Tag: story structure

Nov 06

How learning story structure helps me write faster

I last participated in NaNoWriMo in 2010. Since then, I’ve had two kids, quit my job, and rewritten my novel twice. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit about story structure and am now a reformed pantser (although no one is ever only a plotter or a pantser, many lean far to one side of the spectrum or the other).

Given my love of plotting, then, I didn’t know if I’d ever participate in Nano again. However, I was sufficiently motivated this year, and I’m loving it! And what I love most is how the years of studying story structure are paying dividends in a decidedly write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants month.

Before I learned structure, when I got stuck, I’d ask myself, “What do I want to happen next?” Or maybe even, “What should happen next?” But since I didn’t know anything about that should, I just brainstormed until I came up with a good idea (or any idea).



Now, when I want to know what should happen next, I just have to position myself within the framework of structure. “What should happen next? Well, I’ve just passed the call to adventure/inciting event, so now I need to work toward a First Plot Point that will change everything, oh yeah, and reveal the antagonist’s power and/or plan, and force my main character to make a decision to enter the Adventure World.” (Sometimes I even write sentences exactly like that in my brainstorming! Because it’s hard to hold everything there is to know about the First Plot Point in my head all at once.) That is a much easier question to brainstorm an answer for, because structure gives me criteria—a way to judge how good ideas are.

Usually by the time I hit on an idea that meets all those criteria, it’s plenty good enough to roll with! It might take slightly longer to get to that idea than to come up with an answer to my old, more generic questions, but the difference is that I know the specific question will lead me to an answer that won’t paint me into a corner and will leave me with something more novel-shaped at the end. That saves me time both in November and in my future edits!

I cannot recommend K.M. Weiland’s site highly enough. She will kindly and gently lure you into plotting (even if you still like to pants the heck out of the first draft and just apply structure in editing). For a quick rundown (with way more depth available), check out her everything checklist!

P.S. You can support girls’ education and motivate me to finish Nanowrimo this year by donating to the Malala Fund!

Jan 13

Getting readers hooked (and stringing them along)

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareTrying to unstick myself while drafting my current work-in-progress, I was drawing a timeline of my story (an adaptation of the idea in this post). My main plot is a question that’s (hopefully) raised in the reader’s mind on almost the first page and that doesn’t get resolved until almost the last page—the main dramatic question. Along the way there are many other questions that get raised and answered at various points in the story.

To help myself understand the technique, I started thinking about a book I’d reread recently (City of Bones) and the example in the article (The Hunger Games).

I realized something about the “hook” of a story that I’d never thought of before—about how you not only hook readers at the beginning of a novel but reel them in. (Links go to my favorite site about story structure.) In the latter post, you’ll read that you have to hook readers just long enough to get them to the next hook. But how?

I thought of two ways to do it. The first is illustrated by City of Bones. Its first chapter is summarized in the back-cover blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. And she’s more than a little startled when the body disappears into thin air.

What a hook! However, most of the explanations for the questions raised by the blurb are revealed throughout the first four chapters. So what keeps us reading? By the time all those questions are answered, Clary’s apartment has been ransacked, her mother is missing, a demon attacks her (the Inciting Event), and one of the teenage “murderers” (actually, of course, demon-killers) rescues her. By then, we’ve been plunged into the main plot of not just this book but the whole series, as Clary tries to rescue her mother and comes to grips with a magical world she never knew about. The questions raised in the first chapter overlapped the questions raised by subsequent events just long enough to get us hooked! And of course, like any good plot, the early questions are all tightly linked to the main antagonist.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe second way that keeps readers interested I noticed in The Hunger Games. The story opens on Katniss waking, finding her sister not there, and worrying about her. The questions are raised and answered in quick succession, so quickly that we might not even notice them, but each answer produces another question.

“Where’s Prim? With our mother. Why? She had a bad dream. Why? Today is the Reaping. What’s a Reaping?” That question sustains us for a few more pages, when the answer immediately makes us wonder, “Will Katniss be chosen?” The answer turns out to be no, but only because it’s her sister, Prim, who must face death (the Inciting Event). Given how much we now know Katniss cares for Prim, we can’t learn that it’s Prim without asking, “What will Katniss do?” When she immediately volunteers to be Tribute, we then land on the dramatic question that will occupy most of the rest of the book, which is, “Will Katniss survive?” (Because readers might know that the book has a sequel and guess that Katniss will have to survive, even if learning how she survives would be an interesting question in itself, the clever author quickly makes us care about another question with a far less certain answer: “Will Peeta survive?”)

So there you have it: overlapping questions and answers that are also (or that immediately produce) questions, two different ways to hook your reader and string them along until they care enough about the characters to want to find the answer to the main dramatic question.

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