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Managing the size of your story

Guest post by Ian McHugh

When I set out to write a first novel (or, rather, to finish writing a novel for the first time, having started and abandoned several), I had been writing and selling short stories for a number of years and was conscious of the vast difference in breadth and complexity of storytelling from shorts to novels. Perhaps too conscious.

I wanted to write an Australian novel and, specifically, I wanted to set it in a magical, colonial-era alternate Australia that I’d been developing through some of my short stories. So, I started looking at historical events that I could fictionalise. This was a mistake. Why? Because real life is way more complex than fiction.

I had settled on an alternate history of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion, in Ballarat, Victoria in 1854, in large part because of the ready-made set of larger-than-life participants. The problem was that these events had far more players, major and minor, than I – as a first time novelist – could comfortably manage, far more that most writers who aren’t George R. R. Martin would ever create to populate a story that is entirely fiction. The result was that, even after massively cutting and consolidating real-world characters and their interweaving threads for my fictionalised story, I still ended up with a first draft that was 229,000 largely meandering words of a 100,000 word novel.

Which isn’t to say that you should never set out to write a historical novel or, as in my case, a fantasy novel that jumps off from real historical events.  Historical fiction and alternate history are both thriving genres and many writers deliver those stories very well. (Have you noticed how historical novels have a tendency to be big fat books, though? And yes, Mr Rutherfurd, we’re looking at you.) Rather, this was a bad decision for me.

So, what went wrong?

In a word: structure.

In more words: I didn’t have a strong enough structure, or even a strong enough understanding of narrative structure, to keep my story under control. I think it’s very easy to dismiss formalised ideas of narrative, like the 3-act structure (particularly as it tends to be implemented in Hollywood blockbusters) as formulaic. I think that’s a mistake. These formulas and archetypes of story exist because they work. They should be treated as tools, in the same way that the colour wheel is a tool for an artist trying to give balance to a painting, or it’s useful for a musician to know that particular chords or sequences of notes stimulate certain emotional responses.

I’ve written elsewhere about how movies (using the example of Star Wars) use this act structure formula effectively, but just because you’re building your story on a formalised skeleton doesn’t mean your story has to appear formulaic. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is an example that sticks in my head because it presents, for much of its length, as a rambling – albeit very entertaining – pretext for Gaiman to transport his characters around different parts of the American cultural milieu and make social commentary. It was only towards the end, after I suddenly realised that I had just read all of the archetypal dramatic highpoints that mark the close of a second act, that I looked back through the book and found that, yes, it fitted perfectly to a formal 3-act structure. And yet, if I hadn’t been acutely conscious of act structure at the time I read the book, I probably wouldn’t have realised that’s what I was reading.

And, of course, none of this is to say that you must slavishly adhere to the 3-act or any other kind of structure. Even if you use an act structure, there’s a fair degree of elasticity in its application. 3-act novels will often have acts that are closer to 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 of the story. A revenge story like The Count of Monte Christo or Die Hard might dispense with acts one and two within the first 50 pages or 15 minutes and then the rest of the story is just an extended third act – the planning and execution of the final battle. Most short stories skip part or all of act one, and often a chunk of act two. But the point is those decisions to mess with an archetypal structure work best when they’re conscious and the writer has tested them against the needs of their story.

If you plan to write a 100,000-word novel, then planning your story onto a formal structure can be a big help to getting there. For example, you might say, “I’m aiming for 100,000 words to finish this story, so that means if I use a 3-act structure I have about 25-30,000 words to establish my hero’s normal life and then completely trash it. In that 25-30,000 words, I need to establish my hero’s strengths and weaknesses, their wants and needs, what they have to lose and what will hurt them and put it all at risk. I might want to articulate the theme of my story somewhere in there and by about 10,000 words I need to have set my hero on the path to the end of their normality. Righty-o then.” And then you set about doing it.

Similarly, when you come to editing and re-drafting, if you’ve written your first draft and it’s not working, map it onto a 3-act (or 2-act or 5-act or some other) structure and see how well it fits. Put a word count on where you want the story to end and work back from there. In storytelling, ultimately, there’s no escape from having to rely on your own best judgement of what your story does and doesn’t need. But you can equip yourself with tools that make those judgement calls easier, and a formal narrative structure is one of those tools.

3 Thoughts on “Managing the size of your story

  1. Joanne M McCarron on March 25, 2014 at 9:20 am said:

    Hi Ian,

    I read your article with interest. Having completed my first novel A Harp of Truest Tone (working title The Convict because it is started as a historical fiction novel) within roughly two years, I think I was lucky to have attended the Imaginary Lives historical fiction and Year of the Novel workshops run by Craig Cormick for the ACT Writers Centre and thus able to avoid some of the problems you mention. I write screenplays as well (still learning but making progress) and I find archetype and act structures helpful.

    For A Harp of Truest Tone I used a method called the Snowflake Method which Craig suggested participants look at. It has a four Act structure and I think about a dozen steps along the way, if memory serves correctly, and I found following this (which essentially uses the method for planning your novel) really useful, even though I didn’t follow it completely because I find I can’t plan down to the nth degree I simply have to write to work out what I want and where the story is going or wants to go to a certain extent.

    I guess it depends on how you want to do something; I didn’t set out to write an Australian novel or one of a particular word length; I thought my novel would be around 60,000 words; with development and rewriting following assessment it ended up around 90,000 words. The reason it was an historical novel was simply because I found a picture of a convict in a newspaper article and thought his face was interesting and that it might for the basis of a story at some point (I was doing a writing course at the time so keeping my eye out for things of interest).

    As it turned out, the National Library held a lot of information about him (John Boyle O’Reilly) because he was a writer himself and ended up settling in America and becoming a well known citizen there. One thing I learned from Craig’s workshops was only to do as much research as you want to/need to for your story. So whenever I felt the biographical information was starting to get into my way I stopped reading and just wrote. The biographical information and convict history was very helpful in that it gave me events which had dramatic impact and were helpful in developing the plot. The poetry was very beautiful and pertinent and helped with the theme. The fact descriptions of e.g. the west Australias in the 1860s were those as seen by Boyle O’Reilly himself was really useful in gaining a real feel for what it was like then.

    I don’t know if that helps you any in writing your novel or another novel but those are my experiences thus far. I had written a children’s fairytale prior to A Harp of Truest Tone which probably helped me in a sense though now, after having completed a 90,000 word novel, children’s novels (of around 25,000 words) seem so much easier. I’d like to write novellas actually, and short stories too, something I haven’t done very much of yet.

    Joanne

  2. Joanne M McCarron on March 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm said:

    Hi Ian,

    I did not mention probably the most important and helpful thing I have learned about writing a novel which came from the Year of the Novel workshop. I can’t explain the process very well without looking up my notes, but we each decided upon two words that most represented our novels to us – I kept mine in mind always and if I felt I was getting lost I would look at them again and remind myself of them and that kept me on track to complete the story that I wanted to write.

    Joanne

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