Don McQuinn and I have indulged several conversations on techniques of fiction. Lately we’ve switched from the Celtic Swell to a couple of Greek hangouts. So our notes and scribbles are typically illuminated with coffee stains and ketchup.
Lately, we’ve been musing on — or been bemused by — questions of structure. Here’s a first conversation on structure in genre fiction.
ANNIE: If we’re going to talk about structure, I have to say first that I believe in the three-part act.
(draws Aristotelian slope)
DON: It’s worked for 3000 years. I think we should stay with it.
ANNIE: But it isn’t a smooth slope. It looks more like this.
(draws jagged rise)
DON: Yes, people need to see it that way. Raise tension, resolve it a bit, drive more tension.
ANNIE: We can have another discussion later about beat sheets and the old guidelines romance publishers used to give writers. But even when good writers experiment, in the end you typically find the three-part structure.
DON: In genre fiction, if you don’t deliver based on the expected structure, how long will your audience stay with you? 30 pages? 50 pages?
ANNIE: For me? 10 pages. But we’re talking about U.S. genre fiction, right?
DON: Don Maas is right: tension is essential. You need physical or sexual tension between your #1 and #2 characters … else it has to come from somewhere else and flow through the story.
ANNIE: Further, you have to make sure there’s relief from tension after each rise.
DON: Exactly. You have to give readers relief.
ANNIE: But the results or reaction from the character’s last response to resolving tension has to create the next tension.
DON (laughing): Now you’re talking character again. We’re talking genre. There’s no character development in genre.
[Annie searches for an emoticon to clearly indicates IRONY HERE. How about this one: ;-} ]
ANNIE: Also, the character’s response to the tension/release has to make sense to the reader. It can be outlandish, but it must be believable in a human sense.
DON: Right — Characters needs to be larger than life to carry off some kinds of actions, but the activity has to be rational—you have to show that the character is overcoming typical human limitations in a way that the reader can understand.
ANNIE: In the long novel I’m working on right now, I’m taking great care that the supporting characters don’t overshadow the main character’s tension and goal, even though each has his own tensions and goals.
DON: Anything other characters do must reflect on the goal of the protagonist.
Else it diverts the character’s progress. It can’t be in there just because it’s nice.
ANNIE: This is heresy (which I specialize in), but the original Sherlock Holmes doesn’t appeal to me. A merely cerebral reaction, from an opaque character, just isn’t interesting to me—however intriguing his puzzles are. And his POV witness—Watson—is equally uninteresting, since his principal emotion is amazement. That’s why I like the new Sherlocks on the telly—beyond cerebral activities, you see emotionally reflexive interaction with Watson, and both Watson and Sherlock evolve as characters through these stories.
DON: Ah. But they are just named “Sherlock” as a hook. And I hope the Sherlockians don’t come after you for not being a fan of the original.
ANNIE: I’ll keep my head tucked down. After this conversation*, I have to go double-check that all my supporting characters are driving toward my protagonist’s goal, and not just cosplaying medieval dilettantes on an elaborate stage.
* [where we discussed privately how I’m structuring Book 3 in the Accidental Heretics series]
Note — there are suggestions for tracking and evaluating rising tension in your fiction manuscript in Wringing a Novel from Word.