Thursday, January 08, 2009

Establishing Structure

Question of the day: I'm wondering how to structure chapters. I DID start from the beginning and kept writing and writing and it's like one long stream of consciousness, sort of like Stephen King's Delores Claiborne. How do you go about structuring that first chapter and the rest to follow?

This is a great question because I think this is very much a learned skill, at least it was for me.

I think it is very, very common for first-time writers (and I say that with no condescension, because, as I said, I dealt with this very situation) to have more stream of consciousness writing than is necessary. In fact, exposition - too much of it - is a big reason why early manuscript go awry. Again, I speak from experience. Good fiction writing really minimizes exposition: you don't tell readers what you're trying to convey; you put your characters in situations in which they're conveying it for you. By considering this every time you write a scene, your chapters and how they unfold start to happen naturally. Let me explain.

I have a few rules when I'm writing a new scene or chapter: every scene has to move the plot forward. I seriously stop and think about this each scene (and long afterward when I consider whether or not I want to keep what I just wrote): are my characters advancing the plot, are they creating new conflict for themselves and others (this is a good thing), are they offering readers information that readers didn't have before? Every single scene you have should meet these criteria; if not, they're filler - think of when you're watching a TV show and thinking, "Ugh, what's the point of this scene, I'm so bored." That's what happens when you plop in those unnecessary moments in a book too: readers get bored.

Another rule is that I try not to have a scene address a stand-alone conflict. What I mean by this is that, even if it's a very small thing, I try to throw in two issues into one scene. This really gives the plot a sense of momentum and keeps the smoking-fast pace because there's never a down moment. For example, I wrote a scene today in Happiest Days in which my character assesses how to cope with the fact that her husband might want to move out of their small town. In mulling over the repercussions with her best friend, I worked in a quick bite about her friend's own marriage - the friend (who is separated) makes a quick comment about something that happened the previous night with her estranged husband. I don't linger over it, there's no need to, but it reminds readers as to what's going on with that plot line, moves the plot line forward, AND is pertinent to my heroine's own situation. Do you see what I mean? Keep as many things in the mix as possible, and your plot will fly by.

Another rule is that I try not to delve into a more than a paragraph or two consecutive of my character's inner-thoughts. This isn't hard and fast rule because sometimes, it's necessary to convey what she's thinking, things that simply CAN'T be conveyed via action - like when she's mulling over a memory and what it means to her - but these inner-thoughts have a way of veering into exposition territory, into telling-not-showing territory, and that's when - BAM -you lose readers because you're not offering any action.

I know that this sounds like a lot. But it does become second nature the more fiction you write.

So how does all of this lead to chapter structure? (I didn't forget your original question?) Well, for me at least, it leads to chapter structure because I'm always considering what action my characters now need to take - how can I keep the conflict going and the momentum moving forward? What's the next situation that they'd find themselves in to resolve their current conflict? It helps, sometimes, if I have sort of a running rotation of plot lines that I need to move forward. If you read TOML, you'll see that I'll address a work conflict, then a conflict with her mother, then a conflict with her boyfriend, etc, and then return to the work situation. (This doesn't happen on an exact rotation, but I never drop one ball for too long because not only will readers think, "Huh? I can't remember what happened so many pages ago!," but juggling these various plots keeps these scenes humming quickly forward.)

I know this was a lot of info, and I hope it makes sense! I think the key is to creating as much action and conflict as possible...and then your characters naturally place themselves in situations to get themselves to a different place...which, voila, is your next chapter.

Does this make sense to anyone??? Or have I confused you even further? I'm sure that others out there map out their chapters in a much more exacting way - care to share?


Maya / מיה said...

This is really, really helpful to me, Allison-- thanks! About how many different plot lines do you feel you can juggle before a story gets tangled? Do you think these plot lines need to be clearly related to each other?


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Really good information Allison, and this is very pertinent to a scene I've been struggling with right now.

I suppose then the question I would have to follow up on this is.. if you have a scene that's sagging a little (or a lot!) into exposition or could make a reader bored, do you chop it or do you beef it up/combine it with something more interesting? When is it worth saving?

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Allison, I love this post. Here's my question: My story involves a rock goddess turned domestic goddess whose main conflicts are infidelity issues (both for her and her husband) and her desire to rediscover her musical dreams. She has two teenage sons. Is it OK to throw in a scene here and there pertaining to the mother/son relationships that doesn't have to do with the story's main conflicts? (For example, teaching her son how to drive or his getting into minor trouble with the law.) My mc's character and home life are brought more to life, but the conflicts are not addressed. Is this just filler? I'd love your take on this.

pamcl said...


This was a very helpful and very timely post for me! I was writing a scene this morning and it just wasn't working and I couldn't put my finger on why and how to fix it. Now I'm excited to go take a fresh look and see what else I can throw in to make the scene stronger.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the answering this question. While reading your suggestions, I started jotting down literal reminders for myself--friend conflict, school conflict, body-image conflict, etc--so that as I'm moving the story forward I can remember to address each of these subplot lines. Thanks so much for putting this in such easy-to-understand language. Also, having just finished reading TOML, I could totally relate to the conflicts you laid out and how they worked in your book.


Anonymous said...

I'll just add a "me too". I've finally started on my next book -- but my very first fiction -- and was just pondering this very question last night. Thanks for reading my mind! (But frankly, next time ask permission before you go poking around in my brain.) *wink*

Anonymous said...

I know I wasn't the one who was asked, but I'd like to answer Debra with: yes, definitely. While too much filler is a bad thing, I personally believe *no* filler is also bad. It's like breathing between bites. No one can take an entire lasagna without coming up for air once in a while. (Well, almost no one.) Plus, if it helps you really connect with the character that's just as important as advancing the story.

Anyway, just my tuppence.

Amie Stuart said...

>> Keep as many things in the mix as possible, and your plot will fly by.

Allison I'm curious. Does this just happen organically or do you *do it*? Wow that was poorly worded LOL

I typically don't think about chapters unless they start to run too long (for me that's over about 20 pages). And my chapters tend to be short--my agent just asked for the first two chapters of a new proposal and the first chapter is 3 pages long LOL.

Debra...I'm not Allison either but i think a) readers need breaks from constant tension/conflict (as long as it's not boring) b) those scenes can help flesh out characters (IE showing an unsympathetic character with her children--or in my case, her grandmother. NOT that your character is unsympathetic LOL but mine is pretty borderline)

and c)I can totally see how those scenes with her son can play into the main conflict (her dreams of music stardom vs her children).

Ok so that's my four cents :D

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks for the great questions and feedback, folks! I'll start tackling the questions put forth here tomorrow on the main blog. Happy weekend!

Leah Ingram said...


Here's another question for you to tuck away for the future: where do titles come from? I feel like I'm asking "Where do babies come from?"! ;-) Seriously, though, how do you come up with the titles of your book?