Structure and the Art of Untangling the Beast

One of the hard things about writing tall tales is tying to figure out how to spin the yarn, then weave it. Having shaved sheep and spun wool in the ol’ dim & distant, this should be an easy concept. It is, when you know what a sheep looks like and how it behaves, but can you say that about your story?

Making stuff up is easy. Making stuff up that is plausible, entertaining, emotionally engaging and a right rollicking good read, is not. It’s a complex, darkly twisting pit of elusive snarks, a writhing mass of heads, tails and middles just waiting to be untangled if you’ve got the nerve and the skill.

Somewhere in that confusion lies a path to sanity, delusion, freedom, doubt, joy, self-loathing – and the glee of knowing that what you’ve written is good, is worthy. But you’re not there yet. And at the beginning is where the path divides, the choice of which to follow is yours.

leunigOption One

Jump into the pit, grab a section of snark, find a pointy end, dip it in some ink and start writing by the seat of your

The downside? Wasting words, discovering you’re backed into a plot corner, losing the plot (literally) and losing your writing drive. And there’s no get-out clause when you hit the dreaded Writers’ Block.pants. Let the words flow, let it out – do what Michael Leunig once said. This is fun, anything can happen. It is even more fun when you switch stop thinking too hard, switch off the brain and let the words come in their own order (writing freestyle).

organised - puzzleOption Two

Engage the inner OCD-laden Big Chief Organiser with pathological need to know how the puzzle fits before unwrapping the box. We’re talking about planning, here. Planning with knobs on. And it feeds that rapacious, organisational beast like no List of Lists ever could.

Mind-mapping

Get those grey cells firing all over the place. Create your characters, learn their strengths and weaknesses; figure out how things work, how characters link and why – and get the background to hang the tale on. Try mind42.com, it’s free.

Beat sheets

These are used primarily for screenplays yet is equally valid for writing fiction. In a nutshell, it makes you break down ideas into scenes.

You can either be very simple:

  1. Hero walks into bar
  2. Anti-heroine talks to posse
  3. Bank job takes place
  4. Hero saves the day, but loses his freedom

Or more detailed:

  1. Whiskers Muldoon storms into The Frazzled Ferret in serious need of a drink. Barman Bob, studiously scrubbing the bar, mutters that Jo-Jo Plenty is planning a bank job – and it’s going down tonight. (dialogue, atmosphere, backstory WM & JJP)
  2. Jo-Jo Plenty, in a warehouse, briefs her crew of rabid, feminist, former admin assistants before they set off for the bank…
  3. …you get the idea.

It lets you figure out structure, the ‘weave’ of plots, whether you have the right action, conflict or contemplation in the right places for a good story.

The best Beat Sheet I’ve found is Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It’s a free download in Word, however the language is quite simple. So when you read it, also read this link to understand the language he uses.

For an in-depth read on Beat Sheets, how to use them and what they’re all about, Alfie, then read Storyfix – Beat Sheet 101 by the author Larry Brooks and here’s his template Storyfix – Beat Sheet template.

It’s actually quite good fun – and a terrific tool to get the tale organised before you’re written several thousand words in the wrong direction.

The downside: all this organisation can be a form of procrastination. So can blogging.

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