First element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)
How is your story organized, or not? Restructuring for clarity of story arcs and character arcs.
By structure I mean how the book manuscript is organized.
- Where does the story begin?
- When does the “hook” come in?
- Where do the chapter breaks occur? Where do the scene breaks occur? Can/should the scene breaks be chapter breaks or vice versa?
- Do the chapters get shorter toward the end of the book?
- Which characters get Points of View (POV) in the chapters and scenes?
- Do I need a prologue?
- Do I use a linear story line with flashbacks or non-linear story line?
All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, I often start reading a manuscript (or a published book) and find that the story—as envisioned by the author—would be better if it began with paragraph two, or page two, or even chapter two. The preceding material is either irrelevant or it would be better served by being introduced later as a flashback or background that has contextual relevance; for example, character bios.
How do I know the author’s vision? Typically, I request a tagline/logline and a synopsis from the author. This tells me what the author believes his/her story is about. Then I read the manuscript and often see that the two are not in sync, particularly the beginning. Or the author’s vision is eventually revealed within the story, and the asynchronous elements become apparent.
If you don’t have a tagline/logline for your book, write one.
Example The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware:
When Harriet Westaway learns she has inherited a substantial bequest from her grandmother, it seems like the answer to her prayers. There’s just one problem — her grandmother died more than twenty years earlier.
If you don’t have a one-page (single-spaced) synopsis for your book, write one. This does not have to be set in stone; it can change.
These tools will help you with your structure. Ask yourself: Does my story fulfill the promise made in the tagline/logline, and in the synopsis?
Common problem: Beginning with background information on the setting or a character, which, at that point, has no context for the reader, so the reader skims it or skips it, or reads it without comprehension; e.g., “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Solution: Jump straight into a scene with some kind of action—even if that “action” is a character seated on the roof a skyscraper, contemplating her navel. This engages the reader—draws the reader in—so the reader wants to continue reading and not have to wade through a geography lesson or history lesson—or a weather report.
Example from The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware, who could have begun with:
It was now a dark and stormy night, and she was now afraid—very, very afraid.
That is TELLING in passive voice (and “now” is self-evident and unnecessary, never mind ungrammatical).
Instead, Ware SHOWS using active voice. Notice the verbs she uses:
The girl leaned, rather than walked, into the wind, clutching the damp package of fish and chips grimly under one arm even as the gale plucked at the paper, trying to unravel the parcel and send the contents skittering away down the seafront for the seagulls to claim.
As she crossed the road, her hand closed over the crumpled note in her pocket, and she glanced over her shoulder, checking the long dark stretch of pavement behind her for a shadowy figure, but there was no one there. No one she could see, anyway.
The author, through “showing” rather than “telling,” introduces a female character on her way home with dinner, struggling against a strong wind, and fearful that she is being followed. The author paints a picture that the reader can easily envision in her or his mind. Fifteen verbs, and only one of them “was.” (Mind you, she could have done without the adverb “grimly.”) More on this in Narrative Voice.
What does this have to do with structure? It’s an excellent example of how to begin your story, on Page 1. Begin the book, chapters, and scenes with showing/active voice. That’s the way to engage your readers and keep them turning pages. As Mary Karr (The Art of Memoir) says, “Be carnal.”
You ask: How can I comprehend the structure of my book? It’s 150,000 words long.
Answer: Create a chapter-by-chapter outline of the entire book. Include in that outline a few words that tell you what happens in that chapter, character POV, page number of the first page of the chapter, and the number of pages (and words) in the chapter.
This is the beauty of it: You can create the outline AFTER —as Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) puts it— you write your “shitty first draft.” With the outline in front of you, you can analyze the structure as it exists.
Writing a book is not like building a house. You don’t have do it in a strict order or progression. You can write the ending first, if you want. Just get words on paper. Then create the outline so you can see what you’ve done. Ask yourself: On what page do I have the hook? Where is the first turning point that changes the direction of the story? Where do the story arcs begin and end? With that laid out in front of you, you can begin restructuring, reorganizing it into a coherent, cohesive story line.
I did this for one of the authors I work with. It opened her eyes. She had wanted one scene, one chapter, and pretty much stuck to it. But the near the end of the book, as the action approached its climax, she had a long chapter with five scenes. Just the opposite of what she should be doing. So I recommended splitting it up and reorganizing the chapter and scene breaks, as well as deleting some of it.
The outline also showed her where she gave characters POV, including minor characters that had small roles in the story, meanwhile not giving POV to the primary characters. It also showed her that she had given way too much POV to a secondary antagonist, while diminishing the role of the primary antagonist. She rewrote those chapters from a different POV and made the story that much better.
The outline will give you a road map and highlight problem areas in the structure, plot, and character POV.
I recommend that writers join a read & critique group, preferably where you are the least experienced writer. However, a weakness of read-and-critique groups is that they tend to focus on one chapter at a time, or even a partial chapter. It may take a year or more to get through a book-length manuscript, and the participants lose sight of the big picture. Authors have this same problem of myopia. A chapter outline will help bring it into focus; hiring a developmental editor will help even more. E.g., San Diego author Alan Russell, for his first novel, hired a development editor ($4000) and rewrote the story based on the editor’s recommendations. He has never looked back, and has sold hundreds of thousands of books.
The Prologue Question: To P or not to P? Short answer: Not.
I have written a blog about this—On Writing: The Primrose Path to Prologue—so I will not belabor the issue here. I have a link to the blog on the aforementioned Resources page.
Suffice to say that (1) most readers skip the prologue, and (2) a prologue is a red flag to literary agents, especially for unpublished writers (or, using a new-age euphemism, “prepublished” writers).
In my experience, so-called prologues either are not prologues, or they are unnecessary, or they could (should) be Chapter 1. Or they contain background information that could (should) be disclosed later, in a context within the story that is more meaningful to the reader. A prime example of this, IMHO, is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.
In one instance of a manuscript I edited, the author had a prologue, then Chapter One opened with: Three years earlier. Huh? How can the prologue be a prologue if it occurs three years after the beginning of the story? Answer: It can’t.
Does the same apply to Epilogue? Often times, yes. An epilogue is used to tie up loose ends, after the action comes to an end. But not every story needs this.
Can I have an epilogue even if I don’t have a prologue? Yes.
If I have a prologue, do I need an epilogue? No.
Linear v. non-linear structure/story line: Does my story line have to be linear and chronological? Or can I do as Quentin Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction and have a (at times confusing) non-linear story line, but a linear theme line?
No, and yes. But make sure you don’t confuse the reader when you make the transitions back and forth. It should be clear. Clarity, not confusion.
A common non-linear storyline is to begin the story in the present, or near the present, then the main character reminisces or recalls what got her to this current situation or dilemma. So the bulk of the story is actually a flashback.
One problem with a non-linear story line I often see is backtracking: An author writes a scene from one character’s point of view and moves the story from point A to point C. Then the author backtracks to point B using a secondary character’s point of view, but reveals nothing new to the reader; it just rehashes what the reader already knows. What’s the point? If it doesn’t have a story reason, leave it out.
You say: But Quentin Tarantino did it in Pulp Fiction, so why can’t I?
I reply: Are you Quentin Tarantino? Seriously, though, Tarantino had a specific story reason for doing that and made it work, because while it may not have moved the story line forward, it reinforced his theme line. There’s an excellent analysis of this online and why it worked for him.
If you want to go this route, give it a great deal of thought. It also raises the question: Just because it worked in a movie script, will it work in a book?
You ask: But aren’t flashbacks non-linear?
Answer: Yes and no. Strictly speaking, yes, they are non-linear. However, they are triggered by a character recalling a previous event or experience, so the flashbacks have contextual relevance to the story line, and the transitions into and out of the flashbacks are (or should be) clear to the reader.
More on structure in the sections on Narrative Mode and Point of View.
Second in the series: Content