Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

Notes on structure

All art forms have a structure. Basic rules apply. A novel’s just two or three hundred pages covered with words unless it has a shape, a form. It can be full of characters and events, and people changing their minds (and so their fortunes) but without a structure it has nothing. Structure is different from plot and from theme, but is master of them both. It is the way you weave all the strands of your novel together to bring them to a satisfactory knot at the end. You don’t have to feel oppressed: there are no right or wrong ways, there are no fixed rules, it’s just that the audience, your reader, needs to feel you know what you’re doing: if they lose faith in you they will close the book. Equally your novel cannot be full of spelling mistakes or obvious errors: the reader has to trust you.

A novel is like a house: it can be built in all kinds of fashions and styles, but it has to have a roof to keep the rain out and windows to look out of. If the reader fears the roof is going to fall down she’s going to get out of there as soon as possible. You’ve taken her money on false pretences. It may be a his, of course, not a her, but not so likely. There are twice as many women novel readers as there are men, and four out of five novel writers are women.

If you writing within a genre, the rules of structure are tighter. You have to acknowledge them before you break them, in the same way a painter needs to know how to paint before he starts on abstraction. If you fail to solve a mystery in a detective story, it is only courteous to tell your reader near the beginning that there no solution; if you are to make your romance end as tragedy, explain to the reader that this love affair is never going to work: if you are writing traditional sci-fi apologise for bringing in human emotion.

Look up structure/novel writing on Google and a wealth of information is open to you. There are all kinds of interesting sites, offering advice. Take your pick.

One writer describes the novels he writes as ‘three disasters plus an ending.’ Well, that’s simple.

Someone else offers the suspension bridge image. Two pillars and a rope in between.

At the first pillar you introduce your characters and their situation: one fifth of the way along you reverse the situation, two fifths the journey to a different destination begins – and so on. But you begin at the beginning and go on to the end: a simple ‘and then, and then, and then’ progression, providing a series of crises, bumps and humps along the way. This is the system favoured by writers of serials: Dickens, Thackeray, who start with their protagonists as children and then chart their adventures. If you are writing in a serial which is published as you go along, there is little alternative. You can’t change your mind about anything. These writers use fiction to make their point – Dickens, the vitality of the working classes and the respect due to them: Thackeray – the vulnerability of the male to the ploys and foibles of the female.

The contemporary writer plays about with the time line, tending to use any variation of the basic three-act structure. Act 1, Beginning – character and situation; Act 2, Middle – diversions along the way; and Act 3, End – climax and denouement. You can start your novel at any point, but must bring in the Act 1 material as soon as possible, and in Act 2, some foreshadowing from Act 3.

In a novel the beginning must be included in the end, the end in the beginning. That at least is fairly basic. Conceive your novel as a whole: not in detail but understand where you are driving. A novel, certainly one which has any ambition, needs to do a little more than just serve the genre; it needs to have a purpose as well as a plot. It may be useful to look at these websites and see what it is you’re doing, less useful to use them as a guide to writing your novel.

Or there’s ‘Write your novel in 30 days’, which seems too like hard work and also attracts virus warnings on your computer, so I imagine is rather popular.

I rather favour the article method. You see your novel as a fictionalised article. You tell the reader what you’re going to do (Act 1), do it (Act 11) and then tell them you’ve done it. You choose your characters and their conflicts to prove your point, But I see the novel as an act of persuasion, bringing the reader round to my point of view, but not every author would agree with me.

I started out by novelising my own TV dramas, setting clearly delineated scenes, starting the action mid scene, using the actors to flesh out the characters, moving the action on in every scene as I did on TV, and getting out and on fast, never letting anyone say hello or goodbye. I trained as an economist, never studied literature; ‘creative writing’ had not been invented. I had only first principles to work with. I could see the limitations of what I was doing and how I was doing it and branched out as the novel allows one to more easily than TV, into experiments with structure, time, form and theme, and have continued to do so.

Different stories require different structures: in some novels I am an omniscient narrator, in some an unreliable one. Some, which require little refection and more action, I write in the present tense and first person, some in the past tense and third person. Occasionally I write metafiction, a kind of ironic alienation device in which one draws attention to the fact that what is being read is only fiction. Over a lifetime of doing it I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no rules, only what you can get away with. But the most important factor of all remains the reader – you’re in the business of communication, not self-indulgence.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This