As the year’s Spring unfolds, it’s time to shake off the lingering chills of winter and let the sun in. Moving alongside nature’s rhythm, the mind teems with the seedlings of new ideas. But, which ones will blossom?
Last year, author John Irving’s visit to the University of British Columbia was a combination of two things: (1) an opportunity for the public to ask questions about his life and literary career, and (2) a stop on the promotional tour for his latest novel Avenue of Mysteries.
Irving had been trying to write the story of protagonist Juan Diego for a very long time. Avenues of Mysteries was the final result of a series of false starts over many years. For Irving, every new story (or attempt to try again) begins the same: with structure. He compared the writing of a story to the building of a house: always begin with a solid foundation and a clear plan. In his words, you shouldn’t put up walls before you know where the kitchen is going to be.
I appreciate this approach to writing fiction, particularly for long stories, novellas, and novels. There are a few ways to approach this exercise. The standard continues to be the golden rule of the 3-Act Structure. Most writers are achingly familiar with this little chart:
John Truby takes a slightly different approach to plotting with his 22-step formula. I would recommend his guidebook The Anatomy of Story if you’re looking for a detailed breakdown of how a story flows.
I think the same principal can be applies to most genres and disciplines. There is a lot of power in the concept of a well-defined thesis (or premise or plan — basically the “why” and “how” of the world you’ve created, in a nutshell).
On a similar note, young-adult writer Kenneth Oppel mapped out all the sections of his imagined 900-car train, the setting for his 2014 novel Boundless. He knew every inch of the environment he wanted his story to occur within.
Figuring it all out before writing can be a challenge. A frustrating, time-consuming challenge. In the time it may take someone else to successfully complete the NaNoWritMo, you might still be agonizing over how to get to that 1st-Act climax. Still, the benefits can greatly outweigh the woes.
Eventually, composed around “the bones” you’ve laid out (check out Natalie Goldberg’s guide to writing for some more insight on approaches to writing), it will come to pass: a mess of a first draft. An inelegant, misshapen lump ready for shaping.
As for the second draft, and the third, and the fourth … we’ll figure out that when we get there.
Let me know if you construct before you write, or if you let inspiration guide you through your narratives, or if you have a different approach altogether. I’d love to know.
Until next time, happy Spring and happy writing.