My Guest this week is about to reveal a secret... You are probably as intrigued as I was as I read his article for the first time. Ladies and Gentlemen...
SLOW LEARNER? ME?
I’d been writing for 40 years before I got it.
You see, I’d always liked words and I liked the way you could fit them together to make fluent sentences that resonated in your head. I admired James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anthony Burgess and a bucketful of other writers who painted word-pictures, or provoked an interesting perception by yoking together an adjective and a noun in a striking combination.
So for the longest time I thought writing was about working on those combinations—building your vocabulary, understanding rhythm in prose, using short sentences after long ones. Like this. I thought I had to make words collide and crash against each other to produce a creative spark and make my sentences crackle.
And of course that meant I had to describe things, in order to put this word-craftiness to use. I had to find different ways of delineating a cityscape, or a couch, or a loved one’s face. I had to construct paragraphs that helped the reader ‘see’ what I saw in my own mind’s eye, to help them get the picture and be able to replicate exactly the world I was creating. The beginner’s default setting.
And it didn’t help that I spent a number of years teaching English and American Literature. With students I dove into the pages and extracted nuggets of meaning, symbolic moments or images we thought resonated through the texts. We came up gasping for air, but were we any wiser, in truth?
The problem was, the books I was teaching weren’t the kind of books I read for pleasure. I loved Moby Dick and Huck Finn and The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath … but Elmore Leonard, now there was a story-telling master. James Lee Burke—now he could write. Robert B. Parker … what dialogue!
But because I still didn’t get it, I took seven years to write the first book, Altered Life, then another four writing the follow-up, The Private Lie.
What didn’t I get? What did it take me 40 years—from my first teenage fumblings with stories—to understand?
Not plot—I had plenty of that.
Not compelling characters—I worked hard on those.
Not the spirit of place—I went on road trips and did my research.
What it was … was Structure.
In my late teens and early twenties I’d written seven novels. Full-length, 80k novels. The problem was, they were all over the place, in all kinds of genres. In each of these books I worked on the principle of having a beginning, a middle and an end before I started writing—that was my Structure. I wrote away from the beginning towards the middle; then away from the middle towards the end. I was making stuff up as I went. Which was fun, but hard. Especially before the age of word-processors and the Delete button.
So fast-forward 40 years and I’m still doing the same thing! Beginning>Middle>End. But now I know something’s missing. By this time I’ve got four shelves full of books on writing, each of them read from cover to cover…
… and finally I get it.
Structure harnesses and enables the reader’s expectations. It isn’t a pattern you impose on the work from the outside, like using a cookie-cutter to divide up dough. A cogent structure allows the reader to become psychologically invested in your book.
I realised just knowing about the 3 Act Structure wasn’t enough. I hadn’t understood how the reader subconsciously expects to go through a 3-part emotional process: empathising with a central character who in some respects is likeable or admirable; feeling trepidation as that character struggles against some external force (sometimes an internal one), until she realises something about herself that helps her move on; finally confronting the adversary and receiving help or some new knowledge to conquer the foe.
When I moved from being a ‘pantser’, writing by the seat of my pants, to a ‘plotter’, writing became much easier. The notion of this kind of structure has been elaborated in depth by Robert McKee, Syd Field, John Truby and plenty of others, and it’s easy therefore to dismiss it as either old hat or tired and formulaic. But it’s not a ‘formula’—it’s a deep-level expression of how stories work. You can build different kinds of houses on the same foundations.
But you need the foundations.
Knowing this structure helps me plan. It helps me write more quickly. It persuades me that I’m taking the reader through a journey that he or she both anticipates and finds surprising.
And it seems to work: the first competition I entered a book for, Chanticleer Reviews CLUE Awards, I won First Place in the Private Eye/Noir category. The Bleak was also designated a Notable Page Turner by Shelf Unbound magazine in 2015. And my non-crime novel Actress, written with the same commitment to structure, won both an IndieBRAG badge and an AwesomeIndie Award.
There’s still something appealing about making it up as you go along … but real storytellers don’t actually do that.
They just seem to.
Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was thirteen years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. He’s the author of seven novels in the Sam Dyke Investigations series and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. When he’s not writing he enjoys reading, learning the guitar, watching movies and binge-inhaling great TV series. He’s currently spending more time in France than is probably good for him.
When Keith is not writing superb novels, he can be found here:
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SamDykeInvestigations/