Almost a year ago, I wrote a guest post for Book Country called The Five-Line Outline with some advice for pantsers* hoping to prepare for NaNoWriMo. (* A “pantser” is someone who writes by the seat of their pants as opposed to doing detailed plotting/outlining in advance). If I knew then what I know now, I might have offered some different advice.
I wrote three novels using this “pantser” method and although two of them are good stories (let’s not mention the first one, which will be locked in a trunk forevermore), I knew something was missing. Agents consistently complimented of my concepts, my voice, and my writing, but ultimately passed on representing my work.
CPs started giving me feedback along the lines of needing to get to the action sooner, keeping the plot moving forward, and building tension. At some point this summer, I realized what my problem was: structure. And I started reading: The Plot Whisperer, Save the Cat, endless blog posts. Then, with the recommendation of my amazing Pitch Wars mentor, Juliana Brandt, I started in on Story Engineering.
Before you Begin
The first step is to find a methodology that makes sense to you. Although I think Larry Brooks’ lengthy diatribe against pantsers in the introduction to the book is off-putting to much of his target audience, once you get past that, Story Engineering is a great master class on story structure.
But if you’ve already got a completed manuscript, as I did, how do you go back and fix structure problems? It’s not easy, but it can be done.
First, read these articles, which have great information on story structure:
Ultimately, each writer will have a different approach to preparing to write and/or revising. The key here is coming to understand story structure and the tight link between plot and character that will allow you to write an emotionally satisfying story, no matter how much prep work you do in advance.
Step One – Identifying the Four Parts of Your Story
Story Engineering suggests that each story has 4 parts that are about 25% each–with only Part 1 having the potential to be a bit shorter. This structure is based on the 3-act structure used by screenwriters (featured in Save the Cat, among others), but with Act 2 broken into two parts.
It’s really easy to get bogged down creating an outline or filling out a beat sheet when you’ve got 60 or so chapters like I did, so the first thing I did was just to try to divide the book into the four parts from Story Engineering.
My favorite part of this methodology is the way the character arc (orphan-wanderer-warrior-martyr) ties to each of the four parts of the story’s plot. It gives you a no-nonense guide for how character arcs progress in a way that makes the arc stuff contribute to the plot tension, which in turn makes the ultimate resolution more satisfying and pretty much guarantees that the internal and external conflict resolve at the same time. Pretty cool.
So before I outlined, I created a Scrivener label for each of the four parts of the story and color-coded my chapters. This helped me look quickly at the word count for each of the parts and also gave me a visual reminder of what was supposed to happen in that section. Mine were called Part 1 – Setup/Orphan, Part 2 – Response/Wanderer, Part 3 – Attack/Warrior, and Part 4 – Resolution/Martyr. Those key words are the names of the parts, followed by the names of the stages of character arc evolution.
Step Two – The Beat Sheet
The main piece of advice I’d give pantsers who are looking for a little more structure in their stories is to at least understand and complete a beat sheet before you start writing. I found the Save the Cat and Story Engineering beat sheet to be the most useful, but there are lots out there. Filling out a beat sheet means you’ve identified the major plot points (things like Inciting Incident, First Plot Point/ Catalyst, The Midpoint, and The Second Plot Point/Eureka Moment) in your story and it gives you a fairly structured guideline of where those plot points should fall in the arc of your story.
Step Three – The Dreaded Outline
Once I had a firm grasp of what my story needed to look like, outlining was slightly less painful. I used the beat sheet I filled out in Step Two as the template for my outline and started plugging in all the chapters–one Excel spreadsheet line per chapter. Here’s where I started to identify where my plot points were happening in the wrong place or where I needed to make cuts. I figured out pretty quickly that I needed to get to the action A LOT faster and that my first plot point needed a better introduction to the antagonist, so I started shifting stuff around.
Keep in mind that I had done all of this without touching a word in the manuscript. As hard as it was to not jump in and start shaking things up, I outlined for three solid days before I started the revision.
I highlighted the word count column any place where I deviated a great deal from the suggested word count and I highlighted chapter that I thought should be cut in a different color. I used a third color for chapters that I moved and used a 2-3 word reminder in ( ) after the chapter name if I knew I had a big change (like “cut Ukko” or “add more mythology” or “make Joukahainen creepier”).
Step Four – Write it!
With an outline in place and a solid idea of what needed to happen, I dove into the manuscript. I cut whole chapters, removed a beloved character, and moved things around until I had things in roughly the order I wanted them to be in.
As I worked, I realized I needed more details than what the spreadsheet would allow, so I made notecards too. The notecards used the same color-coding as the Scrivener labels (see those cute little Sharpies in the picture above?) and included chapter title, POV character, a list of “functions” or purposes for that particular chapter, a note about where we we were in story time (because I moved so many plot points around that I needed to keep everything straight), and a note about what the “hook” is that’s going to pull the reader in to the next chapter.
I only did a few notecards at a time and I gave myself permission to update that outline as many times as I needed to until I had it just right. For me, that meant I was adding and moving and changing right up until the last chapter of the story, and that I only worked a few notecards ahead of where I was in the revisions so that I knew where I was headed, but wasn’t locked into anything.
Step Five – Think About Structure In Advance Next Time
With the Pitch Wars Agent Round fast-approaching, I didn’t have time to beat myself up about the fact that I didn’t look at story structure in more detail before I wrote seven drafts of QUEST FOR THE KALEVALA (and many more drafts of FINDING GIB, which will be getting a structure-related revision next!). I just had to get on with it and you should too. Although I doubt I will ever create a detailed outline before I begin drafting (I am, after all, a pantser at heart), I will definitely make sure I know all my major beats and understand how the character will move through his or her arc as the story progresses, before I write a word.
What other resources do you find helpful when thinking about story structure?
Check out Lisa Lewis Tyre’s post on word count as part of her Writer Wednesday blog party!