A Short Course in Structure
Writing Tips for the Committed Novelist
by Jack Remick
Tip 1: Timed Writing
TIP 2: STORY TREATMENT vs. THE PITCH
TIP 3: THE “CUT-TO” TECHNIQUE
Article Length: 1,600 Words
Every Tuesday and Friday, I sit down with a bunch of writers at Louisa’s Bakery Café in Seattle to write for an hour or so. For years I wrote alone until Robert Ray introduced me to timed writing, and timed writing saved my writing life.
Working with other writers—especially writers who know more than you do—gets you outside your head. You get feedback faster; you get to the rewrite quicker. The way I see it, the art is in the rewrite, so the sooner you get a working draft the better you’ll write.
Tip 1: Timed Writing
Writing Practice: Use start lines to get yourself in gear.
Timed writing—what Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, calls “Writing Practice”—is either the devil’s design to stifle your creativity or the gateway to a paradise of writing. For me, timed writing is liberation.
Timed writing is easy to do. Get a kitchen timer, set it for five, ten, or fifteen minutes, and write as deeply and richly as your hand will let you. I like the physical connection of the fountain pen on paper, so I write by hand. Some writers in my group write on laptops. That’s okay. The idea is to finish what you start—that’s the major discipline. Finish what you start.
I use “start lines” to get going. If I’m working on a novel, I might use:
Today I rewrite the scene called “A Plague of Locusts.” The scene takes place in the Tabernacle… Ricky kneels in the back pew…
If I’m with my writing group and I’m not locked into a novel or a story, the start line “Today I’m writing about…” gives me plenty of room to explode. I use timed writing to write treatments, scene summaries, memoir moments, short stories, and screenplay scenes. The big thing with timed writing is that you can use it to go nuts on the page, or you can use it in a very structured way to create tight, hard, clear, clean sentences, scenes, and stories. I don’t think in terms of paragraphs, but I do think in terms of “action” and “image.” I try to get a strong image or a strong action in each line.
When I’m writing in a more structured way, I use a more structured set of start lines. For instance, I might write a three-act treatment for a novel—the treatment can come at any time in the course of the writing—as a way to check on how well I’m getting the story down. In other words, do I have the story in my head? Having it in your head means you don’t plot on the fly. Plotting on the fly is a sure way to writer’s hell.
Below is a set of start lines you can use to write a structured, three-act treatment. Set your timer and write for five minutes on each start line.
I am writing a story about…
Act One opens when…
Act One ends when…
Act Two opens in a scene called…
At the middle of my story, my protagonist…
Act Two ends when…
Act Three opens when…
My story climaxes in a scene called…
My story ends with this final image…
Writing Practice: When writing by hand, type up what you write.
Why? Three reasons:
- Don’t throw yourself away. This is your life.
- Honor your words. This is your memory.
- Discipline is your obligation to the gift. This is your work.
Don’t Throw Yourself Away
Whether you write fiction or memoir, screenplay or poetry, it is your writing. You invest time and energy in your writing. You set the timer and you write a piece, and later someone asks how long it took you to write it. You don’t say five minutes or ten minutes or even twenty minutes because you know that it took you a lifetime to write it. You had to live it and get inside it and let it get inside you before you could write it.
That’s why you type it up. It has taken you a lifetime to get it, and if you don’t type it up, you throw it away. Natalie Goldberg said you must not toss yourself away. Tossing yourself away means that you don’t honor what you write.
When you write by hand on paper with a pen, you are getting close to the page, and the work comes out of you in a flood. Some writers say, “Oh, I can’t use this in my book, so I won’t type it up.” The work is yours. You have a better chance of getting it all if you type up what you write. Memory fades. Don’t throw yourself away. There are plenty of people out there ready to do that for you.
Honor Your Words
This is your life and this is your art. When you go deep into the timed writing, you pull small gifts from the unconscious. There is no one but you who sees those words, unless you work with a group. When you write under the clock, you honor the words by reading them aloud. When you type up what you write, you honor your words by not throwing them away.
If you leave the words in the notebook, the work piles up and one day you see a stack of a hundred notebooks, and you say, “Oh God, I’ll never get that typed up.” And you wind up throwing yourself away. All that time, all those little gifts from the unconscious are gone. And nothing can get them back. If you type up what you write, you have a chance to discover what you said. No one else cares. You are the only one who cares. If you don’t care, if you don’t type up your work, no one else will ever see it, and who knows what life you will not change. To be a writer you must honor yourself. You must honor the words.
Discipline is Your Obligation to the Gift
It takes discipline to become a writer. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen by chance. Discipline. Finish what you start. Discipline begets more discipline.
If you write one scene a day in writing practice, and if you type it up every day, in one year you will have a story with 365 scenes. It takes about fifty scenes to make a screenplay or a novel. Do it every day and you become a writer. Without discipline you do not finish, and you waste your time and your life. Time is not your friend.
TIP 2: STORY TREATMENT vs. THE PITCH
If you take a shot at the three-act treatment, you’ll see that it’s a working piece. It’s about story—how things fit together. It’s about structure and how the pieces of your story flow and connect. The pitch is a sell piece that you use to plant your story, in five minutes or less, in the head of an agent, editor, or publisher. The most famous pitch is probably for the movie Alien: “Jaws in space.” That’s it. That’s the pitch. The pitch isn’t a treatment. A pitch is a high-concept sell piece that doesn’t do the writer much good. A treatment is a working document the writer uses to keep control of the story as it develops.
In my own work, I write a treatment at critical points in story development in order to make sure the story is in my head. Why? I want the story to live in my head, so when I write a scene it’s like I’m pulling it out of experience instead of making it up. After a certain point, the line between history and fiction blurs, and you really get into your characters and you report what they say—and that’s called dialogue.
The treatment is a guide to deeper writing. Once I have a treatment, I can build a scene list. With the scene list, I can write any scene at any time using timed writing. A treatment, the way I see it, isn’t an outline and it isn’t a synopsis—synopses and outlines are beasts with striped fur and huge gnashers—and those two boys are worthless as writing tools.
TIP 3: THE “CUT-TO” TECHNIQUE
Like it or not, screenwriters have changed the way novelists have to write. Think ahead a little bit. Your novel is the raw material for a screen play. What happens to your story between print and script? Screenwriters have come up with a number of techniques that can make our work as novelists richer.
Stories are told with action and image, keeping exposition to a minimum. In this sense, screenwriting has more in common with poetry than with prose. Squeeze out what’s not necessary. Dialogue does double duty. It floats on subtext while it reveals character. Don’t tell the story in dialogue.
Screenwriting is an intelligence test for the viewer. How little does the writer have to put on the page for the viewer to get it? Answer: Very little. Should it be any different for the novelist?
Scripts are built on scenes. Scenes are built on action and image. Scenes are short so the story moves. For the novelist, learning to think in scenes and white space makes the writing tighter, faster, and smoother by laying out the storyline or the through line. That’s where the cut-to technique gives you a leg-up. Learning to think like a screenwriter makes you a better novelist.
Try running your short story, novella, or novel through the cut-tos. I use these words to make sure the cut-tos connect: objects, plot tracks, hooks. Each scene in the cut-to has to hook to a scene down the line. All of those linked scenes work together to bind your story into an integrated structure. ■
Jack Remick is a poet, short story writer, and novelist. He taught Fiction and Memoir in certificate programs at the University of Washington Extension and Distance Learning. He co-wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes A Mystery, with Robert J. Ray, a how-to, write-along for mystery writers. His latest novel, Gabriela and The Widow, is a Montaigne Medal Finalist in the Eric Hoffer Award competition as well as a finalist in the Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews. Satori, a collection of Jack Remick’s poetry published by Coffeetown Press, is now available. For more writing tips, visit his blog at www.blood.camelpress.com. His website is jackremick.com.