Writers in the Storm

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April 7, 2017

Struggling With Your Plot? Here's a Fun Way to Learn Story Structure

Janice Hardy

When I was first learning how to write a novel, I read tons of how-to books and tried every piece of writing advice I came across. Some of it helped, some of it didn't, and some of it did more harm than good. Luckily, I survived the experience and maintained not only my love of writing, but my enjoyment of analyzing the writing process.

One trick I've found particularly useful, is studying my favorite novels to see how the authors created them. I have several novels on my shelves with highlighted text, notes in the margins, and even post-it notes with thoughts and observations. They're like my independent study course on novel writing.

A few years ago, I decided to stretch my creativity a little and shifted from writing for children and teens to trying an adult novel. While so much of writing works across genres and platforms, there are differences, so I thought it was a good idea to once again study some of my favorite novels in the genre I wanted to write in (urban fantasy and paranormal suspense).

My goal: To analyze the subtle differences in structure, plot, and pacing between a middle grade and an adult fantasy novel.

My study tool of choice: The editorial map.

An editorial map is a summary of every scene that focuses on what happens and how a novel unfolds. It's a fantastic revision tool, but it also works well to really dig into a novel and see what makes it work. Using a novel you've both read and enjoyed, helps you pinpoint the aspects of the story you found the most compelling and memorable. It also allows you to see how the plot unfolds, at what pace it unfolds, and how the subplots and character arcs are interwoven through the book.

Using an Editorial Map as a Study Tool

  1. Grab your favorite novel and open a new document on your word processor (or pen and paper if you prefer to go old school).
  2. Start with the first scene and summarize what happens.
  3. Summarize each scene until the end of the novel.

You can include any information you want to analyze or study. For example, you might look for:

  • Where the major turning points of the plot fall (and how that compares against your preferred story structure template).
  • Where the major steps of the character arc fall.
  • When the subplots are introduced and where they reconnect with the main story arc.
  • How the scenes are broken and where in those scenes the chapter breaks fall.
  • When and where foreshadowing is introduced.
  • How the clues are slipped into the narrative.
  • Where the red herrings are.
  • Where and how the mini story-arcs occur.
  • When the romantic subplot begins and how it unfolds.
  • Where the pace picks up and where it slows down.
  • Where and how critical information is revealed.

If there's something you're particularly curious about, you can add that to your list and look for that as well. Whatever you want to study, you can analyze the novel on a scene-by-scene basis and see how the technique was used.

Adapting What You Learn to Your Novel

After I've studied a novel, I like to create some bullet-point notes about what I learned. I've found this lets me quickly see elements I want to include and things I want to remember. For example, if I'm impressed with how an author weaves in subplots, I'll make notes of where and how a subplot is added. I might ask:

  • Where in relation to the other plot points does it fall--does it come during, before, after?
  • Is it used to raise the tension?
  • Is it a problem that intrudes on the main plot or is it a choice offered that leads the protagonist down a different path?
  • How many turning points does it take to complete it?
  • How does it relate or connect to the other subplots in the novel? Are they all similar or do they vary in size depending on importance?
  • Where and how does the subplot affect the main plot? The main character arc? Other subplots?

Once I have my answers, I apply them to my own novel. I prefer to do this at the outline stage, since I find it easier to move events around and see how a novel unfolds, but you could apply these answers however you wished.

This technique also works for manuscripts that are giving you trouble. I've taken troublesome drafts and done an editorial map on them, then compared it to a favorite novel. I'll ask, where did I go off track? What did I miss? How could I change my draft so the plot flows better? Sometimes, just summarizing the action is enough to see where the problems are. It's like boiling it down and removing all the chaff.

Remember--This Isn't About Copying, but Learning

It can be easy (and tempting) to follow your favorite book exactly--scene-by-scene, chapter-by-chapter--but be wary of falling into that trap. Stories are fluid beasts, and what works for that novel might not work for yours. The goal is to see how the various pieces work together, and then adjust the pieces of your novel that are structurally out of whack. What might be working is when the subplot is introduced within the larger structure, not a specific page count.

Just because Favorite Novel A starts a romance subplot in chapter three doesn't mean you should start one there as well (especially if you don't really have a strong romance element in your novel). But if Favorite Novel B starts a subplot right after the first major plot point to distract the protagonist with an outside problem, then you might shift yours to a similar spot and see how it works. If that doesn't fix the issue, try studying why the subplot works well where it does--what else is going on that makes that subplot compelling?

We can learn a lot by studying novels we admire. After all, we loved them for a reason, right? And that we can duplicate in our own work.

Have you ever done an editorial map of your favorite novel? What did you find? Did anything surprise you?

*     *     *     *

Janice HardyJanice Hardy is the author of the award-winning YA fantasy series, The Healing Wars, and the best-selling Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it). Her Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the "editor-in-a-book," Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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19 comments on “Struggling With Your Plot? Here's a Fun Way to Learn Story Structure”

  1. This was a great post - and the process is much like the 'Writing Reconnaissance' method I learned from Timons Esaias at a Pennwriters conference a few years back. Basically, it's learning from the folks who got it right. I like the depth of your method. I wondering if it's as effective in the revision stage for fixing plots as it is for outlining.

    1. Doing a revision editorial map works for me (of my own book of course). The first thing I do with a revision is create a new editorial map so I know what I actually wrote vs what my outline or synopsis says. That way I can quickly see if I went off track or where the holes are.

    1. I bet it will. You might want to pay particular attention to how and where those authors use tension and foreshadowing to create suspense, as well as the plot. 🙂

  2. Sounds like a lot of work! But I might just try this. I have been struggling with my third novel, and just recently been analyzing structure. It is helping, for sure. This could help bring it home. Thanks.

  3. Hi Writerdeeva! The first time I heard about an editorial map I froze for a week. (Not because of the weather!) But I'm in the middle of one now, and though it's not "easy," I can see how it's going to help me make my story so much stronger.

    Thanks so much for the extra boost, Janice!

  4. You know, Janice, I know this sounds dumb, but this scares me to death. See, since I began writing, I have a hard time not being critical of other's work. So much so that I only read the best I can find. I really have to trust the author to suspend disbelief and fall into the story.

    I'm afraid if I do this, that I'll lose even that!

    Told you it was dumb.

  5. This approach resonates with me. (I'm pretty wonky.) It provides a method to really think about a favorite novel and get a better idea of why or how it works.

    I also likw the use of an Editorial Map to plan and later revise a novel. It's a Map. You can choose to take a different route and if it gets you where you want to go, you're OK. If it doesn't it shows you where you got lost.

  6. I'd like to give this a go but I sort of don't get it. I'm a bit of a visual learner. Is there anywhere I could see some pictures of this in action?

  7. Someone recommended something similar to me recently--plot deconstructions. She mentioned that I might find one online, already deconstructed. Do you know if any editorial maps have been published online that I might look at to learn from?

  8. I took a course where this was recommended. I'm in the middle of doing it with a novel close to what I'm trying to write. I enjoy the process and is good to do when I might not have the energy for writing. In the course, they had us try this with movies as well. (It was a course on outlining and story structure.)

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