Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Using structural formulas to write novels: no thanks


A couple of years ago I was talking to a fiction writer who told me she was having trouble in her WIP with the first culmination. “Sure,” she said, “the inciting incident went just fine, and then the lock-in was a lock. It’s just that, after the first culmination I can’t find my way to the main culmination and the third act twist.”

“Ahummina-hummina-hummina,” I said. “Wha?”

It was clear that she approached the writing of a novel in a completely different way from me. Sounded like she’d gotten her hands on a screenwriting manual, which, hey, if it helped her manage the almost unmanageable process of making a fictional world out of nothing but thoughts, more power to her. It just doesn’t work for me.

When I hear those wooden terms she used, though, I think “focus group fiction.” A writer who lives by them is accepting Hollywood’s view of the audience: rigidly wed to their own expectations; addicted to the familiar; belligerent enough to get up and walk out if the least bit unsatisfied. And all of that may be accurate to one degree or another, but for a writer to become a slave to it is like playing tennis in a straitjacket. (It can be done, but it isn’t very nice.)

If you have a basic feel for the shape of stories, you don’t need a step-by-step template. Take beginnings. Everyone knows you have to draw the reader in, but there are a million different ways to do it, starting with (not fiction per se), “In the beginning…” Certainly, you don’t want to start too far in front of the real beginning, but I like to think that the sky’s the limit in terms of how to draw the reader in. Middles are usually hardest for most novelists because the pace depends on it, and poor pacing can lose readers. Still, if you understand the idea of building tension and putting your protagonist through his paces, you won’t need to refer to a checklist as you go.

Endings? Inevitable but surprising. Cinch.

I think some writers might gravitate to the formula method because they intend to write a lot of books in a short time, they write for a very particular audience (usually in certain prickly genres), they aren’t interested in reinventing the wheel, or, heck, they actually like the formula. If you are a more organic novelist, though, trying to find creative ways to deal with the lock-in and main culmination will drive you nuts.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t certain models or plot shapes that can be helpful. We have our Christ figures, our Oedipal stories, our boy-meets-girl, and on and on, but novels offer so much more room for playing with it all than movies do. Why not use that freedom?
Jane Smiley, in her useful Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, analyzed a bunch of classic novels and came up with a pretty simple structural plan they all seemed to follow: have a big twist, shift, or change in direction at the 10% mark and another one at the 90% mark (give or take). This isn’t unlike the standard three-act film script structure we all know and love (30-60-30 minutes) but gives you so much more flexibility in shaping your book. Mighty practical too, in that, if writing without much of an outline, you come to a turning point early on you can begin to see how long the book should probably be based on what page you’re on. Sometimes little realizations like that can really propel you through that tough middle.

Think of some of your favorite classic novels. I bet most of them don’t adhere to a formula, or if they do, the authors were able to disguise it skillfully. I’m almost willing to say a book doesn’t have much of a chance at becoming a classic unless it blows readers’ minds, and that usually happens when the boundaries are stretched so far they snap.

I speak for myself here, of course. If the templates help, by all means use them. But keep trying to stretch those boundaries.


11 comments on “Using structural formulas to write novels: no thanks

  1. francisguenette
    January 15, 2014

    For me, the story has to dictate the structure. It sort of goes where it will. Of course, I have to snap the whip now and then but the story is boss of me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 15, 2014

      Same here, most of the time. You can always go back and rejigger things in revision…

  2. sknicholls
    January 15, 2014

    I have two. One is an experiment where I am writing a specific genre, having researched the formulas for such in writing crime fiction. It bogs me down and I have a love hate relationship with it. Sometimes it stifles my creativity when my character wants to do certain things or behave in certain ways that are contrary. It has really slowed down my writing time.

    The other flows naturally and it is coming along much better IMHO. The characters easily developed their own voices. The plot unwinds it self as I move along. The unexpected is expected.

    Yet, my husband, who really loves crime fiction, loves the first one.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 15, 2014

      I do believe the genres are more demanding in terms of formulas. In literary fiction, almost anything goes, as long as it works.

      • sknicholls
        January 15, 2014

        I was looking on BookBub today and trying to place my current book. last time I advertised in Historical fiction and it did well. I was thinking of going with literary fiction this time, it is more affordable but the audience is smaller. It crosses genre and I don’t know what to do so I am letting them decide. I am pretty well certain that they will go with most expensive though.

  3. Phillip McCollum
    January 15, 2014

    Nice post, Kevin. Structure is useful, but one of my favorite Writers who Wrote about Writing, Dwight Swain states it in a way that finally sank in to my left-brained noggin:

    “No writer in his right mind writes by a set of rules. At least, not by somebody else’s rules. Why not? Because rules start from the wrong end: with restriction; with form; with mechanics; with exhortation about things you should and shouldn’t do.

    Where should you start, then? With feeling. Your own feeling. A story is like a car that runs on emotion. The author’s feeling is the gasoline in its engine. Take away its fuel, and even the shiniest, chrome-plated literary power plant is reduced to so much scrap iron.”

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 15, 2014

      Great metaphor! It’s true: good writing has to come from the gut.

  4. ericjbaker
    January 15, 2014

    i just try to make each page interesting enough that the readers wants another one. Eventually they run out of pages, because the story ends. I’ll let someone else worry about culminations and lock-ins and middle eights and 12-bar blues breaks.

  5. Kevin Brennan
    January 15, 2014

    If I could just figure out how to stick a 12-bar blues break into my next book!

  6. 1WriteWay
    January 16, 2014

    I’m just happy to get words on a page … 😉

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2014 by in Writing and tagged , , , , .
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