The writer life: Story structure

Story structure is among the myriad decisions a writer makes when composing a novel.

This subject is top-of-mind for me as I construct the first draft of my third novel, a sequel to Let the Guilty Pay, which I’ll get to in a bit.

First, an admission: I did not think about structure at all when writing my first novel, Deep Background. I wrote most of it while working 70-hour-a-week journalism jobs and went off instinct. The structure turned out to be close third person with several points of view.

In retrospect, I knew I could do this because the books I’d been reading at the time did this. Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears comes to mind. It turns out that close third person with multiple POVs is a common structure for thrillers, so that’s the way I naturally told the story.

But after I was fortunate enough to sign a contract, I found myself resolved to keep writing novels. It wasn’t until then that I started seriously studying craft, including story structure.

Skip forward to my final self-revision of LTGP. After exploring various ways other novelists tell stories, I had a structure I’d tried to stick with.

I’d already flouted the advice out there that says readers will never enjoy a book that isn’t first person throughout the whole book. Only bad writers use flashback chapters or tell a story using two timelines. Readers can’t follow multiple POVs.

Those things sound silly if you think about the best novels you’ve read, but I promise this advice is on popular writing websites. Imagine if Gillian Flynn, Susan Choi and Dennis Lehane had adhered to this kind of thinking. We wouldn’t have Dark Places (major motion picture) or Gone Girl (changed the genre), or Trust Exercise (won the National Book Award), or Mystic River (more on that in a bit).

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I knew I wanted two timelines, one in first person and one in close third person with multiple POVs. I knew wanted to use a device — in this case, excerpts from my book within a book, but other examples include diary entries, blog posts, comments on blog posts, etc. — and had struggled to fit one of those in front of each and every chapter.

It was perfectly symmetric and made absolute mathematical sense.

And it was a train teetering on its rails.

Then I received a wonderful critique from Tex Thompson. In addition to some wonderful character and story fixes, she encouraged me to not be so rigid in my structure.

Why couldn’t I go, say, fifty pages before beginning my second timeline? Why must you have your book excerpts before every chapter. Can they be only before ones that tell the past timeline?

I hadn’t considered not following a nice, neat, Type A pattern. And that made all the difference in how my story unfolds.

When I wrote the prequel novella, Live with the Truth, I was able to keep the same structure semblance from the LTGP, but without the device because it didn’t exist in my fictional world yet. Easy enough.

But when I began writing the sequel, I thought I should keep the same basic structure. But then I realized that the mysteries in my story would have to be different this time.

I found myself in need of shucking off the structure constraints I’d put on myself. Again.

I won’t reveal any details about what’s happening now because, you know, spoilers. But I am writing more every day and I feel like the writing is better. Will it make it through my beta reads and editors at Fawkes Press?

I don’t know.

But I do know — finally — that I’d rather go out on a limb structurally in the beginning and have to be reined in than start out limiting myself.

If ever I find myself doing that, I’ll pull up this Vulture article written by Angie Kim.

Angie Kim

I had the pleasure of seeing Kim read a short story at the Noir at the Bar during the Texas Book Festival. It was incredible (I don’t know if it’s been published yet). She did that rather than read an excerpt from her buzzy debut, Miracle Creek.

Her Vulture article is about how her story, which recently won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, was inspired by the wonderfully weird structure of Mystic River.

Don’t think different structure techniques won’t work with reader attention spans shortening.

They’re smart. As long as you’re telling a good story, they’ll be able to follow you to the end — no matter how you choose to get there.

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