Story Bones

Skulls 8 - photo by Augusto De Luca Story bones are strange and difficult things. Imagine a skeleton, structure for the dips and curves of the whole body, or a scaffolding to hang a three-dimensional tapestry on. Either way, there are weight-bearing supports in your stories, things that have to be strong enough to keep the whole thing from sliding into a pile.

Sometimes they’re character-driven. If you have a particular character who, say, has a volatile temper, your reader will believe them making bad choices in a fit of anger. Or it can be point-of-view based–a character who appears outwardly calm but is boiling inside, so we can believe it when they erupt. Showing either character’s internal state is a fine point of craft, not necessarily a structural choice. The structure is deeper, in whatever purpose that anger serves in the story.

Some bones are pure plot. These are tricky, because you have to make sure your characters are serving themselves and their own wants instead of said plot. A villain in an action movie has to work harder to avoid being a simple mustache-twirling device. At the same time, to sell a farfetched plot you have to do a lot of heavy lifting and scaffolding in other areas. Ideally, a plot should be inevitable, even its twists, from the very first sentence. Every beginning should carry within itself the seeds of its ending.

Notice I say ideally. It’s something to aim for, a moving target that changes shape, direction, speed, and everything else each time you begin a story.

There are other types of bones–emotional, where your character’s reactions and internal states reflect the motion and disturbance in the story. Or worldbuilding, which requires more than you’d think. Shoddy world building makes for a shaky scaffold, even if all other structural elements are in place. It also hikes the threshold of disbelief to chest-high, if not further.

About a quarter of the structural work in every story I write is what I call “excavation”. I’m not really building a narrative, I’m digging around a patch of disturbed dirt and clearing a submerged shape. Sometimes you only find a cellar down there, but other times you stumble across a palace to be dug out with shovel and toothbrush. There comes a certain point in writing–about a third of the way in, just before the long deadly slog–when I have to sit back and think about the shape that’s forming under my fingertips as I type. I’ve grown much better at seeing the whole thing earlier in the game, so to speak, but there’s still the odd book that will refuse to be seen from above. For those, it becomes a swing from one handhold to the next, with attention to how I’m shifting my weight–now there’s a rock-climbing metaphor, but it’s the closest I can come to the sensation.

Knowing where the bones are can save you a lot of time and trouble, and it helps in the other sixty percent of writing a story, which is–are you ready?

Revision.

Revision is where you see the bones and can wrench them about to make the body take the shape you want. This is not a painless process, for you or for the book/short/novella/whatever. At the same time, it’s so much easier to revise when you have the whole thing on the table and can see both its current shape and the one you want it to take. Sometimes books have a weird butterfly effect going on inside them–one thing changes, and the changes ripple out until all of a sudden the structure clicks into place with a jolt you can almost hear and certainly feel. Other times–let’s be honest, this happens a lot–you’ll be going through and looking at the underpinnings, knowing you have to solve a problem, and the solution will be in a passage you don’t even remember writing, a little gift from the Muse. She anticipates, the bitch; there’s nothing she enjoys more than leading you through the labyrinth and letting you sweat a bit thinking the bull is right behind you and there’s no exit.

I do some revision in my head while zero drafting, of course. I don’t recommend doing much, really, because you can end up grinding the same few chapters over and over instead of finishing the damn thing. This is the seductive trap of mistaking the effort of circling for the effort of writing, which I’ve covered elsewhere. For me, the majority of revision happens between zero draft and the first draft I send to my long-suffering agent. It’s rare that I have to do more than one more pass for an editor after that, but there are exceptions–I think Cormorant Run, in particular, needed more than one revision. After that it’s copyedits, and then proofing.

So how do you know where to set the bones, or where to yank them around? That is a matter of instinct and craft, and you learn as you go along. It helps to be a voracious reader, because you end up absorbing a lot about structure, what works, and what doesn’t, just by the act of reading. There is no magic secret…but if there was one, it would lie in two words: internal consistency.

Characters must be internally consistent. So must the plot, and the worldbuilding. With a story’s beginning, you make choices, and those choices narrow the range of options further and further, all the way down the line to the ending. If you break that chain, you must do it in a way that is consistent with all three: plot, character, world. A deus ex machina at the last minute is lazy storytelling, though there have been geniuses who make an apparent God-in-machine internally consistent, but those are far and few between. If your magic system is built on rocks, all of a sudden having someone use an internal combustion engine for said magic isn’t going to fly. (Wow, that is a weird sentence.) If a character is a rage-filled sociopath, their sudden, unprompted change of heart at the end is likely going to make your reader throw the book across the room.

In revision, one of the hardest questions to ask yourself is about internal consistency. You can fool yourself into thinking it’s just fine because you’re the writer, goddammit, and you are the god of this small world. Sometimes it helps to map a book’s structure out on a roll of butcher paper, or with Post-its or a whiteboard. Sometimes it helps to give it to a beta reader who can pinpoint the weak spots, though you must choose your beta readers with care. When you’re also revising for craft, getting rid of weasel words, layering in more details, and whatnot, adding one more thing to the pile to watch for and manage can be overwhelming. You may even want to break up the revision of a zero draft into two passes: a structural pass, then a detail pass for everything else. And of course the process is never going to be the same twice, each book/story is different and more than likely will demand a different strategy.

And people wonder why writers drink.

I want to say “just pay attention to the bones and everything will work out fine”, but that would be a lie. They are an important, critical component, and not the only one. But that’s (say it with me) a whole ‘nother blog post.

Over and out.

  • Wolf Lahti

    “Sometimes books have a weird butterfly effect going on inside them–one thing changes, and the changes ripple out….”

    Sometimes? If I dare change so much as a vowel in a character’s name, *everything* changes in response, a resonant sprachgefuhl that dictates that each paragraph/sentence/word be in harmony with every other. Some writers, I am told (but scarce believe), actually *like* the revision stage. For me, revision is hell.

  • I don’t think I’ve met a single writer who likes revisions.

  • Amberle Foster

    I tend to put too much thought into my rough drafts despite knowing that I’ll go through revision hell later after it’s typed.

  • Now I’m curious. What is “too much thought”? Can you explain further?

  • Amberle Foster

    I usually write rough drafts on paper, but if I wait a day or two before continuing, I’ll reread what I already have and question whether or not it sounds decent and it usually ends with a lot of erasing or scratched out sections (according to what I’m using to write).

  • Amberle Foster

    I guess an easier way to describe it is I become insecure about whether or not my writing is actually any good.

  • Ah, I think I understand now.

    Honestly, I don’t think that feeling ever goes away. At least, it hasn’t for me, after umpty-scrump books. I finally decided that when I was writing the zero draft, it didn’t have to be any good. It’s okay for it to be crappy, it just needs to not be crappy AND UNFINISHED.

  • Amberle Foster

    That seems pretty reasonable. I just need to keep reminding myself it’s no where near finished yet, so it’s fine as it is for now.