Structure in fiction writing
July 29, 2022 12:41 PM   Subscribe

If you're a writer of fiction, how important is explicit structure to you?

Do you follow one of the 'official', named writing structures? Do you have your own? Do you just write by the seat of your pants and see where it takes you?
I'm especially interested in experience within SF&F, which as far as I can tell has different demands as to structure.
posted by signal to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
in my experience, the more you're writing to a particular genre, the more strict structure is probably going to work for you. Readers of genre have expectations. Which doesn't mean you can't mess with them, but you should know what you're messing with.

There's also something a film editor acquaintance said to me once. He felt that pretty much any successful movie had a very tight structure (specific plot things happening at specific minute counts). But (and it's a big but), this structure only really pulls fully together after a long and complex process of first writing (any number of drafts), pre-production (casting, budgeting, scheduling), production (actually getting everything shot) and then post production, various edits, each one getting closer and closer to the final finished piece (the final structure).

TLDR on that: you can worry way too much about everything happening in the right way at the right time on your first draft. Because the only guarantee is that things will change as the creative process moves along.
posted by philip-random at 1:09 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

I have looked at structures to help myself understand pacing, but that's about it. In scifi and fantasy there is a lot of freedom. There are sff books that are very traditionally laid out journey or adventure stories, all the way to experimental and literary. There is no reason you can't try it though if it helps you write, or even just outline. No choice is immutable, just change it around later if you think it's off.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 1:56 PM on July 29

I think scenic structure has a greater impact on audience experience than any theoretical macro-structure. It's easy to tell when an individual scene is inefficient or confusing or repetitive. But most readers don't think much or care about the underlying structure that links those scenes. As long as the emotional progression makes intuitive sense, and the plot points are sound in logic, anything might go.

Either way, I think it's somewhat pointless to think about structure until you're later in the drafting process. Draft freely, then go back and wonder about structural questions. (Even better, ask someone else to read the draft and think about its structure, as it can be very hard to perceive the big-picture aspects of your own work.)

Of course, if you're writing within a fairly strict genre, that's different; some genres are essentially defined by their structure. But SFF is really quite open to experimentation and crossgenre work, so your form needn't adhere to any "rules."
posted by desert outpost at 2:29 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

I write SFF and I would say that my work “has structure,” but I don’t ever sit down and think to myself “I am going to use X structure.” It’s more like I’ve absorbed a lot of ideas about how stories unfold from reading them over my life, and so when I start spinning an idea out into a plot in my head, things unconsciously fall into a structure. I don’t write by the seat of my pants, but neither do I really approach story creation analytically - I just think about my ideas and my characters for a long time and take notes and see how the ideas develop in my head, then when it feels like a story I can start to write it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:11 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

As a writer and a reader I find structure essential. It doesn't have to be a traditional structure at all, but it has to be a structure that is internally coherent. I'm thinking for example of Trust (multiple versions of events written by different characters in different formats), or The Employees (a variety of responses by computers, humans, and possibly other entities to questions the reader doesn't know), or No One Is Talking About This (half "always online" musings, half grief memoir), or Several People Are Typing (totally slack-based narrative), or Cloud Atlas (interleaved stories that influence and reveal each other).

But the only "structure" that must exist for me is: beginning, middle, end. Perhaps not even middle.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:24 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

I feel like structure is mainly noticed in its absence, and thinking about beats or specific structures is more useful for revising than actually writing. When I'm drafting I don't think about it—it's very much "and then this happened" because I'm still trying to figure out what the story is. Then after that, I might try to reverse engineer the structure based on what the actual narrative is and reorganize and rewrite to that. But, it does depend on genre, because every genre has its conventions, and also how commercial your writing is.
posted by synecdoche at 3:24 PM on July 29 [4 favorites]

It happens rarely that I'm so inspired that my brain vomits a fully-formed story, like Athena emerging from a migraine. Otherwise, I move methodically from the original story idea, to chapters summarized as sentences, to breaking down sequential scenes per chapter, to even mapping out important dialogue beforehand. Sometimes I think that I'm inspired, only to waste several days accomplishing nothing before doing the whole story breakdown thing I should have begun with in the first place.
posted by jabah at 8:35 PM on July 29

I do exactly what showbiz does. That is, rely on my internalised, almost sub conscious sense of where story beats should fall, or how pacing should happen, acquired from a lifetime of reading and watching stories.

I do a lot of planning and outlining, but I don't consciously follow any named structure other than a vague sense of "something hooky should happen early in the story" and "don't start any new plot bunnies three quarters of the way through, got to start gathering the threads now".

Also, once I actually start writing, the flaws in the structure becomes obvious to me in the way the story flows, and I often make extreme and deep changes.

Things which may seem utterly central to the plot when reading the final book, often only appear half way through the first draft, no matter how much planning and outlining I do.
posted by Zumbador at 11:42 PM on July 29

To me, structure in the writing process is important -- so much so that it's easy for me to get lost in structural concerns at the expense of actually writing. I think it's much more important in traditional-story telling film than fiction. As far as SF (not so much fantasy) goes, I don't think there's anything special about structure except that you can toss it out altogether with impunity almost as freely as with literary fiction, if you feel like it.
posted by lhauser at 12:58 PM on July 30

Response by poster: Thanks all!
posted by signal at 2:46 PM on July 30

I'm a pantser. I just start writing. That sometimes has weird results but I fix it in the revision stage.
posted by Peach at 6:35 PM on July 30

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