Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach.
As an independent editor and book coach, I’ve worked with writers at every stage of the writing process, from those first brainstorming exercises all the way through to the polished final draft.
I’d like to think that I’m able to be of service at virtually any stage of this process. But, friends, I have a confession to make: I wish a lot of people came to me (or someone like me) sooner.
Because so often, a writer has spent years of their life working on a novel that runs to 300+ pages before they seek out qualified feedback—which means that I’m the one who has to break the bad news that their 300+ page epic really just does not hang together at all.
Yes, I’m talking about story structure. Not story structure as in Three Act, or Four Act, or Save the Cat or any of those (though I think those are all fine formats to work with, should you find them a fit for your project).
Rather, I’m talking about structure on a deeper level.
The way I see it, it doesn’t matter what higher-level story structure you’re working with, whether it’s as traditional as the Hero’s Journey or as experimental as the story spiral explored by Jane Alison in Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative—there are three levels that your story must hold together on if it’s going to read like a story.
Critical question: Does your protagonist have a real character arc?
A character arc is some way that the protagonist grows and changes over the course of the novel—some important way that the events of the story push them to see the world differently, and change.
Novels that lack a real character arc can be well written, and moving at the level of the scene, and perhaps even have some truly poignant moments. But they don’t tend to have a strong emotional effect on the reader—and in the end, such stories tend to feel like they’re lacking that certain something that makes a novel satisfying to read.
That certain something is a sense of meaning—the sense that the story was about something more than just the events of the plot.
Some writers seem to regard the protagonist’s character arc as something akin to bookends—something you can tack on at the beginning of the novel, showing the protagonist’s internal issue, and then again at the end, showing us how they’ve overcome it.
But a real character arc—meaning, an arc that has real emotional power—runs the whole length of the story, giving it a sense of internal depth and dimension. There’s no major external event of the plot that doesn’t connect with this internal transformation, and this is part of what makes the story as a whole feel “of a piece.”
Critical question: Do the events of your plot have a strong causal relationship?
Recently, Allison K Williams shared an excellent post on this blog about using a synopsis to fix your book. In that post, she pointed out that any sequence of events in your synopsis that can only be related via the words “and then” rather than the words “therefore” or “but” denote danger zones in your novel: places where the story is bound to drag, and feel slow from your reader’s point of view.
Figuring out where your story begins is largely a matter of zeroing in on this question: What is the event that precipitates every other? Which event acts as the tipping point that sets into motion a tightly linked chain of cause and effect?
If you’ve started too early in the story—too far away from that critical tipping point—your reader will experience your opening as slow.
Likewise, if there are too many things that happen in the story after that inciting incident that aren’t actually part of that chain of cause and effect, you’re going to have sections that feel slow, lacking in narrative momentum.
3. Goals and motivations
Critical questions: Does your protagonist have a higher-order goal in your novel? Does what they’re doing make sense, in terms of trying to achieve that goal? And is the way the world responds to those efforts convincing?
There are many ways that issues with story logic can hide in plain sight in your novel, and getting to the bottom of them is generally just a matter of taking a good, hard look at each of the major turns of the story.
These issues tend to be easier to see in an example, so let’s say that your protagonist is from a small Midwestern town, and her higher-order goal (the one she’ll be trying to achieve over the course of the novel) is to become a big-city journalist.
So what does she do in order to pursue that goal? Let’s say she up and moves to San Francisco.
How did she conceive of that idea? Why San Francisco and not Chicago? And if she doesn’t already know anyone in San Francisco, or have a job lined up—well, have you established exactly why your protagonist would decide to do something that risky, that totally out of the blue?
If the answer is no, then you have an issue with backstory and characterization that will have to be addressed if this turn of your story is going to make sense to your reader.
Say the protagonist meets her love interest on her first day in the big city and he tells her he can get her a job writing for the online news magazine where he works if she’ll pretend to be his girlfriend while his parents are in town.
What does this guy think he’ll accomplish by convincing his parents he has a girlfriend when he actually doesn’t? Why doesn’t he have a real girlfriend? And why did he pick this particular young woman to be his pretend girlfriend, rather than someone he already knows?
Again: If you don’t know the answers to these questions—or if those answers aren’t clear to the reader—then the story itself won’t feel convincing.
Same thing with the way the world responds to the events of your story. Imagine that something our would-be big-city journalist and her beau wind up doing gets recorded in public, and posted to social media, and that video goes viral. Why did it go viral? What was it about this video that captured so many people’s imaginations?
If you don’t have a convincing reason for this to happen, then the story development will not feel convincing to your reader—which has the potential to tank the whole story, if there’s not an easy fix for that issue in revision.
Save yourself time and stress! Make sure your novel is sound at each of these fundamental levels before you spend years of your life on it—so you can work with folks like me on fine-tuning that masterpiece, rather than rebuilding it from the ground up.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. An independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She offers a free masterclass, Fiction As a Force for Change, here.