Structuring My Novel: Influenced by the Experts

Saturday, January 19, 2013
This past week, Sue Bradford Edwards wrote a great post about why writers need to be readers, too. I've been thinking a lot about this lately anyway--actually wondering if what I read ever influences how I write or what I write. What I decided that I learn the most from other authors, and the thing I need the most help with myself, is structure. I find myself marveling at how some authors seem to structure their novels just right--to build suspense, to unveil layers of a character one peel at a time, or even to keep the reader guessing who is actually responsible for some crime or bad behavior in a novel. Even memoirs have different structures: some go in chronological order, while others start with the life-changing event and then explain how or why they got there.

After reading Holly Black's White Cat in her semi-new The Curse Workers series (YA), I realized my WIP, a YA novel, is structured all wrong. Holly's book is so engaging because the reader, and the narrator (Cassel) too, don't figure out until almost the end the truth about the main character's family and secrets. If Holly would have started off with revealing the secret to the reader, even if the main character didn't know, like I do in my YA "curse" book, then White Cat wouldn't have been as engaging or as page-turning. Sure, it would have probably still been good--it's an interesting story, and Holly is a good writer. But we care more about Cassel because of how Holly reveals him to us--readers discover him as he also discovers himself. Now I have to decide if I want to go back to the drawing board and re-write my YA novel once again. Thanks, Holly Black. (smiles)

The book I just read for my newspaper book review column, an adult historical fiction paranormal mystery (can you say that all in one breath?) is structured with a prologue! "WHAT? Someone wrote a prologue and got it published?" you say. YES! And the person is a very successful and well-revered author of both children's and adult fiction. The book I am talking about is The Greatcoat and the author is Helen Dunmore. The Greatcoat is set mostly in 1952 in Great Britain and deals with the effects of World War II on the war-torn country. But the prologue and some of the "paranormal" action is set in World War II--it's a very interesting way to structure a book.

In this case, I'm not sure if the prologue was needed, but I suppose Helen wanted readers to get a little insight into her paranormal figure before he started haunting our main character, who can't figure out what is going on. So back to my WIP--should I start with a prologue? Could I reveal a bit about my main character's family and the curse before I start in present time? It's something to consider from reading Helen's book, which I really enjoyed. Again, she didn't reveal the whole mystery until almost the end of the book--that's pretty common. If writers revealed everything at the beginning, then who would keep reading?

So, back to the drawing board, aka the revision process, for me--thanks to two books I've recently read and really enjoyed. How about you? Has a book influenced you so much that it made you either write something new or change the way you were already writing it? What was it about the book? The structure? The characters? The point of view? Let us know!

Margo Dill, author of middle-grade historical fiction novel Finding My Place, is teaching a children's and YA novel online writing workshop, starting on January 22. The class is for people beginning or in the middle of writing a novel for this age group. There will be critiques by Margo and classmates, discussions, and writing instruction. For more information, check out the WOW! classroom page. 



Anonymous said...

I read a lot of creative non-fiction for the same reason. Why does one person's memoir flow poignantly and another's veer into self-indulgence? How does one writer make me care about his progress rebuilding his truck and his heart while another's journey to Greece bores me? I study, even as I read for pleasure, hoping to glean a little. There's so much to learn!

Margo Dill said...

Julie, you make a great point about memoirs--that is so true. :) It is all in the writing and when we find someone who truly touches us, we should study WHY!

LuAnn Schindler said...

I always think about something author Shannon Butcher told me when I interviewed her for WOW!: If you're going to draw in readers, start with suspense.

Suspense isn't structure - but it's an important literary element that a lot of stories lack. It's a method of drawing in readers.

Margo, I'm wondering why you make a big deal about a book starting with a prologue. Of the 200 or more books I've read in the last year, about 15 of them begin with a prologue. Is there some sacred cardinal rule that says a prologue is a no-no? (Speaking of season cannot begin soon enough. :) )

Margo Dill said...

I know--there are a ton of published books that start with prologues. EVERY writing conference I go to--an agent or editor will say something like: We don't like prologues. Just start the story. . . but then, I see them all over, so someone likes them or doesn't mind them anyway. :)

Cardinal baseball--I'm ready. RIP Stan Musial.

LuAnn Schindler said...

Have you found books in certain genres use a prologue more than other genres? I think it's interesting when agents and/or editors say "No, don't use it" and then it works! Guess it depends on the story, too, and the starting point.

Good discussion!

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