I’ve been reading a lot about structure lately. About what ingredients to throw into an Act 1, and when and how you can turn up the heat in Act 2, and what you can do to salvage the burnt mess of your protagonist’s existence in Act 3. It’s been a fascinating time for me and my writing, since as a poetry major with an MFA in creative writing, my focus and strength has always been about the words, and arranging them, and occasionally snapping sentences into stacked fragments and toying with their layout on the page. Structure was too macro, too big; working in single-page formats allowed me to “see” all of my content right there, and poke at it, and add/remove stuff at my leisure like some alchemist fiddling with recipes.
And while the strength of one art can inform another, what poetry didn’t teach me was the structure of a novel. I don’t want to be a poet anymore—I want to be a novelist. And if you’re going to be a novelist, you have to know your grammar (obviously), voice (narrator), verbs (description/action), but you have to know what shape to put these all in… you have to know structure (plot).
And before you can even begin to think about structure, there's one supremely important thing to focus on:
BEFORE // AFTER
So, before you write, you have to know what you’re writing about. There’s about a billion articles on elevator pitches and loglines and what-have-you, but the thrust of the information is this: you have to present your protagonist in one situation, and then you have to introduce an agency of change. It could be a tornado in Kansas whisking your protagonist to a world of witches and singing boggans, or a cruise ship ferrying you to a new world, or burning up books only to find you like reading them, or getting a job as a forgotten god’s bodyguard, or really any number of things.
But the important thing is that there is a BEFORE.
Which means there is an AFTER.
Seems obvious, right? Only it wasn’t for me. My novels so far have been “Protagonist is in situation A and because of event B they eventually confront C and win or lose.”
THIS IS A BAD PLOT.
Sure, it has a beginning, middle, and end—but why should anyone care? The protagonist has no specific motivations, the catalyst appears arbitrarily, and the goal simply announces the end of the story, whether achieved or not.
What these novels need (and boy, was I disappointed when this dawned on me) was some sort of measure between when the novel started and when the novel ended—and that measure, dear readers, is the amount a character’s changed in between. Shy? Maybe they’re outgoing now. Indecisive? Maybe they are more assertive. Homesick? Maybe they realize home isn’t a place, but it’s being with their friends.
Whatever it is, if you find your characters at the end of the novel don’t juxtapose their earlier iterations… you might have a bad novel.
I’m going through my “finished” works and have realized that’s the thing they’re missing—they’re hollow as chocolate bunnies because, it turns out, they’re filled with characters reacting instead of acting (because they have no motivations) and end with characters returning to where they started. Their BEFORES mirror their AFTERS.
And while there’s likely no chance I can salvage these novels (OK, maybe one. Maybe.) I for damn sure will always know what motivates my characters in the future!