Monday, August 13, 2012

Rewrite 3 - Structure, Structure, Structure

A hook or a clever phrase can pull a reader into a story, but it is structure that keeps him or her reading.

Many of us learned about structure in school -- topic sentences, inverted pyramids, and the like. Most of these are aimed at clarity more than persuasion or keeping the reader interested (which is why school themes are usually dull and why most people learn to hate writing).

In fact, nonfiction structure, when done well, can go beyond clarity to create interest, action, and enjoyment. For speeches, in particular, the writer may use literary techniques. Nancy Duarte provide a wonderful analysis of speech structure in her TED talk.

I often begin with structure when I write nonfiction. With fiction, however, I tend to be a pantser. I allow myself to meander and explore, and I put off structure until I get to rewriting. I'll provide some insights on the rewriting process in a later blog entry, but here I'll share five ways that I look at my draft to improve its structure:
  1. Story logic - My best ally on doing this is screenwriter Jeff Kitchen, who has provided a method of using logic to analyze scenes in terms of cause-and-effect. He works backward from the ending to the beginning. When you do this with your novel, the scenes that are part of the main plot stand out vividly.
  2. Stakes - The stakes should rise throughout the piece. Do they? Listing them and ranking them according to jeopardy opportunity can expose structural weaknesses.
  3. Story turns - The ends of Acts, the Black Moment, etc. Do they happen at the right times in the story? Are they irreversible? Screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff provides a series of articles that spell out what is needed.
  4. Scene beats - Beats within a scene turn the conversation or action in a new direction. In drama, you look for 3-5 beats in a scene, and that's not a bad rule for novels.
  5. White space - Often, just looking at the pages tells me if there is too much narration or too much dialogue crammed into a set of pages. What's "right" varies by story, but it is always worthwhile to make this part of the analysis of story structure.
I go through these in this order. I also do other work that is related to structure (theme and character analysis), but I find these five steps are the most critical. Surprisingly, the payoff for this analysis is emotional more than it is logical.  The right structure has a huge impact on the pacing, which allows engagement to rise without distraction. Get the structure right, and the readers will turn the pages.


  1. Wow. Great info. I never thought about beats per scene.

    1. I should credit my understanding of beats in scenes to playwright Bob Zaslow. He took the time to explain the concept to me after I more than one attempt at putting a scene on stage. (Actors are your good friends in showing what you did does not work.)
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Understanding structure brought a huge step forward in my writing. I'm a planner in just about every aspect of my life except my fiction, but it still helps me to know what type of major event I'm shooting for, and whether or not I'm on track structure-wise when I look back over what I've done.

    Thanks for sharing part of your process!

  3. Great comment, Gwen. A structure check before and after drafting can really make a difference.