If you've spent any amount of time looking for advice on how to improve your writing, you've almost certainly been told how important it is to be an active and critical reader. It's a ubiquitous response for a reason; if you don't know what good writing looks like, it's all but impossible to recreate it yourself.
Unfortunately, in many cases, this is where the advice stops. You're told to read more, and that it'll help you in your writing practice ... but rarely is it specified what you should be looking for, or how to turn it into something useful.
In this week's companion post to Writer's Connect Newsletter, Issue 91, we're going to do just that.
This post brought to you by guest blogger Tyrone Couch.
Understanding the Importance of Structure
When we think of a story, the first thing we think of is usually what it's about—in other words, the plot. From humble beginnings to a grand adventure, twists and turns, and an epic conclusion, it's the reason a story exists, and the thing that drives it forward. For a casual reader, the plot is about the only thing they notice consciously ... but in all but the most haphazard of writing, there's a lot more going on below the surface.
While the average reader isn't necessarily aware of these additional layers, they can sense when they're absent, ill-considered, or otherwise not working. Unsung as they may be, they're an essential component of your story's structure, and demand just as much consideration in your writing as the overall plot.
What these layers are, exactly, depends on the story you're trying to tell. In a tale of a farmhand who takes up arms to defend his country, it might be the classism he faces as he rises through the ranks. For the young woman who falls for a married man, it could be the judgement she experiences from her friends and family. In the case of a holy man having a crisis of faith, maybe it's his thoughts on the nature of existence in the absence of a creator. Whatever it is, in most cases, it's something deeply emotional and personal.
When a casual reader thinks back on these stories, the things they're most likely to look back on are the former farmhand's victory over the invaders, the young lady's happily ever after, and the priest's absolution. They may even think that these were the things that made them enjoy the book as much as they did. In a lot of cases, however, the real source of their enthusiasm was the emotional complexities of the characters as they navigated these experiences.
In a sense, the job of the writer is to know the reader better than themselves; to know what it is that will truly satisfy them, even if they don't. But before we can do that, we first have to know what satisfies us.
Reading for Meaning
To begin to understand what makes a book 'good', we have to break it down into its core components. Pick up a book you really enjoyed and go through it scene by scene, making a brief note on what each of them was about. It can be as simple as a dot point summary: for example, Rhonda tries to talk to Jim about his drinking but he is dismissive, walking out on the conversation before heading to the bar.
If something in particular about a scene stands out to you, whether it be an action, something that is said, or the way a moment of silence is portrayed, make a note of it. Continue to do this throughout the book until you have a complete overview of each scene, and everything about them that left an impression on you. By breaking the story down in this way, we are deconstructing it into its various layers, and thereby getting to know exactly what that writer did to capture your interest.
Once you've done that, ask yourself: why? What was it about this that hit me so hard? You have to really interrogate the feeling, and trace it back to everything the writer did to set you up for it. Take note of things like the obviousness of foreshadowing, the time it takes between that and the reveal, and how/when the reader is let in on the secret.
Dramatic tension is the lifeblood of any good story, and the reality is that there's a fairly established formula for building it. For the cynical, peeking behind the curtain like this can make stories seem a little less romantic ... but the experience it enables a writer to provide for their readers is a worthy tradeoff!
Something else you're likely to notice is that in most scenes, there's more than one thing going on at once. The scene as a whole may advance the story while developing characters' personalities and tackling themes at the same time.
This is rarely an accident, and it doesn't just happen on the fly.
It's not impossible to stumble into some of these layers of depth by blindly advancing the plot, but going into your writing with little sense of what you're hoping for each scene to achieve is incredibly inefficient, and almost guaranteed to be less effective than if you'd spared a thought for it in advance.
The beauty of deconstructing stories like this is that by doing so, it effectively gives us a template for our own stories. Of course, the individual layers, beats, and plot points will be different, but we will have learned from the way the deconstructed story was arranged. The more stories we deconstruct, the better we'll understand why they're arranged in that way, and exactly why they tug at a reader's heartstrings the way they do. Once we know that, we can consciously (and confidently) do it ourselves.
Structure is something that takes time and conscious effort to learn. You could read a thousand good books, but if you aren't paying close attention to what it is that makes them good, there's only so much it's going to help you to improve your own. While breaking an entire book or two down in this way might seem tedious, it may also be the single greatest way to move forward in your writing practice.
Piece by Piece
Once you get a feel for what a well-structured story in your chosen genre looks like, even if you never intend to write outside of it, it's worth branching out into others and going through the same process of deconstruction. There's a lot of crossover in storytelling across genres, and the more tools in your kit, the better!
For an in-depth look at this (and many other!) techniques for improving your writing, check out our book coaching & writing programs.
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Word of the Day
When something is shambolic, it is in a state of absolute chaos! It's a fun way of saying that something is disorganised, confused, and and a total mess.
His efforts to bake a cake were shambolic at best.
"You fail only if you stop writing."
~ Ray Bradbury
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A NOTE ON WRITING COMPETITIONS
Look over the fine print to make sure that your submission qualifies and you're happy with the terms of engagement.
The Australian Society of Authors has a highly informative post on their website called 'What to look for in a writing competition's T&Cs' .
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