The trick to structuring your book right – first time, every time

Decades ago, when I was studying the philosophy of history post-grad under Prof. Peter Munz, he announced to the class that the biggest challenge facing anybody writing a book was sustaining the argument. It was, he warned, the hardest thing to do.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoI still remember the lesson, along with the derision with which some of the other students greeted the announcement. After all, they knew best – their post-colonial ideology made them intellectually and morally superior examples of humanity and who was this fuddy-duddy old Professor anyway?

Most of them subsequently crashed and burned as far as book-writing was concerned, despite doors being flung wide for them by the post-colonial academic in-crowd who sat on the funds and opportunities available at the time in New Zealand, to the exclusion of anybody else.

The fact is, of course, that Munz knew what he was talking about – he was regarded as one of the world’s top hundred intellectuals, he’d studied philosophy under both Popper and Wittgenstein, was one of the world’s leading scholars of Charlemagne, and had written many books. I regard him as a key influence in my own approach to history.

What Munz didn’t tell the class was the trick involved in sustaining the argument. It applies to fiction and non-fiction equally because both require an over-arching structure. In non-fiction, it’s the consistent thread of argument or theme; and in fiction, it’s the plot cycle and character arcs. Conceptually these are the same thing – they represent the over-arching organising principle around which the work flows and is built.

The problem with both is that, usually, writers who tackle a book-length work only have experience of shorter pieces – essays, short stories, even feature articles. These have their own particular structural needs, but one fairly common outcome of tackling a book for the first time, armed only with the skills of shorter work, is that the book ends up fragmented – the author loses track.

The fix is in the very first step. Before doing anything else, authors must write down the purpose of the work in a single sentence. One sentence. In fiction, it’s known as the ‘logline’. In non-fiction, it’s the ‘thesis’ (yup, a ‘thesis’ is a single sentence – the 280,000 words that follow are the proofs).

That’s it, really.

Of course, like anything else, it’s easy to say – far harder to apply. Sometimes a new logline or thesis will emerge during the course of writing, demanding a revision of the structure. Perhaps the biggest challenge for beginning authors is learning how to hone their thinking down that tightly.

But loglines and theses are how it’s done by the professionals. And, as I learned, professors.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


19 thoughts on “The trick to structuring your book right – first time, every time

  1. I find the ‘single sentence logline’ should be at the heart of every question you ask about the first draft. Each chapter, each character, each scenario and episode: does it serve the purpose of writing this novel? Everything should relate to, expand on, support or illustrate the purpose of the novel.

  2. Another fine, practical post on writing, Matthew. As I was reading, I realized that the thesis of non-fiction feels more natural to me. Previously, I had thought my struggle with writing novels was one of not being a good storyteller, which may be, as my short stories suffer similarly. Yet, your cogent post puts it in a bit of a different light: in writing an essay, I am content to “find out what I am thinking” (Joan Didion) and revise accordingly, bringing that thesis to the fore. In writing a story, I am not allowing myself that freedom–short story or novel–I just realized that. Much to consider as well as much to look forward to in your upcoming posts–all of them.🙂

    BTW, I enjoy your short story prompts that you are running. As you know, I am still in the throes of putting a life together, so have not been able to participate. It’s a great idea and wanted you to know.

    Karen

    1. It’s surprising how similar fiction and non-fiction is in many ways, if we look at it from the point of view of ‘stating an argument’ – a point that works on many levels within the work, too. I know, for myself, it’s easier to conceptualise fiction as an ‘argument about a character’ (in the logic sense) than in some of the ways presented in the ‘how to’ books. The ‘inverted pyramid’ approach so beloved of journalism, I suspect, also has its applications in fiction writing.

      Glad you like the short story prompts – they’ll continue for a while. I hope all is coming together your way!

  3. The term used when I learned to write a novel was “Statement.” Logline is probably the technically correct term. It’s is usually my first step in writing a novel.

    1. It’s also known as an ‘elevator pitch’ – typically the one-sentence hook to induce an agent or publisher to look further into a proposal. But it has many uses, and base-structuring for an author, to my mind, is one of the best.

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