structure vs. the “Indiana Jones” writing method

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Real_Indiana_JonesTo formulate the structure of your novel as you go along is what I call the “Indiana Jones” writing method. If you’ll remember, our friend Indie would often go forward with a goal but no detailed plan. He was notorious of making it up as he went along.

I know a lot of writers who utilize this philosophy. Other blogs that I’ve been reading refer to this method as “flying by the seat of your pants” and call the adherents of this writing philosophy “pantsers.”

As a chastised writer who once advocated writing by the seat of my pants, I can only offer you the benefit of my experience. It didn’t work for me. My first novel had a hoard of characters with no central plot to carry any type of theme. The novel lacked structure and never sold. If it had been a movie, it would have been called “Teresa Frohock and the Seekers of the Lost Plot.”

Determined to write, I decided to lose the “artist” attitude and become teachable. I attended a few writing classes and workshops. In my writing classes, I was introduced to the Greek Dramatic Structure. The Greek Dramatic Structure goes something like this:


I was told to think of my novel as a three act play. Act I will consist of my hook; the introduction of my protagonist and my antagonist; and the trigger that propels my protagonist into action.

Act II will be my protagonist’s struggle toward his goal and will culminate in a change of my protagonist’s emotional state. Notice in the picture that the slope for Acts I and II is a very gradual slope. Act II will constitute the longest portion of a novel.

Act III will begin with the novel’s climax, which is the final confrontation between my protagonist and antagonist; this is followed by catharsis whereby the reader knows that everything is going to be all right. (Unless you’re Stephen King, then your reader knows that the horror has just begun, but hey, you get the idea.)

So how does one pull all this together to write a novel?

This is personal, because I start with my protagonist. Characters always come easily to me, so my novels will always start with a character, not a plot. As I am working through my character sketch, I pay special attention to my protagonist’s flaws. This is where I will find the emotional journey that my protagonist will take.

Then I pick a theme. The theme will be something that I feel very strongly about, in the case of An Autumn Tale, the theme is about finding the humility and inner strength to make restitution for a terrible betrayal. Now I’m starting to become more focused as I lay out a firm foundation.

My actual writing begins with a synopsis of the novel. Generally this is one page and there are no details at all. Nor is the synopsis written in stone; I can change it at any point. I take my synopsis and start fleshing it out into an outline.

My outline is where I “free write” whatever thoughts pop into my head. I keep what works and I toss the rest until I have a firm idea of how my novel will proceed. I know which key scenes I want to be presented in certain chapters and each scene is devised to construct that gradual climb toward the climax. With my outline, which is also not written in stone, I have a plan firmly in place so I can proceed to write the chapters.

I’m like most people and once thought this had to be the most constrictive, straight-jacket type of writing a person could do. However, having used this process for An Autumn Tale, I can attest that I love it!

Rather than wasting weeks re-writing entire chapters because I lost my plot thread, I am moving steadily forward and the novel that is taking shape is the novel that I envisioned. My characters are coming through beautifully, because I had all their issues worked out prior to beginning the novel. I’ve had to go back and make minor changes in portions of chapters, but there has been none of the major re-writes I experienced with my first novel.

I’m in love with structure and will use the above referenced methods to write everything from short stories to my next novel. I don’t feel that my creativity has been stifled or hindered by using the methods.

monkey_brainsTrust me, this isn’t the look you want to see on an agent’s face as they’re reading your novel. You want them to see rainbows and sparkles, not monkey brains. So don’t let your next novel become a “Temple of Doom.”

Try using some  form of writing structure and see if it doesn’t result in a tighter storyline. It did for me.


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2 Responses to structure vs. the “Indiana Jones” writing method

  1. kaykaybe says:

    I have drawn the plot mountain a hundred times, and I fill it in underneath with major plot points like a time line. It’s my favorite organizational tool.
    I’ve rewritten a few chapters, and will rewrite more just because I didn’t know the character well enough yet. But it feels like a neccessary part of the process. Perhaps as I get better at the coarser points of writing (like commas), these finer points will come easier.
    Beforehand, I have a good idea of what feeling the characters will have, what their motivations are. The rest is fill. I try to make it good fill, but I’m always pushing on to get to the next character to character interaction.

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