Once you’re working on the second draft, you hopefully have a story line developed from start to finish. But how do you know it’s in the most effective order? That, of course, is a question about structure.
At this stage, if I haven’t already, I make one of my scrolls. I think I’ve done this for each novel I’ve written at some point in time. Three hundred plus pages is a lot of territory to cover and I have a lot of trouble remembering what came where and who did what when. So, it’s time to check the structure of the story.
What does this scroll look like? It’s a bunch of photocopy paper stuck together horizontally with scotch tape. It has a top, middle and bottom section. The first section is devoted to the main plot, the middle to the next important subplot and the third to the second subplot which hopefully works together with the first two plots to resolve them in some fashion.
Sound strange? Well, maybe so, but it helps me keep track and also gives me more of a bird’s-eye view of the whole story. I need to get “above” it so I can see the “whole”. Or at least try! Maybe I really am a visual person.
The best book I have come across to help me is Robert McKee’s book called Story. True, it’s a guide book for screenplay writers, but it also helps me, the novelist, understand the structure of a well told story. It has a number of chapters on the structure of the acts and scenes in any story and tests you can apply to your own work. For example, when you get down to the level of one scene [what a novelist calls a chapter] he prescribes a step by step procedure for determining whether it is structurally sound. Each interchange between one character and another, he calls a beat. You can analyze your scene by breaking it down into exchanges between your own characters to determine where you’ve built tension effectively or NOT.
Of course, screenplay writing is very different from novel writing but the principles are the same. [I know. I’ve tried it]. But McKee’s book is about the telling of a good story and how to make it better. And so, at this stage of the game when I’m trying to ensure the story is well structured, I turn to it.
Sometimes, I find myself arguing with the book. Sometimes I feel as if he has too many hard and fast rules and a too set way of looking at the problems of a story writer. But, in the end, his thoughts are always helpful because it makes analyze your own work. After all, don’t you want to tell an exciting story which the reader cannot put down?