The Plane That Words Built

I’ve always been a solid pantser. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s as in “flying by the seat of your.”

Note that the wings, like many of the words, come right out of the arse. (Image via — if anyone knows who’s to credit properly for this gem, do let me know.)

What this means in a writing sense is that if you get the idea to start writing about a bespectacled vampire with rabbit-phobia, you just sit down and start writing. If that bespectacled vampire develops a nervous tic in his right temple or decides he’d fancy being an astronaut, it comes right out on the page. There were times when I could look ahead a bit, but I mostly just let my characters do what they wanted to do. As I mentioned last week, I wrote two and a half full novels that way (each at 100,000-120,000 words).

As I dug into the revision process, however, I realized that there was an Everest worth of work to be done there. While I have some ability to intuit structure and what ought to happen where in a novel, my allowing my characters to drive while I sat back and sipped a green tea frappucino resulted in them being awfully lazy sometimes. They’d hang around and chat over tea, or have two page long conversations about Montana foliage, or scamper off the main plot, and I’d have to bust out the lasso to get them back. Even then it sometimes felt like wrangling pixies.

And I was about as successful as Kenneth Branaugh with a plastic wand. Image via

So what changed?

I got so frustrated trying to smush my first two novels into some semblance of salability that I needed to put them aside and refresh my brain a little. I started working on my current project, which I am very excited about. The biggest thing that changed was that I received a gift that enabled me to purchase three books that have quite honestly revolutionized the way I write, and I wanted to share that change with you. I have a sneaking feeling that among my subscribers there are some fellow pantsers who struggle with writing draft after draft, and I wish someone had plunked me down and told me about this years ago.

Here’s the magical bit of information that I have folded into my heart somewhere over by the left ventricle:

There is a set, accepted structure for novels that is precise, learnable, and fatal to ignore.

Essentially, this structure tells you what to write and when.

Does that sound formulaic? Here’s my argument for why it’s not.

Structure helps curtail the things that derail efficient storytelling .

I can think of several examples immediately that illustrate this. Human bodies, buildings, sunsets, airplanes — all of these things have very specific components that must be in place for them to work properly. Each human body has most of the same general parts. Heart, lungs, spleen, liver, kidneys, skin, hair, teeth, tongue, esophagus, feet, stomach, spine — and much more. These things all have to be in a rather exact spot in order to function, but I don’t think any human on earth would argue that every human is the same and formulaic.

While that’s a nice little example, since we’re not discussing theology and who took the artistic license with our DNA, let’s talk about airplanes.

An airplane — a good one — transports human beings and cargo from one point to another point hundreds of miles away (unless you’re taking the world’s shortest airplane flight in the Orkney Islands, but I’m going to assume you’re not). In order for those human beings to get from point A to B, that plane needs its wings, engines, fuselage, pressure system, steering mechanisms, propulsion, and every other tiny detail to be in absolute working order.

The closest I’ve ever felt to death was on a flight from Denver to Missoula. A loud noise rocked the plane, which then began to vibrate and shake violently, dipping and jerking far beyond the rattles of average turbulence. When we saw the flight attendant’s face drawn and pale as she emerged from the cabin, everyone began to freak out an eentsy bit. One of the engines had blown out midflight. Our lovely pilot managed to turn us around, and we made an emergency landing back in Denver among a slew of fire trucks and ambulances that we thankfully didn’t end up having use for.

For the sake of this illustration, let’s pretend the engineer who designed the plane thought the blueprints and accepted plane structure were too formulaic and that they stifled her creativity. Let’s pretend that she decided to widen the fuselage to make room for more passengers without increasing the wingspan or the length proportionately or with regard to the force of propulsion. Maybe she thought the front of the plane was too rounded and should be more blocky. After all, the Honda Cube got made.

Her plane, if it even got off the ground, would not fly well. In fact, it might just plummet to the ground with all the souls onboard. Novels work in a similar fashion. Ignoring story structure will send a novel crashing to the ground if it even achieves liftoff. Most often, disregarding structure will make it dead in the water. Structure is what allows you to take your readers from Glasgow to New York without a layover in Albuquerque.

Ignore it at your own peril.

Structure does not circumvent creativity.

I can almost guarantee that every film and every published novel includes certain elements of structure. It might look a little different depending on the genre, but if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find it. Is every movie the same? No. Is every novel the same? No.

What I’ve heard from agents and authors alike is that ignoring structure, poorly executing structure, or a lack of understanding of structure is what earns the vast majority of manuscripts or screenplays that single sheet of paper with NO scrawled on it in crayon.

Oh, wait. They’re typing those now.

Your inciting incident doesn’t happen until 43% of the way through the novel? Nope. Your midpoint is three characters having tea and discussing the weather? Nope. There are no stakes? (*Bites fist.*) Nope. Your entire first three chapters are backstory? Nope, nope, nope.

None of that means you can’t be creative with your story — it just means that you can’t create your own structure if you expect to sell your work. I thought that would be a harsh truth to hear, but when I read it in Story Engineering, it was instead strangely liberating.

Much like a human body, you can have infinite variations that include the necessary elements. Some might be missing (it happens), but if you’re born without lungs, it makes it mighty hard to breathe.

I’ve been thinking about my little pile of rejections from this spring, and in hindsight I’ve realized that the first fifty pages of my manuscript were structurally flawed. My opening included what looked like an inciting incident, but in reality the inciting incident took place about 75 pages in. Now that I’ve learned more about these elements, I think I’ll be able to go back and make an opening that pops. I was essentially trying to build a sink in the middle of my living room. Whoops.

Learning about structure has removed the wings from my arse. I feel confident that I won’t have to write four drafts of this new novel like I had to with the first (going on five). I think I’ve come around to story planning — extensive drafting is another way of planning, but it’s a lot more time consuming. I would rather be able to start something new than spend half a year revising and rewriting drafts over and over again.

Larry Brooks maintains that the Big Name Authors out there have an intuitive sense of structure that they apply to their work. For the occasional few (JK Rowling is one), I believe that’s true. But others, like Stephen King, learned that intuition over years of rejections and trying over and over again until they got it right. For that I salute them, but there’s a shortcut to all that trial and error, and that’s learning the elements of structure. I don’t know about you, but if I can trim several years off the process of learning to write novels that move along at a clipping pace and don’t meander around like one of Bugs Bunny’s underground tunnels, I will take that knowledge right to the bank.

There are heaps of books on writing craft, but few explain (or even mention) what makes a successful holistic novel — and that is structure. Fewer still give a blueprint for that structure that tells you what needs to go where. Even people who plot out their novels don’t always have a full understanding of structure.

Let your characters speak to you all you like, but ultimately you are the god of your story, and if they want to pick their noses, you have the power to shove a gun in their boogery hands and kick them toward their antagonist. You’re the engineer, and it’s your job to make a plane that flies.

Writers, are you plotters or pantsers? Have you received any rejections that you can chalk up to the structure monster?


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on June 14, 2012, in Thorsday, writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I am a pantser when it comes to writing and I am paying for that right now with the current novel I’m working on. I had a lovely but vague idea for a plot and off I went scribbling. Now, I’m nearly 20,000 words in and at a total loss as to where to go next.

    • Yeah, that can be so painful. I’ve found that thinking ahead has saved me SO much trouble in that arena. Once you know what the first and second plot points are, the midpoint, and a couple of pinch points, you’ve got almost all the material you need to get from beginning to end. It becomes more of a connect-the-dots than running blind.

  2. Pantser here, and it took me way too long to grasp the three-act structure (or four-act, if you prefer). Once I did, it was like a light bulb went on — I could plan my turning points, have something to shoot for, and still play around all I wanted in between! Of course, knowing and putting into practice can be two different things, but it still helps to have the structure in the back of my head. Now to learn how to juggle subplots without losing any….

    • I thiiiink my subplots are on track with this novel, but I’ve written it so quickly that I’m not entirely certain I won’t reread it and have a litany of WTF prancing through my head. 🙂

  3. Are you enjoying having the wings removed from your arse, Emmie? You are so good at providing laugh out loud moments … love it! Gotta admit I tend to hang out on the pantser side of the stadium BUT only after I have my basic structure in place. Does that count?

    • Yeah, having wings attached to the “other” cheeks makes it awfully difficult to sit.

      I’m learning a lot lately about structure and planning, and I am amazed how liberating it actually feels to know where stuff ought to go. I might have been converted to the other side…though I’m with you in that I don’t plan out every moment or scene yet.


  4. I’m trying to have it both ways with my current WIP. After reading books like Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon & Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, I get the idea that there have to be certain milestones, and I know what those are. It’s figuring out how the characters get from one point to the next that’s giving me fits.
    (&, ha, litany of WTF prancing in my head, ha…)

  5. I’m extreme pantser, meaning I can’t outline at all. I can’t connect my creativity to one. So I’ve had to learn structure through other means. Mostly, it’s been understanding it needs to be there and where the points should generally be. The one thing I don’t like about the craft books is that they assume you’re outlining, so every structure discussion revolves around what I can’t do. I’ve had to gather a piece here and piece there — and completely ignore Story Engineering, which was an infomercial loaded with marketing and snide remarks directed at pansters. I’ve never seen a craft book that so turned me off. I’m just hoping eventually someone will write a book on structure for pantsers.

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