Story Structure: A Lament

We’ve all seen diagrams of the usual progression of a story. There’s an inciting incident, rising action, usually in the form of a few try-fail cycles, that leads to a climax, then a denouement or conclusion to tie everything together. Of course there are various permutations depending on the plot, length, and genre. But the same basic structure is fairly ubiquitous: the conflict starts small, grows, and is resolved by the end. No one says you have to do it this way, but readers get confused when the story diverges from the standard.

So what does a poor author do with a story that only sometimes conforms to the standard?

Throw up her hands and cry, mostly. Or swear at the manuscript and threaten to burn it if it doesn’t shape up.

Stupid time-travel WIP.

All the plot elements are in the wrong places; the story sometimes wants to be episodic, with the associated time jumps, instead of a nice, smooth novel- other parts of the story fit perfectly into novel structure; it refuses to be written in order, so I have to keep going back and doing continuity checks- then deciding which continuity is better. Then the characters decide to do things that are consistent with reality instead of storytelling, which confuses the issue even further. Also, the plot is too big and convoluted to fit in one book, so it needs to be somewhere between three and seven books- but that leads to asking, how many, and how are they structured?

What a mess.

It’s one of those problems where I can’t tell if I’m doing the right thing, but not enough of it, or if I’m doing it wrong and need to cut my losses and change tack. And since I’ve been working on it for two years, completely abandoning the project seems counterproductive.

But I take solace in the fact that, no matter what I write, it will be The Best Thing Ever according to one cohort of readers, and also The Worst Thing Ever to another cohort. So it’s impossible to get right, but it’s impossible to get it wrong, too.

How is your writing going?

17 comments

  1. The writing only sort of goes. I’d been having some doubts about this story anyway, but I had more or less been cruising through NaNo, making my words every day, getting as far as five days ahead of their little line…and then I got the stomach flu. I spent about 6 hours thinking I was dying, another 24 hours wishing I was dying, and since then, I’ve barely managed anything. Oh, I’ve written some words, but I’m not sure if they’re actually part of the story or just a bit of word count padding that I’m using to keep from finding the real story.

    Still, I guess sort of going is better than not going. And even if I end up editing all of this out, maybe it will eventually push me to where I need to be.

      1. I do that with some of what I delete, even if I think I’ll never have any use for it. Sometimes, though, what I’ve written is so egregiously bad that I want it completely gone from all existence. Happened to me twice this year so far…

  2. I’ve hit another transitional space, and as always, my brain sputters and stalls on words for a while as it builds out the world, the character development to come, the threats, the opportunities, and works in all the foreshadowing I didn’t know I’d done.

    I’m working through it – the notes are starting to build up, and the next place they’re going is shifting from nebulous concept to concrete details. Well, more stone than concrete, but…

  3. I’m doing OK. I’m working on two short-stories just to keep words moving until I have enough brain cells free for the next big project. I’ll be working on edits for the next Familiar Generations book after Thanksgiving.

  4. Keen in my memory is the story where the heroine was picking off the villains and I was pondering how to keep the stakes rising when the danger should logically grow less.

    (The difference between potential power brought to bear and actual featured heavily in that.)

  5. The writing goes slow. Part of it is I haven’t been setting aside consistent writing time. Part of it, I think, is I’m in the dense pack world building phase, so there’s a lot on information I need to salt into things. Part of it is the main character is in an emotional safe/hold state. He is just following orders and along for the ride right now.

    Ultimately I just need to work through this section in as few words as I can to get the core actions and observations through to get to a point where the character is actively making decisions again. And that’s just going to take applying myself until it is done.

  6. I didn’t NaNo this year, because of family visiting in the middle of it. So of course the story I didn’t have time for, go away I need to polish and publish this other thing, has crossed the 40K mark and is just approaching the second of three battles . . .

    Eh, sometimes the words come, and sometimes they don’t. Right now they’re coming.

  7. The plot for a new book is happening; without much effort I’ve got characters, a major conflict, an opening and an ending. Of course, now there’s all that pesky middle stuff to fill in… but even that is good; it keeps me from gnawing my fingernails about what beta readers will say about the previous book.

  8. I don’t do NaNoWriMo because our third-largest convention is in November (we used to have both our third and fourth largest conventions in November, but the anime con got dropped after the promoter got 2020 brain and drove us away). Loading, doing the convention, unloading, and post-convention bookkeeping keeps me so busy that November is a non-starter for a major push on a novel.

    OTOH, once I get the books closed on the 2022 sales season, I’ll have two months that I can concentrate on my writing before the 2023 sales season begins.

  9. The WIP was going along pretty well until our entire household went down with COVID. We’re working our way through, but my writing stopped dead. Hoping to get restarted soon and the book done by the end of the year.

    While I’ve published a few things already this is my first novel: an attempt at a Golden Age English country-house murder mystery and the first in a series. Would anyone be interested in being a beta reader? I can’t reciprocate (I’m the world’s worst beta reader myself), but I’m a pretty good copyeditor and can provide that service in return. I can be reached at bobtheape88-at-gmail-dot-com.

  10. “No one says you have to do it this way, but readers get confused when the story diverges from the standard.”

    Oh well, I guess they are going to be confused. ~:D

    My stories only coincidentally conform to standard practice, and then only briefly. Then they wonder off somewhere, hopefully somewhere interesting. I wish I could say it was some avant-garde literary theory of mine, but it’s more that they just come out that way.

    Currently I am SLOGGING, trying to get the characters to do something interesting. They resolutely refuse, they are kicking back watching movies and throwing popcorn at the tv. I may have to resort to an alien invasion, demonic incursion, or a training day for powered armor. Or aliens running from demons stumbling into the middle of training day… hmm…

    1. It happens. Queen Shulamith’s Ball has confused readers, alas. Then, so has The Princess Goes Into the Forest, which has a different non-standard element.

  11. This is why structural editors exist.

    Structure is never a blueprint, it’s a guideline, and never works out the same way in different stories.

    Take the film version of The Shawshank Redemption, for an example. If you are slavish about screenplay structure, there’s a long digressive lump in the middle, something that, according to “the rules” should be cut out — Brooks Hatlen’s release from prison, and the sequence where he just can’t cope with the outside world of the 1950s, after having been in prison for decades. (This is mostly not to be found in Stephen King’s novella, and is one of the reasons the novella and script should be studied by anyone interested in screenwriting — because it’s a brilliant adaptation.)

    Despite being a long sequence of digression following a minor supporting character, it is absolutely vital to the movie working as a story and a piece of drama. It makes concrete for the viewer the idea of “institutionalization”, dramatizes loss of hope in a gut-wrenching way, and sets up several visual motifs that are narratively echoed toward the end of the film. The ending would not work, and the movie would not be the classic it is, without the Brooks sequence. In spite of the fact that it’s “wrong” according to any standard screenplay structure taught by the gurus.

    Even die-hard outliners — which screenwriters pretty much have to be — can make discoveries while writing that aren’t “right” according to general structure guidelines, but which are right for that story. And they might not know it until they get a fresh set of eyes on the story, to say “this works”; or an editor to say “this not only works, but cutting it out will hurt your story” or “this is interesting, but you can cut it, and include this detail and that detail in these other scenes to make them stronger”.

  12. It goes, making good progress, not on the story I’m supposed to but I finally got one of those key scenes written. Now I just have to get back there (I write out of order, and I think I wrote one of the major pivot points of the story. Not sure THE major conflict of this one but one of them. Hopefully the momentum will carry over once I get back to the other story. Getting a short story a week done. (going into week 13.)

    Publishing side, the poetry book is almost done. I’ve got maybe 4 more to write to round out the book (which should mean about a dozen poems no one has seen as a nice bonus for folk who’ve been following the ones on Accordingtohoyt). Should be off to my “Is anything glaringly off?” readers by tomorrow hopeful publication by next week if I can pull the cover together.

    So progress is progressing even if it doesn’t always feel like I’m keeping up with where I think I need to be.

  13. November is tax bill time so they keep me far too busy to do any writing (or reading or posting online or pretty much anything beyond entering mortgage codes and sorting tax bills). I think I’ve gotten almost nothing done this month, and until I’m either promoted into fewer responsibilities or transferred, this will remain a slow month for me (along with June). Thankfully December is slow, which has the added bonus of allowing me to enjoy the holidays. I’ve been looking forward to getting back to work on my projects, and it looks like this afternoon will finally be the time.

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