Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Putting down stakes

with 2 comments

So you’ve decided to outline your novel. What next? Chances are that you’ll want to build it around some kind of narrative structure. A shapeless succession of scenes in which no visible progress is made will rarely result in a satisfying book. (Even shapelessness itself, when pursued as a conscious narrative strategy, has its own kind of structure and logic.) All novels begin in one place and end up somewhere else, if only because we have no choice but to experience them one page at a time. But what should it look like in the middle?

Fortunately, or not, a writer has a bewildering number of structural options at his or her disposal. There’s the plot pyramid, the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and even those slightly insane screenwriting manuals that put the central dramatic question on page 3, the inciting incident on page 10, and so on. All these methods have their merits—although I’m skeptical of that last one—and they’ve all served various writers well. Personally, I tend to favor the three-act structure, which is why even my short stories tend to fall naturally into three parts. But the structure you choose is far less important than the fact that you have a structure in the first place.

The reason for choosing and sticking with a structure, like most of my advice on writing, is less aesthetic than functional. As I said yesterday, you’re more likely to finish a novel if you have an outline, and your outline is more likely to be useful if it follows some kind of established pattern, at least at first. In the process of writing, of course, that structure is bound to be revised beyond all recognition. The transitions will be gradual, even invisible, but the overall shape will be there. More importantly, the story will flow naturally from the point of view of a reader experiencing it one sentence at a time. After all, we don’t experience a house by studying its blueprints; we move from room to room. But without a good plan, the house will often seem uncomfortable or crazy.

One of my heroes, the architect Christopher Alexander, describes the process of designing a house in ways that I think are relevant here. Instead of starting with a standard blueprint, he recommends going to the site and laying out a plan on the ground itself, using stakes and string. Then, as he writes in The Timeless Way of Building:

It is very likely—almost certain—that you will modify the building as you have so far conceived it. The stakes are so vivid that you will almost certainly begin to see all kinds of subtlety, which you could not imagine before, now that the stakes and rooms are actual, right out there on the ground.

Modify the position of the stakes, a foot here, a foot there, until they are as perfectly placed as you can imagine; and until the layout of the rooms seems just exactly right.

The outline of a novel is pretty much like those stakes in the ground. Are they a house? No. But they’re an indispensable first step. And while you could theoretically lay out a house any way you liked, in practice, certain patterns are going to be more useful than others. In his masterpiece, A Pattern Language, Alexander describes over a thousand different patterns for architects—some as large as a city, others as small as a window seat. Writers, too, have their patterns, which have slowly emerged from thousands of years of storytelling. And if you follow a pattern that makes sense for you, you’re more likely to build a novel that can stand by itself.

(It’s important to remember, by the way, that the plot pyramid, the hero’s journey, and most of the other plot structures I’ve mentioned here were originally descriptive, not prescriptive. When Aristotle wrote the Poetics, he wasn’t necessarily trying to teach anyone how to write: he was describing a structure that he had empirically observed by watching successful tragedies. Most of the novelists whose books we still read didn’t think consciously in terms of exposition, rising action, and climax: they wrote a story, revised it until it read well, and usually ended up with a structure that looked more or less like that of other successful novels. That said, now that these structures have been defined and quantified, it’s much easier to write a novel, especially the first time around, with these patterns showing the way.)

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2011 at 5:51 am

2 Responses

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  1. I don’t know if it’s just me…

    But does that outline have the makings of a comedy.

    “world navel”

    ????

    Glenfinial

    January 27, 2011 at 7:04 pm

  2. That’s “omphalos” to you!

    nevalalee

    January 27, 2011 at 7:24 pm


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