Structurally Unsound Stories

Structurally Unsound Stories

You know I said I finished the first draft I was writing the other day? Well, I know it’s standard practice not to immediately set about reading it through to see what you did wrong, but hey, I like to remember what I actually wrote so that when I get beta comments I know what they’re talking about. Therefore, on Thursday evening I set about reading the whole book through.

Oh man.

It’s not terrible. I mean, if you subtract the four weeks I spent working on The Quiet Ones in the middle, I probably spent about a month writing this, and it’s 98,000 words long. It was hardly planned at all so, bearing those things in mind, it’s fairly impressive, really.

My posts at YAvengers are always improved by gifs so I thought I'd try it here.
My posts at YAvengers are always improved by gifs so I thought I’d try it here.

But it is definitely structurally unsound.

Structure is the one thing I rarely actually think about when I’m writing, even though I know that I should. It’s almost always the problem with my plots: if I’m floundering halfway through the book, despite knowing exactly how it’s going to end, it’s because my structure doesn’t work. It’s for the purposes of structure that many people recommend writing an outline — because then you know what your plot is doing before you start and you can identify structural issues.

Yeah, but I didn’t do that, because I’m an idiot. I figured, “Hey, I know exactly how this novel ends because I wrote the last chapter in, like, May, so I don’t need to plan. I’ll just start at the beginning and keep going until I get to where I hoped to be.” A policy that, while it works, doesn’t work well.

Now, book one had a structure that hangs together fairly well and creates a coherent plot. I’m proud of that. It’s very rare for me to manage that in a first draft, but Butterfly of Night shows that it’s possible, even if its sequel, Bloodied Wings, was so structurally unsound it’s likely to collapse on the characters’ heads at any time. It follows a fairly basic structure, which works well for the genre: the seven act structure that looks something like this.

Intro –> problem or attack –> initial struggle (character’s first attempt to overcome problem) –> complications (oh no, everything’s worse / changed so we have to attack it differently) –> failed attempts (well, that didn’t work) –> major crisis (are you kidding me, it got worse?) –> climax and resolution.

That’s what book one looks like. It needs work on pacing. Some sections are probably unnecessarily long where they didn’t need to be. But it’s got a plot. Can I just get a cheer for that? Dude, I had a plot. A plot that pretty much worked. In a first draft. That earns me cake or something.

And then there’s book two.

Me looking at book two.
Me looking at book two.

I know I didn’t plan this enough. I rushed into it because I felt, “Hey, I’m in the right mindset for this character, I’ll fast-draft book two straight after the first one and then that only leaves book three to write some other time.” I wrote an outline that I stopped following in chapter two, mostly because I saw straight away that it was never going to work, and other than that, there was no planning.

After reading it through and realising it had structural problems, I decided to try and identify the issues more closely so that it would be easier to rewrite. The reason I’m putting them here, though, is less for my benefit and more for any of my writer-followers who are also having structure issues, to give some ideas about what could be wrong.

I didn’t really know what my characters wanted.

What did the protagonist want? What was her active goal? I had no idea. Nor did I know what any of the other characters wanted. After finishing it I sat down and tried to identify what a handful of the main characters’ goals actually were, and it was almost impossible. Even when I knew what they wanted, they were always passive goals: “stay hidden”, “keep safe”, “continue working” etc. None of these were driving the plot at all.

maddeningly unhelpfulAnd there were understandable reasons for this. My protagonist, through whose viewpoint the story is told, is totally lacking in empathy. She can’t read people; unless someone explicitly states what they’re thinking, she won’t figure it out. She doesn’t really do social interaction. So it’s hard to show, through her eyes, what other people want — except by their actions.

But I can’t excuse myself, because it’s not like I knew and couldn’t portray it. Nope. I just failed at figuring that out, at all, ever.

I hadn’t thought enough about character development.

Characters create the plot that shapes them, I think. And to some extent, I knew what I was trying to do to my protagonist, Isabel… kind of. I’ve known since 2012 what 23-year-old Isabel is like, because that’s the version of her I originally wrote. In book one, I started with her at sixteen and turned her from a scared schoolgirl into an assassin. In book two, I had twenty-year-old Isabel but I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her, because while I knew how she was going to end up, I didn’t know what she needed to pass through on the way.

No underlying plot.

Did I mention that I hadn’t thought enough about active goals? Seriously. I couldn’t identify an underlying plot thread that started at the beginning and went to the end. The whole thing became episodic, with no season story arc: a series of unfortunate events, linked together by angst and murder. Asked to write a logline for this book, I’d have been stuck, because of the whole active goal thing. I didn’t know what anybody was trying to do the whole way through.

Relying on shock value for emotional impact.

We all do it. A sudden murder, a dramatic revelation about somebody’s past, an unexpected break-up: they’re everywhere in fiction. But when the vast majority of your plot depends on people being taken by surprise, you’ve made a mistake. This is the age of the internet, and the chances that none of your readers will have spoilers before they read that book are infinitesimally small. I enjoy plot twists, but I was relying too much on them.

And you know why they were thrown in suddenly? Because I completely failed to plan them. Half the time they took me by surprise, and then I was really stuck.

hammock fault

I don’t know how I’m going to tackle rewrites with these books. I think probably, since book one is structurally sound (I hope) and just needs improvement in terms of writing, continuity and characters, I’ll leave it for a while, and tackle book two first. Somewhat unconventional, but it reads like an earlier draft than book one. Rewriting this would bring it up to about the same level, and then maybe I’d be able to progress.

It’s going to take a lot of planning to rescue this, though. A lot of plot work, a lot of character work, and the rewrites will be brutal, because I’ll have to cut so many scenes while I make changes.

But it’ll be worth it. I think it will be worth it.

These two books are the only first drafts I’ve written this year, so I think we can say that 2014’s writing problem was structure. Not just in novels, though. It cropped up in my poetry: I tried multiple different ways of structuring Broken Body Fragile Heart to accommodate the epic, 5,000-word finale poem Two Pages Before Midnight until I eventually settled on the solution that was probably the simplest. Turns out things don’t need to be complicated. Who knew?

Do you struggle with structure as well? Chuck Wendig’s got a good post on the subject, but it’s Chuck Wendig, so it’s full of profanity and is likely NSFW, just to warn you. Kristen Lamb also has a useful post about goals and motivations with relation to structure. Hopefully they’ll help you (and me) not to run into structural trouble in the future…

Let me know any other good structure advice you’ve come across, or just pop into the comments to share stories of structurally unsound novels. I enjoy hearing from you. :)

6 thoughts on “Structurally Unsound Stories

  1. I empathise so much with this it’s ridiculous! I’ve just pretty much given up on a second draft I was trying to finish by Christmas because I realised that the last 40k words don’t have a working plot. This is after I wrote the first draft for Camp NaNo last year and found myself writing a completely different story to the one I’d plotted, with the most cliche ending ever (it was all a dream! Hurrah!). I started pretty much from scratch with this second draft, setting it into scenes and working out the overall arc of every ten thousand words, and how it slotted into the story. Everything went fine until I got into the 40k words mark, where I took a break and I think made the ending a bit stronger. I had another break, got back into writing it a week or so ago and looked back at the ending and plot line and found that it was horrifically bad. Again. You’d think stealing someone else’s storyline would make plotting easy, but apparently not.

    You sound as if you know what’s gone wrong (and not in a wishy-washy way either), so that’s always a good place to start! Good luck with your second draft!

    1. Thanks. I hope you fix your plot troubles – it’s very discouraging to suddenly find that it’s all gone wrong, especially when you’d already finished a draft and thought you’d got somewhere with it.

  2. I kept reading “active goals” as “active goats” and honestly it made the whole post take a surprisingly different spin. I hope you figure out your goats/goals.

  3. Can I recommend M. Kirin’s How To Plan Your Novel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-djgOBsaqY&list=UUucoBxoMb6CaCdeIct5W8uQ)? I think it could be helpful, because although you’ve already written your first draft so you’re not really at the stage it’s aimed at, if you’re having problems with structure I think some of the exercises he suggests to do could definitely help with planning for the rewrite :) And he’s also just infectiously cheerful and enthusiastic, and has a great attitude towards writing in general, so I kind of want to recommend his videos (and blog) to all writers really!

    He’s also answered a lot of advice questions about rewriting on his blog. I haven’t read any of them yet, because I’ve never quite reacted the finished-the-first-draft stage on any of my writing projects so haven’t had the need, but his answers and advice are normally great, so some of those might be helpful too. There’s a section with all the links to those questions on this post http://maxkirin.tumblr.com/tagged/megamasterpost

    I hope some of that might help, and I wish you the best of luck on your rewrite! :)

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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