Many of us learned about structure in school -- topic sentences, inverted pyramids, and the like. Most of these are aimed at clarity more than persuasion or keeping the reader interested (which is why school themes are usually dull and why most people learn to hate writing).
In fact, nonfiction structure, when done well, can go beyond clarity to create interest, action, and enjoyment. For speeches, in particular, the writer may use literary techniques. Nancy Duarte provide a wonderful analysis of speech structure in her TED talk.
I often begin with structure when I write nonfiction. With fiction, however, I tend to be a pantser. I allow myself to meander and explore, and I put off structure until I get to rewriting. I'll provide some insights on the rewriting process in a later blog entry, but here I'll share five ways that I look at my draft to improve its structure:
- Story logic - My best ally on doing this is screenwriter Jeff Kitchen, who has provided a method of using logic to analyze scenes in terms of cause-and-effect. He works backward from the ending to the beginning. When you do this with your novel, the scenes that are part of the main plot stand out vividly.
- Stakes - The stakes should rise throughout the piece. Do they? Listing them and ranking them according to jeopardy opportunity can expose structural weaknesses.
- Story turns - The ends of Acts, the Black Moment, etc. Do they happen at the right times in the story? Are they irreversible? Screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff provides a series of articles that spell out what is needed.
- Scene beats - Beats within a scene turn the conversation or action in a new direction. In drama, you look for 3-5 beats in a scene, and that's not a bad rule for novels.
- White space - Often, just looking at the pages tells me if there is too much narration or too much dialogue crammed into a set of pages. What's "right" varies by story, but it is always worthwhile to make this part of the analysis of story structure.