Friday, May 18, 2018

Charts and Lists: The Fun of Organizing Your Story Structure

This week, I've been studying a page from the book-structure chart used by mega-successful author, J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter stories.  You can access it here.  The chart is handwritten and hard to read, but it's fascinating to see what she uses to keep an overview of her story.  (Thanks to Rita, one of my private clients, for sharing the link.)

So many published writers, when interviewed, talk about the need to organize their story structure.  Storyboards are useful to a point.  But charts and lists come in very handy when the first draft is complete and you're on to revision.

In Rowling's chart, you'll see a column for the date of that plot point, the plot point itself, a column called "prophecy" which alludes to the greater meaning of that event in Harry's story and the prophecy that haunts him, as well as several other interesting things she keeps track of.  Even if you're not an HP fan, it's educational to see how much charting goes behind the scenes with books by savvy writers.  

In my private coaching, I use three to four different charts, depending on where my client is in the process of developing her or his book.  Basic charts in fiction or memoir help track what's happening, the outer story, and how it relates to the narrator or main character's growth.  In nonfiction we look at "talking points," the nonfiction version of plot points, and how they sequence like stepping-stones to get the point across.  In all genres, we look at the difference between writer's intention and reader's take away, which can be vast, illuminating, and essential in revision.  More advanced charts examine the inner and outer obstacles for the character or narrator and how the reader perceives those within the narrative arc.

For this week's writing exercise, I encourage you to start a chart.  First, make a list of things you track in your story.  Here are a few to consider:

Outer event--what is happening onstage (visible, audible, movement perceived)
Date of this event/day and time
Season/weather
Who is narrating this event (point of view)
Who else is present
Location (as specific as possible)
Primary sense in the scene (used by writer Celeste Ng--a very cool thing to consider)
Your intent as writer for this scene--what does it deliver?

Once you have your list, use Excel, Word, or an app, or create a handwritten version like Rowling's, and begin charting the first 25 pages of your story so far.  It can be rough, even just ideas.  Work forward as much as you can.

I recently redid my own chart for my second novel and discovered some missing elements, which, when fixed, made the chapters sing.  I hadn't even realized what wasn't yet in place.  That's the beauty of charts.  They don't feel creative to most of us, but they organize the writing so more creativity can shine through.