Ruminations about structure

Plot vs. Character structureNo two ways about it: I’m struggling with the structure of my WIP. It’s as if I’ve spent months making what I hoped would be a beautiful garment, something I could see so clearly in my imagination, only to discover that I put a piece in upside down, and to fix it I have to tear the whole thing apart and start over.

How does that happen?

Structure: plain and simple

I’m not talking about just organizing events so they follow the classic structure of inciting incident, pinch points, plot points, conflicts, resolutions, etc. Or as kickass writer Stephanie Dray puts it: inciting incident, complication, crisis, resolution. I’m talking about something more complicated than that. I’m talking about the interrelationships of events, characters, transitions.

I’m also talking about the layered structure of different subplots, how they relate to the central plot, how to balance them, how not to let them obscure the main plot.

Structure, contrary to what I said above, is not plain and simple.

Characters as structure

I’ve been a published writer for thirteen years. In that time, I’ve managed to create stories and characters that hang together and develop and result in a satisfying ending. But I don’t think I really understood a fundamental aspect of writing: the difference between plot-driven and character-driven novels. Not to say I don’t recognize them when I read them, but I hadn’t fully grasped the fundamental effect each has on the structure of a novel.

Plot structure=

  • inciting incident
  • complication
  • crisis
  • resolution

Character structure=

  • burning desire
  • internal and external conflicts that get in the way of achieving that desire
  • moment of crisis that leads to a personal breakthrough
  • character evolved and changed, for better or worse.

These structures can coexist in a single novel, and should. What determines the difference is how each is balanced: whether the character structure determines the plot structure or vice versa.

Subplots as layers

Another complicating aspect of a novel’s structure is subplots. Just about every novel worth the name has at least one subplot: the detective who chases the killer while his family life is falling apart; the artist searching for artistic fulfillment while a war is going on around her, etc.

I realized in my WIP, I failed to see the underlying structures clearly enough to drive the story forward. Now I have to pull it all apart and see where the pieces should really fit together, which ones are bigger and which smaller, which on the surface and which simmering below.

All complicated, of course, because I’m dealing with actual historical characters. Whoever said writing historical fiction was easy?

Not me. It gets harder every day.

Related Posts

Mother Goose and Show Don’t Tell

Mother Goose and Show Don’t Tell

Many books and blog posts have been written about "show don't tell." I'm not going to pontificate about it here. As most writers understand, there's a place for both in a novel. What I want to talk about here is what that phrase actually means. I want to illustrate...

read more
Trilogy and Series Craft Notes

Trilogy and Series Craft Notes

There's no denying the appeal to readers of a series or a trilogy. When I think about it, I realize that I truly fell in love with reading because of a series—Nancy Drew, of course! As a young reader, I loved getting to know Nancy and her friends, watching her get...

read more
The Importance of Connecting

The Importance of Connecting

It's been a while since I've written one of these posts, mostly because I've been head down writing my new WIP. This project is all absorbing, because I am very excited about it and very scared that I can't do it justice. But I haven't just been writing. I've also...

read more
Writing a Novel Beginning

Writing a Novel Beginning

One of the greatest challenges in writing any story is figuring out where it begins and where it ends—most writers know that all too well. What seems like the obvious beginning may not be, and the tidy ending might end up having to come unraveled in order to make the...

read more



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *