write a dozen stories from the same premise.

      Example:
      Premise: a baby is taken from her parents and grows up not realizing her heritage and her true identity.

      Story One: Start with the kidnapping/taking, show the child growing up, realizing there’s something wrong, finding her heritage, defeating her kidnapper, returning to her true life. That’s a woman’s journey or a biography.

      Story Two: Start with the day that’s different in her adult life, the first time she rebels against her captor and goes out into the world. That’s an adventure story.

      Story Three: Start with the day she meets the love of her life and makes him take her into the outside world. That’s a romance.

      Story Four: Make the witch/kidnapper the protagonist, show her sympathetically as she loses the child she raises. That’s a tragedy. Or Into the Woods.

      A premise can’t tell you where to start a story. Only the story can tell you that. Therefore, what’s the first scene in one story is a prologue in a different story based on the same premise.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Totally agee that you two killed it with Agnes, my favorite book ever, even though despite reading it umpteen times, I’m still not sure I understand the details with the assassin and Shane’s before Agnes job plot. Ultimately, I didn’t care, I loved the story, truly loved the internal narrator with the Doctor’s voice, loved the action, loved the found family, loved the cooking. Great book, I’ve recommended it dozens of times over the years. I liked DLD, re-read it several times, and enjoyed Wild Ride but felt it left some loose ends – the romance as you mentioned for one – I thought it should have been a two book thing with the second book expanding on the first and then wrapping up everything, I honestly thought that was the plan about 3/4 the way through it and was very disappointed when I read there was not another coming. As far as prologues, I really hate them, I think they ruin a good opening “hook” and just in general get in the way of the story. Epilogues I’m ambivalent about, if it was that necessary that I as the reader needed to know, then make it part of the story. I prefer the euphoric chapter at the end after the conflict crescendo, where we see where all the things shook out and the loose threads are wrapped up. I do not like the “six months after” ones at all. I like linear plots the best as they are easiest to follow. I’ve read some books where I really liked the concept and opening chapter, but felt like I had to go back and re-read parts while in the middle of the book to figure out what went where. I read a lot of space opera and dang, that genre is bad about that, particularly the older, 80s books. I’ve read several in that genre where the first few chapters turned out to be essentially a long prologue before cutting to “present day” where the story they are telling begins. Rendezvous with Rama’s first three chapters spring to mind as an example of a prologue that goes on and on with characters that don’t end up meaning anything to the story. There was also one I can’t remember the name, where it starts with a character in a spaceship doing his thing for about a chapter and then the big bad kills him. And the next chapter started with the group that the story was really about. Even though the story turned out to be good, I was annoyed basically the whole book about that. I’m really enjoying reading your “new” take on the old posts. Thank you so much for them!

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  3. Sometimes a prologue works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. Epilogues aren’t that fun, especially because it almost always has a baby. I like babies a lot, but they don’t add anything to the end of the story.

    I really only know about linear plots. I have no idea what patterned and framed plots are.

    Agnes is one of my all-time favorite books. You guys totally killed it.

    Eye of the Hammer was the first book by Bob I ever read; I read it after DLD. I liked it a lot, even reread it, and I generally don’t like that type of book.

    JAK’s In Too Deep has two prologues. She needs the one with Isabella, but not the other. And it has one of my favorite opening lines: “She was not expecting the killers to come for her in the lingerie department.”

    I front load too much and thus sometimes write prologues. My bad. I need to figure out how to not do that. My current work has sooo much that makes the main characters what they are and that set up the why and the how and set you up for “Yeah, never bite a Terran.” I really was much better at short stories, especially the really short ones, but I want to write novels now because I want to tell longer, more involved stories. It definitely twists my mind around.

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