Writing Rules Explained #5: Give Your Story Structure

Writing Rules Explained #5: Give Your Story Structure


Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, there should come a time when you revise your novel, and one of the first steps of revising your novel should involve giving it structure. I know writers seethe when they hear the word should, but honestly, what’s the point of perfecting your writing, or even elements like foreshadowing and voice, if you haven’t perfected the story you’re telling? And what’s the point of publishing a story that hasn’t been revised to retain the reader’s interest?

The editing process begins with structural editing, which involves an editor giving you feedback regarding the way your story unfolds because an editor works on behalf of the reader. Since an alarming percentage of the writing population believes editors are irrelevant and unnecessary because writing is an art, let me explain why structure is important.

Story Structure is important because:

1. Structure cuts the fat

Without structure, it’s more difficult to envision the overall story line and everything that contributes to it. If you can’t see the skeleton, how can you see the toxic fat (meaning the stuff that doesn’t need to be there and is just taking up space)? Not cutting things that should be cut gives rise to all sorts of problems.

You need to cut the fat because:

1. It’s misleading

Not cutting the fat means you could have loose ends that you haven’t tied up, unfinished story lines you were going to follow before you found a more exciting path. These loose ends will leave the reader expectant, and therefore dissatisfied and confused because they don’t go anywhere. If they’re like me, and a lot of them will be, they’ll feel like you wasted their time. Like you don’t care enough about their reading experience to have spent a little more time working on your product before you asked them for money for it, which is kind of arrogant and suggests you lack integrity. I don’t really want to give my money to people like that.

2. It’s boring

Not cutting the fat also means your story probably has scenes that don’t contribute to the plot, and if they don’t contribute to the plot, they’re probably boring. If you don’t remove boring scenes that don’t develop the plot, it seems like you don’t care enough about your audience’s reading experience to have spent a little more time working on your product before you asked them for money for it, which is kind of arrogant and suggests you lack integrity.

Basically, have you ever listened to someone telling you a story to find they go off on tangents and you’re thinking “get to the point”? How thrilled are you at the prospect of talking to that person again?

2. Structure adds substance

Not everyone writes stories with extra fat. Some writers are underwriters, and their first draft will actually be quite skinny, which brings us to the matter of pace. Pace is the rate at which the events in your story unfold. If your story is paced too slowly, it will drag and be exhausting to read; if your story is paced too quickly, it will happen so fast that the reader will struggle to be absorbed in the world and the connection they have with it will not be strong enough for them to care about the characters and the outcome. Therefore, the revision process should involve making changes to ensure your story unfolds at the correct pace, i.e. amending the structure.

So why do we need story structure?

To summarise, stories need structure because they should form a cohesive big picture without any extraneous details and they need to unfold at the right pace or your audience will have a negative reading experience, and I shouldn’t need to tell you why that’s a problem.

There’s no single story structure to follow—in fact, the structure your story needs will depend on the story itself—but it needs some sort of structure. But, there are requisites.

Climax

Your story needs a climax. Your story needs a climax because you shouldn’t want your reader to feel as though reading your novel was a waste of time. For your novel to feel like it was worth the reader’s time, the characters need to accomplish something significant. It has to end in a different place from where it began.

The climax should be close to the end. The climax should be close to the end because it’s where the central conflict of the book is overcome. The climax should be the most tense, exciting part of the story. Stories are full of important moments, but the climax is the most critical. Anything that comes after it will be dull in comparison and, like after a long day full of excitement and adventure, the reader will be wanting for things to come to an end (at least for a while). What follows the climax—the resolution—should be just long enough to provide any necessary explanations or tie up any loose ends that need to be tied up.

Rising Action

Because your story needs a climax, it also needs rising action. Your story needs to build to that climactic moment, preferably from the beginning. Story structure is devising the scenes that build up to that climactic moment.

 

Story structure makes a story feel tighter, more thought out, more attentive to your readers’ needs. Unless your reader is your mum, they don’t read your stories because they care about you and your art; they care about their own entertainment. Story structure is organising your scenes and story elements in a way that tells your story in the most entertaining way. If you write whatever you want and don’t revise your story’s structure but expect people to pay money for your half-assed attempt at entertaining them, don’t expect them to endorse you.

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