People (myself included), often make the mistake of saying that you need “relatable” characters. Being able to see yourself in a character is VITAL to enjoying a good story… that said, you don’t have to be a serial killer to appreciate Hannibal Lecter – you just have to be able to understand him.
Hannibal’s brilliant mind (in Red Dragon especially, but also in the film Silence of the Lambs), leads him to make horrible conclusions on society as a whole, and to do horrible things… but given his past and the way his mind works, we can understand how he functions. The scary thing about him comes when we see parts of our own mindset wrapped up inside him.
He is well-crafted. He is complete.
In screenplays, there exists a perfectly defined pre-determined structure. The average screenplay is about 110 pages (this has changed over time, but is basically universally agreed upon). It contains a beginning of about 27 pages, a middle of about 56 pages and an end of about 27 pages.
Well, in novels, it isn’t that simple. That said, books without structure are obvious to almost everyone. Characters often find themselves stumbling across things - purely by chance - that resolve difficult plotlines. They go pages and pages without doing anything ultimately relevant to the book.
Note: On the subject of relevance, let’s say the main character breaks her car and then fixes it… well, if it had never broken, we would be left exactly we are. Or, let’s say they get lost in the woods and find their way out… if they hadn’t gotten lost, again, we would be left where we are.
The structure is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING when it comes to your readers completing your story or book. It is the guiding light. When we put down our book and think, “I wonder if Jimmy will be able to tell Sally how he feels”, that is the structure keeping us involved. Something should always be left unresolved until the final pages. At any given moment, we should be able to put down the book, and be in the middle of something that needs to be resolved.
The structure is the guiding leash that pulls us along. That said, if Frodo must destroy the ring of power, and everything goes as planned, we have an incredibly boring story. He sneaks in without trouble, plops the ring in the fire, and everyone is saved. Hurray!
Except the path is too direct. When things are too easy, it’s hard for us to get invested in the wonderful characters that exist, or in the beautiful theme that is laid out before us. We need to have our emotions toyed with. We need the possibility of failure. We need Surprise.
Don’t imagine that surprise is the opposite of structure. It is NOT. Surprise allows you to shift your story (See Story at the bottom of the Theme section). This means, new things happen. New opportunities present themselves. Still, the overall structure remains.
Imagine that you’ve created a maze for your readers. The maze leads to a wonderful, riveting conclusion that you’ve had planned for quite some time. Your structure is the maze as a whole. When you introduce surprise, you are simply shifting a wall in the maze; your character can no longer go the way that your reader imagined... but that’s okay because, when you shift a wall, another way opens. Regardless of how many walls you shift, eventually, the path will lead to the center.
Hansel and Gretel shouldn’t have gone into a stranger’s house. That is why they’re eaten. That’s the theme of the story. That’s why it exists. That’s what the story, at its core, is about.
This doesn’t mean that the perfect story must always have a MORAL (though there is nothing inherently wrong with a moral). It does, however, need a message. It is quite likely that ALL of your favorite books have a message. Good books that seemingly have no message, typically have an atypical message; eg. “There’s no meaning to the universe. Everything is random and pointless.”
Don’t confuse STORY and THEME.
Your story is what happens: Hansel and Gretel leave a trail of breadcrumbs. The birds eat the breadcrumbs and they get lost. They see a house of candy. A woman invites them inside. She turns out to be a witch. They get eaten.
The Theme is WHY the story exists.
You should always have a general theme in your mind when writing a book – even on page one.