Saturday, April 21, 2012

Structure! Not optional at all

I used to be a very proud supporter of the Chaos movement. I still like a little crazy in my life, but I have learned, usually the hard way, that order makes my anxiety spike far less often. Structure, it seems, has a purpose. Who would have guessed, right?

So when I approached writing my first few books, I naturally pantsed in, I just made it up as I went along. It seemed like a great plan at the time, and in truth, I still love the books that came out the other side of that process. I credit Nanowrimo a lot for teaching me how to actually finish something I'd started. While my first novel didn't grow from that process, the subsequent ones did, and I learned to write fast and crazy and get the words down "nano style."

I might have continued that way forever, or who knows how long, but I happened to experiment on a method (at the strong urging of a friend) that involved a little more organization. I grudgingly outlined a teeny teeny bit. I filled out a form or two, growling the entire time.

Then I wrote the best book I had ever written.

Not just a little bit better either. I mean, I like to think that each book improves on the last simply by experience and practice. But this was something else. This book stood out, at least to me, as being on a whole new level. It had more depth, more character, more pages, just so much....more. I had to stand humbly corrected. Structure, planning, whatever you like to label it, works.

At that point, I became a little bit obsessed with the phenomenon. I went a tiny bit organizational crazy, which didn't last, thankfully. I learned a lot though. I delved into the five plot points and the three act dramatic structure. I experimented with some outlining software. I made more copies of those forms, let me tell you. Structure is important. I still don't sit well with over planning. It's just not in my nature. I don't do extensive outlines, but the thing is, I understand the bones of a story a great deal better.

There is a reason we have dramatic structure, plot points, correct pacing. Not only does strong structure enrich the story, deepen it and add more twists and subplots and meaning, it also improves our box of tools for communicating to the reader. Because that's our real job, isn't it? Communicating an idea to readers. Readers have learned for years and years what a story's shape is supposed to look like, how it's supposed to feel. Diverge too far from that universally understood structure and they will notice. They will.

Of course, since we are all readers too, we have some innate instinct for structure. Most pantsers who write successful books employ the bones of structure one way or another even if they aren't entirely intending to. A story will "feel right" when it has the right pieces. But I think a full understanding, consciously, of what structure does and how to deliver it makes a huge difference on the page.

So while I would never suggest a panster stop pansting. In particular because I still do it from time to time as well. I would recommend a study of structure and order--even if just to build a foundation on which to lay your chaos.

In the end, the two work quite nicely together.

~ Frances


Greta said...

You're right. Sitting there with nothing but a blank sheet isn't the way to get a story out there. I've never been a total pantser but I'm increasingly adding structure to my pre-book ritual. WITHOUT losing that spontaneity. But don't you find even that is more controlled if you know your characters and where they are going?

Frances Pauli said...

Agreed. I still don't want to spend a year writing background, maps, languages and character bios, but I LOVE having more depth and more order before diving in. I still find new things along the way--maybe even more because I don't have to spend the writing process building the things I've already sorted out.
I think that was the big thing for me, I can have the structure and still have the spontaneity. My big fear was losing that and I feel like I'm getting the best of both worlds now.
I can certainly live with that!