Lessons in Craft: Structure

A series about the lessons and tribulations and humility I learn as I improve my writing craft.

In the second  half of 2016, I focused on my writing and craft more than anything else and ever before. The book I wrote from earlier that year was a mess of epic proportions, and even then, I submitted that clusterfuck of a novel to #PitchWars 2016 and subsequently to an editor to help me realize what the fuck was wrong with it.

Spoiler alert: it was pacing, which honestly boils down to structure.

I’ve been around the block on writing forums, book Twitter, critique sites, and blogs and the same discussion plays out over and over again—plotter or pantser? Honestly, whatever process works for you is fantastic and if you’ve discovered the secret recipe to get words down on the page, then fuck, you’re halfway there.

But you’re still only halfway.

Whether you plot or pants or some hybrid of the two, story structure is vital and necessary to your story. Oftentimes pantsers complain, structure and outlines make me feel like I’m chained to a plot and stifles my creativity! And I once raised my voice with them. I hated the idea of structure, of beat sheets and outlines and all the other paperwork that it brings to mind. I stubbornly refused to use those resources even when I kept receiving rejection after rejection—not just from queries, but contests and potential critique partners.

Learn my from my dumb-assery.

It was during #PitchWars last summer. I decided to take the advice of  hundreds of agented writers in their revision homework posts and did the unthinkable—use a dreaded beat sheet.

*GASP*

Right? It was intense staring at all the boxes. I had to find out what each plot point, each beat, meant. What’s worse—I had to face the very real and now embarrassingly obvious truth…

I was missing half the beats.

I can hear writers wailing in my head, but stories that follow beats are so formulaic! Mine breaks the rules in new and interesting ways! 

…………………………… um ……………………………………….

Precious writers, if your end-goal is traditional publication, then the only—the only—person who can decide if such claims are true is the Industry. Yes, the Industry is a person, or rather a group of thousands of people moving at a pace more sluggish than a snail over a mountain. And they, precious writers, are the gatekeepers, beholden to the market, who pay them and (hopefully someday) you.

And that’s my goal—traditional publication and the far-off possibility of writing full-time. Commercially sold books follow story structures inherent in whatever genre you write, and it might feel formulaic, but I can guarantee almost every best-selling novel last year aligned to a beat sheet.

So I set to work, which meant a complete and total overhaul of my MS. For this project, that looked like starting with structure. I filled out a new beat sheet and really thought about the promises of the book, the themes, and what had to happen to get to the ending I envisioned.

It helped immensely. I could see the path ahead more clearly rather than letting my characters take control in a scene and lead me down a rabbit hole I’d later have to dig us all out of or bury entirely.  If a scene was unnecessary, as in it didn’t move the plot forward or effectively show relationship and/or character development, I realized and nixed it right away. And for once, I could actually tell as I wrote because the way forward was crystal-fucking-clear.

And you know what? I also fucked that beat sheet up. I switched out events and changed the stakes and threw out a whole subplot. And that flexibility came easily because of the beat sheet. One punch of the backspace button, swipe of an eraser, roll of the white-out tape, and BAM! Changed.

The beat sheet, the structure, did not chain me to my plot, it did not cage me and take away the glow of excitement to write.

So here I am, advocating that you use beat sheets, study story structure, read up on pacing. Many writers pants the first draft and revise the fuck out of the second, third, fifth, millionth, for the exact reason above—outlines make me feel like I’m chained to a plot and stifle my creativity!—and that’s totally okay. But that doesn’t ever mean you can trash structure entirely. Apply it in revisions. Apply it beforehand. Whichever way is best for you.

Story structure will save your sanity, your relationships, and your story. You need it. I swear.

 

 

Resources:
Larry Brooks’ storyfix.com story structure series
Jami Gold’s beat sheet and other worksheets for writers
Susan Dennard’s guide to revisions
K.M. Weiland’s helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

 

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4 thoughts on “Lessons in Craft: Structure

  1. Kat Teacher says:

    Although not a writer, this speaks to me as a much broader statement.
    “Precious writers, if your end-goal is traditional publication, then the only—the only—person who can decide if such claims are true is the Industry…. And that’s my goal—traditional publication and the far-off possibility of writing full-time. ”
    I’ve been having a tough time figuring out where to go next with our teaching materials, been sorta doing our own thing, which has done well, and I avoided following the check lists for boosting our site, because I felt like they “didn’t apply to me and my thing”. It took a while, but I’m realizing now how important it is to get everything aligned if you want to be “popular” if you want people to hand over their money, if you want to make your passion a living.
    Thanks for the post, I get now where I should be focusing, because I went back last night and started really digging into those checklists, and I’ll be marking them off today!
    xx

    Liked by 1 person

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