May 20, 2010

Writing Novels - Formulas and Structures

Igor! I've created the formula to bring a dead narrative ALIVE!

Formula can be a dirty word in creative writing circles. Where's the burning passion and imagination? Will we create computer programs that write the story for us? Will all books become generic boring tales?

Every writer wants their work to be different. And it should be, to a degree. Storytelling is a human tradition and it evokes expectations from the audience (reader). Styles change as civilisation progresses. Children's stories were once more didactic with moral warnings like: 'be good or you will die and rot in hell'. Today we can introduce ethical problems into young people's stories, but it must be subtle. Why? Marketing. Kids have their own money and they get to decide what books to buy. 

Sometimes the structure of telling a story comes instinctively, but when we struggle we turn to structures as a guide.

I love writing workshops and I've been coming across many writers' workshops in audiobook form (from iTunes or Amazon). This week I've been studying under Michael Hauge in his workshop:

This audiobook is a recording of an actual workshop that took place over three days, it's about 3hrs and appears to be based on the book:
I don't write screenplays, but once I'd heard Hauge talk in the audiobook Hero's 2 Journey with Christopher Volger, I couldn't wait to hear more. I'm glad I did, everything that Hauge says about screenwriting can be applied to writing novels.

It's tempting with audiobooks to just listen to them while you do other things (driving, dishes, walking the dog...), but then you won't be getting the maximum benefit from the workshop. Have a pen and paper ready (or open a Word document) and record all of the key points that resonate with you and make notes about how this can apply to your novel.

There is too much covered in Michael Hauge's workshop to possibly cover it all here, but just a taste of what he includes is:

Whatever genre you write, your main objective with every narrative is to elicit emotion from the reader.

There are stages to creating a narrative and Hauge goes into more detail about how to address them:
  • Story Concept - premise sentence of your novel, 'a ______ who wants to _______' (you fill in the blanks). For more on premise visit my previous post: My Take on Premise. This structure of sentence is because your story needs a visible goal. Where do you get ideas? Headlines, fairytales, myths, your own life, science etc etc etc. Hauge also insists that you need about two dozen story ideas before trying to write one.
  • Characters - your story must posses a Hero with a visible physical goal (outer motivation) that has a clear end point (catch a killer, win a race, get a girl). The reader must be able to identify with the hero, you can do this by placing them in jeopardy, make them the victim of an undeserved misfortune or simply make them likeable/funny. There should also be a 2nd Primary Character (the Nemesis) who has an outer motivation that comes to crossroads with the hero's outer motivation. Other characters that help the narrative are the Reflector (sidekick or mentor) and the Romancer (love interest).
  • Plot structure - what happens and when. The right things happen at the right time to elicit maximum emotion. The plot structure will have an outer journey that affects the character's inner journey (self-discovery, emotional growth, etc). Hauge goes into minute detail about plot structure, including the exact moment when the story should change and progress. See the image further down to see the six stages of any plot.
  • Individual Scenes - Hauge provides practical advice for tackling the writing of scenes. There must be a scene where the Hero must risk everything to overcome the conflict, every story needs courage. Each scene must also show conflict (see my previous post: Get a Little Conflict in Your Scene).

Here is the link to the PDF file that you can print:

    Hauge tells you to choose a story idea with commercial potential. One aspect of this is to include familiarity and originality. That is to have some elements that readers have come to expect (structure?), but also find ways to surprise them.

    How do you feel about using a structure? Do you think it's the element that give a meandering tale form so the narrative can come to life? Or do you resist formulas? Lets hope they are used for good and not evil :-)


    1. Charmaine, this is wonderful! I just posted how I finished my character sketches and tomorrow I begin working on The Plot--this is so helpful!

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    2. Catherine, glad it could help. I love having a guide to work by :-)

    3. This is great stuff. I don't usually follow an outline... okay I've never outlined :)... but my ms kind of follows this pattern anyway. Thanks for the info :)

    4. I outline, but I don't really use a formula.
      And I love the LOL Cat photo!

    5. I'm huge on structure. In fact, all my works follow the three-act design. I find it works for me best. If I was left to my own devices, I'm not sure things would fit as cohesive as they should.

    6. Jemi - I think we know the structure even if we haven't studied it, because we've heard the structure in all the stories we've been told growing up. So you probably do follow this pattern without even thinking about it. :-)

      L. Diane - cat photos win them every time ;-)

      Jaydee - I think I like structure because I'm more naturally a follower, I need guidance :-)

    7. Structure can be important to keep the story on track. I just don't like being toooo structured because I like a bit of freedom to let the story tell me what it wants.

      Oh, and I gave you a sunshine award. You can pick it up on my blog.

      Many blessings,

    8. Like Diane, I use an outline but not necessarily a formula. This allows me to zig when an outline tells me I should zag. And I use cute little kitty cat pistures too. Just used one on my blog earlier this week.

      Have a great weekend.

      Stephen Tremp

    9. Love this post thanks for the great info! Gotta' go check out this AB now!
      My first draft usually end up being something more like a hodge-podge of scenes without much structure at all, but once I have it all poured out on paper I use some familiar formulas to revise. The initial "no structure" approach is important for me becuase that is where the originality come from...

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