Form Follows Function – The Ongoing Process of Structuring Your Novel

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

It is a common misconception amongst writers that the structuring process is an activity undertaken only at the beginning of the writing process. Structuring is firmly located after generating your story idea and definitely before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). After your structure is developed, it’s just a matter of using the blueprint to herd the plethora of chaotic words, sentences and paragraphs into a coherent story. Right?

Hmmm, maybe not.

 

Every new beginning…

As you know, I recently hit the midpoint of Divided Elements, my first novel. In many ways it felt like I had finished a mini-novel – there was a full character arc, an ending with clear references to the beginning, major conflict and a very definite sense of beginning, middle and end. But as Dan Wilson sang, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” and Maria Von Trapp mused, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window”, the ending of this mini-novel is just the catalyst for the next mini-novel, the closed door to the first half of the story just the opened window of the second half.

Don’t get me wrong – I was prepared for this. I had diligently structured my novel from the first to last scene and had a very clear outline for how the second half of Act II and all of Act III would play out. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how the fleshing out of the first half outline – with new characters, interesting dialogue, hidden motivations and complex character reactions – would create an internal logic that was completely at odds with this outline.

Suddenly, I found that the earlier reactions of my protagonist were hinting at a vulnerability I hadn’t planned for, a vulnerability that would take her on a different journey of discovery from the midpoint towards her “all is lost” moment. I discovered secondary characters with motivations and secrets that would cause different opportunities and threats for the protagonist in reaching her end-goal. I found that the dialogue and interaction between characters were creating an unexpected dynamic between them that would, in turn, create new and unexpected tensions over the following scenes and chapters.

In summary, I learnt that the micro-level stuff – the stuff you can’t plan and outline – was having major consequences for the macro-level structure. 

My response? I rewrote the outline for the next half of my novel – a process I am still playing with. I am using my newly-developed knowledge of my characters, world and conflicts to reshape the rest of the story. And this knowledge can only come with a deep and intimate understanding of your story – something you can never have at the beginning of your writing process, when characters, events and tensions are just ideas floating in your head.

In trying to capture the importance of how the detail of the early scenes sets the logic for the following scenes, I was reminded of how, in 1896, proto-modern architect Louis Sullivan famously argued that form follows function.

In his classic (albeit prosaically-titled) essay on The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, he wrote:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

In other words, it is paramount that your writing follow a consistent, internal logic – that your creativity in the writing process (the form) follows a structural integrity that is both continuous and progressive across the full narrative (the function). 

In order to achieve this continuous and logical progression of the narrative, you may find yourself (like me) needing to review and restructure your novel outline. In this way, novel structuring is not a static process undertaken only at the beginning of a novel’s development, but a dynamic process that should be undertaken regularly and used a tool to strengthen the internal logic of your narrative.

Let me know what you think – do you find yourself changing your novel outline or structure because of micro-level details in earlier scenes or chapters?

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Form Follows Function – The Ongoing Process of Structuring Your Novel

Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and write your Midpoint

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As with all things chased with dogged persistence, the middle of my first book, Divided Elements, is growing larger and larger as it comes within reach. Not the general middle of the second act, but the specific middle – the actual halfway point. With the WIP at just over 42,000 words, first plot point reactions and repercussions are a distant memory and it’s time that the fun and games of the first part of Act II give way to the business end of the story.

Which brings me, and therefore us, to the Midpoint.

For me, the Midpoint has two definitions – a functional one and an allegorical one – both of which are equally important; as it should be with something called a midpoint.

The functional definition articulates the Midpoint as the middle point (shock! who saw that coming?) – The point of your story that separates the first half from the second half; the mathematical halfway point that acts like a signpost, directing you 45,000 words that way to the start of your story and 45,000 words this way to the end of your story.

In contrast, the allegorical definition is, obviously, more interesting. Many authors, readers and writing mentors identify the midpoint as the point at which everything changes. I don’t agree. Everything can’t change – that would mean that we are reading a completely different story; and there is a very big difference between a new direction and a new story.

And so, for me, the midpoint is not just a distance marker set to the middle. It is a fulcrum. And the definition of a fulcrum is so much more interesting than the definition of a mere middle point:

A fulcrum is the “point or support about which a lever pivots” (wikipedia), the “thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation” (oxford dictionary), or “any of various structures in an animal serving as a hinge or support” (free dictionary) – and yes, my story is an animal; sometimes all wet licks and puppy yelps of excitement and sometimes a netherworld beast determined to wreak havoc…

So, the midpoint is the point on which the story shifts its balance – the centrepoint of the see-saw that facilitates the shift from a) the safety of being down on the ground, legs crouched and ready to spring, to b) the wild abandon and panic of being airborne with legs dangling and gravity resisting.

And that point, in any story, is the realisation that something needs to change – that Plan A isn’t working or isn’t sufficient or isn’t right anymore and that a Plan B is needed.

 

Developing your Plan B

Plan A is the first part of the second act – the plan that is borne of the shock of the first plot point; borne of reactions and naiveté and resistance and ignorance and general hubris of the protagonist who finds themselves in a new world they didn’t want, but nonetheless got. But the reveal of the midpoint lifts the veil and forces consideration, development and implementation of a Plan B.

For me, Plan B comes back to triple loop learning – with the protagonist deciding that either the HOW (actions), the WHAT (strategy) or the WHY (motivation) is sabotaging their goal.

When the second part of the second act is driven by a “HOW” Plan B, the Protagonist is shown to change how they achieve their goals. Consider the following storyline – A girl has lost her lucky charm and she decides (in Act II, Part 1) to  try to find the all-powerful magus who will be able to restore it to her. In this first part of Act II, the girl attempts to find the all-powerful magus by teaming up with a private detective. At the midpoint, she discovers that the private detective is just another hack and comes up with a new plan – Plan B – to find the magus. Her actions change.

In a “WHAT” Plan B, it’s not the how that is holding the Protagonist back, it is the what. For this type of midpoint, the private detective is the real deal and working with him is the right way to find the magus, but the problem is that the magus is just a myth – a bad Wizard of Oz fake. So the girl and the detective come up with a new plan to find her lucky charm. Her strategy changes.

And then there is the “WHY” Plan B, the nuclear game changer. What the protagonist is doing is keeping her on the right path to her goals, and she is doing all of the necessary actions perfectly. The magus is the real deal (definitely all-powerful and fully capable of restoring the girl’s lucky charm) and the detective is brilliant at finding him. But somewhere along the way, the protagonist realises that what she really needs to do is let go of her lucky charm. Her motivation changes and her new Plan B is to let go of the charm and create her own luck.

And it is the midpoint that kicks off this Plan B. In the “How” scenario, the midpoint could be an amateur mistake made by the detective – causing the protagonist to question his credentials and decide to go it alone. In the “What” scenario, the midpoint could be the detective tripping over his own shoelaces and falling into the tech haven of the nerd behind the magus illusion. In the “Why” scenario, the midpoint could be the culmination of lessons learned along the path of Act II, Part 1, teaching the protagonist that luck is earned and not gifted.

And so, to craft the midpoint, all you need to do is ask yourself, “What will tip the balance?”

Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and write your Midpoint