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So what can I give you about all of this? Everything I write has a different structure and a different process, a way of thinking that is unique unto itself. No one structure can be used for everything, but everything has some kind of structure.
I like to think of novels in terms of an indefinite number of acts. As I am in my freest writing mode, I tend to look at major events, and write myself towards the next act goal. Some day I’d like to tackle a five-act Elizabethan style play, but that’s a way’s off into the future, I think. For right now, I’ll stick to books.
For a beginning writer, I hope that this small amount of thought can give you a little more fortitude to get through your project. I’ll cover outlining styles at some point, but I have never really seen anybody’s outlines but my own. Writers aren’t very prone to revealing their very early work on a story since it pales in comparison to the final product. Maybe they seem to think this will undermine them in the mind of the reader.
My point in all this description of acts is to think about the major movements of the work, and make sure there are several, there is a logical flow through them, with reversals and rises and falls. If you have to divide a book up, you’ll want to plan these points to coincide with act movements, but there is a strategy to it.
As I plan out a narrative, acts are my major units, and I’ll look at the overall shape to plan out how the story will progress. I look at whether the action generally rises or falls, or if it is a bumpy progression. Any of those is sufficient as a structure to tell a story, I don’t limit myself to following any classical model unless it is by design, but straying from the models should be done consciously.
I have a lot of time at work to listen to podcast books, and one I am currently listening to is J.C. Huthins 7th Son trilogy. I listened to the first book and put it down because it is a long story, and too much of anything can be a bad thing. I think the story is good, well conceived, and most factors I consider when judging a book were very good, though there was something that lingered in my mind as unsatisfying about the first book. It took me a while to put my finger on it. Story was good, characters were rich and colorful, the villain was a solid villain, the story has hooks, but there was something lacking. Then I realized that the first book isn’t the first book at all. It’s the first act. There is a single distinct rise, a single distinct climax, no reversal, and no resolution.
7th Son in its three parts is a long book in its totality, and it makes up for it when you get into book two, but if I were J.C.’s editor (and he probably didn’t have an editor when he recorded it), I would have put the end of the first book at chapter nine or so in book two, leave the audience with a cliffhanger, and probably developed a bit more of a turning point early in book one to give it a full three acts. As it stands, book one feels like an overdeveloped short story.
This is not to denigrate the work as it stands. The stopping point of the first book is a choice, and being a podcaster myself, I know that it is a lot of work to get these things out, and so when J.C. got to his first climax, it was a probably good point to take a break and coordinate the marketing strategy for book two. It is more logical than the place I chose to take a break in that context, and it really is a killer book.
But I’ll pull in an example of why structure is important from another branch of entertainment. The new Rachael Yamagata album is a double-disk album that chose a different structure than the usual album. Now I knew Rachael when she was in Chicago, and spent many hours at her old band’s shows, so as a solo artist, I got on her bandwagon pretty early. I even have a demo that is so early it was burned on her home computer and has a black permanent marker cover. Her first Ep and album have a great structure to them, they go from her slower darker moodier stuff to rockers, and it gives every song a very individual feel, and makes listening a series of emotional movements. When you put together an album, you arrange songs in an order to accomplish this. On her double disk, she put all of the slow moody stuff on one disk, and the rockers on the second disk. This means that one is consistently upbeat and the other a consistent downer. The net result is that the first disk feels like one really long song, and I couldn’t hum a melody from any one of them, even though individually, they are as strong as any work she has put out.
Same thing happened with Stabbing Westward’s Darkest Days album. This is another band I knew back in the day. The songs were arranged in four movements, and the slow dark part of the album is a long and dull blur.
What these lack is the highs and lows. As an experience, they are consistent, and it doesn’t matter how high and intense they are on average, we’ll still become familiar with the level, and familiarity really does breed contempt. This is also the reason that Bergman films are fairly unpalatable to American audiences. They are just long and dull no matter how artistic they may be.
So as I look at my act structure, change is my friend, consistency in narrative is the enemy. Remember this is a shape, it is a story arc, not a flat. Think about sailing around the world with Magellan, a story in and of itself. The wind is never consistent, but sailors in the doldrums do nothing and get bored, but with the inconsistency of wind and weather always keeps them busy.Tags: 7th Son, Fiction, JC Hutchins, Rachael Yamagata, Seventh Son, writing