One of the blogs I follow – Write on the world – had a post today about structure in novels. The author, Mandy Webster, referred to another post called How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending.
I was seduced.
I don’t have a huge problem wrapping up my stories: it’s the flabby beginning – drowning in back story – and the soggy middle that I struggle with. By the time I get to my climax and happy ever after I’ve hit my writing stride. However I know I don’t put enough conflict in my writing so I’m always eager to read about how it’s done.
When I read the post, however, I didn’t come away with a plan to write a killer ending so much as a view that Pantsers (those of us who write by the seat of our pants, rather than plan and outline) only write that way because we’re too lazy or stubborn to do otherwise. That may be true. It may be true for me. Particularly as I’m about to make excuses for why I write that way.
Like a million and one other people, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I tried, as a teenager, and again in my twenties. I couldn’t get past the first page. Not for want of trying but for want of ideas. No matter how hard I tried to come up with a story, it just wouldn’t happen. It was all boring and predictable.
Years of academia has taught me how to plan. I can write an essay outline blindfolded. Well, probably not now, but then, easily. Even in exams I would structure essays rather than just writing whatever came into my desperate brain. I’d been taught how to do it and I did it, and did it well.
With fiction, though, it wasn’t until I turned off that left brain thinking, put my editor in a box with some chocolate and told her to stay there for a while, that anything came. It was a freewrite during my OU creative writing class that sparked my first (and still my favourite) protagonist, Lucy. Nanowrimo came shortly after and Finding Lucy flew from my fingers. I couldn’t stop to think.
As a result I still don’t know how the novel ends. I’m looking forward to finding out, when I finally finish it. I genuinely don’t know which of the two male protagonists, if either, she’ll choose. I don’t entirely know the big secret her gran was hiding, though I have my suspicions. As a result, I don’t over explain or drop massive hints. No need to write RUE over this manuscript – even I don’t know what’s going on. But that’s what’s exciting. I write to find out. If I knew beforehand, I’d be bored and so would the reader.
My Pantser writing has come out most in Two-Hundred Steps Home. For example I don’t yet know what job Claire’s being interviewed for today. When I’ve figured it out you’ll be the first to know (hopefully by 10am!)
The problem, of course, as the author of How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending explains, is that:
“If you engage in story planning through a series of drafts, rather than an outline, you’ll need to write enough drafts to finally understand what Part 4 [the killer ending] should be. Same process, different tolerances for pain.
But there’s risk in that. If you are a drafter instead of a blueprinter (notice I didn’t say outliner—that’s a different process yet, one of several viable ways to plan a story), the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages does that to a writer.”
So if you don’t write to a structure, one of two things happens. You have to do a LOT of rewriting or (more likely) you end up with a mediocre novel because, quite frankly, who wants to rewrite 300 pages. Not me. However, he goes on to say:
“Make no mistake, a rewrite is always a corrective measure. Nothing to brag about”
I’m not sure I agree with that. Redrafting is still writing. Not something to brag about, but something that is necessary for most of us.
As I suggested in my comment on the original blog (it’s probably as well I couldn’t comment on the killer ending one as I’d have embarrassed myself!) I hope that, one day, I’ll understand structure, conflict and stakes as well as I once understood writing a good essay. Maybe one day I will be able to outline without killing my muse, or maybe the blueprint for structure will be in my subconscious and will come out in my right brain first drafts. Either that or I’ll have to be able to afford a damn good editor!
Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:
“Do come in, Miss Carleton, sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Claire looked up at the careworn woman holding open the door and felt her palms prickle with sweat. Reaching for her bag, she headed towards the room, nearly tripping over a low table lurking unnoticed in front of the uncomfortable fake-leather sofa she had been perched on for forty minutes.
With a wobbly smile in greeting, Claire followed the woman into the room. She let her gaze take in the full horror awaiting her, and had to mask a sharp intake of breath with a cough. A pungent cloud of aftershave caught at the back of her throat and the cough became genuine. It was several moments before she could stop.
“Would you like some water? I apologise for not bringing you tea or coffee while you were waiting; I’m afraid we’re a bit short staffed at the moment.”
Short staffed? There are enough people here to play doubles tennis and have an umpire.
Claire turned away from the row of blank-faced men and nodded at the woman who had ushered her in. She wondered if she was the secretary, then admonished herself for the sexist thought.
Sipping gratefully at the water, Claire allowed herself two or three deep breaths to calm her agitation.
Come on, it isn’t the first time you’ve had to present to a gaggle of stern suits who last smiled in 1962.
The words were no comfort. Yes, she’d given presentations before, but not in an interview about something she knew nothing about.
“Please take a seat.”
The low voice issued from the second man from the left. He gestured at a single plastic chair, facing the long desk and the seated men. It felt more like a court hearing than a job interview.
Forcing herself to walk slowly, Claire crossed the room and sat in the chair. There was a small table for her water but, as it was at elbow height, Claire viewed it suspiciously. Placing her glass as far away as possible, she retrieved her notes from her bag and rested them on her lap.
Eventually, hoping her make-up hid the worst of the panic, Claire raised her eyes to face her interrogators. No wonder the last interview over-ran. How can you learn anything with five people asking questions?
She glanced at the woman who had shown her in, hoping for some female support, and realised her first assumption about her role was the right one. So, five stiff suits and a secretary. And they want me to work for them? I don’t think so, somehow.
Except she didn’t have the luxury of walking back out, head held high. Not since resigning from her job at AJC. Stupid girl.
“Good afternoon, Miss Carleton. Thank you for joining us. I understand you are here for the role of marketing director?”
No, I’m your stripagram. Biting back the retort, Claire nodded.
The man addressing her was in the centre of the five, and she guessed he must be the boss. Grey streaks speckled his short black hair, and her first impression was that he was in his fifties. His face was unlined, however, and something about his demeanour suggested to Claire that he was ten or twenty years younger than that. He oozed presence.
With a shiver she dragged her eyes away from him and tried to differentiate the other men. It wasn’t easy. They all wore dark suits, some grey, some navy. The man second from the left, who had asked her to take a seat, wore a pink shirt.
He was the only one who looked under 35. Claire guessed he was her age, maybe even younger, although with men it was hard to tell. As she gazed at him, he flicked his eyelid in the merest hint of a wink, and Claire felt the warm flood of gratitude spread through her limbs.
An ally. Thank god.
“In your own time, please present to the group your vision of the future for Isle of Purbeck Tourism, and the unique elements you will bring to the role.”
Claire wrenched her gaze back to the man in the centre, who she was fast thinking of as Mr Mean. He hadn’t even introduced himself or his colleagues. How could she present to the faceless five, without knowing their roles in the organisation?
Fear ran through her limbs, until it met rage bubbling the other way. No. I won’t. I won’t sit here and be humiliated by yet another self-satisfied stuffed suit who thinks he can treat me like crap because I’m a woman.
Sitting up straighter in her chair, Claire fixed her gaze on the dark eyes four feet in front of her. “Of course, it will be my pleasure. I wonder if, first, I could know whom I am addressing? It is easier to present when one knows one’s audience, I find.”
Where did that posh plummy accent come from? Behind her mask, Claire quailed, waiting for annihilation. It didn’t come.
Flicking her gaze at the man she’d dubbed Mr Cheeky, she saw a twitch at the corner of his mouth. Realising he was trying hard not to laugh, Claire exhaled through her nose, releasing the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. She felt her own lips twitch in response, and dragged her eyes away to gauge the reaction from the rest of the group.
The two men to the right of Mr Mean looked bored. Finance and maybe IT she decided, assuming a tourist company had an IT Department. Her expectation for the interview had been a quiet chat with some lovely harassed woman who needed an extra pair of hands. In her scariest nightmares she couldn’t have imagined that the people in charge of tourism could be so humourless.
The last person, to the left of Mr Cheeky, was taking notes, alongside the secretary. HR, definitely. Strange to have a bloke. HR personnel are usually women. What a boys club. Oh well, New Zealand it is then.
She heard Mr Mean clear his throat and was gratified to see a faint blush of embarrassment. Is he bothered because I’ve pulled him up for being rude, or because he just got outplayed by a woman? Honestly, guys, this is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.
With the knowledge that she definitely wasn’t going to be given this job, Claire sat back in her seat and prepared to have some fun.
Related articles (haven’t read them yet, but intend to!)
- Road Trips – Plotter or Pantser (writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com)
- No Longer a Pantser, now I’m a Patster. Er, Plotser? (writetoperfect.wordpress.com)
- The Pantser, The Plotter and The Inbetweener (strugglingwriter.wordpress.com)
- A Pantser’s Look at Story Physics (garridon.wordpress.com)
- Becky Banks: Plotter vs. Pantser (guest post) (girl-who-reads.com)
I am never going to be a planner! Sorry, I don’t care if it saves revising (though to be honest, I’m not sure it does!), I like discovering my story as I go along. That’s not to say that I don’t generally have an idea of the general idea of the ending, but it’s always open to change and last minute twists!
I think that it’s not whether you plan or pants that makes the difference in the readability of your plot, but whether you understand the general structure of a story. There are, of course, several different ways of gaining this understanding, and one of them is through writing and editing your own novels! You can also read lost of novels in a similar genre, and of course, read books/blogs/articles on story structure.
I have to say, one of the things that has helped me most is getting a developmental edit on my stories. It’s helpful to know the bits that are slow or fast, and how to keep that momentum going right to the very end.
I think a developmental edit is the only way I’ll ever really understand all the elements of structure. Many of the craft books are generic and I find it hard to wrap my brain around concepts which would be clear in a crime novel or an adventure story, with an external antagonist. Whether I’ll ever be able to afford to get a structural edit on one of my novels is another matter!
I’m always open to learning more about writing as a craft, but the idea that a “real” writer must PLAN PLAN PLAN has always felt like nonsense to me. Writing is a process, just like painting or composing a symphony, and if we all forced ourselves to do it in the same structured, “accepted” method, we would get two things: significantly fewer awesome stories, and a lot of terribly miserable writers.
Also, that thing about redrafting not being something to be proud about? Uh…that’s the norm. Anyone who managed to write a novel and thinks they hit it perfectly on the first draft is likely delusional. It’s just not how things work. Sure there are exceptions – lucky people or established authors who have dozens of books under their belt already – but the majority of people are not going to spit out a perfect manuscript on the first try. That’s nothing to be ashamed about…it’s part of the process, whether you’re a planner or a pantser.
Okay, that’s enough of my ranting. 🙂
Great rant! In fairness to the author of the article, he does say there are many ways to tackle the writing process, and outlining is only one of them.
It is hard taking a fully written novel and then working out where the conflict is, the different structure points that are essential for a good story. In my chick lit novels I struggle to even know who the antagonist is half the time, because it’s usually an inner flaw rather than an external person. I guess the thing I find hardest is being mean enough to my characters to create a good story. I write for the happy ever after, then add some of the problems and pitfalls afterwards!
Great post, this is a toughie for me because I started out as a pantser and now I’m starting to lean more and more towards a planner who uses discovery writing when I need inspiration. I guess having to rewrite massive chunks of a 100,000 word WIP does that to you!
The mess I got into with Dragon Wraiths taught me the importance of having an idea what the ending should be. I tend now to know the end, but not necessarily the beginning and middle! I wish I could plan, but the ideas just don’t come until I’m typing. Sigh. Maybe one day.
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