Tag Archives: Plot & Structure

Book Review: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, By KM Weiland

There are many fine books on how to structure a novel. James Scott Bell’s classic, Plot & Structure, comes to mind. Add to the list author and blogger KM Weiland’s latest book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.

Weiland takes an analytical approach to the topic, but writes in clear prose and uses examples from film and literature to re-enforce her points. The book is divided into three parts: story structure, scene structure, and sentence structure. Like Bell, Weiland advocates the three-act story structure. She takes the reader through the various plot points that propel the story forward. She also covers topics like effective beginnings, opening chapter pitfalls, introducing characters, stakes and setting, and when to bait the hook and when to initiate the inciting incident.

One of the best aspects of this book is the detailed explanation how to handle the third act. This is where books succeed or fail. Weiland presents a comprehensive analysis of the climax, resolution and effective endings. “The Climax is where you have to pull out your big guns. This is a series of scenes that needs to wow the reader. Dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas,” she writes.

She advises writers to set up the ending by foreshadowing it. “Inevitability and unexpectedness are the two key ingredients necessary in every perfect ending. And yet they’re incompatible…The trick to successfully combining inevitability and unexpectedness rests primarily upon two different factors: foreshadowing and complications,” she writes.

While the section on story structure is worth the price of the book alone, Weiland offers a detailed discussion of how to build effective scenes in the following section. Weiland breaks down the Scene (capital S) into two segments: scene and sequel. The scene is the action part and consists of three elements: goal-conflict-disaster. The sequel is the reaction part of the Scene: reaction, dilemma and decision.

Some of the insights I found most compelling included:

“Character and change. That’s what story is all about. We take a person and we force him onto a journey that will change him forever.”

“Readers love action (whatever its manifestation), and authors can’t create a story without it. But without character reactions, all that juicy action will lack context, and, as a result, meaning.

This book is an essential resource, especially for new writers.

KM Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction. She is the author of six novels and another excellent craft of fiction book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Her blog, Wordplay, is an excellent resource for writers.

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First Revisions: Shaping the Mound of Clay

You finished your first draft. Hurray! You’ve set it aside for a period of time to gain distance and perspective. It’s time to dive back in for that first round of revisions. Not so fast.

Getting those initial revisions right is crucial to your success. How well you do may make the difference between a publishable manuscript and a deeply flawed work.

Picture that first draft as a mound of clay. There is a shape to it, but it needs definition. Maybe it’s a pyramid, but you picture a house surrounded by a picket fence, or a high-tech spaceship. The first revision is your best opportunity to shape the manuscript as you work toward the final draft.

You may have the urge to plunge in and start re-writing scenes, reinventing characters, and adding new dimensions to the story. That’s only natural, but first you should put on your reader’s glasses and go through the entire draft. Make notes in the margin or use the Comment feature of your software program. Circle typos and grammatical mistakes, but don’t get hung up on grammar or spelling. Focus on the big three: story, character, theme.

Some helpful questions as you read through your draft are:

  • What is the story really about?
  • What does the main character want, fear? What is the main character’s goal? Is it clear to the reader?
  • What is standing in the main character’s way of achieving the goal?
  • Is the central conflict evident to the reader?
  • Is there enough tension and uncertainty?
  • Does the main character engage the reader?
  • Why should the reader care?
  • Is the story plausible (note I didn’t write ‘believable’)?
  • Are there any scenes that can be cut?
  • Is there a theme? Is it apparent to the reader? How well-developed is the theme?

Don’t make any revisions until you’ve read the entire first draft. Then go back and read your notes or comments. A couple of things should become clear: where the holes in the story exist and where the theme needs to be embellished.

James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot & Structure, urged writers to get through the reading of the first draft as quickly as possible. “Do not get bogged down in details at this point,” he wrote. “What you want is the big picture, the overall impression. You can take very brief notes if you wish, but try not to slow down for any considerable period.

“You should work from the big issues down through the small ones,” he wrote.

When I reviewed the first draft of my novel, Small Change, I discovered I had started the story in the wrong place. It wasn’t a simple fix, either. I made the agonizing decision to eliminate the first four chapters, which, among other benefits, trimmed down an unwieldy manuscript.

Once you’ve reviewed your notes and comments, it’s time to go to work. Take on the big changes first, as Bell advised. Fix the story. This will involve changes to the characters. Pay attention to the way the story flows as you work. Mold that piece of clay.

The second draft is where you discover your story, hone it, strengthen your characters, shore up the weak spots, trim the fat. In most instances, you won’t have your final draft, but you’ll be a lot closer.

How do you tackle that first revision? Do you dive right in or read the manuscript?

 

 

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You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

I finally finished the first draft of my novella, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media. This one took only seven months, but it was a novella.

A writer who finishes a first draft may experience a giddy desire to dive right in and begin revising the manuscript. After all, the writer should keep the momentum going, right? No. Writers must resist this urge. Take a break from your first draft. Walk away. Really. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Stephen King advised in his classic craft book, On Writing:

“How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneading—is entirely up to you,” King wrote, “but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.” The layoff gives the writer distance and perspective.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.” For King, the most glaring errors have to do with character motivation. For every writer it will be different.

Here’s what James Scott Bell wrote about first drafts in his classic craft book, Plot & Structure: “Your first draft needs a cooling-off period. So forget all about your novel and do something else…All the while, your first draft is cooling in the recesses of your brain, where a lot of good stuff happens, unnoticed.”

When a writer finishes a first draft, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a milestone. The writer should give himself a round of applause. Have some chocolate or a glass of your favorite beverage. There’s no empirical data to support this, but I would assert that most novice writers never get through the first draft. It’s an achievement.

Here’s what I do after finishing a first draft:

  • Do something nice. Give yourself a reward. Buy a new book or a CD.
  • Work on something completely different for the next four to six weeks. Try a short story. Try something in a different genre. Consult your ideas folder.
  • Read that bestseller you’ve been meaning to check out. Read it again with an attention to how the author told the story.

When the writer comes back to the first draft after an extended break, she will see the work in a new light. The writer will instantly spot all the flaws and the brilliant passages. The writer will see elements of the story that don’t work, scenes that don’t sing, or perhaps characters that don’t come alive. The writer may well discover the story starts in the wrong place. That dramatic scene on page 75 is the real beginning. The stuff that came before is just back story. The writer may see a character she loved when she created her, but after review, this character just gets in the way of the core story.

The good news is that in most cases, a writer will finish the first draft of her next book sooner than the first. Here’s how long it has taken me to finish my first drafts:

First novel: Small Change, 12 months, 126,000 words (final draft was 103,000 words)

Second novel: Color Him Father, 8 months, 117,000 words (still in draft)

Third novel: Bonus Baby (National Novel Writing Month novel), 30 days, 53,000 words (still in draft).

Fourth novel, Life of the Party, 7 months, 56,300 words.

How long does it take you to finish a first draft? Do you gain speed with each novel?

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Developing a Written Outline–Part II

The previous post discussed why writers should prepare written outlines for their novels. Let’s look now at what an outline should include. Writers differ on the length and scope of an outline, but it should include these elements:

  • Title of the novel.
  • Premise or idea behind the story. This doesn’t have to be detailed. It could be one sentence. For example, the premise for the Harry Potter series could be this: an orphaned boy escapes from a cruel childhood to discover he is a celebrated wizard who must take on a powerful evil wizard.
  • A list of the characters. For the main character, the writer should identify her strengths, weaknesses goals and motivations. The characters should include those who will help the main character and those who will try to stop her.
  • Identification of the main character’s goal, quest or dream and the obstacles in the way.
  • A sequence of major events in the story, which should have conflict and tension.
  • A climax to the story, followed by resolution.
  • A satisfying ending that ties up the loose ends.

Common types of outlines include:

  • Chapter outline—a few sentences or paragraphs on each chapter
  • Scene outline—short descriptions of each scene.
  • Narrative outline—an account of what happens in the book.
  • Index card outline—writing scenes or scene ideas on index cards

Outlines can be short or detailed. A writer colleague of mine uses a device called a “structure table,” a grid with columns and rows. Such a table could be organized in a grid with these columns:

Chapter/Scene/Characters/Setting/Action

Some writers organize tables where one of the columns is Motivation. Some create storyboards and some authors write scenes on color-coded index cards. Some write a long narrative describing all the action in the present tense.

Mystery writer JA Konrath writes long outlines. “My outlines are very detailed,” he wrote in A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. “They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.

“I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two,” he wrote.

Konrath estimates it takes him a solid week of eight-hour days to produce a 40-page outline. “But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all the hard stuff out of the way.”

James Scott Bell, in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, discusses a variety of plotting systems, ultimately concluding writers must choose the system that works best for them. He cautions, however, “If certain foundational elements are missing, the story is going to sag. You can avoid major problems by some focused thinking about your story before you write.”

As I mentioned, I am more of a “pantser,” but I have used an outline for each of my novels. My outline for Small Change became moot when I made the main character 14 years old instead of 10 at the start of the book. That’s the beauty of writing. You need to have the flexibility to change your mind when something’s not working. If I were to rewrite my original outline it might start out like this:

Chapter 1

Introduce John Sykowksi, the main character, and his family at the lakeside resort in Wisconsin where they spend a week each summer. In the opening scene, John, who is 14 years old, is uncomfortable when their neighbor, Mrs. Crandale, asks him to rub suntan lotion on her back. [This foreshadows the most dramatic scene in the first half of the novel]

So what’s the correct answer regarding outlining? There is none. Whatever system works for you is what you should use.

Here are some good resources on outlining:

Paperback writer

Creative Penn

Snowflake method-Randy Ingermanson

Larry Brooks discussion on outlining

What is your outlining method? Have you changed your view on outlining as you’ve grown as a writer?

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