Book Structure 101

I’ve had some queries about book structure, so I thought I’d take a look at some of the common mistakes I’ve discovered people make, based on doing manuscript assessments over the last 7 years.
Starting in the Wrong Place.

A lot of authors (even experienced ones) start their book in the wrong place. This is because they have to write some backstory about the world and the characters to get a feel for them, before they can plunge into the story. Then they love what they’ve written or it becomes ‘invisible’ because they’ve read it so many times that they just don’t see it.

Often I’ll be reading a manuscript and the story won’t start until chapter two, or later. Your editor is a busy person. They aren’t going to read through backstory to get to the juicy bits. Also, have you noticed how a lot of readers will pick up a book, look at the blurb and read the first couple of paragraphs? Then they’ll decide if they want to buy the book. You need to plunge right into the story. That’s why one of the first writing exercises we did at VISION was the Opening Hook.

So, get out your favourite books and take a look at where the authors started the story. How did they hook you in?

So you need to Start at a Moment of Change. Even if you go back later and fill in some of the backstory.

Crushed by World Building. In science fiction, fantasy and horror (which is now being called dark urban fantasy), there is a lot of World Building. The trick is slipping that world building in, in such a way that it doesn’t slow the pace of the narrative, while giving enough detail to explain what is going on. I love world building and my books tend to be top heavy with this, which means I have to only leave in what is absolutely necessary.

Go back and look at your favourite authors, how have they done this?

Put off by Pacing. You need to keep up the narrative’s momentum to sustain the reader’s interest. You’ll be running three or more narrative threads and sometimes you can neglect one of these.

I was assessing a 700 page book with seven narrative threads which included time slips. I suggested the author get a page of graph paper, divide the side of the paper in chunks of 50 pages, then give each of the narrative threads a colour and drawn lines down the page to show how many pages had been devoted to those characters. Plus they needed to mark which timeline the threads belonged to. It sounds complex when I write it now, but it provided a clear colour coded visual of where the story was getting top heavy in some narratives, while skimping in others. If the author is having trouble keeping track of the narrative, then the reader is going to be lost.

So keep track of your narrative and, if you think the pacing is slowing down, ‘put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them’ as one of the best selling romance authors said. Make sure your characters have enough problems. I call this the Worry Factor, you want to keep your reader worried about your characters, so they will keep turning those pages to see what happens.

Beware the Sagging Middle. This is where some authors run out of steam towards the middle of the book. This is where you need to have some twists planned to keep the characters and the readers on their toes.

I can’t get no Satisfaction. When writing genre there’s an unwritten contract with the reader. We promise to deliver a satisfying story and part of that is Resolution. The readers have followed your characters through a hundred thousand words of story. They’ve identified with them, they’ve worried for them. Give the readers (and the characters) the resolution they deserve.

These are all general suggestions. Open the books you love and analyse how the authors delivered on their unwritten contracts.

And for an excellent detailed look at story and structure, go to Richard Harland’s Writing Tips.

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