One of my friends who happens to be a fine YA novelist often finds herself bewildered by the notion of structure.
"I suck at structure," she laments each time she reviews one of her works-in-progress. "What is structure, anyway?"
It's a question every writer has to ask at some point in the writing process... in order to understand why a story works or fails to work.
If you feel your story lacks something but can't figure out what exactly--why your attention is flagging, say, or why you fear your reader's attention might turn back to the TV screen--maybe it's time, like my friend, to examine your story's structure.
What is structure?
Well, structure is like a ladder that your characters climb, rung by rung. Or maybe a better way to think of it is like an envelope holding the elements of your story in place.
It's the skeleton...the bones...on which the story is built.
What's the key to building a solid structure?
Well, it's not just a matter of assembling a random sequence of scenes. No, the scenes need to increase in tension, rising in action or drama or mystery, building suspense over the course of the story.
The characters and the events of the plot must fit together like the interlocking pieces of a suspension bridge whose structure is designed so the tension actually holds the pieces together and strengthens the bridge.
Character and plot together form the structure for your tale. How? By setting up a confrontation of opposites (i.e., tension) based on two questions: 1) what does your character want, and 2) what's keeping her from getting it?
How you answer these questions will determine whether your story's structure is strong and sturdy... or weak and flimsy.
What makes for a strong structure?
Struggle and desire.
That is, what a character wants, and how much she must struggle to overcome greater and greater obstacles that stand in her way of attaining the object of her desire.
Not every desire, however, translates into a compelling story.
Nor is every struggle of interest.
Searching for a box of frozen peas in the freezer, for instance, is less compelling than searching for the key to buried treasure.
And struggling to climb the monkey-bars in a playground is less compelling than struggling to scale the side of a 100-story skyscraper in a lightening storm.
Structure--a sturdy structure--is formed by finding a way to meld these two factors (what your character wants and her struggle to obtain whatever it is she wants) in a compelling way.
To make your story compelling, you have to find a way to make life difficult for your character. Why? Because the more difficulties she encounters, the more sympathy you will arouse in your reader.
You'll know your story's structure is sound when your reader begins to worry about the character... and starts to care about whether she reaches her goal.
One way to understand structure is to study how other writers build tension into their stories.
Try to define what the character wants as early as possible.
Then look to see what's keeping the character from reaching her goals.
That spark of conflict (or tension)... between what the character wants and what keeps her from getting it... is where you'll find the foundation-stone of a story's structure.
To learn more about structure, take a look at these sites: