When I decided to move from non-fiction into fiction, I was still under the impression that great works flowed fully formed from an author’s head to a perfect story on the page.
I’ve learned a lot since then, but one of the first lessons was about story architecture and especially how a scene works. That moment was almost life-changing, the penny dropped and I was able to move into fiction with more confidence.
In today’s guest post, Stuart Horwitz, author of “Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method” explains more about how story architecture works.
I came up with the term “Book Architecture” when I became tired of being called a book doctor. That whole image was so sleazy, conjuring up black bags filled with likely-illegal syringes and jars of snake oil.
As an independent editor, I don’t have a magic pill for someone’s work. But I do think we can look at structure in a different way, and not be afraid of it like it is a microscope which will reveal only imperfections. I think we can meet structure halfway, as partners maybe, let form take content out on the dance floor.
Book Architecture asks us to lay the foundation for what we are writing as we go, not to try to impose a structure at the end. In order to do that, there are seven things I think it is worthwhile to bear in mind.
(1) Know what draft you’re in.
If you’re in the first draft, recognize that you won’t be able to simultaneously create and evaluate the worth of what you are creating. If you’re in the second draft, remember what you’re looking out to fix, but also what isn’t broken. If you’re in the third draft, we’re talking commando raid, get in and get out. In all cases: keep it moving.
(2) Repetition and variation form the core of narrative.
If a character, a place, or an object only appears once, we can’t track it or assign it any meaning. When these elements reappear, and change, then we can get excited and follow a chain of events up or down emotionally. I call that a series.
(3) Cut up all your scenes.
During the revision process it is important at one stage to take your manuscript and cut it up completely. Each scene needs to be able to stand on its own. This is the best way to determine what belongs to the draft moving forward and what hits the cutting room floor.
(4) Limitation is the key to revision.
If you can live without a scene, there is no way to justify bringing it through successive drafts and eventually to a reader’s attention. People don’t like to be limited in general, but limitation is the key to revision. And nothing limits your action, your cast characters, your proliferation of fabulous philosophic ideals, or your page count better than a good theme.
(5) Your book can only be about one thing.
We call that your theme. And beyond your book only being about one thing, you have to believe in the validity of that one thing. Enough to wrestle with it over many drafts until the victor is finally declared, and the victor is you.
(6) When the questions are answered, the play is over.
Not every chain of events or character arc needs to be present at the beginning. Stagger the introduction of new elements of interest, and always have an unanswered question on the table.
(7) You can’t go through life writing the same book the whole time.
This one is kind of self-explanatory; devise a suitable structure for your work, pour your heart into it and polish it up. Then let it go.
Do you have any questions about book architecture? Please do leave them in the comments below.
Stuart Horwitz is the author of “Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method” now out from Penguin/Perigee.
He is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, http://bookarchitecture.com, a firm of independent editors based in Providence and Boston. Check out the Blueprint Your Bestseller tour in a town near you, http://bookarchitecture.com/book, to experience literary theory and action figures simultaneously!
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons by Stuck in Customs