Friday, May 13, 2016

My Favorite Tool for Checking Story Sequence

Two of my private clients are working on nonfiction books.  They have a ton of expertise to share, but they normally teach in person, so putting their techniques and theories into a logical sequence on the page has proven challenging for both.  They found my website and decided to work with me to check the structure of their books-in-progress.

I start them with basic structure analysis techniques, which I learned as an editor at different publishing houses.  Most writers just write--they don't necessarily know anything about structure.  Editors used to take care of that, but they don't anymore, so we writers must learn to analyze the structure of our own books and get them in shape before we submit the manuscript.


Once a client has put together a basic structure analysis chart (see last week's post, below), I work with them on the sequencing of chapter purpose, using one of my favorite tools.

What Question Does Your Chapter Ask?
Each chapter (or scene, eventually) must have a clear purpose.  It must contribute something to the story--not just be there because it's well written and you like it. 

An easy way to figure out a chapter's purpose is to find out what question it asks. 

Chapters can ask simple questions that have to do with what's happening onstage (Will I get caught as I'm searching my parents' bedroom?  Will we win the fight?  Will I get away before he sees how embarrassed I am?).  They can also be more complex, or conceptual (Why do we see the world this way?  What's wrong with our approach to money?  Where does our belief in might versus right stem from?). 

It takes a bit of work to figure out a chapter's question.  Some chapter questions will be obvious.  Their purpose is very clear.  Others, not so much.

Once you have the questions sketched out, copy and paste them into a new document so you're not distracted by the chapter text.  Look at the sequence of just questions.  Do they create a clear path for the reader?  Are the questions, or chapter purposes, logically arranged?

Once you get the chapter purpose described, you can use this tool for character arcs--the progress of a character or narrator or reader through the story.  For each chapter, write the stage of the character's consciousness.  Describe their awareness of themselves, the problem, its solution.  Then copy and paste these descriptions into a new document and study the sequence.  Is there a clear series of changes, that make sense, from beginning to end of story?

When I've tried this for a manuscript-in-progress, I usually find big holes.  It's become my favorite technique for story sequence--and the quickest way to catch the places I've raced ahead and left my reader behind.