Developmental editor Laurel Cohn looks at story structure.
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.
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 you feel 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 threads 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 six to eight dot points or two to three 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 don’t seem to have a key dramatic event and others are choc-a-block with action; that a sub-plot seems to disappear from the narrative for over half the book; 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 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.
To storyboard your plot begin by listing the three main events that take place in your story; not just three random events, but the three things you are most likely to tell a friend when describing what happens in your manuscript. Use the three main events as roughly beginning, middle and end, and turn them into three panels. Now fill in some of the spaces between these main events and storyboard your plot to around 12 or 15 panels. Alternatively, create a single panel that shows the key event of each chapter. You may end up with ten or twenty panels, depending on how you have organised your material. This is a little like a visual version of the chapter outline.
HONING THE STRUCTURE
There are various ways you can play with your storyboard to help you hone your narrative structure. You can cut your panels apart and rearrange them. Storyboarding can help you discover whether you have too much story or too little. It may reveal that your story’s ending is really your beginning or that one character (or more) has no real impact on the core of the story and can be cut. It might show that the sequence of events isn’t as tightly constructed as it should be. It can be a very useful tool in the revision process. You can use storyboarding to plan ahead, and you can also use it as a diagnosis tool for what you have already written.
Different genres and different stories may lend themselves to different types of layouts. For example, in a story where the passage of time is critical (such as a crime story) a spreadsheet may be appropriate so you can chart hours, days or weeks. There is a fascinating sample of J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at www.slashfilm.com (search for J.K. Rowling).
There are lots of different ways to represent a structure using shape, colour and space. I have worked with writers who have used mind maps, excel spreadsheets, outlines and index cards. Whatever shape your skeleton takes, and your representation of it, using colour and visual patterning may help you to see your work differently – to identify weaknesses and build on strengths in your story structure. With a strong spine, your story is more likely to fulfill your intentions.
Laurel Cohn is an editor and mentor passionate about communication and the power of narrative to engage, inspire and challenge. Since the late 1980s she has been helping writers develop their stories and prepare their work for publication. She is a popular workshop presenter and runs an editing and manuscript development service.