A few years back I bought a book by James Scott Bell titled Plot & Structure. In fact, I’d been working out an imagined life for my imagined Irene for two years by then. It seemed time to figure out a different approach. Seriously, how long could I sustain reader interest in the interior, semi-conscious recollections of my heroine? At some point another point of view would become necessary. Not having lived on the other side of life, I didn’t think I could pull off working Irene’s story from a stance beyond the grave. I needed help. I needed a “how-to” on structure. I needed, two years down the line of writing my mini-epic saga, a plot.What I like about Bell’s Plot & Structure is the brevity used as he walks a wanna-be novelist through the basics, offering enough examples and varying methods/approaches to give an understanding of how structure and flow might be accomplished without going too deep or waving long rippling banners with the announcement This Is The Best Tried-and-True Way To Write A Novel! Nope. Long story short: What works for one writer may not work at all for another.
Take outlining, for instance. Some highly successful writers make outlines crammed full of the tiniest details; other highly successful writers have “an idea” they expand upon as they write; still other HSW’s (that’s “highly successful writers” for those of you who may wonder — I was going for a word-saving/space-saving way to repeat that string of modifiers one more time) work between the extremes of “tiniest details” and “an idea.” In other words, there is no “right way” to write a smooth-flowing structurally sound novel, one that keeps the reader turning pages, coming back for more — but when the way a writer is working, isn’t working for that writer, isn’t getting the story told — then perhaps it may be time to 1) throw away the outline, or 2) sketch one out.
I wrote the following little ditty a while back. It’s not an outline. I don’t think of it as an outline. I don’t particularly care for outlines. But, after a few years of letting imagination meander the word trails, I slammed this (let’s call it a “summary”) together.
Irene introduces her dunderhead brother
Wilbur, who lights the fuse: Cannon; barker;
Small-time band; suckers in the stands.
Sharon introduces Teddy, dead, and a desert house
With fake panes and a ghost of her in the window:
Painted chairs; green-tined rake; a daughter;
Pendulum lights; a smudge like a kiss on the glass.
Ricky Towne slouches past Theo’s City Junk Store
Wishing for better days, bicycles in a row, stead of:
Ivory combs; shattered silk; empty ornate frames;
Bowling pins; styrofoam cups; a red lacquered trunk.
Foster introduces Irene, little man, overstuffed;
Irene and Little Fish introduce Bucky and Bucky
Intros the pigs sliding down pig-chute ramps:
One little pig; two little pig; three little pig;
Four; a dog for Buddy; bail to get outta jail;
Pesaries and quiffs; capes and sails; slats nailed
To Sycamores in Penn.
One by one they tumble to page, one by one they expire
Like paper dolls cut and paper-clothed: Daughter;
Brother; Mother; Son; Strongman; Cousin; Friend;
Clown; Lover; Woman; Girl: The story ends.
Believe it or not, that bit of line-broken whimsey above helped me with focus. I still recommend Bell’s book to beginning novelists as a basics on “how-to” when the chance arises. The other “how-to” I follow is studying the best novels read. When an author stuns me with some accomplishment in a chapter, I dissect that chapter page by page, paragraph by paragraph, modifier by modifier, etc. and so on. Often, those HSW’s are the best mentors around, whether or not they “outline” or simply “idea.”