Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Mapping out the Story Structure
Yesterday I reread the series of posts on Story Structure on the Storyfix website and started making notes on what these parts and milestones meant in terms of my novel. I rather excitedly bounced around in front of Matt when he got home from work, waved my pages of scrawled notes at him and explained the outline of my NaNo novel in terms of these structure terms. Then he made an observation. The outline of the story hadn’t changed from the one I had told him weeks ago during our drive when I first had the idea. It was true. Plotting out the structure in a new way hadn’t altered the storyline at all. All the characters, events and relationships progressed in the same way, in the same order and heading for the same resolution. I tried to reflect on why I felt like this had been such a worthwhile exercise. Why had it made me excited (besides the fact that I like filling up pages with planning in notebooks)? I realised that the process hadn’t led me to change any aspects of the storyline, rather it had confirmed them but more importantly what it did was clarify a few important things about the story in my mind. Firstly, I like that I now have a really strong blueprint of the pacing. I tend to overwrite my first drafts. A novel I planned to be about 60,000 ended up near 100,000 and then I had to spend many, many hours in editing culling back the interesting and fun but ultimately unnecessary stuff. Hopefully, having a rough expectation of when I need to hit the key milestones in the novel will lead to a tighter first draft. Secondly, it made me realise I need to keep things simpler than I am sometimes inclined to do. I have a tendency to front load my stories with convoluted sub-plots near the start. One of the biggest problems I had with editing my Fairy Godmother book was because of this. My first plot point, when Meg inadvertently uses magic and discovers that she is responsible for all the trouble it causes, was buried in a lengthy sequence of events. There were about seven scenes revolving around this point and they were all interdependent and more complicated than they needed to be. In terms of the overall plot, all that needed to happen was an event that pushed the character to accidentally use magic and realise that magic is real, potentially dangerous and she needs to learn how to control it, or at least work out what is going on. This could have been done in a far simpler way without losing anything essential to the overall story. Sometimes for me ‘simplify’ feels like a dirty word. I want my novels to be complex, not dumbed down. However, what I’m coming to realise is that the complexity I’m striving for is about depth in the important things like theme, characters, relationships and setting, not complicated, tangled sub-plots. The third and biggest realisation that got me excited about this process was that it made me realise something about the antagonist of my novel. It turned out that the antagonistic force wasn’t the character of the Genie like I originally thought; it was the curse of the Genie bottle. The Genie might at first to appear to be the source of all the problems but as it turns out he is also a victim of the rules of the Genie bottle and the stakes for him are just as high, even if we don’t find them out until close to the end of the book. It seems like an obvious distinction now but it actually took me realising that the Genie revealing the truth about the conditions of the Genie bottle was the second plot point before the distinction clicked in my head. I had thought it was going to be a reveal just before the very end so that everyone realises why the Genie has behaved the way he has but when I worked out it was actually closer to the 75% mark, it had a big impact on the protagonist’s subsequent decisions. If she knows everything, all the cards are in play, then the decision she makes at the end has way more impact. It means she’s taking a huge risk and making a sacrifice. She’s giving up everything she’s been desperately holding onto for the whole book for an uncertain outcome. It was surprising to me that such a profound shift in my thinking resulted from a relatively minor shift in the pacing. Getting the information out earlier is probably going to amp up the dramatic tension not diminish it. I heartily recommend reading the series of posts on Story Structure. Even if you don’t like planning outlines in advance or working out in what part of your story the various plot points and pinch points should occur, there are some great points about the significance and function of each of these milestones. I found it just as interesting to reflect back on the pacing of the structure of a novel I’ve already written as it was to map out the next book I’m going to write.