Adventures in story structure

Hey all,

To those of you who partake of the holiday, happy Thanksgiving! To those who do not, I hope you can be grateful for good things too. I am personally grateful you made it to my blog!

So, down to business.

I recently went to UW Madison’s Weekend with Your Novel, a weekend conference/series of workshops. I brought Machine with me, met a bunch of excellent writers, had an amazing time in a wonderful critique group and generally speaking learned oodles, mainly that there is a great deal I have yet to learn.

To that end, I’m going to talk about something that until this conference, I had given very little attention to: story structure.

As a seat of the pants writer, I typically have the beginning, an end, the main characters, some of their motivations, and nothing else when I start a new book. I may have a theme or a question I want to ask, but even that is usually discovered as I write. I’m not big on outlining either, seeing as it usually just gums up my creative works, making me feel constrained or obligated rather than comforted, and though I might do some free flow plotting as I go, even that isn’t usually kept beyond its immediate usefulness. Even at the end, I don’t usually outline beyond what I need to keep track of what’s happened.

Except, apparently, that’s not really what professional authors do.

One of the main themes that kept coming up in the workshops (albeit workshops I chose in part because of how little I knew about their topics) was story structure, and if you, like me, have never been much for outlining, you would be shocked by just how crazy story structure advocates are for these things, including–to my great, inexperienced distress–agents.

Now, I’m not currently looking for an agent for Machine, but it had never occurred to me that if/when I do (again) they might ask me what the inciting incident is or, as I was told, open my book to the center and look for the midway “death” or conflict moment, closing the book and no longer reading if it was missing.

A frightening prospect for the uninitiated I’m sure.

I’d never heard of beat sheets either, and though I’ve heard of the 12 step hero’s journey, I’d never really looked into it. So, what are these things?

Let’s start with the basics.

Outlines and maps

Sound obvious? You’d be surprised. I’d always thought Outlines were for basically outlining what happened in your book, the plot maps for showing the beginning, rising action, climax and falling action.

I was wrong.


Apparently, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense, you can map pretty much anything. Plot points, character arcs (including the antagonist), relationships, conflict, even setting or obstacles. You can diagram multiple story lines from different timelines on the same drawing, show emotional states or even track the weather. And people do. Crazy and awesome.

Beat sheets

In theatre, beats are written into scripts to show when a character is processing, or at least that’s how I think of it. They’re the moments when something changes, when a character(s) is thinking, when they need time to make an emotional change. The same thing can happen in books, and you can track them within your novel on things known as beat sheets. Now, I’m still a little squidgy on this, because I feel like what I learned in the conference was that you can have several in a chapter, whereas the beat sheets I’m looking at (I found a bunch of them here), have seven or eight in a book. But, in either case, I think the exercise would be useful.


Besides those few things, there are also other story structures you can look at, whether it’s a general plot arc (revenge, hero’s journey, etc.), or broken down into steps like the 12 step hero’s journey (info on that found here). I haven’t dug too deeply into these yet, but I find them fascinating and have already started doing some research/writing to see just where Machine falls.

Now, because it’s Thanksgiving and I’m still playing with these ideas myself, I think I’m going to stop the blog here, but I would be interested to hear from any of you what you think about these things. Have you mapped out your stories? Had encounters with agents or publishing industry professionals? What happened? Did I miss any key stategies? Do you use them? What do you think?

Thanks everybody!


My unpopular novel

On November 4th, 2015, I finished my fifth novel. I’ve talked about it briefly in a couple of my previous posts, and now that it’s finished, I find myself in that increasingly familiar post-book place. The place where I am both satisfied and restless, pleasantly tired and full of creative energy which no longer has that immediate outlet.

I am also in the place where I can look at my work for the first time as a finished whole, even if it is unpolished, and find answers to the questions I have had since its initial conception, a particularly significant fact given the immense strain I have felt several times throughout the writing of this book in specific regards to its themes and purpose.

You see, at first I thought it was about community, the importance and need for others. Then race, a topic which I have never felt particularly qualified to speak of in the first place, and even more so within the context of this book, which features a slaver and slave as two of the main characters. This was the first pressure point I felt in writing this novel, but surprisingly not the hardest.

The hardest was the realization that, at the end of the day, this book is about sovereignty, positional authority, and with equal importance, grace, and while the last of these themes is wildly popular in our society (a topic I wanted to approach for just such a reason), the first two are not only unpopular topics, but also often wildly rejected. In a society where we are told constantly that our own authority and truths are the most valid, true or authoritative, where if we disagree with something on almost any ground, we can fight or ignore it, the idea that others might simply have authority over us, that they might by the authority of their position be in a place to ordain or command our decisions, is at the very least uncomfortable if not extremely unpleasant for many today, especially within my target market of young and new adult readers.

Compounding this trouble is the fact that the one in my novel who has this control is the slaver, the one who is forced to obey the slave. And while in the context of the novel, one finds the slaver (who is at least somewhat unaware of his complicity, besides his repentance and attempts to fix the inherent problems at their root) to be of a much greater character than the blood thirsty portraits one immediately jumps to given the term, to say nothing of the real parallels I want to strike, given the current racial tensions in our society today, I question how readers might interpret my work.

Now, this is the most overtly Christian book I think I’ve ever written. The themes, correctly interpreted, will hopefully call to attention the importance of God as sovereign, especially in the context of its position in His plan of redemption and grace. Outside of the context of Christianity, outside of this framework for understanding the novel, you wind up with something that is much more easy to misinterpret. Further, though the characters involved do fulfill a somewhat representative role of our relationship with God, none of them actually are God. Atlan, though he shares certain characteristics of God–sovereignty as a King, positional authority, a desire for grace–he certainly doesn’t carry any of them to the same degree. Nor does he have other aspects of God–his perfection, omniscience, omnipotence. Atlan is flawed–seriously flawed–and of course, even if I tried to write him to be perfect, I couldn’t do it. He is at best a flawed picture, a picture as in a dull mirror, as it were.

Which gets us to our summary: I have written a novel for young adults (originally middle grade and I’m still on the fence) which through portraits of a benevolent slaver and his feisty slave seeks to show in part, the importance of positional authority and sovereignty in God’ s plan for redemption.

Essentially, I have written what might be one of my most unsaleable novels.

Except, when I think of what I could do instead, could change, nothing comes to mind. Atlan does want to rescue Mira, is willing to do whatever it takes to free her. Mira will equally resist his friendship until…well…you’ll have to read the book for that. Point is, there’s nothing I can change about the story’s heart. It is what it is, and though smaller things might change, there are others that I’m not sure can, whether it’s popular or not.

Besides that, as an artist–and furthermore and more importantly as a Christian–I believe I am called to ask questions of others, to explore topics and ideas that point to truth whether or not they are seen as worthy in the public’s eye, whether or not people wish to discuss them, or agree with what I think. I am called to ask questions, to start dialogue, to tell stories. There is a great call to tell diverse stories in today’s publishing world. And while I’m not sure how this story will fare in the long run, I feel at the very least that this answers that call. I guess in the end, only God will be able to tell if I’ve answered the others.

Anyway, these are the things I’ve been musing over in this initial post-novel phase.

So, how about you? Have you ever written or created something you felt would be unpopular? Have you ever struggled with the great tension between worldly popularity and the call of God? What do you even think of this novel? Would you read it? Would you ban it? How could you interpret it? How do you think people would?