Design:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“The novel is an organic event that requires prepared ground to do its work.” Philip Gerard

“It is a problem of architecture—of structure, not beauty; of craft, not art.” Philip Gerard

“This is a huge job. Mustn’t think of its largeness but only of the little picture while I am working. Leave the large picture for planning time.” John Steinbeck

“So let us define the problem solved by the cathedral: How do you build a large indoor lighted space? Answer: You create an architecture of light. Which is exactly what the novelist must do.” Philip Gerard

“You’ve got to do some close figuring, some careful calculations, to arrive at the blueprint that makes possible mystery and beauty.” Philip Gerard

“Design. The structural, formal organization of all the elements present in a given narrative.” Madison Smartt Bell

“For the writer, some sense of the final formal design of the work really ought to precede the first stages of composition. The level of prior refinement of this sense of design will vary wildly from one writer to another. It may be quite specific and detailed (though it is risky for it to become too specific and detailed in the early stages—lest you create a paint-by-the-numbers design whose execution will  suck the life from your conception). Or it may be no more than a vague and cloudy sense of where the story is headed—where you are headed, across the terrain of your story.” Madison Smartt Bell

“In most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. . . . The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.” Strunk and White

“When you write a novel, start with a plan—a careful plot outline, some notes to yourself on characters and settings, particular important events, and implications of meaning. In my experience, many young writers hate this step; they’d rather just plunge in. That’s O.K., up to a point, but sooner or later the writer has no choice but to figure out what he is doing.” John Gardner

“Consider doing for yourself what the movie people call a “treatment,” a short narrative telling the whole story, introducing all the characters and events but skipping most of the particulars, including dialogue. Carefully studying and revising the treatment until the story has a clear inevitability, you will find yourself understanding the story’s implications more than you did with just an outline, and you will save yourself time later.” John Gardner

“The last step before the actual writing may be the chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot. It’s here that the writer figures out in detail what information, necessary for understanding later developments, should be worked into Chapter One, what can be slipped into Chapter Three, and so on. Obviously one cannot begin with sixty static pages of exposition setting up the background to the story. Writing a novel is like running grain through a hammer mill: one has to get the central action rolling, and then feed in the background, or sprinkle in the larger implications, whenever and wherever one can do it without losing a finger.” John Gardner

“It’s by he whole process of first planning the fiction and then writing it—elaborating characters and details of setting, finding the style that seems appropriate to the feeling, discovering unanticipated requirements of the plot—that the writer finds out and communicates the story’s significance, intuited at the start.” John Gardner

“If the story is to be efficient and elegant (in the sense that mathematical proofs are elegant), the writer must introduce no more background events or major characters than strictly necessary (and, obviously, no less), and must introduce these materials in the smallest possible number of scenes, each scene rhythmically proportionate to those surrounding, so that the pace is regular or, if appropriate, in regular acceleration.” John Gardner

“The only rule is that you have to know your climax (in dramatized terms) before you start to outline the steps by which to arrive there.” Ayn Rand

“The best metaphor for the relationship of an outline to a story is blueprints in relationship to a building.” Ayn Rand

“By writing down the outline, I do not mean writing a synopsis in objective terms that an outsider would understand. I make my outlines as brief as possible, in what I call ‘headline style.’” Ayn Rand

“Again, if the plan of the story is to work, the writer’s solution to the problems involved in authenticating the climax must be credible and apt.” John Gardner

“A short story is a single movement with a single climax which by the rule of elegance and efficiency should contain the fewest scenes possible—perhaps three.” John Gardner

“The writer works out a plot in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life; by working his way back from his story’s climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation.” John Gardner

“Since usually one does not work out plot all at once, but broods over it, mentally trying alternatives, taking notes, carrying the idea in the back of one’s mind as one reads or does one’s laundry . . . one may in practice work both backward and forward.” John Gardner

“Some respectable writers simply pour out onto paper everything that comes into their heads, then sift, edit, rearrange, and rewrite until a story of some kind emerges; others plan carefully and stick to the plan as closely as possible, so long as the characters don’t object.” John Gardner

“What I do is put my characters into situations that are so precarious there is no way to get out. And then I figure how to get them out.” Sidney Sheldon

“You don’t have to be able to outline a plot if you have a reasonably long life expectancy. The system of more or less letting the story grow seems to me to give you the best advantage of letting your characters develop in a way that seems real and natural.” Tony Hillerman

“I tried outlining, but it never worked for me. Create the character and let ‘em take over, it’s true.” Joseph Wambaugh

“To write a plot story, you have to be clear on what issues you want to present and then think of the events that will present those issues in action. . . . I had to find that which is essential to the issue and then build an event around it.” Ayn Rand

“When you construct a plot, the first event to figure out is always the climax.” Ayn Rand

“Suppose you have an idea for the theme and subject of a story but have not yet invented the climax. Then do not start to outline the story from the beginning. If you set up a lot of interesting conflicts and seemingly connected events without knowing where you are going, and then attempt to devise a climax that resolves it all, the process with be an excruciating mental torture (and you will not succeed). Therefore, in planning your story, get to your climax as soon as possible.” Ayn Rand

“The only absolute rule is that, whether you write from the beginning or the end or the middle, you must start plotting from the end.” Ayn Rand

“I make no plans. I’m a total believer in organic growth.” John Fowles

“I have no idea where I’m going when I start a book. There is for me a marvelous element of pure hazard about writing; you write a tiny passage, perhaps of only one sentence, and yet that somehow has nuclear energy in it. Suddenly you see that you ought to have done more about something earlier on.” John Fowles

“The length of the narrative being contemplated has a good deal to do with how evolved the writer’s idea of its form needs to be before it is written. Most writers can navigate their way through a short story on sheer intuition at least some of the time: write a story successfully clean through without a deliberate, conscious plan—flying blind, as it were, and without frequent reference to the instruments either. In this situation, the write discovers the form of the story in the process of writing it, just as the reader discovers the story’s form in the process of reading it. This sense of discovery has much to do with the pleasure of reading, and for the writer who can work in the analogous way, it can truly be an ecstatic pleasure, akin to Hopkins’s inscape or Joyce’s epiphany. There’s no better thrill, in this business, than to realize your intention at the very moment you write the last line. What makes it all possible, however, is the unconscious apprehension of an underlying structure. Without that, you’ll become confused and lose your way.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Anyone who’s ever grappled with a longer narrative, something approaching the length of a novel, say, will have discovered (quite painfully, perhaps) the sheer intuition won’t carry the project all the way through. At least not successfully on the first attempt. To end up with a first draft of a novel that is structurally sound, you must do some structural planning in advance. Without it, you end up with an anarchic mass of material that must be arduously rewritten toward some sort of formal coherence. At the opposite extreme is the risk that excessive structural planning, prior to the actual writing, will overdetermine the work before it is realized and leach the life out of it.” Madison Smartt Bell

“To steer a safe course between these two shoals is a demanding undertaking. In practice, most writers actually zigzag back and forth between them. Some writers can tolerate a very high level of detailed advanced planning for a long work without losing their own interest and sense of discovery in actually wiring it. Others are so differently constituted that they cannot tolerate any abstract advance planning at all and must proceed through novels as intuitively as they would through short stories (with the result that they suffer more and have to write a lot more drafts).” Madison Smartt Bell

“But for structural purposes, there’s really to essential difference between a novel and a short story. The only difference is size, which means that while a short story potentially can be written in a single inspired sitting, a novel absolutely can’t be. One’s intuitive idea of a novel’s design must be propped up with some sort of scaffolding, in order to last out a longer period of composition. But the fundamental principles of a narrative’s design are apt to be much the same, regardless of scale.” Madison Smartt Bell

“There are many possible structures for a narrative, but the most common, familiar, and conventional of these is linear design. Linear stories start at the beginning, traverse some sort of middle, and stop at the end.” Madison Smartt Bell

“If you think of a story more holistically, less as a temporal process and more as an integrated, unified artifact, then the issue of symmetry becomes much more significant. In linear design, this final symmetry need not be exact—no more than the two halves of your face are precisely symmetrical with each other, perhaps not even so much. But most narrative designs will bear some relationship to this principle of symmetry.” Madison Smartt Bell

“For this reason, the placement and timing of other elements of fiction—patterns of imagery, shifts of point of view or back and forth between first- and third-person narration, arrivals and departures of characters (the possibilities are very broad)—become, in fact, elements of design and are just as important to the overall design as is the plot, and sometimes more so. All these elements are to be arranged, to be used to create a sense of shapeliness, orderliness, balance, and integrity. Each must contribute to the reader’s sense of the narrative as an integrated whole, for the moment when the narrative is apprehended as a whole is the moment when it is fully understood.” Madison Smartt Bell

“You just can’t wing it: A good part of writing the novel is done before you start writing it.” Philip Gerard

“Dramatically, the ‘rule’ of chapters is the rule of scenes in any fiction: Each one should have a clear reason for inclusion. It should not just provide more information, a more thorough resume of character, or lush description of place. It may do all those things, but first it must have an indispensable role in moving the story along.” Philip Gerard

“Unlike a short story, a novel chapter must be both complete and unfinished—that is, it must seem to be one discrete thing, a self-contained dramatic whole, or there would be no reason to separate it out as a distinct chapter, and yet it must create enough new anticipation to make the reader carry his interest over to the start of the next chapter.” Philip Gerard

“I never set out with a plot in mind, and I never set out to write a novel—it’s always a short story that moves into being a novel. I always make it prove that it can’t be written short.” Ernest Hemingway

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