I wrote my first attempt at a novel more than 10 years ago, back in college. It will never see the light of day; the print manuscript lies in a sealed envelope even I dread to open. It’s really quite terrible, but at least it’s out of my system. Maybe one day I’ll go back and completely rewrite it into something good, but it will look nothing like the monstrosity confined to a bottom desk drawer that currently exists.
Why do I think it’s so bad? Partially because my writing skills have vastly improved in the decade since then. But more to the point, I “pantsed” the whole thing. That is, I wrote it without any attempt at outlining or creating more than the loosest possible structure in my head. This lead to a story full of non-sequiturs, lost story arcs and missing character motivations—a long pile of words on pages that don’t come together into something whole in the end.
I’m also reminded of an anecdotal story about Jim Butcher, acclaimed author of the Dresden Files novels and more. As the story goes, like most of us young and idealistic writers, Mr. Butcher railed against the idea that a novel must follow a particular structure. To prove the professors of his creative writing program wrong about this, he set out to write a novel according to the classic structure, assuming that it would, as expected, turn out to be drivel. In doing this, he wrote the first of the Dresden Files novels, the one that would eventually be called Storm Front (though at the time it was titled Semi-automagic—how I love that title!). Following the “formula” not only created a work that proved gripping, entertaining and—most important—creative, it launched his career as a professional author.
With all of this in mind, I highly recommend that the amateur writer (myself included) read K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel. Or, as I did, listen to them on Audible, where they’re both narrated by the same person, Sonja Field, who effectively brings the conversational tone of the books to life.
I’m not willing to suggest that anything Ms. Weiland does in these books is truly revolutionary. You will find a presentation of the “classic” approach to story structure, with definitions of standardized terms (“catastrophe” and “sequel,” for instance). But the information is delivered in a clear manner by someone who has used these techniques to publish several novels. She effectively uses well-known literary classics in different genres as illustrations for these structures and ideas. If I have one complaint about these books, it might be that there are too many examples. Impatient as I am, I’d be satisfied with shorter books with fewer examples.
Along with those examples, Ms. Weiland includes snippets of interviews with a breadth of authors (particularly in the outlining book). These interviews can be easily summarized: every author approaches the act of structuring and outlining their novels in different ways, but these are typically variations on a theme and very few successful authors do not outline their novels before beginning writing—though almost all of them leave themselves free to improvise on that outline when a spark of creativity hits.
This last sentence, I think, summarizes the major effect of both of these books, and why I highly recommend them to aspiring authors. First, the books give you tools and constructs to allow you to approach story structure and outlining in a productive manner—whatever your personal process turns out to be. Second, the books prove both the value of using “traditional” story structure and the fact that using “formulaic” story structures does not prohibit creativity in writing. Like all “rules” in writing, a person who understands the purpose of the rules can occasionally break them to great effect—knowing the intuitive expectations a reader has in how a story should go allows you to more effectively twist those expectations into something cathartic, or at least entertaining.
These books collectively touch upon several other grounds important to planning novels—the value of creating characters before outlining, the fact that novel-writing is a process and that you’ll likely need to make revisions to story, characters and outline as things developed, methods for brainstorming and then sorting through generated ideas (though I highly recommend the Great Course by Professor Gerard Puccio, The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit for that particular issue) and details of some of the ways stories and characters surprise their creators and develop lives and wills of their own.
These are both (relatively) short reads and, though I’d prefer them to be shorter, are easy to turn out in just a few sittings. If you intend to write novels and have not recently (or ever) reviewed story structure techniques and ideas, I’d definitely recommend picking up these books and reading them as a set.
After that, there are some alternative analyses of story structure that might be useful as well. Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points (designed for structuring roleplaying games but also generally applicable to fiction-writing, I think) comes quickly to mind. Maybe I’ll review that in the near future.