A 5-day road trip around Malaysia gave me and my friend Raewyn ample time for talking about life, the universe, and writing. Raewyn is ready to redraft her first novel, and I'm writing two new online courses for Contented (Write the right report and Write emails that get results).
We talked about structure, and how the same challenges arise regardless of genre.
What's the difference between plot and structure?
The unembellished plot of our road trip goes something like this.
On Monday Raewyn and Rachel drove through palm oil plantations from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan and stayed at the unexpectedly smart Crocodile Rock boutique hotel. On Tuesday we revisited Raewyn's old haunts in Kuantan and hippie Cherating, stayed in a grotty seaside resort and swam in the wild sea. On Wednesday we went to gorgeous little Kapas Island, slept on comfortable beds and swam in clear calm water. On Thursday we bought heaps of fruit and drove up to Machang and through the interior to Benta. On Friday we drove to Kuala Lumpur, and ate dinner in the buzzy new international quarter. (This happened, that happened.)
By contrast, the structure of our road trip goes roughly like this.
Five 24-hour days (5 chapters). Travelled from west to east, then north, then west, then south (events in geographic order and in sequence). Flashback to 1997 (sequential structure interrupted by reminiscences). Driving for roughly 2-3 hours for most days, but 4 hours on Day 4 (relative size of each day/chapter).
Got it? Whether writing a play, a novel or an online course, structure must be tackled intellectually and deliberately, or the whole thing turns to custard.
You can often structure a poem intuitively, but I doubt any successful writer would ever attempt such a thing with a novel or an online course — because these are too big. Intuition can only take you so far.
Instead, at a certain point we must stop and reconsider the shape and size of the whole, and the shape and size of the parts, and the order and flow of the parts.