Confessions of a converted structuralist, or How I realized the error of my ways

Structure

I always thought I was a plotter, an outliner, a planner. Not a pantser. Not someone who discovers her story while she writes it, but someone who plans ahead and always knows which way the story goes. The premeditated kind. I thought this because I had a scene-by-scene outline of the entire novel as I wrote the first draft. It’s a logical conclusion.

But I was wrong.

While I’ve always had a list of scenes that I wanted to write, that list changed during the writing process. Because that’s only natural, even with outliners and plotters, I never took notice of what was really going on. I kept writing, kept re-planning some five-six scenes ahead, and kept writing. The pressure of finishing my shit, of putting THE END at the freakin end of an entire novel’s draft was whipping my back bloody, so I kept writing and planning and writing until it was over. I had a full first draft of a science-fiction thriller, and I was mighty proud.

Then I read it.

And I hated it.

I wasn’t even able to finish reading it. At about the middle, I just scratched FUCK THIS with a red pen across the page, and threw the manuscript against the wall.

It sucked. Not only was the prose bad (that’s expected of a rough draft after all) but the story lacked coherence, the protagonist lacked sufficient motivation, and for some reason I just didn’t buy the whole thing. I felt awful. I had literally failed to put the story I saw in my head into written form. The monstrous improvisation in my hands was not my novel.

So I started rewriting it.

The prose improved a great deal, and the protagonist now had a voice. The setting bloomed like the mushroom of an atomic bomb, obliterating the dust of the initial sketchy background. I reworked the outline and threw out some scenes I felt were unnecessary, and introduced a great deal more scenes that would flesh out the plot and subplots and offer clearer motivations. I was writing in a frenzy, and loving it! The story was finally taking the shape it deserved. I was getting closer to my vision, tighter and fiercer, and I could almost smell the success.

Then I got to the last third of it, and stalled.

Stuff started happening in my life that forced me to put my writing aside for a bit. That happens, it’s no big deal. I’m not one of those workaholics that feels worthless if she doesn’t write for a day or two. Neither does my “muse” torment me, or whatever the lament de jour is among writers these days. But somehow the spark died out. I procrastinated. I avoided to continue work on my rewrite. Something wasn’t right with it, and I couldn’t pin point what it was. It made me itchy. So I did the same thing I did during my rough draft — I investigated the path immediately ahead (five-six scenes ahead), and complicated matters for my characters. Introduced new information, new decisions, new challenges. I “fleshed it out”. UGH.

It sucked even more now!

I had no idea what was going on, why the pile of words in front of me refused to become what I saw in my mind. I was doing something wrong… but what?

So I did something which I should’ve done a helluva lot earlier: I took a step back from it all, and tried to see the forest instead of focusing on the trees and the branches and every freakin’ irregularity of every leaf. I tried to write a one page synopsis for the novel, just to bring the major points back into focus. And as usual, I fell into the very same trap I had while plotting, drafting and rewriting — I worked toward something in the future, neglecting the present. I focused on preparing the road for the sequel, instead of focusing on wrapping up this story. I focused on those five-six scenes ahead, but never on the one I was actually writing. I focused on the future story, and fucked up the story right in front of me.

Seen as a whole, my novel (so far) isn’t reeeaaally a self-contained story. It’s more of an extended set-up with twists and subplots that do nothing but proliferate and writhe inside of it like parasites, sucking the life out of it.

Oh, it has a beginning, middle and end, with an awesome inciting incident, a surprising mid-point, a terrific climax and all that frizzfrazz, but the thing as a whole feels like a preparation for the sequel, and it would never survive on its own. It lacks a proper spine, it lacks own internal coherence, it only makes sense in context with the sequel. That’s what killed it for me. That’s why I just couln’t feel fully confident about it, couldn’t really believe that I’m doing it right.

Do you think it’s easy for me to admit this? To myself, and then to you guys?

It’s fucking killing me!

The masterpiece I thought I was pulling out the top of my head was nothing but an exercise. Valuable exercise, but still nothing more than practice. It hurts as if someone pierced my heart with a firy hot blade of hell, twisted it counterclockwise and yanked the bleeding, throbbing life right out of my gaping chest.

I should’ve picked a safer hobby. Like wingsuit diving.

*sigh*

But I’m a stubborn little imp.

And the smug assholes out there thinking I’m less of a writer because I haven’t nailed it right away can all BITE ME anyway.

So here comes extensive research for ways to fix my story.

I knew the setting was great, the characters were interesting and the story concept was awesome (in my biased opinion). What failed was the structure of the story, the misplaced focus and the complex subplots that feigned a rich story conflict. I soon found out there is a very straightforward and simple remedy for all my problems — I needed to fix the structure of the story. I needed to place the right things at the right time (not draw them out), which would help me tighten the focus on the core problem and stop it from drifting into subplots, and would also infuse more fire into the main conflict. I needed to do an objective overhaul of my story structure. And only a single person came to mind who could offer me the right perspective, only one person who truly masters story structure and storytelling physics with a clarity that puts diamonds to shame.

Enter: Storyfixer Larry Brooks.

I re-read his book Story Engineering and this time it really clicked with me. If you don’t own it, YOU MUST invest the few bucks and read it with an open mind. And if you’re not sure it’s worth it, just check out his posts on story structure:

Story Structure Series: #1 — Introducing the Four Parts of Story
Story Structure Series: #2 — Milestones Along the 4-Part Storytelling Road
Story Structure Series: #3 — Five Missions for the Set-up (Part 1) of Your Story
Story Structure Series: #4 — The Most Important Moment in Your Story: The First Plot Point
Story Structure Series: #5 — Part 2 of Your Story… The Response
Story Structure Series: #6 — Wrapping Your Head Around the Mid-Point Milestone
Story Structure Series: #7 — the Part 3 Attack
Story Structure Series: #8 — The Second Plot Point
Story Structure Series: #9 — Pinch Points
Story Structure Series: #10 — Part 4… the Final Act

Just go absorb the wisdom on his blog. This man is one of the very few real storytelling gurus out there. Trust me, I normally hate that term, I’d never use it lightly.

Now, before the freeminds among you rebel against the concept story structure and start hissing at the screen, let me remind you that this is MY point of view. I believe my story will be much better off with a functional structure, than without.

Story is not a mysterious creature that can’t be contained within a predefined formula without having its virginal purity raped and its uniqueness destroyed. All great stories have an underlying structure—the same underlying structure—just as all great buildings have the same fundamental structure, from your humble home to the Taj Mahal. All buildings have walls and floors and follow the basic principles of stability and statics, and yet each building is unique, and some of them are extraordinary pieces of art that fascinate millions through the ages. But their beauty and uniqueness is given by elaborate arhitectural extensions and creative approaches to the basic elements, not by their lack of walls and floor and structural stability. Buildings without a solid structure are called ruins.

You see, I falsely believed my story had a structure simply because I wasn’t a pantser. Because I “planned ahead”. But I had no real understanding of what I was doing, and simply knowing what the next scenes and chapters will be, and knowing how the story ends, does not mean it has a functioning structure.

Now I know exactly where my story failed to realize its potential, and I know how to fix it. (THANK YOU, LARRY!) And despite the fact that more work lies ahead of me, I am energized and eager to do it right.

Some people publish their first attempt at a novel and wonder why it won’t touch people. Others write several novels and toss them, before they finally write a publishable novel that actually hits home with the readers. And others keep rewriting the same novel until it works. I’m in the latter category. I love this story and I believe in it, and I won’t give up on it just because it turns out to be harder than I initially expected. You wouldn’t give up trying to educate your kid just because he’s a stubborn little brat at the moment, now, would you?

How do I know it won’t be one of those neverending projects that I’ll still be hunched over twenty years from now, when all my storytelling neurons have already burned out? I can’t deny this little fear ran amok through my mind for a bit. But I’m not the type of person who tinkers with stuff indefinitely. Yes I’m a perfectionist, but I’m also a realist. I know that no story is ever perfect, no story is ever truly done from the writer’s point of view. But this is not the issue here. I’m not fiddling with adverbs and metaphors. I couldn’t care less about style at the time. I’m just unwilling to delude myself that a pile of words and characters automatically equal a story, however much time I’ve invested in it so far.

A story must stand on its own like a self-contained universe, it must breathe and move on its own, it must live and fight on its own. For that, it needs a robust skeleton, a tough structure that can sustain it and carry all that meaty muscle, fancy fur and awesome costumes. You can’t go to battle with a beast that has no spine, no heart and only half a kidney, no matter how many bushy tails you sew on to it and how colorful you die its fur.

So this is it. I’m restructuring my story. I can keep most of the scenes with only minor modifications, but I’ve cut out two subplots and two point-of-view characters entirely, and considerably revamped the flow of the plot. It’s no longer just a preparation for the sequel, it’s a self-contained story with a strong core problem that no longer drifts into tangents. The protagonist finally gets to DO her part at the right moment, and the antagonists no longer prepare the showdown of the sequel, merely incomodating the protagonist (who’s typically able to fuck things up all on her own, thankyouverymuch), they’re getting nasty right here, right now.

It’s finally looking like the story I see in my mind, the story it ought to be. And I’m so freakin’ excited!

Back breaking construction work, here I come.

And this time I’ve got a badass blueprint!

32 Replies to “Confessions of a converted structuralist, or How I realized the error of my ways”

  1. Hey Veronica,

    Just wanted to say… go you, girl! I haven’t finished a manuscript (yet), but I’ve been to the point where I got so stuck and confused with my own story that I just wanted to purge my brain of it, and never think about it again. I’m glad you’re finding your way.

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    1. Thanks for the heads-up, Anastasia! 🙂

      It’s really daunting, as you know, but quitting’s not an option. We’ve gotta rock this thing regardless of the effort.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more, Veronica. My first story was nothing but a series of events until I came across Larry Brook’s blog. I read Story Engineering and my story inproved dramatically. In fact, your post reminds me that I should go back and re-read his book. It’s that good!

    BTW, I nominated your blog for the Liebster award. Click here to learn more.

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    1. Absolutely, Ken! His perspective and advice are absolutely terrific. I can’t wait for his new book, “Story Physics” to come out in a couple of months. 🙂

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  3. I’m so grateful I found your blog this past fall. We seem to be following the same path. I have 114k novel that is complete shit. But just yesterday I began to realize what needs to change. And yes, them majority of it is structure. I plan on buying Larry’s book, reading the hell out of his blog and generally shoving my brain full of information.

    Thank you Veronica Sicoe!!!

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    1. Thanks, Aubrey! 😀 I’m glad to have met you too.

      Yes, figuring out WHAT the problem is can be freakin’ exhausting! And the temptation to jump and try to fix it before we fully understand the issue can costius a lot of time and energy. More often than not, it’s NOT our characters that have a problem, or the story’s concept (or the idea we started out with), and it’s also usually not the setting or the dialog or the style or whatnot. Those are details, leafs in the forest. Fixing them won’t help. It’s usually something much deeper than that — the structure itself, or the angle we used in tackling the characters’ problems. It’s so hard to dig that deep, and it takes a lot of courage, because we feel like all we’ve done so far was doodle with our crayons all day.

      But once we know enough about how stories work, we’re much better equipped to fix our old ones and write better new ones.

      Larry Brooks is amazing at putting these underlying principles of effective storytelling into a clear perspective. Your time studying what he says will be very much worth it, much more than forcing yourself to write and write and then toss it all one day. I’ve done that. It’s not fun. 🙂

      GOOD LUCK with your mammoth story! And have fun expanding your knowledge base!

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  4. I love that you when life interrupts it doesn’t throw you off– that’s how I feel about the process as well. Sometimes it needs to be set aside, but I don’t panic. I know I’ll get back to it and maybe with an even fresher perspective. Good luck with your writing– sounds like you’re on the right track.

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  5. Kudos for doing what needs be done, Vero! And kudos for sticking with your story, something I never managed to do with my failed novels (though they will both be reincarnated at some point). It’s a tough call to make to look back at all that hard work and admit that it was just a learning experience, and the real brick-laying is still ahead. But that kind of honesty with yourself is vital for growth.

    I’m not overly familiar with Larry’s stuff, but I’ll definitely give it a read. I’m semi-obsessed with structure analysis and story deconstruction, so it sounds right up my alley. And I must admit, considering I still want to start a novel before the end of the year, structure-fail is the biggest fear that has begun to loom, since I’ve been so immersed in short stories for so long now. So I’ll need a nice refresher course! Thanks for the recommendation, and good luck!

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    1. Brutal honesty with yourself (even when it hurts) is a precondition of growth, you’re absolutely right. Thanks, James!

      Larry does exactly that on his blog — story deconstruction on movies and books, and obviously gives tons of great, brutally honest advice. You’re gonna have a feast!

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  6. Vero, you are so courageous and determined! Just what you need if your passion is writing novels. I’m in your corner and cheering you on.

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    1. Thanks so much, Courtney! I hope it’s gonna help me that I’m such a stubborn bulldog when it comes to the things I’m passionate about. It certainly ain’t easy to see them through, as I’m sure you know.

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  7. This really sticks with me:

    “You see, I falsely believed my story had a structure simply because I wasn’t a pantser. Because I “planned ahead”. But I had no real understanding of what I was doing, and simply knowing what the next scenes and chapters will be, and knowing how the story ends, does not mean it has a functioning structure.”

    I definitely need to keep an eye on this in my work. Great post.

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  8. What a fabulous post–honest, fierce, amusing and instructive. I’m so pleased for you that you’ve found the path you’ve been looking for, even if you’re going to have to clear a bunch of debris to get to your goal.

    You know, there’s a reason they call the first draft the “vomit draft,” and it’s a testament to your integrity and respect for your future readers that you’re not going to fling that vomit draft out there and hope you can make things right in the sequel–as SO many others have done. Writing that first novel is bloody hard work, and it’s a learning process every step of the way. Good for you for recognizing that and being willing to dismantle and rebuild.

    I love Larry Brooks’s book and his website and have found all sorts of helpful advice and strategies in both. I know he suggests rigorous outlining as a first step, but that doesn’t work very well for me. What I’ve been doing–and we’ll see how successful this is down the road–is using a pantsing/plotting combo. I start with a rudimentary outline (and I meant very, very rudimentary) and revise it as I go. Although I try to keep his basic principles in mind, I’ve realized that what works best for me is to just write, knowing I’m going to have a vomit first draft, but also knowing that I’ll have the elements of a damned good story that Story Engineering is going to help me re-align.

    As I write, I notice structural flaws that could and should be changed, but by and large I’m ignoring them until I complete the first draft, other than making notes to myself for the revision process. The bottom line is, you can put the time in before you start tapping away at those keys, as Larry recommends, or you can put the time in during the revision process. The latter works better for me–so far.

    Looking forward to reading the fruits of your reconstruction work!

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Kern! I’m doing my best every time I sit down with this story, and I’ll be damned if I won’t make it worth the effort. Ha ha! 😀

      Of course, outlining everything in detail before writing the first draft is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s a good thing. We are all different, we all think and imagine differently, and we work and write our own way. The fact that stories need a certain structure to achieve the greatest impact (something that has developed throughout millennia of storytelling craft) doesn’t mean the way we reach that structure is the same.

      Besides, Larry and I happen to have the same opinion about pantsers — that they’re outliners who outline through drafts, not spreadsheets. 😉

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  9. As a pantzer extraordinaire, I know the beginning and the end (though subject to change). The rest is a ride to destinations unknown. Tried the plot thing, notes that never got revisited. Can’t do it. You’re spot on with the “present” frame of mind. When I’m in a scene, I can’t see anything but the moment. Larry Brooks is on the same shelf as King’s “On Writing”. Thanks, Veronica

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  10. I was a panster for a long time, but it just got crazy. My stories were wild, and I was growing frustrated. I subscribe to the 7-point story structure, which is very similar to Brooks’ version. I also started outlining every single chapter after I filled out my 7 point worksheet. And then I invested in Scrivener.

    Now, I can write a 100,000 novel in 1/4 of the time…and keep my sanity.

    Take care, girl!

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    1. I love Scrivener, I can’t even imagine writing a whole novel in Word or some other app — except maybe for yWriter. 🙂

      Yup, the seven point plot has tons in common with Larry’s four part & milestones structure. They’re basically the same, except I prefer Larry’s definitions because they fit more types of stories. Hm… I think I’m gonna write a post about this very plot / outline structure, the way I see it. Seven points vs. Larry’s definitions.

      Thanks for the heads up, Jay! Appreciate it. 🙂

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  11. You had me at “FUCK THIS.” 😉

    Great advice here, by the way. I’m guilty of getting way ahead of myself and forgetting that I need to finish what I’m doing first. That goes for trying to rewrite a piece at the same time I’m writing it as well as being two books/chapters/sections/whatever ahead of myself. I think everyone to a certain degree needs to learn to write in the moment. It’s a hard thing to do.

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    1. 😀 Thanks, John! Nice meeting you.

      Yup, that’s one of the lessons I learned over this past year, that it’s no good to keep my eyes on the horizon but fail to see the hole in the ground ahead of me. Writing needs to be a balance between the big picture of the story, and the current step.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Like

  12. Very good piece. I’ve had this problem myself. I find it helps to be in a GOOD writer’s group with people who encourage you while frankly discussing your problems. Good luck!

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