No, I'm not going completely batty...nor have I been reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (not lately anyway).
What I have been reading is Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is a book I've been trying to get a hold of for a few years, ever since someone (I'm not even sure who now) recommended it as an excellent book for all fiction writers, not just writers of sci fi and fantasy. I even ordered it used a couple of years ago, but it got lost in the mail (something that never happens!) and the seller didn't have another copy. Turns out the library a couple of towns over actually had a copy all this time.
Much of the book is specific to writing for this particular genre, and while interesting, it's not all pertinent to my own sense of calling as a writer right now. But there was one chapter that I found worth its weight in gold, chapter 3 on "Story Construction."
Card offers wonderful descriptions of four elements that can determine the structure of your story. They're all in every story to some degree, but usually one "stands out" more than any other, and thus determines the story's shape. He gives the acronym MICE for the four elements: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event.
He suggests the best way to determine the structure your story should have is to consider carefully what part of the writing you feel most passionate about. The part of the story you care the most about crafting, or the part of the story you think is most important, is the key to your structure.
In brief: MILIEU stories are the ones where you most care about the environment, world or society you're creating. These stories are shaped by the need to have a character explore a world that is strange and different to him or her. That character is usually your POV, and the story usually begins with entry into that different world and ends when the character leaves (or chooses not to).
IDEA stories care about the discovery of important information. They look into the process of finding something out. An idea story usually starts by asking a question, and ends when it's answered. The most obvious example is a "whodunnit" murder mystery, but there are other stories that fit the pattern as well. The important thing is to raise a question, a question that's important to one or more characters in the story. One can spend some time establishing character, but must get to the key question soon within the narrative.
CHARACTER stories are what they sound like, stories whose main focus is on who a character is, not just what he or she does. Character stories are about transformation, often (Card says) about the transformation of a person's role in a certain community. (Though I think transformation stories can and do go deeper than that sometimes.) A character story usually begins when your main character becomes dissatisfied in some way with their current situation or role, and it ends when they move into a new one or fall back into the old one (neither ending has to be a happy one). Card suggests beginning your story as close as you can to that moment when the character realizes change must happen. He also reminds us that other characters, besides the main one, will change within a story too...but the climax doesn't depend on how they change. Their changes or how they resist the change of the main character may be important in providing struggle/drama.
Finally, there's the EVENT story. Here it is more important what a character does (or is done to him or her) than who the character is. The shape of the story usually centers around a disordered world. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark..." or Middle Earth, or someone's family. Whether a big world or a small one, the disorder is real and the main character opposes the disorder or tries to reorder things, restore peace, etc. The story usually begins (and this is very important, according to Card) not when the chaos ensues, but when the main character becomes aware of it/is called to the struggle. Thus Hamlet doesn't start with the king's murder, but with the ghost coming to Hamlet to tell him of it. And The Lord of the Rings doesn't begin with Sauron forging the rings, but with Frodo's realization that the ring he has is the "one ring" and that he's called to do something about that. Important to remember: the main character is often not a great and mighty person, but a small one who is freeer to act and whose actions are often less noticeable but more important to the unfolding of the story.
Card adds that most stories could be structured in any of these four ways. What's important is to find the structure that works for you (by following your instinct and passion about what matters most to you in the story you're setting out to tell) and then stick with it consistently. In other words, if you begin by writing a character story, then end with the transformation of that character, not the solving of a mystery. So basically you need to deliver payoffs for your set-ups, as an online acquaintance of mine (who's a screenwriter) loves to say. Thanks Janet!
I know this is basic stuff, but I found it incredibly helpful. Plot is not my strong suit and never has been. I can write scenes all day, but am not always as skilled at finding ways to shape them into a meaningful whole. So this is guidance worth pondering, especially coming as it is from such a story craftsman as Card (who singlehandedly changed my stereotyped attitude to science fiction a few years back). I'm looking forward to trying to heed these thoughts as I revisit some stories I've been working on...and struggling with...for a while.