Structure not formula

It may sound a little silly to you that I’m already worrying about the next couple of Surreality books before the first one is even released. Then again, if you’re one of the writers in my audience you may know this affliction all too well.

Continuing mystery series, or long ongoing series of any genre, can suffer from repetitiveness. We see this in the police procedurals on TV, or in the long running series of J. D. Robb, Janet Evanovich or Kathy Reichs. This is not to say that any one book isn’t good, and they’re all enjoyable, but I think a lot of writers don’t want to think they keep repeating themselves in everything they do. (Though admittedly if we all had the kind of success as those three writers maybe we wouldn’t care so much).

Case in point in my own work. In the first book about two-thirds of the way through I have a chase scene. People from multiple angles and elevations going after one man trying to evade them. This is one of my favorite scenes in the book (and it didn’t even exist until this draft). The scene grew from a decision I made to not kill a character off earlier in the book (as I had in the previous two drafts), giving him the space to wreak more mayhem later on.

Now, as I start to plot in my head the action for the second book I have another chase scene in mind. Completely different setting of course, and with a different outcome, one that I hope has lasting consequences for the remainder of that book, but still hits some of the same notes.

Now you might think that I’m doing this because I’m particularly good at writing chase scenes, or because it just naturally works for the stories I construct. Truth is action of any kind is difficult. I have a very clear picture in my head of which punches are thrown, which guns are fired, and have even moved physically through some of the places where I set scenes. But action is deeply challenging and takes a lot of work to get right. Hopefully by the time either of these books is released what I see in my head will be conveyed on the page, but I’m certainly not doing this because it’s my strongest suit.

To a certain degree all detective fiction has the same structure, a crime occurs, the detectives look for clues and grill suspects, sometimes go down blind alleys before arriving at the truth (or at least some explanation). The fun is in the variation, in the character interaction, and the particulars of the crime and suspects.

And structure can actually be extremely helpful to the writer. For the serial novella I’m presenting on this blog I’m keep a pretty fixed structure. Each scene is a multiple of about 600 words with chapters being 2500 words total. For the first, last and possibly some interim chapters all four characters will appear in short scenes, but for the rest it’ll probably be two long (1250 word) scenes per chapter focusing on two characters. I might throw in a full length chapter tied into one character as the story progresses, but mostly the structure will be two or four scenes in manageable lengths.

This structure is helpful for a couple of reasons. Since I’m writing on a deadline, it helps to have specific parameters for what I’m going to deliver every two weeks. And the 600 word scene fits in nicely for what I’m used to doing with the blog every day. Changing characters allows me to keep my brain fresher and sustain longer writing sessions, and it also gives me a chance to play with the interleaving narrative, something I’ve never really tried. Except for my very first book, I’ve tended to stay with one character and follow them in linear fashion to the end, but the demands of this novella are different. Structure helps to define story and keep it moving along, and story defines structure.

With Surreality and its potential sequels I am a little more free-form, though for the most part chapters are the same length, end on a sentence that tries to get you to turn the next page, and are made up of two to three scenes. It follows the traditional rising/falling action structure of most fiction and I drop the appropriate bodies (figuratively or literally) as needed. If this were a formula situation I would have X blind alleys, Y character moments, Z action moments and Theta moral outcomes.

To combat this I have changed the nature of the murder, it’s impact on the characters, their relationships to each other and added a through line from events in the first book. So they may both have chase scenes at 67%, but the characters running in them are in a different place.

So to me the best answer to formula, and it’s taken me a while to get round to this, is characters. If each book is essentially a reset of the first, then you’re in a formula situation. If however, if each book has a similar structure, but assumes the impact of events that have come before, then we break with formula. Structure can help get a book finished, organize scenes, and keep the reader interested. Formula just gives them more of the same.

And by the way this doesn’t always have to be true in series fiction. It is quite possible for a writer to follow the same basic formula even if all of the set pieces are different.

How do you avoid formula? What structures do you employ to write (or is this just an engineer thing)?


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