Linda Maye Adams

H is for House: Novel Structure for Pantsers


I’ve been taking a course called Structure Safari on novel structure.  The first thing I always think when I hear “structure” is a PowerPoint slide showing a house with a foundation, walls, and the roof.   Admittedly, though I’ve been writing for many years, I never really understood structure.  Craft books didn’t pay much attention to it, which made me feel like it was being dismissed as unimportant.  So it was easy for me to dismiss it, too.  But after seeing an indie story that lacked structure, I understood how screamingly important it is.  Without good structure, the story fails.

But.  Yeah, there was that old but.  The books discussing structure wrap it up in outlines, as if that’s the only way to get structure.  I’m a pantser.  I can’t outline.  So what is it — everyone writes differently, but if I’m a pantser, don’t bother trying?   That’s a different message that grates and chafes at me because it’s such an outright dismissal that process can be different.

There isn’t anything out there for writers like me.  So I’ve had to mine for bits and pieces I can use.

Things I’ve Learned

Structure will not happen for me in the first draft.  I figure out what the story is by writing the story.  It’s pretty much like throwing paint on the wall to see what sticks.  I think I could make sure scenes have conflict in them, but I won’t know enough about the story until I get there to introduce structure.

Revision is where structure comes in for me.   It doesn’t occur the moment I start revising, but it evolves into the story as I shuffle scenes to get a feel for where everything fits.  I think of the parts of structure as buckets I can see in my head:

  • Beginning
  • First half of the middle,
  • Second half of the middle
  • Ending

dis bucket not big enuff

I just need to know that each one has a high point in the story, and one lower high point.  Once I’ve identified the high points in the story, and I can fill in additional scenes or shuffle scenes to build on them.

QUESTION FOR YOU: Pantsers, what’s your experiences with structure?  When do you get it into the story?  What have been some of the challenges?

8 Comments

  1. I think that for me it works much the same way as for you. When I’ve written stories in the past I’ve automatically structured the chapters, but the overall structure can’t become apparent until I’ve finished (which I never really have)

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    • At least I’m not alone. The way outliners carry on, it’s easy to think it must be a unique experience!

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  2. Good post. I’m like you when it comes to understanding structure. I’m still learning about that. But some of it must come naturally because my crit partners haven’t dingged me on it much.

    I’m a noncommital hybrid plotter. I make plot notes that sketch out the major scenes and general flow of the story, but I don’t technically outline. When it comes time to write, I save a second document with the identical notes, then start typing.

    I write, letting the notes ride the document ahead of my typing. As I complete each scene, I delete that part of the notes. I also decide my chapter breaks as I go. If I’m unsure, I type [chapter break?], then do a doc search later, choose the best ones and number them. So far, this is working well for me. And, as a plus, if I get inspired to write a scene I haven’t reached yet, I can jump forward to it in the notes and type to my heart’s content.

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    • What kind of notes are you taking in the file?

      With chapter breaks, I’ve been changing how I do it. I originally didn’t really know where to put them, so it was one scene one chapter. But there was an except post over at Forward Motion on chapter length and tension that was very helpful. Since then, I’ve been combining scenes in chapters for the tension.

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  3. Huh! Structure fructure…reading your post is interesting because that’s also how I write but someone told me you can’t write a novel that way and I believed them…duh…so glad you expressed what I do. Maybe one day I’ll get the drive back to finish the novel. Perhaps after the move.?

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    • Other pantsers are Tess Gerritsen and Lee Child. So there are definitely people who are writing novels like that.

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  4. I think us pantsers are all over the place in how we build the novel. Regarding structure–it evolves naturally for me. I seem to have an internal compass that guides me. I agree with Stephen king. If you know your characters well, they take over and tell you where the plot will go.

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    • Unfortunately, I have other problems that sometimes get in the way!

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