Tag Archives: Structure

A Little Less Talk, and a Lot More Action

You know the greatest thing about being a writer? I mean other than the unbelievable fame and fortune. The greatest thing about being a writer is the fact that you get to look back at the stories of your past and say, “You know, I wish I could go back and fix that.” And then you can actually go back and fix it.

So over the last couple of days, I’ve been going back over my very first book, Ella Eris and the Pirates of Redemption, trying to see how much of it is salvageable. I started by making an outline of the story as it is currently written, a step recommended by Chuck Wendig in his recent post about editing, and…well, let’s just say breaking down  the story into its component pieces reveals more about my past writer self than I really wanted to know.

Because you know what I’ve realized? The characters in my story won’t shut up. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue, I’m all for that, but it really hit me when I was outlining upwards of three scenes in a row of “Ella goes and talks to Character X” that maybe it would be good if I had something actually happen in my book.

Not that there isn’t any action, but the outline made me realize that it wasn’t evenly spaced, and that there were large chunks of the text that served no purpose in the actual story. But back in the day I didn’t understand the proper ebb and flow of action in the story. I was so focused on getting the words right, but I failed to make the story right.

It’s an important distinction to make. If you’re a beginning writer, then chances are you’re in love with words, with the sounds they make in your head and the way they fit together. And you’ve probably picked up some bestseller or another, leafed through the first few pages and said to yourself, “I can write better than this.” And you may not believe this but, you’re probably right.

But fancy writing does not make for a bestselling book. Not that there’s anything wrong with fancy writing, but if there is anything that reading Michael Connelly has taught me it is that knowing how to tell a story well, is far more important than knowing how to construct a sentence that will make the angels weep with envy.

In my case the structure of my story is all wonky, and the pacing is terrible. Whole chapters turned out to be completely unimportant, and whole new chapters need to be written (hopefully with the characters doing more than just talking).

It took me five years to figure this out. I’m writing this blog post so maybe it won’t take five years for you to figure out what’s wrong with your story.

You’re good with words? Great. But don’t forget that words are just icing. You have to have a cake to spread them on.

This is my appeal to you: learn at least a little about structure, about the way scenes of action follow scenes of contemplation and vice versa. Learn about building tension. Learn about story.

Because that’s the stuff that really matters.

It’s Stories All the Way Down

When I started writing, I didn’t have a clue about structure.

I mean, to be fair, I didn’t a clue about anything else either, but at least there were things I knew that I didn’t have a clue about. So I read lots of books that had advice on things like avoiding adverbs, and using active verbs wherever possible, and generally focused on honing my style.

But structure was a dark area of the map for me. On some instinctive level I understood that there were certain things that a story needed to have, but I couldn’t quantify it, couldn’t look at what I was writing and say whether it had those ingredients or not.

And then, a little over a year ago, I stumbled on Kristen Lamb’s blog. Kristen Lamb did two things for me.

First, she got me blogging. Yes, that’s right. This is all her fault. I was just an innocent bystander and one day, Kristen comes up and she says, “Wanna try some blog? First one’s free.” And the rest is a story of dark alleyways and illicit WiFi connections.

Second, she got me thinking about this little thing called “structure.” Kristen would throw out these concepts like conflict lock, and Big Boss Troublemaker (this was especially confusing for me, since I’ve been calling my wife the Big Boss Troublemaker for going on two years now) and it all seemed seriously overwhelming.

But recently I discovered something for myself that made all that confusion melt away. What I discovered was this: when we think about writing a novel we think of telling a very long story with a beginning a middle and an end. We see the big picture. That’s the easy part.

But I think it’s the little picture that trips us up. Scene by scene we struggle to keep the tension up, and the stakes high. We know there’s a better way, but we can’t quite see it, and maybe we’re confused by talk of scenes and sequels,  conflict lock, and BBT’s.

But the truth is far simpler than we imagine. The truth is that stories are made out of other stories.

In a way, it’s like one of those pictures where smaller pictures are arranged together to form a single larger picture. Each scene should tell it’s own story.

And what is a story? It’s a construction in which entity “a” wants thing “b” but is hindered by thing “c”.

Plug whatever you want into those slots. If a = boy, b = girl and c = whatever, then you’ve got a romance on your hands. If a = con man, b = a million dollars and c = a bank vault, then you’ve got a heist story going on.

And every major scene in your book needs to have this a-b-c construction. You should be able to pick any single scene out and let it it be the cheese that stands alone.

It may be missing details from earlier in the plot, and it should lead into something that keeps the reader going forward, but it should still be able to stand on its own.

So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with trying to find the problem in your plot, or pushing through the mushy middle, try taking a different approach. Look at your scene and ask yourself, “How well does this work by itself? If this scene were a short story, would I enjoy it?”

If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to monkey about with those a-b-c mechanics. Because no matter how it looks, every big story is really made up of a bunch of little stories. Make sure every one of them counts.