‘How to spot structural problems’ brings writers to this blog every single day. It’s something that plagues writers, from new to professional to somewhere in-between. It’s not difficult to see why either – it’s DIFFICULT to keep a viewer or reader engaged!
But how do we spot structural problems in our OWN work? Some of my Bang2writers insist this is impossible and that an objective outsider – like B2W – is ‘needed’ to help them spot it.
But if that were the case, why is it that every time I say, ‘There’s a structural issue with X‘, those writers will say, ‘Yeah I know’??
Let’s rewind a second. We all know the basic structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’. These are imperative, whether we’re writing screenplays or novels. The notion of ‘B-M-E’ is universal, it’s built into our DNA as human beings and storytellers. Even small children know that stories require beginnings, middles and endings. B-M-E doesn’t even have to be in that order!
If you look at the visual representation above that I found via Google, you’ll see there are lots of people saying pretty much the same thing, just in different ways. It’s rare to find anything any truly ground-breaking when it comes to structure, because we all ‘know’ how it works anyway.
What may be particularly enlightening is HOW these people describe the way structure works. This is because that particular someone chooses particular words and/or has a particular way of describing structure that resonate with us. This in turn helps us spot problems in our own work.
There’s 2 easy tips I give my Bang2writers on improving their ability to spot structural problems, which in turn will make them better writers. Here you go:
i) Develop the vocabulary to describe how YOU see structure working
This means you need to do the work. Check out all the books, the websites, the visual representations. Watch movies with 5 plot point breakdowns in hand. Make notes. Compare and contrast. DECIDE who describes structure the ‘best’ as far as you are concerned.
Next, figure out WHY you think this. What can it tell you about your style of writing? Knowing how the various descriptions of structure work and why you dis/like them can only help you – it means you move out of instinctive writing and into THE CRAFT of writing, which will give you many more options to play with, such as non-linearity. It will also help you avoid plotting hell.
ii) Make lists/ draw the story
Take your draft. Make a list of everything in your story, chapter by chapter or scene by scene. This WORKS. It shows you where the gaps are, where you are trying to cheat or ‘gloss over’ bits. It doesn’t have to be mega detailed, bullet points is fine. But it gives you what I call ‘a story map’ and can act as a catalyst for fixing those issues.
If you don’t like making lists, draw the story. Find a worksheet, diagram or visual online that will help you visualise your story and how it works in terms of taking you from the beginning, though the middle, to the end. Again, it will show you where you are trying to cheat or gloss over inconvenient bits. It will also show you where there are
Me? I do both! I start by drawing the story, marking the main beats of the story and adding anything else important. Then I make a list of everything in the current draft:
- Where are there repetitions?
- Are there scenes or chapters where nothing much happens?
- Or two high octane scenes too close together?
- What about 2 characters whose role functions are too close together?
- Is there too much of a lull in the middle?
- Are the turning points in the ‘right’ place?
… And so on. You’d be surprised how stuff STICKS OUT like a sore thumb!
So next time you want to know where the issues are in your draft, remember these two simple tips for spotting problems in your writing.