I've been thinking a lot about structure lately, about the large-scale organization of novels. I have two books in the works at present: one in rough-draft form that I'm about to start revising, and one just starting out with about 11,000 words written. The novel in draft form has a very loose 3-act structure, but only because I was pretending to follow the conventions of the genre (it's a literary detective novel).
There was a time that I leaned very hard on the 3-act structure. It's dependable, for one thing. It works. It gets the job done. There were a few years where, if I thought about the overall sweep of one of my books, I always imagined a three-part story. If I was putting together an outline of a book preparatory to writing a first draft, I'd spend hours tinkering with the plot and character arcs, working the whole thing up into the classic 3-act structure.
A couple of books ago I came up with a variation on the classic 3-act, which was the inner/outer conflict story model. Go here to read about it. That seems a pretty decent way of arranging a narrative, and it's also a sturdy, dependable model. You can write sturdy, dependable stories.
When I was drafting the detective story, I found that my writing was pushing against the 3-act structure. The whole "beginning-middle-ending" thing made sense at one level for what I was doing, but it made no sense at all for some of the other things I was working on. I ended up with a sort of hybrid structure, with a linear 3-act story going on while a bunch of short story type things kept cropping up along the way. Some of these short story things were flashbacks, some of them were almost self-contained stories and some of them were other things. Most of them dealt with the emotional themes of the story that weren't really addressed by the main detective story plot.
Working on the new book, I can see in my imagination how the first half of the book will go: two alternating stories that will join up in the middle of the book. And then, once the two main characters have met, some other stuff will happen. I have no idea what the "story question" is. I have no idea what will happen when my protagonists meet. I do know what each of them thinks they want more than anything else and I can see how their meeting will appear to open doors in their lives, but I don't know how any of that resolves. But I do know that this new novel doesn't fit into the 3-act structure. There isn't an "inciting incident" nor is there a development where the protagonist attempts to solve a problem, nor will there be a third act where the main conflict is resolved. Nope. None of that stuff. Two people move along, they meet, and stuff happens. I have a vague sense of how it will come out on the page, but I can't really see a big structure to it. And you know what? I'm not looking for one.
I think I'm now more interested in a more lifelike, realistic way of building narratives. The transformative hero's journey is wholly inadequate for the type of stories I'm trying to build these days. People->Action->Consequences, possibly, is the real paradigm. Don't talk to me of rising tension, I say.
One of the books I'm reading right now is Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Davin and I have been discussing it while I read it. He loved it and I've been having trouble with it. Today I read page 325 and there's a passage where one character tells the protagonist that he's not insignificant, that he's working on problems for any number of people without even knowing it. On the one hand, this passage bothers me because anyone who's read more than a couple of novels has already figured this out and this novel is thick with handholding statements like this, explaining itself to the reader in a clumsy sort of manner. On the other hand, I saw that Murakami really was presenting a Kafkaesque protagonist who was waffling around in a world that was largely incomprehensible to him (and to the reader) and that the point of the novel was that very incomprehensibility (which Davin told me last week but I didn't quite get it). The protagonist's world--and the narrative itself--are unpredictably shaped. Unexplained events and unlikely coincidences coexist in every chapter; who knows why? Just like reality. Now I'm enjoying the novel and I read a lot of it at lunch. I don't know if any of the story's questions will be answered, but I see that it doesn't matter if they do. What's the "meaning" of most of Kafka's stories? No idea and I don't care.
I'm also reading a lot of Chekhov stories, and Chekhov sort of invented the indeterminate ending, as well as the story where the climax comes at any point and the story might continue for thousands of words past that climax because the climax, the resolution of the primary tension, is not the real point of the stories. What's the organizing principle of a Chekhov story? That's hard to say, really. People. Action. Consequences. Or not.
Anyway, what I find most interesting about all of this is that, when I began writing novels, I struggled hard and long to find a structure around which to build stories. When I figured out how to use the classic 3-act structure, I was relieved and I thought I had that part of writing all figured out and I never had to think about structure again. After using the 3-act structure for a couple of novels, though, the artificiality of the form has made it more or less useless to me and I have to find something else. That "something else" seems at this point to be nothing more than a strong sense of what happens in life, a vague idea of causality, though I am working very hard to steal Davin Malasarn's trick of having unexpected changes of direction come along in the story.
So none of this is particularly useful or interesting, but it's what I've got. I thought I'd have something definite to say about large-scale structure, but it seems that all I've really got to say is that while I used to preach the classic 3-act shape, I no longer do. There are loads of excellent stories to be made using that structure (and almost every movie made follows it), but it's not a necessity. You can find your own way. Sometimes you have to.