Last week we talked about story structure—the basic framework on which to hang the flesh and blood of your story. Keep in mind this is just the basic structure. There’s a circular structure, the Hero’s Journey, etc. but at the core, it all boils down to these five elements. I could go on and on about story structure; it’s an obsession/fascination for me, but for the sake of self-editing this is what you need to know.
A Word About Outlining
There has been and probably always will be an endless debate about outlining. You have your die-hards who will outline to the very last detail down to the color of their character’s underwear, and others who paint broad strokes and leave the rest to the actual writing process. I’m not going to get into that here—everyone has their own way of writing a story and there is no right or wrong way. However, I will say once you start editing your story, it’s quite helpful to create an outline of what you’ve already written.
But Netta, you say, isn’t that backward? No, not really. An outline before you write can keep you (mostly) on track, but we all know outlines are not written in stone. Many things can change as you write. Characters can get a wild hair up their ass and take off in a different direction; that’s part of the creative process. So it’s a good idea, in your first read, to construct an outline of what you’ve really written. This will help you chart your tale, and pinpoint areas which need work to flesh out, tweak, and help you evaluate your plot line.
The Backbone of Your Story—Plot
Think of the plot as the spine. Without a strong plot line, all you have are a bunch of random people wandering around doing random things. After you complete the first read and construct an outline, take your red pen and read over the outline with these things in mind:
1. Do you have a clear story goal? In other words, what is the point of the story? Even in a series with an overall story arc, your novel requires a clear story goal within the arc of the series.
2. Does your story start in the right place? You want to establish your protagonist’s problem early, and hook your reader from the beginning. Ideally, this should happen in the first two chapters.
3. Does the plot make logical sense? No matter the genre, you are asking your reader to suspend their disbelief, but if you establish rules/parameters for your world, they need to make sense within the constructs of your world. For instance, if angels are invisible in Chapter One, you can’t make them visible in Chapter Twelve unless you lay the groundwork for this to be possible.
4. Do your hooks, twists, and turns make sense and are they related to the rest of the plot? Or are random fixes appearing out of nowhere?
5. Are there too many or not enough sub-plots? Is it clear what’s going on? Or are you leaving your reader lost and confused in the maze of Too Much Happening?
6. Do you have the right point of view (POV) for the story you are telling? If you’re writing in the first person, how might your story look in the third person instead?
7. Have you maintained a balance of narrative, action, and dialog? Or are there pages of backstory, info dumps, and long conversations going nowhere?
8. Is the climax sufficiently dramatic? Is that deep, dark, black moment ripping out the guts of your readers? Good. Clean up in Aisle 5. If not, go deeper.
9. Did you resolve the main story goal or problem for the protagonist? It’s okay to leave some sub-plots dangling, especially if it is a book in a series, but regardless, the major issue needs to be resolved even if it’s a part of a series.
*Photo courtesy of hotblack from morguefile.com
A word about cliffhangers at the end of a volume in a series: Some readers love them, many readers hate them, especially if they have to wait a significant amount of time between books. If you are writing a series, it might be a good idea to finish the series before launching, especially if you include mind-blowing cliffhangers at the end of your volumes. Otherwise, you can easily lose your reader following and really piss them off and this way, too, you can control the timing of release.
Make notes in your outline as you read through a second time, targeting soft spots in the plot and ways to shore up the story. With a strong outline based on what you’ve written, you can easily see where important tweaking needs to be done. Don’t be afraid to cut and paste, change things around, or mark certain spots for a re-write. DON’T BE AFRAID. You always have the original document, so if you feel you’re messed things up beyond all repair, you can always return to that. Think about one thing as you evaluate your plot: If it doesn’t advance the story, it has got to go. Period. Yes, it’s a lovely scene. Yes, it might be the best writing you’ve ever done. Yes, it’s gorgeous and you love it and it amuses you. But does it ADVANCE THE STORY? That’s the real question.
Here. Have a tissue. You’ll get over it, I promise. Cut and paste into a new document and save it. These bits and pieces can be used in a variety of ways–blog post extras, a short to include in the back of the book as a bonus, a collection of outtakes for your adoring fans. Your main focus here is to create the strongest story you can. It only hurts for a hot minute. Keep your story goal foremost in your brain.
Any questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
Next week, we’ll take a look at your cast of characters.