Structure and me we’re old buddies


Doing my visits to my favorite blogs, I ran into a new post on Maverick Writer (recommended because has such novel ways of looking at writing) about a writer for whom the hallowed three-act structure, re-examined, provided new insight.

Catana writes in a number of fantasy sub-genres, and we’ve had some interesting conversations about many topics, but I didn’t realize until this post that she’s a dyed-in-the-wool pantser (at least I think she is, from the posts and her comments).

I always find it fascinating when someone tackles long-held beliefs and finds something usable in the opposite to what they’ve assumed, whether they change or just incorporate some of the ideas, because writers, especially older writers like me, NEED to do that and remain flexible and open to ideas.

I, myself, can pants for as long as maybe ten or twenty pages (which need revision). I have to work hard sometimes to bring my own posts into some kind of logical format before I send them out into the void, some days more successfully unified than on others.

Structure is how I manage to write

For me, with the brain fog and the CFS, who can’t remember from one day to the next sometimes what she had for breakfast, structure is critical.

I don’t have to create a soaring 150 floor building all at once – I can set up the structure, and decorate one apartment at a time. On bad days, I can decorate one room in the apartment. And on really bad days, I can paint the cabinet door in one room.

I’m very aware other writers can hold their entire book in their head. I might have been able to do that now had I not gotten sick, but that ship has sailed (I routinely carried an awful lot of subroutines in my head when I programmed, and their connections, so it’s not too farfetched).

But I can’t. And, to tell the truth, it’s an awful lot of stuff to carry around.

The three-act structure, revisited

She’s giving it a chance. I hope she finds some useful pieces, as the desired result is always a story that hangs together.

I was going to comment, and it got too long, so:

As for me, extreme plotter that I am

I live and breathe structure, because it FREES me from the plot after I set it up. Then I can concentrate on characters, and themes, and just the right amount of scenery, and language…

Today I was working on a scene which is pivotal to Book 2, even more than many. I started from scratch – the old rough draft is hilarious. But I knew why this scene needed to be here, and what would happen if it were not (the story comes to an abrupt halt). I knew who was probably in the scene – and it didn’t change the structure to make a few small changes there. The scene had no preferred physical location, as long as its aim was accomplished (and it is in Uttar Pradesh, India), so I had the fun of brainstorming – and came up with something I never would have thought of before that I think will give it a great punch.

When I got to my question on foreshadowing (every scene gets asked that question), I saw oooh! a perfect opportunity. In it went – because I know the foreshadowed event will be happening, and this will make it not seem to come out of nowhere. Moving an interaction from a later scene into this one – because the structure allows it – lets me add some conflict which actually affects the aim in a usable way.


Getting the whole to hang together

Otherwise, each one of the ideas that come to me while writing could be a dead end, and waste hours and pages, and mire me in mud.

I hate throwing away usable words, because I work hard now while writing the words to make them be good from the beginning. I toss lots of stuff – but compare it to the structure as I decide to toss (or move it elsewhere – after all, my brain gave me those words for a reason).

I think this one will be fine with around two beats, and the material is starting to organize itself into two piles that ‘go together’. Beats are my in-scene structure. Each scene needs a first and last line – which connect the scene to the chapter and the book. Within the scene I need (as per The Fire in Fiction) an outer and an inner turning point so the scene is coherent as a whole.

Anyway (nobody ever asks about structure, and you didn’t really ask, but I love it), when I start tomorrow, I will have all the sequins – and the costume cut out, and the assembly may take as little as a day (assuming my brain is on). Works for me.

Like making a collage: first I gather substrate and pieces, then I affix them where they please me, then I hang it where I always intended to.

Reader or writer, what is your gut feeling about books that do – and don’t have structure?

Stencil gets my thanks for making easy graphics possible. Give them a visit.

Check out PC’s reviews on Amazon – just got a sparkly new one!


7 thoughts on “Structure and me we’re old buddies

  1. Catana

    I can understand my meandering might make you’d think I’m a pantser, but actually I’m a heavy preplanner. But I don’t outline. Have tried it, and it just doesn’t work for me. Probably because the structure and characters have been slowly evolving in my mind, thanks to several thousand words of notes, and questions to self. That leaves a lot of space for letting the actual story develop without my necessarily knowing ahead of time what’s going to happen. Hybrid writer might be the right term.

    I’d be fascinated if someday you found the time and energy to reveal how you arrived at your current methods. As I look over my own work, I can see that the more complex it becomes, the more I need to consciously understand and make use of tools like structure. I never used to pay attention to scenes, and I’m still trying to get my mind around beats. All in good time, I guess.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I don’t know how deeply you’ve dug into my blog, but as I discovered every piece of writing, from structure through publishing, I documented it in posts.

      If you type Dramatica or structure into the search box, you’ll get a long list of the posts where it is already written down – probably more than you’d ever want to read.

      It’s all there – I’m afraid if I don’t document things, I’ll lose them.


  2. marianallen

    I have to have structure or, as you say, I waste too much time and energy. I do that, anyway, but much less, if I have SOME structure in place before I get too far into the writing. I love a book that, as does yours, seems to be just going along, effortlessly telling a story, that then starts clicking things into place that seem inevitable because they were prepared for all along. Makes me want to dance!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Awww! Makes it all worth it when someone SEES the structure (even if subconsciously) and doesn’t MIND it. It is a LOT of work, but I don’t think I could write anything longer than a short story otherwise – and even the shorts need something.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          No reason why you should – it’s not that common to document every little thing on your blog. I’ve just found it useful for myself, and to refer to those posts in other posts.

          And I had to do SOMETHING when I’d sweated blood to learn how to do X or Y. Blog posts seemed to fill that need. I have little usable internal memory, especially for the kind of trivia Scrivener or epub generated.


      1. marianallen

        “I don’t think I could write anything longer than a short story otherwise – and even the shorts need something.” — Me, too! I wrote myself into a corner so many times, or wandered down interesting-looking trails that petered off into nothing. I need some structure, even if it’s just a statement of intent.



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