Why we need story structure

Dancing, painting, singing, you name it— are all art forms that require structure. Writing is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the forms limitations, as well as how to put its many parts into the proper order to achieve maximum effect.

Authors also need to realise that structure does not limit their creativity. If they have to follow a certain road in their story and observe certain pit stops, won’t the story be written for them? But this isn’t the case. Structure presents only a shape—the curve of the story arc that we all recognize as vital to a novel’s success. The only difference is that structure allows us to be concrete and confident in our creation of that arc, ensuring the shape always turns out perfectly.

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Something else authors also fear is that if every story has the same structure, won’t every story ultimately be the same? But this isn’t any truer than is the idea that because every ballet incorporates the same movements, every ballet must be the same. Structure is only the box that holds the gift. What that gift may be is as wildly varied as the wrapping paper it hides behind.

Structure offers the writer a kind of check list of must have elements. Don’t we read how-to books because we’re wanting to discover and remember all the elements that make up a successful story? Structure is nothing more than a list of those elements, all tied up in one tidy package.

Learning to consciously understand the techniques you’re probably already using on an instinctive level can only broaden your understanding and tighten your mastery of the craft. When I first discovered the intricacies of structure, I was amazed to realize I was already incorporating most of the elements into my stories. Learning about them then allowed me to strengthen my raw instinct into purposeful knowledge.
So are you ready to open up a whole new world of storytelling?

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Free Writing – automaticity

Whenever I get stuck writing, whether it be in the pre writing stage or in the middle of a draft, my go-to tool for getting unstuck is the free write; or as most know it, automatic writing.A free write is what I’d write if I could get away with everything. Free writing is the instant tapping into my subconscious without that irritating self-editor around. A free write can unjam creative cells and help find that one gem of an idea needed to solve a problem in a story. A free write can touch deep emotions and help me sculpt the story in a deeper and more authentic way.
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There is only one rule in the free write – automatic write – Do not ask, Am I doing this right? There is no right or wrong. Free writing is allowing your right brain to play freely with the words on the paper, while the left brain sits in the corner in a time out.

Like every other writing discipline, we have to practice it. Set a timer for ten minutes and have some planning pre done. Write and don’t stop. Write everything that comes into your head. Write as fast as you can, not stopping for spelling or grammar. When the timer rings, set your words aside and give them an hour or two to breathe. Then put on your revision hat and see what you can come up with.

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It’s helpful to look at the revision of a free write as if you were a miner panning for gold. You have a bowlful of gunk, but you know if you swirl the water around, something shiny may appear. In your words of free writing, you may find gold: one good metaphor, a new insight, perhaps one great sentence. It may not seem like much, but you would have never found it without the free write.

 

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6 ways to build writing confidence…

Ideally, you feel a happy certainty that you’re a good writer. You realize your first draft won’t be perfect, but you’re confident you can improve on it. You’ve know you’ve got a message worth sharing or a story worth telling. If you’re like many writers though, your confidence levels might be dangerously low. Perhaps you find yourself thinking, it’s not worth writing; I’ll never get anywhere; I’m not a real writer. At best, thoughts like this sap your writing energy. At worst, they stop you writing altogether – not just for a few days or weeks, but for years.

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These six tips should help you build your confidence and feel good about your writing.

1: Read Other Writers Discussing the Writing Process
All writers have times when they feel like quitting—even bestselling authors. By reading what they have to say, you’ll realize the difficulties you’re having are completely normal.
Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.―Neil Gaiman

2: Start and Finish a Writing Project
I never finish anything. Does that sound familiar? A huge stack of incomplete projects can be really discouraging. So this time, turn it around. Pick one not-too-huge project to focus on—perhaps a poem or a short story or a blog post—and finish it. Sure, it won’t be perfect but you’ll have learned a lot in the process.

3: Keep Learning Your Craft
One great way to grow not only your confidence but also your skill is to continually learn more about writing. You can learn from blogs, books, magazines, talks, courses – whatever fits into your life. It doesn’t matter how. What matters is that you do keep on learning. And if you come across tips you’re already following, celebrate! You’re getting it right.

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4: Share Your Work With Other Writers
This can be a scary step but also a hugely rewarding one. It’s an amazing feeling to have readers, and letting other writers see your work. It can provide you with a great confidence boost. Good feedback will help you strengthen your story. You’ll gain confidence as you realize that, while your current draft might not be perfect, you now have ways to improve it.

5: Get Your Inner Critic to Shut Up
Your inner critic is that little voice saying, this sentence isn’t working or your dialogue is too bland or you need to rewrite that bit. You don’t need to listen to that voice when you’re drafting. Remind yourself that you can edit later—and then your inner critic will be useful, rather than discouraging. It’s worth experimenting with different ways to block out that voice as you write. For me, listening to certain kinds of music does the trick.

6: Set Yourself Goals
When you start out writing, your only goal might be to write on a regular basis—maybe daily, but it might be weekly or twice weekly if you’re busy. As you go further with your writing though, a great way to boost your confidence is by regularly setting and meeting goals. The trick here is to make your goals a little bit challenging—but not so challenging you give up entirely.

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How’s your writing confidence? Do you have a tip to share or a question to ask?

Punctuation – it does make a difference!

Here are five ways that punctuation helps our dialogue and makes it easier for the reader to understand and enjoy.

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1. To show an interruption—or break—in dialogue
Tyler tightened the grip on his pen. ‘I think you’re being unreasonable in wanting—’
‘In wanting what?’ Michelle demanded. ‘I just want you to show me respect—’
‘You’ll get respect when you earn it.’

In the above example the long dash, or Em Dash, shows how the two speakers are cutting each other off. It adds pace and energy to the dialogue.

2. To show a trailing off …
Caitlin stared wistfully at the foam of her cappuccino. ‘I just wish I could find someone who gets me …’
Donna didn’t know what to say to her friend. She simply stirred her latte.
Caitlin sighed. ‘Do you think I’ll ever find love …?’

In the above example, the ellipsis, or three dots, shows that Caitlin’s dialogue trails off. It slows down the pace and shows the spaces in dialogue.

3. To add some drama or to make a point

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Dorothy stood with her hands on her hips. ‘Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone of voice!’
In the above example, we use the exclamation point to show Dorothy’s raised voice and the emphasis she is putting into the sentence. A word of warning: Don’t use more than one exclamation point – it can look amateurish.

4. Don’t stop!
Often dialogue is still a part of a sentence and by using a full stop, we break the flow of the dialogue. This is a mistake many new writers make when using dialogue attributions and tags. We need to know when to keep the dialogue together.
‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’ Said Paula.
‘I really need to go for a manicure and a massage,’ Said Paula.
‘I really need to go for a manicure and a massage,’ said Paula.

In the third, and correct example, the comma is breaking up the dialogue so that it reads naturally. Keep in mind, in the other two examples we could have broken the dialogue using the dialogue tags differently.
We could have said:
Paula yawned. ‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’
OR:
‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’ Paula stated as she lounged back on the deck chair.

In these examples, we’re separating the action from the dialogue – so we’re creating a different structure for the dialogue.

5. Close the door behind you!
Another thing to watch out for is this rule: If you open an inverted comma or speech mark, make sure you close it when your character is finished speaking.

‘Our nail polish will keep a shine for fourteen days, said the therapist.
‘Our nail polish will keep a shine for fourteen days,’ said the therapist.
If we don’t close the dialogue off with the appropriate mark, the reader will be confused and assume everything after the first mark is speech. So watch out for this in editing.

Baring the soul…

Writing, as all writers know, is fraught with fear and doubt on every side. Am I any good? Will I get published? Will I get good reviews? Will I sell any books? We always ask these questions of ourselves. But perhaps, the most inherent danger of the writing life is the necessary baring of our souls to the world.

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After watching a writer friend perform and share so much of himself in his stories, I thought writing, at its most primal level, will always be part truth. No matter how far removed the subject matter, no matter how diverse the cast of characters, the story is always in some form about the author and their experiences.

Anytime we work with material that lives in a deep part of ourselves, we may feel a sense of dislike about showing our audience a part of ourselves we don’t want others to know. But, we have to work hard and deeply to give the reader something worthwhile reading. You are showing the reader your flaws, not your strengths in the depths of your writing. You’re exposed, a bit like dreaming you’re naked in public. People can see you right down to your core.

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The best novelists are those who can tap into their characters psyches at a primal level. They can reveal a characters innermost fears, fantasies, darkest sins. To reveal these things, to bring them to life in a way that will resonate with readers on a deeply human level, means the author must identify and understand all the associated feelings, at least to some extent.

Can I do that? Can I allow my characters to identify with these feelings? Can you in your writing? I’d love to hear what you think. Happy Writing!

Challenges – to make or break…

coffee_mug___2014_nanowrimo_calendar_by_margie22-d7zl2voOkay, so from much collegial nagging I’ve taken up the challenge – the NaNoWriMo challenge. Can I do it? Should I do it? Why should I do it? So much self doubt begins to creep in and all the excuses come out. I have to clean the house, wash the dog, move all the cobwebs, do some cooking to freeze and then there’s the Christmas shopping to begin. I need to do another book review, I need to read another book. Then there’s my day job…

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Excuses. I can find so many; one for each day of November when the challenge takes place. But, do I really want to? I haven’t been sleeping well lately, waking several times through the night. I think though that this may be because I have so many thoughts spinning inside my head its time to get them out. I’ve been mulling over and over what to do with an old story – should I continue with it? Should I edit what I have? Or, should I begin another? Do I go with the children’s theme or the adult?

challengesDecisions? I don’t like to make them for myself but I know I have to. I am the only one who can see whats inside my head and I am the only one who can sift through it all. So, in ten days, the sifting can begin. Slowly but surely. Can I write for 30 days straight? I need to lock the self doubt away and just do it. Yes, it will be a challenge but one I am also looking forward to.Challenge-Quotes-20

Will you take the challenge?

Story Structure…to outline or not?

images4Structure is the most important technical aspect of any story. It brings solidity and focus to a story; yet it is often overlooked and misunderstood. Novelists sometimes believe structure will sap their stories of originality. But structure is nothing more than a roadmap — a time-tested archetype for crafting the rise and fall of action and character evolution within our stories.

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The classic approach to structure divides story into three acts which some authors, will also argue, can be broken down further into nine. So, how can we make structure as easy as possible? Structure presents difficulties because it gives us a lot of stuff to remember all at once. Beyond that, we’re also faced with the question of how we structure our stories when we may not yet have any idea what happens in them. Structure is applicable no matter your personal writing process.

This is when outline comes in. How does outlining create story structure?

Outlines allow us to brainstorm important moments in our stories and figure out how all the pieces fit together. We save time and stress in the long run, by using outlines to figure out dead ends and speed bumps, so we can avoid them during the time-intensive first draft.

Whether your outlines consist of a mental list of major scenes, or notebooks full of detailed planning, you’ll be sitting down to your first draft with a structure of sorts already in mind. This structure won’t necessarily be story structure as defined above. But you will at least have a shape of the story in your head. You’ll know its beginning, middle, and end.

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You can identify and plan major structural points before writing the first draft. You can see your entire story at a glance, helping you identify inconsistencies in plot and character arcs. You get the opportunity to count scenes and estimate word counts, so you can time major plot points. They act as a checklist of sorts, against which you can double-check the existence of overall structural points before diving into the messiness of the first draft. You can use your outline as your dry-erase board for explorations of and experiments with ideas, preventing the need to delete hundreds or even thousands of words. Structure, in turn, will guide you in identifying your major plot points. From there, you can figure out how best to fill in the blanks.

Some authors prefer to use this list of structural events as the outline. You can go ahead and dive into your first draft without knowing anything more about what happens between the pit stops on your roadmap. Or you can use your knowledge of these events to guide you in fleshing out your outline even further.

Proper story structure is never a choice. We each have to identify and create the processes that will help us maximize both our creativity and productivity. And for most of us, the outline will be our greatest tool in building strong stories with spot-on structure.

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