How to structure your story

embrace the germs

Whilst making my annual jaunt to the London Book Fair this year, I met a writer who told me that once he has started a project, new ideas become completely unwelcome to him. In fact, to try and stop new thoughts interrupting his flow, he would completely shut himself away, creating a tunnel vision effect that allowed him to reach the finish line without distraction.

Although I get the sentiment, this is in many ways the opposite of how I’ve come to work, and this is what I love about writing. Over the years, I’ve paid keen interest towards different people’s writing styles and methods – some of which are entertaining, others seem downright crazy. After all I’ve heard and observed, only one thing is clear: there is no set formula for success. Instead, we each need to find our own way, which is a daunting yet deeply rewarding task.

For some writers, the idea that there is no formula will be music to their ears. “Yes,” they’ll cry, with a mini fist-pump. “I can do no wrong!” Although this is partially true, there are still some golden pieces of advice that offer at least some form of guidance – like this tip I learned from bestselling author Peter James.

“I believe there’s a holy trinity of things that are important to a story: character, research and plot – in that order.”

When I heard Peter say this at the Author HQ stand, he had verbalised what I’d always felt – that nobody will care about your story unless they first care about your characters, that no reader will finish your story if they don’t believe you know what you’re talking about, and that nobody will enjoy your story unless it makes sense and displays some form of logical journey.

These are very loose points, but the fact is you only need to follow these guidelines to write something an audience will love. This is not to say that writing is easy. Believe me – it’s never easy, but isn’t it encouraging to know that, contrary to popular belief, we have so much freedom when we write?

As a writer, I believe in principles, not rules. As a publisher, I love reading work that challenges what we believe we know about story and structure – but those who have mastered their craft all seem to understand how important it is to outline their work before they start.

Peter James, for example, spends up to two weeks getting the opening chapter right, and he always knows the end of the book before he proceeds. The rest, he researches as he goes – a devout tradition that has seen him lock himself in a coffin and ride along on various police raids, for example.

I personally like to outline every chapter/scene of my book/script before I write it for real, but even though this style is very different from Peter’s, they both acknowledge the importance of structure.

I’ll say it again – writing is about principles, not rules.

My main piece of advice though, is very contrary to the writer I met at the book fair. Yes, when I’m “in the zone” I do close myself off from the world, but when you’re not in the act of writing, you should get outside; be around people and nature; live. When doing so, absorb everything around you. 99% of what you see, feel and hear will be like white noise, irrelevant to the cause, but as writing is essentially problem solving, you’ll find that innovative solutions will present themselves far more easily than if you were sat staring at a blank screen. Magically, from all of the activity that unfolds around you, you’ll find the 1% of information that will help your story; that germ of an idea that will grow into the memorable moments your readers will hold most dear.

Embrace the germs, and your writing will flourish.

For anyone seeking creative writing courses, I’ll be running three classes in Devon on 15th July and it would be great to see you there!

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