“Authors tend to think that structure is something that just happens, but it’s not. Julien and I wrote Trust Agents with the perspective that we’d write six main chapters with one point in each chapter, and that we’d bookend that all with an intro chapter and a wrap-up chapter. That didn’t ‘just happen.’ … Without structure, we throw the kitchen sink into our writing. I was once writing a science-fiction story that mixed angels, demons, sci-fi elements, and all kinds of other ideas in a blender. It wasn’t half bad, but it wasn’t half good, either. The problem, from MY side of the writing, was that I was just throwing everything into it and making ‘sausage’ out of the ideas. Make structure your friend, and keep ‘simplicity’ right close by, too.”
—Chris Brogan, CEO, Human Business Works
What is the shape of your book?
Last time we discussed genre, and you thought about where your book might fit.
This time I want to explore more about your book’s basic shape.
Your book needs to be shaped. Of course, much of the book’s shape can arise organically, but you also don’t want to go into the book writing process with no destination, no structure in mind.
At the most basic level, fiction and nonfiction have different “shapes” or structures. (Memoir is often a combination of both shapes, or tends to lean toward the narrative shape.)
A novel’s shape unfolds over time, or chronologically.
In this video, Kurt Vonnegut explains the five basic elements of a story’s shape:
1. A protagonist (the main character or characters)
2. A “Before” for your protagonist: What’s happening before the story starts
3. The “After” for your protagonist: When the novel starts, when change starts for your main character and a “problem” or conflict is introduced
4. Something the character wants and something getting in the way
5. A resolution
In nonfiction there is more variety in structures. I’ll use the four basic shapes identified by Author Accelerator’s Jennie Nash.
1. Chronological: “This way of writing a book tells one story, from beginning to end, in a roughly chronological narrative format. I say roughly, because chronologies can be fractured, or presented out of order, but those are stylistic choices.” (examples: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer)
2. Collective: This way of writing a book involves a series of related narratives, woven together. They could all be written by the same author, or many authors, or a variety of voices from the same author.
3. Conceptual Design: The author wants to teach something, make an argument, or convey a message. The topic of the book determines the organization. (Examples: What To Expect When You’re Expecting, the Four-Hour Work Week, Quiet by Susan Cain, Freakonomics)
4. Hybrid: combines elements of different shapes.
We’re going to gently guide you into structuring your book, even developing a table of contents!
These are just the first steps.
For today, based on these simple book shapes, write for 15-30 minutes about these three questions:
1. What is the beginning of your book about? (How do you introduce the problem the character is facing, the concept you are explaining or teaching or, or the argument you are making?)
2. What is the middle of your book about?
3. What is the end of your book about? (How does the main character change, or what is the ending section of your book?)