Structure

Last night, I was reading about book structure, at least the book structure this thriller writer swears by. And I love shit like this. Tell me there’s a formula, a pattern, and I will learn it and then riff off it. I crochet and cook. I can do what you tell me to do and still feel the end result is mine and something to be proud of.

His argument was that a book should have a structure that goes something like–introduction for 1/4 of the book leading up to the first pivot point, when we meet the problem the protagonist faces and it sets him off on a new course. We then go through the second fourth of the book where the protagonist retreats from his problem and tries to solve it, but cannot. Halfway through this second fourth, we should directly see the full power of the antagonist. This leads up to the mid-point, where something happens that moves the protagonist from reactive to active. Then the third fourth is spent dealing with the protagonist’s demons (which I guess should have been established in the first fourth) and getting his shit together, leading up to a point where it seems all is lost. Then there’s a point halfway through this part, right after it seems like all is lost, when we see the full power of the antagonist again. All this leads up to the second pivot point where the protagonist learns the last bits of information he needs in order to act in the last fourth.

One thing he said, which I really appreciated, is that no new information should come into the book as the story is resolving. Even if it’s information we didn’t know before was important, it needs to be there before. So, the killer cannot gain a twin brother who was really doing the killing all along in the last 30 pages unless there’s been hints to this before the last fourth of the book.

I don’t think that’s a hard and fast rule, but it’s definitely one I prefer. Otherwise, I do kind of experience it as cheating (unless done to humorous effect or to make some kind of commentary).

But I think you can pretty immediately see how this can’t be some “universal” structure that underlies all stories. For one, it presumes a really specific kind of protagonist–one who is able to learn more and more and who then is able to act on it. A lot of horror depends on the tension between learning what’s going on and not being able to act on it.

It also assumes there’s “a” hero or protagonist.

It strikes me as a pretty heroic set-up, with the hero being male and singular.

But I do like the idea of thinking through how your protagonist is going to change throughout the book and building up to those changes and dealing with the fall-out from those changes.  (And I also love the “keep new things out of the end of your book!”)

On a related note, I read this incredible short story yesterday about Elvis and Jesse Presley, which does not follow that kind of structure at all. Because, if it were just a matter of plugging things in to a pre-existing form, it wouldn’t be so hard.

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