James Scott Bell is a fiction writer, an author of outstanding books on writing (including one of my favorites, The Art of War for Writers), and an excellent teacher. I attended a seminar of his at the San Diego State University Writers Conference last year. Below is a reprise of what Bell said about how to structure a novel. He made the point that these guidelines hold true for all dramatic writing, whether genre or literary. His examples are taken from the movies, which he explained as perfect for observing structure in action, and totally transferable to dramatic writing.
Bell calls his structure system LOCK.
L is the Lead Character. Readers get into a novel by bonding with the character. You want to open with a Boom! Pull readers in right away. The lead character in trouble works well. This will immediately interest readers and get them rooting for the character.
1. trouble for the character/imminent jeopardy
2. hardship, not of the character's own making, and the character doesn't whine about it. Example: Forrest Gump
3. inner conflict—two voices in the character's head: a) "you have to do this," and b) fear (usually)
4. vulnerability: at any point this character could be smashed by forces arraigned against her
5. no wimps: can start out there, but must see change very quickly
You are shooting for your character to display inner strength and likability.
Likability often comes from a character who cares about others. Bell suggests a technique for incorporating this characteristic. It is called the pet the dog or save the cat beat. (He spoke in terms of 'beats,' as in music.) This is where the character takes a moment to protect someone else while they are themselves in great jeopardy.
For example, Harrison Ford in The Fugitive: the moment when Tommy Lee Jones (U.S. Marshall)' hunt for him is closing in. HF (aka Dr. Richard Kimball) has figured out part of the truth about who murdered his wife and framed him for the crime, and is in Cook County Hospital in Chicago tracking down the proof he needs, with the U.S. Marshalls hot on his trail, when he sees an injured boy on a gurney in the overcrowded, understaffed hospital. He risks blowing his cover and getting caught by taking an interest in the boy, talking to him and realizing (because he's a great doctor), that this boy will die without immediate surgery. As HF forges a doctor's signature on an order for surgery and wheels the gurney to the surgical suite, the Feds are bursting through the front doors of the hospital in pursuit of him. We LOVE this lead character, who demonstrates his humanity in a moment of personal peril. His act of kindness can get him in more trouble. It raises the stakes and his likabilty.
O is Objective: the main goal of the character for the novel. It has to be about impending death. This can be:
1. physical death
2. professional death—if the character fails, their professional life will either be over or severely damaged. (For example, Clarisse Starling in Silence of the Lambs.)
3. psychological death—this is the key to category romance, for example. If the one great love is lost, that's death.
The Objective can take two forms: to get something, or to get away from something. The stakes are death. You must make the stakes matter to the character that much. These things have to be thought through before you start writing.
C is Confrontation: the opposition character. The opposition must be stronger than the lead character. The opposition character doesn't have to be a villain. It can be someone with the opposite agenda (e.g. U.S. Marshall Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive). But you need to explain the opposition character's justification, so the reader feels some sympathy. Fully justify who they are, be able to crawl into their skin, and ask yourself, why do I love this character?
K is Knockout Ending: the reader thinks, this is the perfect ending, but I didn't see it coming.
Endings are the hardest things to write because each is unique to the story.
Think of the climax as the final battle: inside and outside. Inner conflict. Example: Casablanca—the final battle is inside Rick. He can have Ilsa, but at a moral cost. He makes the moral choice and loses Ilso, but his reward is he becomes a full person again and rejoins the war effort.
As writers, we all know that guidelines are only guidelines. Great writers break rules all the time, and the rules presented here by James Scott Bell are beautifully effective but malleable, based on your personal approach. Some outstanding books, for example, open with elegant descriptive passages of settings. Nonetheless, it is still important that they get to the importance of that setting to the character soon.
Do you write to a structure, or does the structure of your novel unfold as you write? If the latter, do you go back and make sure it is consistent with guidelines?