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

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