Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Shake and Bake: Re-Structuring Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When I got my critiques back for Darkfall I knew there were going to be a lot of comments. I knew when I wrote this draft that it was a bit "all over the place" because it was wrapping up the trilogy and I wasn't sure how some things were going to pan out. I needed to write it and see what happened, and then needed to hear what folks said about it before I went back and revised.

I knew I was setting myself up for some serious realigning. And I was right.

The biggest change I had to make was to align the goal structure so all my plot arrows pointed in the same direction. Nya was often being pulled in several directions, and not in a good way. It was like she didn't know what to care about from chapter to chapter, so her goals bounced like ping pong balls. This happened because her goals were plot goals, not personal goals.

I suspect a lot of folks have drafts that look similar to mine right now. There's a good story there, it just needs to be shaped and polished to bring that story out and put the protagonist back in the narrative driver's seat.

This was my revision plan:

1. Determine what the core conflict was on a premise and personal level.

This seems like an easy thing since I knew what it was as I wrote the draft, but novels have a funny way of going off on tangents as we write them. For Darkfall, it was worse than normal because of the trilogy arc versus the book arc and then all the character arcs. I found that I'd spent too much time on the premise arc (the war mentioned in "The Healing Wars") and not enough on Nya's personal character arc. The story isn't about Nya "winning the war" it's about her doing something else that happens to have an affect on that war.

However, it was important for me to write that premise arc, because I had a lot of things to figure out and that helped me do it. I found where Nya needed to go within that premise arc. I cut 10K words (four entire chapters) without batting an eye because I didn't need them anymore. They did their job to get me mentally where I needed to be, but they hurt the story to leave them in.

So look at your story and identify that main story problem your protagonist has to solve to win on a personal level, and how that fits into the bigger idea of the plot.

2. Realign scenes so that personal goal is what's driving the protagonist to act.

Nya spent a lot of time acting out plot in the first draft so the emotional connection wasn't very developed. Once I knew what she personally had at stake and how that was going to affect her choices, I could look at the same scenes and adjust them so her personal goal was driving her, not the plot.

Did this require a lot of rewriting? You betcha. Some scenes had to be completely rewritten with this stronger personal goal in mind. Other scenes only needed a tweak here and there to fix. But the thing is, the story never changed. I can't stress this enough. THE STORY NEVER CHANGED. This is important, because we can revise and change the story without realizing it. Then suddenly, we reach the middle and the first and last halves of the novel don't match up, we have a totally different ending and we wonder what the heck happened.

When you're realigning, look at the scene and what it's trying to do. Look beyond plot to the story underneath. Maybe that situation is what's happening overall and your protagonist has a small part of it. Maybe they're the ones creating this situation, or trying to stop it. Sometimes, (okay, I bet most times) it's asking yourself why your protagonist is doing what they're doing in that scene. Their actions might be fine but the reasons behind it differ now. This often affects what the stakes are. Or even adds the stakes that were missing when the protagonist was acting based on a premise goal.

You might even need to widen your looking. I had mini-arcs of several chapters that encompassed a situation important to the story. I studied those chapters, found what was important story wise and then revised so Nya's personal goal got her from point A (decision to go after that goal) to point B (resolution of her attempt to get that goal).

Let's check in with Bob and the zombies for an example...

Plot wise, Bob and his gals have to blow up a bridge to keep the zombie horde from crossing into a newly discovered town, Lifeline, a fortified enclave that's a safe haven in the mountains. Lifeline is critical to the larger story because it'll be the base for which the final assault on the undead will occur. But at that point in the story, readers have no idea about this, so they really don't care about Lifeline or the people in it. They care about Bob, Sally, and Jane.

You might first write the scene from an author's POV (no matter whose POV is used in the text) and describe what's important to the overall plot. Bob acts out the plot, the bridge is blown up and Lifeline is saved. But Bob takes risks he might not normally do for no good reason. The author has a reason (Lifeline is important to plot) but Bob doesn't. So the stakes are flat, and there's no emotional depth.

So in revisions, Bob needs a personal goal with personal stakes to risk his life and blow up that bridge. Maybe Jane is injured and only the doctors in Lifeline can save her. Maybe Bob and the gals are out of supplies and if they don't stop the horde here, they're all dead. Maybe Bob thinks he can finally ditch Sally at Lifeline and be with Jane.

The new scene has Bob doing all the critical plot stuff he had to do anyway, but now his reasons for acting fit his ultimate goal of being with Jane and living zombie-free every after.

3. Find spots where that personal goal could affect the premise goal to achieve the overall story goal.

In stories where the personal goal is the overall goal this is easy (and honestly, you probably don't have this realignment problem to begin with) But in stories where there's a bigger problem the protagonist has to solve, getting the personal and the premise to line up can be tricky. It's easy to fall back into acting out plot, and it's easy to waylay yourself with personal problems that don't lead you to the right premise resolution.

Think about your protagonist's personal problems and then ask how you can complicate that problem in a way that forces them to make a choice that affects the premise problem.

To use an example from The Shifter, Nya's opening scene problem was that she was hungry, so she decides to steal eggs. She gets caught, which in turn makes her use her shifting ability and she gets seen doing it. That draws her into the premise problem. She isn't trying to solve the premise problem at first, she's trying to solve a personal problem. But now she has another problem that affects her on a personal level, and she has to solve that, which will draw her in even more. Before she knows it, her personal problem and the premise problem become one in the same.

Odds are your protagonist has to be something to solve the premise problem. They have to step up, take over, find the will, whatever, to win. There's a character growth of some type they undergo throughout the course of the novel. Each of these personal goals makes them take another step to becoming that "whatever" they need to be at the end. Their choices lead them (or drag them kicking and screaming) toward that end.

Realigning can take some time to get things to flow well, but it's worth it. You end up with a deeper story and a stronger sense of character and stakes. Your readers care about what's happening, because the protagonist cares. And readers don't just want to see a problem solved they want to see the protagonist win. 

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hi Janice, very insightful. That really helped refocus my thinking and evaluating of what is going on. It always amazes me on how may levels a book is written. Thanks.

  2. Looks like you have alot of work to do. Does it mean that you basically have to rewrite the whole damn thing? Or can you reuse most of the paragraphs in some way?

    Cold As Heaven

  3. This post also helps me think about the first part of my novel. I'd like to tighten the focus enough to turn it into a short story. I sort of wrote it with that in mind, but I think it is a bit to scattered for a short story and the ending possibly needs something else than a cliff hanger.

    Thanks for help on Show vs. Tell.

  4. This post helps a lot. Thanks!

  5. I'm rewriting a lot but not the whole thing. And lots of the text is usable, even if I'm adding or cutting. I wrote this book a little differently than I usually do, more pantsing this time, so the revision process if different as well. Most of the middle will need only tweaks and nudges to get things to align. The beginning needed a lot of work, but that has more to do with a major change I made about the time frame than anything else. I went from book three starting several months after book two ended to five days after book two ended. Everyone was in a totally different emotional state, and things that had been established during those two months no longer were.

    Rewriting has never scared me, nor has trashing huge chunks of my novels. Sometimes I need to write what doesn't work to figure out the right path. If that means I write a few extra chapters (or a few dozen) then I write extra. Some books unfold with few detours, others take a winding route to get where I need it to be.

  6. I'm impressed that you didn't basically know what would happen in this book when you wrote the first two. You really explained how the character/plot goals have to meet.

    I wish I could cut 10,000 words so easily. And I love the title of your post.

  7. My computer's back up! Yay! (I actually enjoyed taking it apart to install the hard drive a lot more than I expected I would. O.O)

    Anywhoo, now I'm in position with 2 novels to revise, one of which definitely needs this kind of tweaking. Er, to have personal/premise goals whatsoever behind the plot.

    Of course, focusing on the correct antagonist is already helping it...


  8. This combined with Juliette's post about backbone characters gives me some ideas about what to do with one of my stories.

    And I am really looking forward to Blue Fire! :D

  9. wow--I'm over at your blog at the recommendation of Natalie *waving hi to Natalie*, and this post could have been written for (or maybe by) me right now--this is precisely what I am doing in my revisions right now. It's a ton of work, but I really feel like I'm finally in the final direction of the novel... Thanks for this post!

  10. Welcome Heather! Good to have you.

    There's a reason Re-Write Wednesdays are my most popular posts :) Everyone revises at some point and sometimes it's hard to know where to start. It's also probably helpful to think about this stuff before you write, too, so even if you're not at the revision stage, you might find something that helps out.

  11. Thank you so much!!!! I finally feel like I know what to do with my novel! It was a premise novel before, and so many of your acticles have helped immensely! :D But a question: do you have any articles on protag development? I've never been quite sure how to make my protag "grow". I mean I could probably rewrite and figure it out, but a push in the "write" (lol) direction never hurts! :D

  12. Well, it's more like a premise novel working its way up to being real.

  13. I sure do. There's a section in the menu on the left hand side that says "Character Development." Here's the link:

    This will take you to a page with the most popular articles, or you can click the link that says "all articles on..." and see everything I've written on that.

    There's also a section on protags there as well.