Elements of Writing: How Published Authors Create Structure

If you’re using the classic five-stage plot structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution, I thought we’d hear from some published authors on how they create structure.

“I suspect that for the most part, I fall into the traditional five-stage plot structure intuitively, and that’s likely due to my exposure to the predominant plot structure in the Western literary tradition,” says Julie Iromuanya, author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor.  Departures from this traditional structure are always risky, she adds.

Margaret Verble, author of Maud’s Line, says that the five-stage story structure remains “the best structure on which to hang a tale.” Only seasoned writers, she says, should consider experimenting with “funky structures.” Beginning writers should avoid them.

However tried and true the five-stage plot structure, authors find reasons to make slight departures from it. In his debut novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen deviates in a minimal but important way.

“I was aware of the five-stage plot structure, partially through long exposure to it as a student and partially because I wanted my novel to work as genre fiction in addition to being literary fiction,” he says.

Yet Nguyen deviates from traditional when a mid-novel interlude veers off the “explicit narrative of a spy caught in history.” Here, Nguyen’s spy becomes a film consultant on an epic Vietnam War movie shot in the Philippines.

“Perhaps this was a digression from the five-stage plot,” he says, “but I couldn’t help myself. This was my revenge on Hollywood’s Vietnam War, and I was going to take it.”

Although this interlude breaks with the “straightforward action” typical of the five-stage story, it serves to enhance this traditional structure.

“The climax and denouement of the section in the Philippines, halfway through the novel, foreshadows the climax and denouement of the entire novel toward the end,” says Nguyen.

The interlude underscores Nguyen’s final authority in the structure department. In the end, the author has to be true to his creativity.

When drafting a novel, Behrens never thinks in structural terms. He doesn’t fixate on plot. Instead, he follows characters, sometimes having “a vague sense of the place where the characters end up – their moral, mental, emotional, tactile and sensual surroundings at the end of the story.”

For him, writing a novel is “trying to learn more about that place and figuring out how [characters] got to that place from where they started.” The first draft goes fast. In the revision stage, Behrens turns a critical eye to structure.

“When I see the thing as a whole for the first time and know the story,” says Behrens, “I go back to the storytelling and try to establish a structure that will keep the story moving at the right pace, engage the reader and get to where I want to go.

He learned about story structure from his screenwriting background and in post-production editing.

“There are a zillion ways to cut a story up and assemble it,” he says. “The movie is made in the editing room.” Behrens speculates that the structure of Carry Me emerged when he “started scissoring it apart and reassembling it.”

Bernice L. McFadden, author of Sugar and eight other novels, also doesn’t focus on structure in a first draft. For her, it’s best to let the story unfold instead of working with a linear approach. Often she writes the ending before the beginning.

“If the rising action comes early on,” says McFadden, “I write it down and build the exposition around it.” When she reads drafts, McFadden is confident that “the structure will unquestionably reveal itself.”

Usually, it’s not the standard five-stage plot – more like “piecing a puzzle together,” she says – but it does include a beginning, middle and end.

Elements of WritingWriting Craft

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