In the very short time I have been festival-stalking authors and inflicting my newby questions on those nice enough to not run away, I have absorbed two very clear and consistent pieces of advice:
- If you want to write, just get on with it; and
- There are no rules.
Despite the ‘no rules’ rule, there is a plethora of guidelines available to those at a loss as to where to start, how to go on or to finish. And it seems many writers conform to a basic story structure.
At the Swancon36/Natcon50 workshop ‘The Structure of the Novel’, author JD Cregan set out this common structure with the admonition that “for every novel that is structured like this, the next novel is not going to have any of it”. At the very least, for the more ‘intuitive’ writers among us, it’s a useful tool for reflecting on where our stories might go.
Let’s start with the building blocks. Cregan says a novel is traditionally 300 to 400 pages, features three acts with a general theme and a sub-plot. Key factors are character, place and scenario.
Character is defined by what people do and what people say. Everything else – whether they have a limp, their background – is characteristic.
Readers need to engage with the main character. They might not necessarily agree with the character, but they empathise with him or her and the circumstances they find themselves in. Cregan gives as examples, Hannibal Lecter and Macbeth. Both are characters readers do not necessarily approve of but empathise with because of their circumstances.
“What engagement creates is a bond with the reader,” Cregan says. “That is the single most important aspect of ensuring that someone goes on the journey with you.” Readers might empathise with characters that are marginalised, victimised, disadvantaged or something as simple as Harry Potter’s (initial) plight of being in conflict with the people he lives with.
Cregan says that, within this common structure, character must change from the beginning to the end of the story. For example, if, at the start, the main protagonist picked up a $100 note he found on the footpath and handed it to police, by the end, he would pocket the money, or vice versa.
It is important to be authentic when creating the setting. For example, Cregan says lack of authenticity in location can happen when you write about a country you have never visited.
Aspects of setting include the period of time in which the story is set, the level of conflict at that time and the duration of the story.
Cregan describes this as “the big what-if”. For example, what if a group of hobbits went on a quest to find a ring? The scenario needs to be strong enough to “grab the reader by the throat and never let them go”.
So you’ve got character, setting and scenario under control. From here, the common story structure goes something like this (I have no hope of replicating Cregan’s diagram):
- Introduction/setting the scene – this usually takes up about a quarter of the novel
- Inciting incident – this throws life out of balance for the main character/s and sets up an ‘object of desire’ in order to restore that balance.
- Quest – the middle journey in which the character/s seek the ‘object of desire’. This usually takes about half of the novel. In this section, we see the forces lined up against the main protagonist, including internal (self-doubt, disability), external (friends, family, partners), nature, or organisations (police, mafia etc). There may also be a number of sub-plots.
- Crisis/climax – this is decision time for the main character. An opportunity presents itself but it comes with great risk. A decision is made. The character comes into direct contact with the forces of antagonism. This and the resolution take the final quarter of the story.
- Resolution – the end of the story usually involves:
- Homecoming or leave-taking;
- Rites of passage – birth, death or marriage; and/or
- Coming to realise or failing to realise.
Underlying this structure is something called the ‘controlling idea’. This idea is conveyed through the action of the novel but is never spelt out. For example, in a crime story, if the criminal is caught and led away in cuffs, the controlling idea might be something like ‘crime doesn’t pay’. Or if someone gets away with murder, the controlling idea might be ‘there’s no justice in this world’ or ‘crime does pay’.
“At the end, when you finish the novel and close it, there should be an aesthetic value and you should feel something,” Cregan says. “There should be a sense of ‘I knew that’. Not necessarily that you knew how it was going to happen.”
Of course, being rule-free, the writer can choose not to subscribe to a common ‘controlling idea’.
“If they don’t, we are left with a sense of uncomfortableness – and that is okay if that is the writer’s intention,” Cregan says. “It is like the discordant note in music. It is there because that is what the player wanted to play.”
Having set out this structure, Cregan gives a final piece of advice: “Rules are meant to be broken and they are broken all the time. This is not gospel.” But it is food for thought.
JD Cregan is a Western Australian author who released his first novel 98%pure in 2005. His most recent work, The Wonder of Seldom Seen will be published by University of Western Australia Publishing in June this year.