Thursday, February 9, 2012

Structural Editing: Your Muse's Trail Markers

We've already addressed editing before you write, as well as the two different types of editing.

Now let's look into one type of "big picture" editing: structural editing.

Picture your story as a nature trail. Some trails are easier than others. Some are more straightforward than others. Some only need you to walk in a straight line, while on others, you have to hop across a river on some rocks.

Some trails are easy to see, but most (at least in my experience in the southeastern US) will have a specific paint color and pattern marking the trail every so often, on trees or cliffs or whatever is handy at an alert point.

That trail-marking paint is the structure for the trail. The markers must line up and be placed appropriately, for those who follow the trail must know where to turn when the trail curves and bends, or when it meets up for a time with another trail. The markers must also match the trail you're on—you don't want the markers defining the novice trail on a trail that features 6 days of hiking over rough terrain.

Your story's structure is like those markers. The structure defines the path of your novel—and it often lets the reader know what they're reading. And it makes sure that your story is, in fact, a story and not some random blob.

One easy example of the structure as "markers" is in the x-act structure. (X being 3 or 4 or however many acts you like to use.) Those different points in that structure provide trail markers to ensure that your story actually has a plot.

Plot is conflict. There's a protagonist and an antagonist who are at odds, whose goals each interfere with the other's even if they're not contradictory. The protagonist might be trying to find and save her sister, while the antagonist is trying to seize power using those like the protag's sister (referring to The Shifter by Janice Hardy). Or the antagonist might be a coming flood that's going to wipe out the valley, and the protagonist has to find her daughter, who's aquaphobic, and get her to come outside into the storm so they can evacuate before the flood comes.

Plot = conflict = story.

Well, sort of. Fans of vignettes and flash fiction see story when there's no plot, but I'm talking about the standard definitions for the majority of English readers. A writer who ignores story convention might find some folks who love her for it, but she'll still get dissed.

Shoot, even folks who know what they're doing and break the writing "rules" (of thumb) will get readers who sniff and say they have no clue what they're doing. For example, there's an Amazon review for Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card that says "a great storyteller will SHOW me not TELL me what is going on"—as if "telling" itself is an illegitimate style. (If you've not read that book, the style is an integral part of the story.)

"Telling" can be used properly, by the way.

But this means that the "trail markers" of structure for your particular story will depend on your particular piece of writing. If you're intentionally writing a vignette, you'll have different trail markers than a short story. And a blog post will have different trail markers from a how-to article or a research paper.

Different genres also have markers specific to each genre. The two lead characters must always be introduced to the reader early in a romance novel, for example—that's a structural marker that "I am a romance!" Mysteries must always have the crime early in the book if not at the actual beginning, and they also tend to feature red herrings. (Rabbit trails that make you think someone else "dun it".)

So the first step to structural editing: make sure your trail markers match your intent for the story—and that they line up in an appropriate order.

Make sense?

Can you think of other types or examples of "trail markers" for writing? Have you used this type of evaluation in something you've written?


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