Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
A book (either fiction or nonfiction) with strong structure sustains a reader’s interest, but broken book structure confuses the reader, bores the reader, or causes the reader to toss the book across the room.
Recently I was looking over the table of contents for a project one of my clients was creating. It seemed really complex, and I was struggling to see why the ideas were strung together as they were. Then, in the middle of the manuscript, I saw a chapter in which the author shows that the problem being examined has roots in childhood. Ah-ha! That’s where the book needs to begin.
Nonfiction Broken Book Structure
Often the best structure, especially for a nonfiction book, is linear–start at the beginning and move forward. If you’re writing a personal story about a life-changing event, usually the best way to tell the story is from start to finish. Sometimes writers become caught up in wanting to structure their books with bells and whistles and special flourishes. But that can lead to gilding the lily. Just tell us the story well with a simple structure that has clean lines.
Fiction Broken Book Structure
Fiction, too, can be fraught with peril in where to begin. One of the most common problems with a novel is that it’s started in the wrong place–in material that is backstory. As I’ve pondered why writers make this mistake so regularly, I’ve concluded that the author is caught up in what makes the character respond to the story’s major conflict. The writer–incorrectly–thinks the reader will want to know that info right up front because it makes the protagonist sympathetic. But motivations should be woven in bit-by-bit, not handed to the reader by fistfuls at the outset. Draw us in through the conflict, not through motivations.
If your novel isn’t coming together as well as you had hoped, drop the first two chapters. Or even start in the middle of the novel rather than where you started it initially.
Magical things can happen when you jump into the middle of the action.
Just for fun
Can you guess what books these opening lines are from?
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.'”
If you recognize the book, why would this beginning make sense?
How to fix broken book structure. Click to tweet.
Have you structured your book for the reader–or for yourself? Click to tweet.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Dang! You mean that all the thoughts in my book must link together logically? Unlike the ones that flit randomly through my brain?
*Seriously, point well taken, Janet. I didn’t write my non-fiction chapters in order (although I started with chapters 1 & 2). Now I’m double-checking the links. I want the chain of thought to be logical without being predictable.
*I won’t spoil the fun and answer the questions so early in the morning. But I went to college on the eastern edge of Kansas. Those lonesome wheat fields are way out there!
Shirlee, thanks for not spoiling the fun for others reading the blog.
With nonfiction, generally if the writer thinks through the logical links between one aspect of the core concept to another aspect of it, the book will have a logical rhythm for the reader.
Once I entered a story in a contest and received feedback I started at the wrong place. The judge even pointed out where I should start. So I worked on my story and even began it at the new point and entered it in another contest. One of the new judges said I didn’t give enough information for the story to make sense. It seems like it’s a very fine line to get that sweet spot of a perfect beginning.
Thanks for sharing. I’ll remember your advice to start with conflict.
But I just love sweet prologues in fiction. They don’t always work, but there is just something about them that captures my heart each time. I love when you are given a treasure–a beginning glimpse of the MC as a child. But I love sweetness and softness and tenderness … thank goodness we all have different tastes. 🙂
Because, really, Scout’s eyes opened and she Took a step out of childhood perspective the night Boo saved them.
Beethoven opened the Fifth with conflict; Grofe began the Grand Canyon Suite with a slow sunrise.
Ahhh, To Kill a Mockingbird. That line sucked me in if only because I broke my elbow, too. Took me about three books to learn to jump into the action and you’re right, it IS more fun!
I am in he throes of what I am calling my “summer rewrite.” I am trying to rearrange chapters to start at a different point – and boy, it is tough!
BTW – my favorite opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Just the idea of Mrs. Danvers gives me chills -I think I would rather face Dolores Umbridge!
This is an issue that has really perplexed me. I do start my story with action and it is where the story starts and sets up the mc’s drive, desire and purpose. Then I fast forward 3 years where the story of the conclusion to that starts. I have had an editor look over it and agrees with my start. She also agreed that it could be a dreaded prologue and that my story just might need one. If that’s the case my true chapter one starts about 2 pages before some action and that is (by then) standard action and plot significant dialogue happens after.
My current resolution to this is just to label my prologue as chapter one and let it be debated if and when I snag an agent.
OT. I would like to answer a couple of questions some have put to me in previous comments. Why here? I’m not sure comments are really read after the first day.
Carol: Yes, I am in the UK. This is why I am often early to comment (what time do they get posted, I dread to think!) and then don’t respond. I don’t read most comments till the next day!
Andrew: Faran has a peculiar genesis. Nicholas is simple it was my, very dear, grandmothers maiden name. She died last summer at the grand age of 97. Faran was a name of one of my mc’s until I changed their gender. I liked the name and was fond of the character. Then I had the inspiration to use it for my pen name. I thought it was one of my Welsh routed names, but when I checked I had ‘altered’ it from the original Faron, which means descendant of Farachan in gaelic. Related to hammer. I also chose it because it sounded right and the Web page was actually available!
Chris, I usually go back the next day if I ask a question. Questions that are only rhetorical are not my style, or are they?
*I’m usually still up writing when the new post for B&S appears between 1 and 2 a.m. US Mountain Time. I check for it before I log off for the night. I’m online again by 8:30 the next morning, so I often see your comments “live.”
*I’d take an editor’s comments very seriously; contest judges, not so much. I get 40-point variations in contest scores, ranging from very high to a D. What one says is wonderful, another says is a horrible weakness. Since I could have volunteered to be a judge even with no published fiction credentials (scary thought for what I might have advised!), I’m not sure how knowledgeable some judges are. Many seem to parrot the same comments about using all show and no tell, never more than 2 POVs, etc., that are broken all the time by many multi-published authors who write books that I can’t stand to put down once I start reading. Maybe that is what editors want at the moment, but is that a passing fad that will limit whether people want to continue reading them for years like they do the older style? (Semi-rhetorical question there-maybe they are my style.) Many seem to think past progressive and present progressive tenses of active-voice verbs are passive voice. Still, as long as I filter what is said, I’ve found great value in some of the comments of every judge so far. I’m really am glad people take the time to try to help me get better.
This has been a tough one for me to learn, Janet. I love backstory. But I want to satisfy editors and readers. As I write more, I’m learning to appreciate a story that starts with a bang (sometimes literally!).
Not a fan of starting with conflict, because for the reader, and perhaps for writer as well, one winds up with the shibboleth of conflict shaping character.
* Reality is, character defines conflict.
Maybe bit cryptic.
* When meeting a character in conflict, we are not tabula rasa; we bring memory of fictional and real conflict-handling, and thereby create pigeonholes. Once thus profiled it’s hard for a character to escape, because subsequent information going against the stereotype we apply is either treated as suspect or discarded.
* Conflict at the beginning is sort of like Auto-Complete on your Smart Phone. Sometimes right, but when it’s wrong it can be incoherent.
Incoherent, or perhaps worse lazy.
* How many of you get text messages from your spouse that largely consist of canned and repetitive phrases, where once their missives were unique and special?
* Sorry for the comment triptych here. Had a bad fall, and lucidity is flickering.
You are in our hearts and prayers.
*Your missives, Andrew, are never canned and repetitive. They are always unique. I don’t have to read your name to know it’s you.
Andrew, but tension of some sort is generally what draws us into the story. If the beginning is too languid, what causes the reader to continue? Maybe beauty of language would do that for some, but not for most readers.
Building believable characters comes first, I think. A small amount of tension, sure, but only enough to illuminate, not define-through-action.
Case in point…learn more about a sniper by watching him change a particularly horrid diaper than going along while he engages multiple targets in a situation that’s rapidly going south. And if you will be spending 300 pages with the chap, don’t you want to really know his heart?
Isn’t the village quote the first line of In Cold Blood? It works because of ‘lonesome’ and ‘out there.’ Sets you up.
Davalynn, In Cold Blood it is. And, yes, those words are like a specter hovering over the entire book.
Wendy L Macdonald
Janet, I’ve structured my inspirational, recovery memoir with the reader in mind. Having completed a few novel manuscripts first has helped me see that starting with backstory would have been a big, big bore. I’m starting smack dab in the middle of my messy life when I met a tall, dark, and handsome stranger who managed to capture my attention, and my extra piece of chicken, while I was at a barbecue. I adore romance stories as well as memoir–so I hope this works for my beta readers when it comes time to reveal it to them. I’ve chosen to weave backstory in where it was appropriate. I’m going to invite my first readers to make me bleed. If a writer is going to bare her soul, she must make sure it’s done as tastefully as possible (hence the barbecue beginning). Then I will probably change my name and move to another country. Oops–nope–first I’ll have to stick around and promote it as I hop on buses to make personal appearances all over the continent–dream on–except I’ll need the bus to make my great escape. 🙂 Thanks again for telling us what we need to know.
Blessings ~ Wendy Mac (for now)
Wendy, there’s nothing like writing a few novels before leaping into one’s memoir. Fiction writing teaches us so much about how to tell a tasty story.
And I’d say have multiple uses for that bus is the model of efficiency.
Ooh, yes, love both those openings. For Scout, the night Jeb broke his arm was the night she was no longer a child. And for Holcomb, the very remoteness of the crime scene added to the creepiness of the story, IMHO.
I try to follow Angie Hunt’s maxim to start with something “interesting” that gives a glimpse into the normal world, before things are changed. I try, I said. In my current WIP, I’ve really struggled to find the right place to open. I changed it several times, lopped off the first two chapters, then put them back. Finally wrote a new chapter one, and chapters one and two became two and three. I *think* it’s working. 😉
I really like that Hunt maxim, Carrie! That’s very different from saying jump right into the action. Thanks for sharing it.
You’re very welcome! I hope it works for you!
Carrie, that’s a great analysis of why those two openings were so fitting for each book.
I like Angela Hunt’s suggestion of finding something “interesting” in the character’s normal world, but of course, it’s tough to know what might interest the reader. Plus conflict or tension of some sort needs to arise quickly or the reader won’t feel engaged. It’s a tricky dance step to figure out for every new manuscript.
Exactly! It’s a waltz but the music is for a tango. So hard. But so rewarding when you finally find it!
Hello, this is my first time ever asking a writing question to actual writers. I am already emotionally exhausted. It’s been eight years since my mom passed away. I begged during her last few years with us to writer her story. I mean I bought her countless notebooks and yellow legal pads, I bought a tape recorder and showed her how to use it. I practiced with her, cajoled her into a two minute conversation which broke my heart because I could never find that tape. I’ve been writing about her since my last few visits with her when ovarian cancer was finally winning after a 25 year battle with breast cancer. She was a child of WWII who miraculously survived genocide when five members were killed in one day. Her mom took her six daughters into the forest when Nazi’s arrived in their village and they starved until Stana decided it would be better to be swiftly killed together than to watch her children die of starvation one at time. But a German officer spared them, hiding them in a cellar until they cleared out. Mom’s life was built on grief and miracles. She taught me so much about life through her pain and through her joy. I have about 23,000 words (unedited) so far, and have always wanted to share her story of defiant survival, sacrificial love for family, and her transformed life after her reaching her 50’s. What I would love advice on this; I imagine sharing her story through short chapters on how she valued life and the lessons she taught all of us. Would that still be a memoir? I explain her childhood first because it’s foundational to who she became and what drove her, but then I really want to share stories of growing up with her that are based on her character and her life lessons. I think of this as a story to offer hope and laughter while walking through the valleys in life. Is this too confusing for a memoir? And I’m also hoping to keep it a smaller book, a short book to encourage people through her story of triumph. Please help me! I’m determined to share her, it’s impossible to imagine that no one else will benefit from knowing her.
This post is brilliant! I loved reading “Draw us through the conflict, not through motivations!” It reminds me of the adage, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” I believe not laying one’s cards on the table at once keeps a reader engaged. Thank you for this post.