Not thinking structurally

Warning: This post is longish, rambling, and possibly incoherent.

I don’t think structurally.1 But most of my novelist friends do. When they talk about the books they’re currently writing, they rabbit on about three and four-act structures, beats, setting things up for the climax, the dénouement and blah blah blah.

I’ve never thought about my books that way. I have no idea what the act structure of any of them is. I don’t know what a beat is. I am an idiot savant novelist.

I suspect part of this is because when I first started learning how to write novels I’d never heard of act structures or outlining so I didn’t use any of those models for writing a novel. I winged it. And thus learned how to write novels by winging it.

Mostly I have no idea where my books are going. I’ll have an initial incident, or sense of the protag, or a setting. Occasionally I think I know how the book ends, but mostly not. In fact, when I think have an ending I find out that I am wrong.

When I’m writing the first draft, I’m very often lost in the sentence level, or going from scene to scene. For a long time, I can’t see very far ahead, which means I don’t have much of a macro view. Not until I’ve written the first draft and can look at the whole thing. When I start rewriting, deleting and moving scenes around, I don’t do it to balance out acts—on account of having no idea what the different acts are—I do it to get the book to feel right:

This bit drags = I delete it or trim viciously.
This bit doesn’t really make sense so early in the book = I move it.

The way I think about structure is most clearly articulated in my post on how to rewrite, proving that I do think about structure, just not in the organised way so many of my friends do.

I wonder if part of this is the winging it versus outlining it school of writing. In order to write an outline you have to start with an overall sense of the structure of your book.2 Whereas I learn what the structure of my book is by writing it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I just realised that the book I’m working on right now has three parts. Could they be three acts? Could I accidentally be doing what I thought I didn’t know how to do? The first part sets everything up, introduces all the characters, reveals the main conflicts. The second part, well, I’m not sure how to describe what the second part’s doing given that there’s not even two thousand words of it. And the third part will, hopefully, bring stuff to a head and then wrap everything up. Or something.

We’ll see.

I defnitely feel that I have a much stronger sense of the structure of this novel and where it’s going at a much earlier stage. I’m about half finished and I’m pretty sure I know where it’s going and how to get there. It is most odd.

I suspect that Scrivener may be at least partly to blame. The way it works has made me aware of the overall shape and, well, structure of my book almost immediately.

I’m also enjoying writing this book a great deal. Something about working with Scrivener has forced me to think about the craft of writing in ways I haven’t before. I feel like I’m being stretched and the book is better for it. Even if I do wind up writing a book with the English-speaking world’s most conventional structure: the three-act structure.3

Whatever. Nothing wrong with reinventing the wheel.

  1. I’ve been tinkering with this post for quite some time. Part of my problem writing it is that because I do not think structurally about my writing I do not really have the language I need to write this post. I borrow other writers’s language, but most likely I don’t use it in the ways they intend, hence the messiness. I’m just feeling my way and thinking out loud. My apologies! []
  2. I once wrote an outline of a book—for Magic or Madness. However, I wrote it in order to sell the book (and trilogy) and once I got stuck into the writing I never looked at the outline again. []
  3. I may have more coherent thoughts once I’ve actually finished it. []


  1. Maggie on #

    Your post brings to mind my favourite writing quote:

    “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” -E. L. Doctorow

  2. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I suspect part of this is because when I first started learning how to write novels I’d never heard of act structures or outlining so I didn’t use any of those models for writing a novel. I winged it. And thus learned how to write novels by winging it.

    I disagree. Everyone learns to write novels this way, even people who really strongly believe in structure. The structure of story is a primal thing that storytellers soak up while experiencing story their whole lives. It’s just a matter of jargon.

    Think of a child with a boo boo. They might only be able to point at their foot and go “this hurts” — but an adult, who understands more anatomy and has experienced similar boo-boos in their lives, can say “well, it’s not a bug bite or a burn or a twisted ankle or a bunion, and it’s not inflamed but most of the pain is around my ankle and goes away after I walk on it a bit…. must be that tendonitis acting up again.”

    When I started writing I didn’t know any of the jargon of acts or whatnot, but when I read articles about it, I could go look at my work and go “oh, so that’s what an ankle is.” Since it helped me to talk about it in those terms, I started using those terms.

    It’s really a case of brain wiring, I believe.

  3. robin on #

    much as I love scrivener (MUCH) and agree that it improves the way one writes, I suspect another big part of this may be you just internalizing the lessons learned from after-the-fact structuring of your previous three books. (ie you may, without realizing it, be moving from the idiot phase to the savant one.)

  4. Megan Crewe on #

    Interesting… I’m an outliner (I never start a novel until I have a fairly detailed outline, and whenever I’ve tried to wing it I lose my way somewhere in the middle and never make it to The End), but I don’t think very structurally–in terms of acts or beats or any of that stuff. I have an idea of where I want to begin and where I want to end and one or more important points in the middle, and then I fill in the scenes in between in a way that feels true to the characters and the story and seems to keep the tension going and all that. I don’t analyze much beyond that. So I guess I wing it with my outlines. 😉

  5. sherwood on #

    The more I read other writers’ descriptions of their processes the more I’m amazed at the different approaches. Of course some of these variations might be less broad than they seem due to the fact that there are all kinds of jargon, and what one writer says is a beat might not be another’s beat.

    But as far as I can tell, I’m like you–I write the scenes I see in my head, busily snipping and cutting as I go. Only when it’s done–maybe even two drafts done–does the structure come into focus. Though all along I have a fuzzy sense of where I am in the story. The Shev. one, for example, I realized at the last stage had a sharply delineated act one/two/three but I certainly never planned it that way.

  6. Andrew Nicholson on #

    IANAN however I do think about story structure and have read all the normal how-to-write texts. The problem with planning 3 acts is the middle gets left till last and becomes a “how to get from here to there” and is *boring* – Matrix 2 springs to mind. Write the story first and it will have a start, middle and end anyway, by definition. Every story has them, doesn’t make it a good writing tool. That’s the problem with academics, can’t see the bloody obvious.

  7. Justine on #

    Robin: Nah, is definitely Scrivener. It has made me write and see my writing in totally different ways.

    Sherwood: You’re right, the words we use to describe our process, the metaphors and jargon do make it seem sometimes like we’re talking about different things. I wonder if what I’m really talking about isn’t structure at all, but the fact that my writer friends simply have a different set of words for describing what they’re doing.

  8. Lauren on #

    I agree with Diana that story structure is “primal.” You’re probably doing structure whether you’re concious of it or not. It’s sort of like this with language. You don’t think of the grammatical structure of your language at all, but it’s still very much there. I think it’s useful to think consciously of story structure when you know something’s wrong but you’re not sure what. At that point, an analysis of structure often reveals where you went wrong.

  9. Justine on #

    Lauren: I had no idea you were so woo woo. 🙂 Story structure is absolutely learned and not innate. Otherwise it wouldn’t vary so much from culture to culture. The three-act structure has a history and is not shared by all cultures. There’s nothing primal or innate about it.

  10. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Yes, it’s learned, but it’s learned by the culture you belong to. You’ve been given this story structure with almost every story you’ve heard your entire life. You don’t need to be given diagrams or how tos. It all embedded in your thought processes.

  11. Justine on #

    Diana: Sure. But that’s not what “innate” or “primal” means. I’ve suffered through too many tomes by folkorists “proving” that fairy tales and myths from all over the world are structurally the same when the only way they can do that is leave out all the untidy bits that disprove their structural analysis.

    Clearly my post was clumsily written. I’m not saying that I don’t write three-act or four-act or whatever novels, that I’m somehow wholly original and immune to the dominant story structures of the culture I’ve grown up in. Au contraire! I’m just saying that, like Sherwood above, I don’t think about my novels that way as I write them.

  12. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Eh, potato potahto. Personally, I consider something that is drummed into the brain cells and mental channels of every human being in the dominant culture on the planet from the moment of birth to be pretty darn primal.

    Also, I’m with the folklorists. But it’s like I said before about brain wiring. Two people can see something and come away with an entirely different idea of what’s “important” about it.

  13. Patrick on #

    LADIES!!! Please hold these forks while I draw you a Battle Circle.

    Ok, now BEGIN!

    *begins chant*
    Two writers enter! One writer leaves! Two writers enter! One writer leaves!

  14. Justine on #

    Patrick: You do not want to introduce weapons into proceedings we’ll just use them on you. Fight instigators are the ones who always cop it in the eye.

  15. Patrick on #

    Oh FORK! My bad.

  16. Diana Peterfreund on #

    My problem is the distinct lack of wine in my household at the moment.

    Also, beef.

  17. rebecca on #

    that’s how i usually write everything. (even essays. which is not a good idea.) it caused me to write multiple complete drafts of stories. i’d write one, throw it out, start over. my new project has a bit more planning and a structure-ish thing going on. it’s weird and scary but also kind of nice. and soon, i will have a mac, which means i can FINALLY have scrivener. i am so bloody excited to be through with the tool of satan. 😉

  18. Lauren on #

    Yeah, what Diana said. “Primal” was probably the wrong word. I meant unconscious. I don’t believe all cultures have identical embedded story structures.

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