I just did a guest post on Pat Thunstrom's blog on marketing, so check it out.
This week, I wanted to talk about story structure. Pat recommended I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. The author comes from a screenwriting perspective, where certain things must happen to the protagonist by a certain point, and the story must have a satisfying conclusion (otherwise, the audience throws their popcorn at the screen and walks out.). He defined a book as effective or ineffective depending on whether or not the protagonist reached certain goals within a certain amount of pages.
Most of what he says is true, but novels can be very fluid, and the methods struck me as a little constricting. By his rules, many classic novels are not properly structured. But the book got me thinking, and I ended up writing a new outline with the general rules in mind. If you have a book and you're not sure why the plot isn't working, it might be a good read.
Another structure tool he showed me (but I've seen before) is the Snowflake method of ourlining. That says you start with a summary, and expand from there.
It has some good points, but if you take those directions literally you will spend weeks on what amounts to a summary or outline. My way of writing is more spark-to-fire. I think of a scene, which spreads out to a conflict, and write until I have a clear image, then back off and write the summary.
For my upcoming novel Saturnine, the image that came to mind was that someone knocks on the protagonist's door, hoping to visit him and his new baby. The man's wife opens the door and says her husband's not at home. Not at home? Why would he leave his newborn daughter? A story emerged.
I think it's a good idea to have a summary before you write. Do I always have one? No. I always have at least a rough idea of the ending in mind, so I know what to write toward. But as I write, some subplots change, characters disappear or get invented, and the book's focus shifts as I experiment with scenes. Part of the fun in writing, then, is in the discovery. What's your process for writing?