So this is the second post thinking through my next class, though it probably comes sequentially before the last. This one may also be a bit less linear.
One of the most important things to remember in the course of structuring a novel is whose story it is and that they must protag. I know this sounds simple and old hat, but it’s easy to lose lock on that at critical moments. And, it really does have some major impacts on the way the story get put together in a structural sense.
As usual, all statements should be considered as suggestions to be discarded if they don’t work for you, and sufficiently good writing can always trump any rule of writing.
Thing One: Where do you start the book? Wherever possible, you should start it with your protagonist, ideally in a way that draws the reader into their story in a sympathetic way, and they should be protagging. Protagging is absolutely key to establishing sympathy and establishing the idea that the character is a mover of events, not a cork on the water.*
Thing One-A: This is true even for multi-protagonist books which, if you want to be successful, will generally have a primary protagonist and secondary protagonists.** I’ve actually been struggling with this in my own WIP, where I have settled on juggling chapter lengths and giving my main focus character about twice as much wordage as my secondary protagonist as one of the means I’m using to keep the primary focus where it needs to be. Which leads to…
Thing Two: Keeping the reader’s attention where you want it. Even in a single POV book, you need to remember whose story it is, and structure the book to keep that story at the center of the narrative. Subplot and secondary plots and resolutions are key elements to crafting a strong well rounded book, but if you don’t watch them carefully and keep the structural necessities of the main narrative in mind, it is easy to let them steal the focus. Especially, if one of the secondary characters is more interesting to write, or you’re in one of the bridging sections where the main narrative is forced to slow down.
For example, I love the divine madman and I have included a number of them in stories and books. They’re generally a joy to write because they get to say really interesting and apparently nonsensical things that you can use to illuminate themes and mysteries or as time bombs that will provide a key to understanding a later scene. It would be very easy for me to give one of my madmen too much screen time or to let them steal the protag ball*** for a scene or two in a way that does not serve the narrative. So, lets talk about that a bit in…
Thing Three: Every scene in a book should serve the story of the central character in some way. If it does not, why is it there? Now, that doesn’t mean the central character has to be in the scene or even mentioned in the scene. You can have thematic scenes, in which case you have to understand how your theme reinforces and relates to the protagonist’s story and the central narrative. Or you might have contrast scenes in which subplot, secondary character plot, villain moments, or counter-theme can be used to throw the main narrative into higher contrast. You might have parallel-structure scenes where the narrative of the world or secondary characters shows a mirror of the main narrative. You might well have some really clever scene written for reasons not mentioned here, but if you do, you should always know how that scene relates to the primary narrative and serves the story you want to tell.
Thing Four: Endings and the protagonist. Wherever possible, the protagonist should be on screen for the end of the plot arc and have a strong roll in any denouement. It’s their story, and not only does the reader want to see them be the one to come up with and implement the solution (see also protagging), but the reader expects to have a sense of rest or closure about the story, an understanding of what happens next with the protagonist they’ve been following and identifying with for ~100,000 words. Again, as always, there are exceptions, most notably the series book where you want to leave your reader with a sense that there is more to come while still giving them a satisfying resolution to the portion of the story arc covered in this book. The last important shot of the story should have the protagonist at the center of the frame.
*Common alternative starting points can be with the antagonist or some sort of foreshadowing or scene setting moment with parents, mentors, prophets, etc. All of which can work just fine but really ought to be about the protagonist’s struggle. See Thing Three above.
**It’s possible to have a successful and perfectly balanced book with six protagonists who all get equal time, but it’s really hard and I’ve seen a lot more failures than successes.
***The protag ball…hmm. (This is me thinking in real time as I write this.) I’m kind of liking the idea of looking at a novel as a sort of metaphorical Calvinball type game, with control of the ball as a way of modeling who is in control of the scene at a given time. The protagonist can throw the ball to secondary characters, or have it stolen by the antagonist, or whatever, and its part of your job as the author to keep track of the ball and make sure that your protagonist controls the ball most of the time. Then you could do an analysis of the story with the protagonist controlling the ball highlighted in green, the antagonist in red, and various secondary characters each in their own color to give you a quick visual way of telling if your protagonist is protagging enough.****
****And, yes, for anyone in the Twin Cities area who ever might think about taking a class from me, this really is how I teach, complete with verbally footnoted digressions–often further delineated by hand gestures. It may sound like madness, but so far the reviews are pretty decent.
(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 25 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)