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Why novelists should know structure as well as editors do

How can story structure enhance your creative freedom as a novelist? How can you protect your story’s integrity, streamline your writing process, and boost your confidence all through an understanding of both how and why stories are shaped the way they are? Helen Corner-Bryant, founder of leading transatlantic literary consultancy, Cornerstones, stopped by to give us some industry insights.

We discussed the importance of story structure, the author/editor relationship, and how to harness these techniques no matter what type of writer you are.

Why is structure so important for novelists to know?

HCB: I like to think of structure as the technical scaffolding and underpinning of a story that allows an author to explode onto the page without veering off into the wilds. It maps out key story building blocks, using the 3-act structure or The Hero’s Journey, plotting the shape of the plot and character arcs, with interweaving cause and effect.

Every writer will have their own process of writing that suits them, but whether you’re a planner or a pantser, having that understanding of structure should always strengthen what you already have. For example, many authors will already have a strong intuition to recognise if they’re going down the wrong route for their story, but they may not know why or how to fix it, and it could stop them from progressing. Knowing how to map out the story diagnostically can help a writer see what’s missing, or if a tension point is in the wrong place, and so on. Mapping a story against the three or five-act graph can allow a writer to see if a story can be sustained within a novel before they even begin writing it. It sounds hard but it’s easy once you know how, and authors can spend five minutes seeing if a story shape can work. They may not have all the answers from the off, but it acts as a cradle. Then as their story unfolds, they can fill in the gaps in the right places.

It’s useful to think of structure as having a kite-string hold on your story. It stops stories from going down the wrong route or flying off into the horizon. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t let your story take you off in a completely amazing direction that you hadn’t envisaged before starting, but having an understanding of those structural supports will let you explore ideas freely while simultaneously shaping the story into something compelling, with satisfying highs and lows.

As an editor, one of the things I commonly hear published writers say is that their first book took forever, and it was a real labour of love. And they always say that they wish they understood structure before they started Book One, because since then, their writing process has changed completely. When going on to Book Two or Book Three, they approach ideas and their story in a more confident, focused way. It’s like climbing a mountain; they’re not going to zigzag and meander – they know the shape and can go up the mountain and back down again confidently. That’s how the story shape should be and feel. And that knowledge is what saves writers valuable time in the long run, because it’s a life-long skill worth investing in.

[Published writers] always say that they wish they understood structure before they started Book One, because since then, their writing process has changed completely. When going on to Book Two or Book Three, they approach ideas and their story in a more confident, focused way.

Helen Corner-Bryant

An understanding of story structure gives you the confidence to see your story’s shape, anticipate what your book needs, and to be able to articulate why it works, and why you’ve made plot and character choices to an agent or editor. It’s reassurance that you know what you’re doing and that certain choices were deliberate and not just happenstance, and then it’s easier for them to see from your perspective why you went in that direction.

So you can absolutely break the rules of structure if it serves your story, but in order to break the rules, you must know them first and be able to explain your choices.

What are the most common structural issues you come across?

HCB: Quite often, it’s pacing. When you write a first draft, you’re putting everything down, you’re info-dumping, you’re getting it on the page. The text tends to be exposition-heavy because you’re doing it for yourself as the writer and don’t want to forget about certain plot points. Pacing is about knowing what to impart to the reader and when, which is different to pace which is how fast you’re turning the page and is linked more to tension. Another common issue in relation to this is show not tell, and how well you can inhabit the scene and go deep under the character’s skin and voice. All these common issues are interlinked and relevant to structure and how those ideas are formed and ordered.

It’s common to also see manuscripts with a meandering or flagging midsection. The first thing we do is a diagnostic test against the three-act structure graph, and the issue is usually a lack of major rising tension peaks for each character as well as the overall arc of the story. If you have more than one character, each of them needs their own arcs, their own shape, and at some point, all of those arcs need to meet at the right moment, in the right place in the story to build to the climax and resolution. Many authors suffer with a flagging midsection, but when they know the structural techniques, they’ll know how to fix it.

How much do authors have to know and how much can they leave to professional editors?

HCB: When an author presents a manuscript to an agent they should aim for a solid MS with very few technical areas to tidy and with a bit of room for agent and editor input and vision. A MS that requires significant work may put the trade off so it’s really the responsibility of the author to strengthen their MS as much as they can. Otherwise, their chances may decrease and after their hard work – often years of writing – it would be a shame to falter at this stage. Many writers give up when agents turn their MS down – it can feel demoralising. But what if the story is potentially really good and the writer has natural talent, but because it was sent out too early it fell at the first hurdle? If in doubt, don’t give up and get a professional editor’s opinion. Writing a novel is ideally collaborative between the author and editor and the results can be transformative.

You can absolutely break the rules of structure if it serves your story, but in order to break the rules, you must know them first and be able to explain your choices.

Helen Corner-Bryant

Every book is unique, and editors are creative technicians. But the author can – and deserves to – have that confidence and knowledge, too.

When the editor gives feedback such as: ‘less of this, more of that’ or ‘I don’t think this should come at the beginning, but towards the end of Act Two’ it can be daunting, but when you have the strings, pegs, and the tent, you know how to tighten everything up and make sure it’s habitable. And so you can go into the editing process with less alarm perhaps, because you and the editor are speaking the same language and you know the lingo and what to do.

Knowing the editor’s language the author may even help steer editorial direction and stand firm when a revision suggestion doesn’t resonate or feel right for the book. The trade will find this technical understanding useful and reassuring. And the best kind of author considers feedback and takes that direction beyond what was originally suggested. After all, it’s the author’s MS and they will understand the ripple effect a revision has on a MS. Understanding editorial techniques, in particular the part that structure plays, can be transformative. It’s also a necessary writing life skill.

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