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Today’s guest newsletter is from James Scott Bell, who is our Instructor of the Month.
Structure is translation software for your imagination.
You, the writer, have a story you want to tell. You feel it, see it, populate it with characters. But turning all that raw material into a novel isn’t simply a matter of putting it into words on a page or screen. You have to “translate” it into a form that readers can relate to.
That’s what structure does. And if you ignore it or mess with it, you risk frustrating-or worse, losing-readers.
I was amused many years ago when a writing teacher of some repute shouted in front of an auditorium that there was no such thing as structure. He went on and on about this. Later, when I looked at his materials and the terms he had used to designate various story beats, guess how they unfolded? Yep, in a perfect, traditional three-act structure.
When it comes to the writing process, fiction writers tend to fall into two camps: those who prefer to outline before they write, and those who find outlines too constricting. The pillars of structure are equally useful tools for both of these types of writers. If you’re a writer who likes to outline, you can learn to set up a strong story by mapping out a few key structural scenes from the start. And if you like flying by the seat of your pants, you can continue to be as free as you like with your first draft. Write hot. Just understand that later, you will have to think about structuring what you’ve written-because manuscripts that ignore structure are almost always filed under unsold.
But what, you may ask, about authors who purposely play with structure-some to the point their books are called “experimental”? Suffice to say that these authors usually know exactly why they are doing so-and they accept as a consequence that their books might not be as popular with the reading public as novels that have structure working in their favor. At the very least, every author should understand structure fully before playing around with it. (This advice also applies to hand grenades.)