A few years ago, on the West Side of Manhattan, a rusting hulk of elevated railroad tracks metamorphosed into a promenade called High Line Park. Its transformation soon turned the Meatpacking District, through which it passes, into one of the hottest neighborhoods in New York.
If you go visit the park, you’ll see a relatively new hotel called The Standard, a modernist glass and steel structure that straddles the High Line, supported on one side by a concrete pillar with the approximate circumference of a tractor-trailer. That may sound like a big piece of concrete until you consider that it holds up half a building of 18 stories.
These days we’re so accustomed to seeing buildings defy gravity that most people stroll beneath the hotel without giving it a second thought. What if I told you, however, that the developers of The Standard put a great deal of thought into the furniture inside but built the superstructure without bothering to calculate whether that concrete pillar could support the building’s weight? You wouldn’t believe me, would you? You’d rightly say that the building would’ve fallen down before the first customer had a chance to approach the front desk.
What do buildings have to do with books?
We all know that, thanks to architects, buildings are works of art. Some may be more artsy than others, but I’d venture to say no architect ever set out to design a building that doesn’t work. Nor, of course, does any painter or sculptor or filmmaker or playwright or poet or musical composer or novelist setout to fail.
Yet it’s also worth noting that all works of art are also buildings. I mean that metaphorically, in the sense that they’re all built things. But I also mean it quite literally, in the sense that every work of art has a structure or framework.
Developers can’t construct high-rises without first proving the structure will hold, but that’s because lives would be at stake. The writing of a novel, by contrast, remains highly unregulated, despite the risk that untold readers might find themselves bored to death beneath its rubble.
It should go without saying that the vast majority of successful stories—especially those in longer form—hang on an invisible framework we often call “structure.”
Good editors will talk about structure. Yet, mysteriously, it is rarely discussed in writing workshops. In fact, I’ve seen the psychological makeup of characters talked about ad infinitum in writing workshops when, in fact, the story’s deepest flaw was structural. Without structure, the story teeters, ever in danger of falling apart.
As with any element of storytelling, of course, it’s worth issuing the disclaimer that there are no hard and fast rules. But if you keep in mind these five elements of story structure, you’re more likely to succeed than you’d be if you ignored them.
1. Establish normal.
A story is about something that happens—a course of events. That which happens is a change from normal, otherwise it wouldn’t be a “happening.” So the author’s first job is to establish “normal” in the life of your characters. Keep in mind we’re not necessarily talking about normalcy as in the average life of an average human being. More to the point, we’re establishing expectations for your protagonist. If she’s a corporate lawyer, for example, she expects to go to the office most days. If he’s a kidnapped child locked in a cellar, he expects not to be let out.
When the lawyer is kept from the office, something happens. When the kidnapped child finds his way out of the basement, something happens.
We need to establish normal so the reader will know when the character’s life has departed from equilibrium. Then the action begins.
2. Disrupt it.
That departure from normal is the disruption. The disruption is the thing that happens—sometimes called the “precipitating event”—that sets the plot in motion. By definition it’s a departure from the character’s normal life, even, as noted above, if the character’s normal is not a normal person’s equilibrium.
The disruption can occur in the first paragraph or it can come later, but if it comes too late, the reader will have tuned out or stopped caring. So it’s best to disrupt things as soon as you’re satisfied that you gave the reader enough information to understand your protagonist’s normal state.
In any case, the disruption forces a choice on the protagonist—a choice followed by other forced choices.
3. Create turning points.
Good plots get increasingly complicated. Mostly they do so by having something or someone resist what the character wants—what we often call “dramatic tension.” But, as a corollary, complications also ensue when we establish an expectation and then defy it in a way that does not fully resolve the protagonist’s dilemma.
As most writers know, we call the big steps “turning points.” They are just that; they take the action in another direction. They do so when a step toward resolution solves one problem—but only by creating a more difficult one. Thus, just when we think the protagonist draws close to satisfying his need, another obstacle appears and the tension ratchets up.
There can be any number of small turning points, but in the three-act structure that prevails today, there generally are three big ones. They come at the end of each act, and the third one leads to resolution of the protagonist’s dilemma.
4. Strive for character development.
There are many successful novels in which the protagonist doesn’t appreciably change. In fact, some people believe the protagonist of a genre series should never change, but I’m not of that school. In my opinion, the difference between character development in the protagonist of a series versus a stand-alone novel is only the pace of change.
Novels that resonate often feature protagonists who learn something about themselves in the course of the story. They can learn something big or they can learn something small (or a series of small things). They can have a dramatic epiphany, or the insight can hit them subtly.
The broader point is that readers find it more satisfying when the protagonist learns something about his or her own character and employs what he has learned to satisfy the plot dilemma.
But if he learns these things too soon, the book doesn’t work structurally.
In The Sun Also Rises, someone asks a character how he went bankrupt, and he replies, “Slowly, and then all at once.” This is how character development often happens because it’s how human beings naturally learn who they are, deep inside. In any case, when it comes at the right pace, the reader leaves satisfied. When it comes too quickly, the reader feels ripped off.
5. Restore order.
In those old Laurel and Hardy movies, Oliver Hardy would inevitably say, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” But in the end, however improbably, those two miscreants always got out of the mess and lived to see another day.
Having established normal, disrupted it, and created a fine mess for your characters, you must let the reader know what the new normal will be. It can be the same as the old normal—as often happens in a police procedural, for example—or it can be a changed but stable state. Regardless, it must be communicated, or the reader will likely close the book dissatisfied.
There are many other elements to novel writing, of course. Another part of your job, for example, will be to make the work beautiful. But that requires following the rules of structure to ensure that the building holds up.