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pathways to publishing > writers' tips > story structure

Understanding Story Structure

SPINAL CARE FOR WRITERS

No, this column is not about how to maintain correct posture at the computer (are you sitting up straight?). I'm interested here in the notion of the spine of your story. Just as you can't function at your optimum if you have spinal issues, your story needs to have a strong and healthy backbone. Think of your story as a creature. It does not need to look realistic – it can have a multitude of limbs and unusual features – but it needs to be able to stand on its own and deliver its creator's intent. Being able to identify the backbone of your story is crucial to help you work out whether you have unwanted growths that need to be excised or require additional material needed for balance.

PLANNERS AND PANTSERS

Some writers meticulously plot their story before they begin chapter one. These are the planners. Others just start writing and let the story develop and unfold as they go. These are sometimes referred to as 'pantsers', those who write 'from the seat of their pants'. There is no right or wrong way; it is totally dependent on the writerly practice that works for the individual author. However, in my experience as a developmental editor, structural issues are common in both fiction and narrative non-fiction book-length works, and while planners do sometimes need to apply structural adjustments to their work, it is the pantsers who usually need to consider significant spinal manipulation.

DIAGNOSIS

The first step is to find out exactly what you're dealing with. Some writers know there are structural issues in their work, but are not sure how to go about identifying them. Writing a chapter outline after a completed draft is a good start. It is also useful if you are some way into a work and feeling like the structure eludes you. Some publishers require this as part of the submission (particularly for non-fiction), but even if they don't, and even if you are a planner, it can be a very illuminating exercise. Using point form or prose, note for each chapter the key event, characters introduced, time covered, themes, plot lines etc. What you put into your chapter outline will depend on the type of manuscript. You could begin with quite a detailed approach, but see if you can end up with no more than 6 to 8 dot points or 2 to 3 short paragraphs for each chapter. The idea is to outline what you have written, not what you intended to write.

You may find that the draft is well-paced and balanced, with no major holes or blips. Or you may find that some chapters only have a few things happening in them and others are choc-a-block with action; that a sub-plot seems to disappear from the narrative; that a character is redundant; that the pace is uneven. Reviewing your chapter outline will give you ideas on what is working, what is missing and what needs to be rethought.

IDENTIFYING THE SPINE OF THE STORY

Diagnosis is only the first step. In order to fix structural issues, you have to be able to identify the spine of your story. One strategy is storyboarding. A storyboard is a series of illustrated panels in a sequence, like a comic book. It is used in film to help plot stories and you can use it to help identify the key structural points in your manuscript: the bones of the spine. Once you understand where the spine lies, you can more readily amputate unnecessary limbs or strange growths that cripple the story. Storyboarding also helps you see your story as more than a collection of words – the individual bones are depictions of characters, their actions, and the consequences of those actions.

HONING THE STRUCTURE

There are various ways you can play with your storyboard to help you hone your narrative structure. Try identifying a single panel that shows the key event of each chapter. You may end up with 10 or 20 panels, depending on how you have organised your material. Take those panels and see if you can reduce them to 5 or 6 without losing the central essence of your story.

Another strategy is to draw up a spreadsheet to keep track of what is happening. This can be particularly useful in action/adventure/crime stories. There is a fascinating sample of J.K. Rowling's spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and other writers' structuring strategies at flavorwire.com (search for Handwritten Outlines). And while you're perusing the web, remember to watch your posture!