Patrick Ness' guide to writing: Laying out a structure

Author Patrick Ness shares his advice on how to plan your writing – from how long a chapter should be to figuring out the rhythm.

To do list

This set of tips is inspired by a 15-year-old writer who emailed me to ask, quite seriously, how long a chapter is supposed to be.

I totally understand the anxiety behind the question, and the fantastically unhelpful answer, of course, is, 'As long as it needs to be.' The wonderful and terrible thing about writing is that you can pretty much do whatever you want, as long as it's serving the story you're telling. It's up to you to figure out what those needs are, however, and that's what makes you a writer.

So why not make it easier on yourself and make a few of those decisions before you start writing? Because, believe it or not, this is writing, too.

So before you start, ask yourself a simple question...

What's going to happen where?

Really, easy as that. I'm not talking details, I'm talking about the general thrust to the story that should already be cooking around your head.

  • For example, where does the heartbreak occur so that the reconciliation that never happens is as poignant as possible? Literally where. At the front? Halfway through? Where? If you don't know, maybe you're not ready to start yet.
  • Even simpler, what general chain of events needs to happen (and in what order) for your climax to happen? Not necessarily specifics again, but if someone's held at gunpoint, they're going to need to get a gun somewhere along the way. So where do they get it?
  • If you've decided beforehand that an accidental death is an important turning point, say, at the first third of your story and you're 90,000 words in and haven't reached it yet, well, there might be some rethinking to do. But deciding where it is ahead of time can be a good step to avoiding that 90,000 word problem in the first place.

Get even a few of these things sorted before you set out, and you're going to be a lot more comfortable settling into your early writing.

Structure vs rhythm

I've said before I don't care to plan in a lot of detail – I set out with a general outline, some key scenes, and an endpoint in hand – so I tend to think of setting out a rhythm to write within rather than a rigid structure. For The Knife of Never Letting Go, momentum was of the utmost importance, so before I started, I decided on a rhythm of short, sharp chapters, averaging about 2500 words each. What that did was force me to accomplish quickly what each chapter needed and saved me from lazy, overstuffed writing (I hope!).

I also set that smaller rhythm of chapters into a larger rhythm of parts, each part having six chapters and its own arc in the story with its own climax (so in Part 1, Todd discovers the silence and has to go on the run; Part 2, he discovers the reason he has to run and just how much danger he's in... and so on). I only had general plans before I started, by the way, and didn't do any detailed plotting until I got to each part. It let the story be loose enough to tell itself on the way, but also gently planned enough so I didn't panic.

A nice by-product of this is that it breaks the book down into workable sections, so I'm not always feeling I'm on top of a huge unwieldy beast. It's easier to feel control over a 17,000 word part than a 100,000 word novel.

Breaking the structure

What's great about structure (or rhythm) is that, without them knowing it, you're encouraging your reader into a pattern, one that they grow happily comfortable with. So how much fun to then break the structure when they're least expecting it?

Now, you have to be careful here. It has to be done right because otherwise they'll be pulled out of the story and blame you (rightly) for it. But in Knife, all the parts play out to the same pattern, except for the last part which is almost twice as long. Why? Because in the writing, it felt like the characters were beyond everything that might save them and out in a world of the unknown. So why not put the reader there as well?

It wasn't a mercenary decision purely to manipulate a reader, but by that point I was confident enough in my story to listen to what it needed. And at that point, what it needed was to break the rules I'd set. Who am I to argue?

Having said all this, this is a garment to wear loosely when you start out. You'll soon get a feeling for what's right for the rhythm of your story, and your instincts will improve very quickly.

Plus, there's no wrong choice, here; it's whatever is right for your story, and you can always change your mind if it's not working. Just listen out for the first cries of the shape your story wants to take. Deciding even a few loose guidelines before you start could save you a lot of grief.

And then in your next book, you can do something completely different.

Read features from Patrick Ness when he was BookTrust's Writer in Residence