How to Structure Your Story

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Let’s face it. Before you write a single word, you might already be dreaming of proudly informing everyone you know that you are a published writer. You may dream of royalties pouring in, literary agents beating down your door and publishers wooing you for your next manuscript. In this very dream, you walk into a bookstore, pleasantly unsurprised to see your glossy paperback on the shelf marked ‘bestseller.’ And what about those movie producers? Sigh. Admit it. Don’t fret, though. It’s every budding author’s dream.

No, wait a minute. Let me qualify that. Even before you dream, there has to be this light bulb moment. You have an idea. An inspiration even. Perhaps, like me, you’ve been tossing and turning in bed, various plot arrangements meandering in your head, bouncing around. You envisage fantastic dialogues between your characters, action sequences and literally see characters that you have created coming to life.

Between this glorious moment of inspiration and your dreams coming true, there is this difficult part. It’s been called perspiration. It’s actually hard work. It can be gritty, riddled with obstacles and challenges. At times, it can be smooth, words flowing too fast for your fingers to convert to text onto a page – soft or hard. And then, you are prone to hit that proverbial wall. Writer’s block happens to everyone. Well almost, everyone. It happened to me. Mark Ravine. Published Author. I am on the cusp of living the dream. Read on if you want to ease into the hard part, armed with a set of tools that – no, they don’t make it easier – but they do make it possible. These tools make it doable. You progress at a speed that fits neatly into your comfort zone. Or goes in fits and spurts. But you will go, steadily or unsteadily but inexorably towards that dream.

Published Author. Royalties flowing in. Agents banging on your door. Publishers wooing you. Some of it. Or all of it.

Every author has their own style for preparing to write their book. There are those who spend days, weeks, months researching their book, travelling to exotic locations, lying on a beach, locked up in a cottage in the wilderness, straining their eyes hunched over a computer screen. Or at the library. Or talking to real people, like an FBI agent or a Mafia don. What I am about to tell you is not about style. It’s about structure.

Because, if there is one common denominator amongst advice to all authors – every single one must follow a structure. What you are about to read is my structure. It’s not patented, mind. If you fancy it being usable, use it – in parts or all of it. Your choice.

“I once went back and gave a guy a stubble. You’ll never guess why. I’ll tell you in my next article and only because the character is still being developed.”

I like to start with the characters. Some are based on real life – people that I know, just as they are, caricatured or warped – doesn’t really matter – I have to draw on something. Some are fictional characters, like the protagonist of a procedural. Some are dreamt up in my mind, an amalgamation of unwitting experiences short-circuiting through nerve-endings in my brain. But I have to define them, starting with physical characteristics. Tall or short. Blonde or brunette. Their eye colour, if it is relevant to the story. Hair style. Obese or slim. Stocky. No, athletic. Remember that scene from Total Recall where Arnie’s character is asked for his dream partner in his adventure? Be honest. Your characters must spring to life, instantly recognisable in your head, and more importantly visualisable in your reader’s mind. Then, you have to think about their behavioural characteristics. Speech patterns. Accents. Vocabulary – which is based on their level of education and upbringing – nature and nurture. They have a past that makes them who they are – geographically, ancestrally, educationally. They’ve had friends and lovers. Enemies, perhaps. Traumatic events, unforgettable moments that defined who they are today. You have to know who they are. How else are you supposed to write about them? If you are successful, they become real – at least, in your head. Everything about them – no gaps. Even the way they walk is important. David Suchet worked hard on his dinky little walk to portray Poirot.

Write it down. Write every single aspect of that character down. You are, of course, entitled to change details – minor or major – later if the story demands it. I once went back and gave a guy a stubble. You’ll never guess why. I’ll tell you in my next article and only because the character is still being developed.

Actually, as gruelling as it can be, this part can also be a lot of fun. Personally, it seldom seemed like work. It can be fun for you too, especially when you’ve done your homework – met that FBI agent who can tell you what it takes to get into Quantico. Or that Mafia don who tells you what’s what in his dark world.

Mark Ravine describes how each author has their own method of preparation for a book. For example going to exotic locations or locking themselves up. Let us know what your method is in the comments section.

Now comes the marginally even more difficult part – the plot. Actually, it can be fun too. I prefer to do this in waves. The first wave consists of outlining the entire book in short, simple sentences. Someone does this. The other does that. Then shit happens. No, don’t worry about the why’s and the wherefores. It just does. You, the author can make it happen.  Any way you see fit. Plausibility be damned. That can come later. This is your story. Bring it to life. Thread events together into a string of pearls that glistens brightly – or darkly, for that matter if you are writing a horror – for the reader.

The second wave is structuring it into chapters or smaller sequences. More detail. Here, plausibility becomes key. One sequence to the next must flow smoothly or jar only if it is intentional. Jarring can be good. Wakes up the reader. Plot twists and turns makes a page-turner.

Time is important. How long is this sequence? An hour? A day? A week? A year? It needs to make sense. And yet, the pace has to be maintained. The reader has to stay engrossed. Entertained. Gripped. Can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

Interestingly, I left the very end of the plot open. Who knows that’s going to happen as I write the actual book, chapter after chapter? As it happened, even after I wrote the final chapter, it changed a dozen times. Characters literally changed before my eyes. Good guys became not so good. Bad guys became good guys. The characters that I had created not only stayed true to form but became more interesting, more believable, more entertaining.

More details rise to the surface, but not necessarily to an excruciating level of detail. That comes later. When you are actually writing the book.

Okay. You have your characters. You even have a plot. Chapters are structured neatly, with sequences threaded together meaningfully, either smoothly flowing like a placid river or jolting the reader like white water.

It’s interesting that I did most of my research as I was writing the book. Like I said before, every author has their own structure, and of course, their very own style of plot development. Which brings me to an intriguing thought. Writing style. You need to discover your own style. There’s no right or wrong here – only an individual style that’s all your own, based on your past, your history, your experiences, your vocabulary and your ability to paint a picture with words. First person narrative. A single perspective. Fluctuating perspectives. Quick, short bursts of dialog, or long speeches – like John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. The reader may or may not respond to it. It doesn’t matter at this stage. It’s just that you need to know and establish your style now. Before your first word. Remember that dream? It can only come true if you stamp your authority on the book with a style that’s unique to you. By this time, your characters are real – in your head and on paper. You have a plot. You even have a chapter structure with event sequences.

I go to bed now or recline in an armchair or lie on a beach somewhere and contemplate. What actually happens here? Why? What motives my characters to behave in a particular way? How do the dialogues flow? What’s the weather like? Is it cold? Hot and clammy? What are my characters wearing? Do they have a cold? Are they hungry? What do they eat?

Once I have the images firmly engrained in my head, I sit down and write the first words. Of course, you decide the speed at which you write. Perhaps you have a day job. Perhaps you do but you’re on a sabbatical. Or you’ve thrown caution to the winds and resigned your job, settling down to a career in writing books. Or you start out sans job and start writing. Doesn’t matter.

I am a published author. Remember that dream? I usually don’t stop to think until I have finished a chapter. It helps, of course, if your chapters are short. Mine aren’t. Each chapter contains approximately 12000 words. But you can, if you like. Go back to the beginning, review what you’ve written and then go from there. It helps, sometimes. I even find flaws that I can correct. Confession. I find flaws every single time I review a draft. Every single time. Damn! Copyeditors and proof-readers of the world unite – you are so needed!

Mark in this blog often talks about his dream, remember yours and never give up in your pursuit. Tell us what you dream of achieving, author or otherwise.

But I never go to the next chapter until I am completely satisfied with the previous one. I am not talking about punctuation and grammar. I make mistakes. I may stop to correct them, but that’s not the point I am trying to make here. I am not even talking about transition – smooth segues from one scene to the next. I am talking about the story. The style. The character’s consistency. The dialogues drawing the reader into becoming the proverbial fly on the wall. I obsess over every single word. I research until my eyes water. I agonise over behaviour. Will the character actually say that and why? Will my character react this way – is it the way the character was created? Or am I falling into the trap of certain daytime drama writers – making characters do the uncharacteristic and/or implausible to move the plot along in the direction I want to take them?

I repeat this for the next chapter. And the next. Until I am done. Maybe the ending comes to me now. Maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it does but I change it later anyway.

Then I read the first chapter again. And pour over it, agonising over every word. Ask myself the same questions. Make feverish notes tying something – everything – from chapter one to chapter thirteen.

I am done. Finally. Closer to my dream. Remember the dream? But actually, I am not done. I have to find a copyeditor. A proof-reader. A cover designer. And a publisher. By the way, I know a good one. Dawn Hill Publications. Boy, are they a hungry lot! This is not an advert. If you are reading this article, you already know about them. But more of this part of the journey in my next article, where I will talk a little about how to write a chapter. Warts and all.

Hope you enjoyed it. Come back anytime. Ask me anything. I am here. I’ll always be here.

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