Today you’re going to get a glimpse into my own personal kind of crazy. It turns out I’m slightly obsessed with story and novel structure.
Slightly is an understatement.
In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about story structure lately. Partially because I’m going to be giving my VCFA graduate lecture on the topic in January, but also because I’m in the midst of structuring (or more accurately re-structuring) my current novel-in-progress.
After spending a lot of time this week color coding, cutting, pasting, and outlining, I created (and posted on Facebook and Twitter) the following structure chart image:
A lot of people who saw this image were both fascinated and confounded. But mostly, they wanted to know what I’d done here and why. So, today’s post is going to be about how I created this chart and what exactly is going on in it.
DISCLAIMER: This process helps me. I’m a visual learner. This is something I’ve developed to help me get a big picture look at my novel. I have no idea if it will be helpful to anyone else. If this all sounds like gibberish to you – then it probably is!
Step One: Write the First Draft
Some people like to think about structure before they begin their novel. If you are one of those people – awesome! I’m not. I usually have no clue where my novel is going and I let my characters take me for a ride to find out. But if you find any of the following good to think about while you write your first draft – fantastic! But don’t worry if you don’t want to think about structure till draft two.
Step Two: Broad Strokes and Color Coding
Once I have a draft, I like to type up the whole novel based on major scenes and events. Because my current WIP is in vignettes, I went a step farther and typed up each vignette. In each strip, I noted four pieces of information. First, the POV of the character (my novel is in dual POV). Second, the title of the vignette so I can find it later when I revise. Third, the location of the scene. And fourth, the major action and/or emotion of the scene.
After I typed all this up I proceeded to add color coding. This included colors for the major plot line, all the sub-plots, flashbacks, each narrator, etc. The amount of colors always depends on the complexity of the book. This book has a lot going on that I wanted to track…hence the thirteen different colors.
Step Three: Cut, Paste, and Re-Arrange
At this point, the process becomes a bit like a craft project. I cut out each vignette strip and played the re-arrange game. I looked for patterns, high points, low points, momentum, pacing, etc. I started to play around with the best way to construct this story. I asked myself questions like: Do I start with flashbacks? When do I get to X-reveal. Is there too much dead time between X-reveal and the midpoint? What can I cut out completely? Etc. This part takes a lot of time for me. I spend hours moving around and re-arranging the pieces.
Step Four: Start Graphing
I got out my graph paper and went to town!
For this structure chart I decided to let one graph-paper square equal one vignette. However, I’ve done this process with a non-vignette novel before, and I used page numbers (i.e. one square equals one page, or five pages, etc.).
There were four things I wanted to look at with my graphs and they were:
Three Act Structure:
This top graph is classic three-act structure.
- Blue = Act One
- Orange = Act Two
- Green = Act Three
The yellow boxes denote major plot points, or moments that shift the energy of the story in an important way. In the text along the top I’ve outlined (roughly) the major beats of The Hero’s Journey structure (i.e. the call to action, threshold, midpoint, crisis, etc.). This particular book doesn’t really fit into three-act/hero’s journey structure nicely, but I was curious to see where the major beats fell.
The Major Relationship:
This second graph is a more accurate image of my novel. It’s a pattern that arose from the novel itself. Since my book is primarily a romance story, I see this chart as the push and pull of that relationship. The novel is in dual POV, so the pink lines are my female character, and the blue lines are my male character. The red is where the two character’s overlap/interact. This helps me to see the motion and interaction of the major relationship of the story.
Chapters and Flashbacks:
This is my novel broken down chapter by chapter. The red is (again) the interaction between my protagonists. The yellow, however, is flashbacks. This is something I’m struggling with in the novel (when and where do I reveal background information). This allows me to see where the flashbacks are clumped as I move into revision.
Sub-Plots and Secondary Characters:
And lastly, this chart shows subplots and secondary characters. This allows me to see if a character disappears from the story for a hundred pages, or if I introduce a secondary character too late, etc.
Putting it Together…
I drew all four graphs – one above the other – so that I could use the same unit of measurement throughout. This way I can compare the charts to each other. If there’s a lull in the story I can look through the graphs and see why (maybe I’m developing a sub plot, or there’s way too many flashbacks clumped together). I can look at the big picture and see patterns, or pacing, or trouble areas (like it takes way too long to get into act two right now). Charting like this really helps me to see the current architecture of the draft and what to be aware of when I revise.
Feel free to try this process (and develop it to meet your concerns and needs). You can create a chart for anything and color code based on what you need to pay attention to (action moments, time, dialog, character arch, whatever!). There’s no right or wrong way to do this. It’s just a tool to help see the big picture.
Let me know if you have questions. I realize this may be written in a form of geek-structure-speak that only I can understand, so let me know if there’s anything you want me to clarify. Happy charting!