Of Story Structure and Character Development – Writing Strengths and Weaknesses

Before I wrote this post, I actually sat down with Jessica and asked her for her opinion. This is because Jess is probably the one person on the planet who has read almost as much of my writing as I have.

Strength: Structure

Originally, I said that my strength would probably be dialogue. I enjoy writing it, and back in college, my teacher mentioned that my dialogue was consistently the best part of my stories.

But when I talked to Jess about it, she said, “Nope. Structure.”

And Jess is always right, so I listen to her.

If you ask me for my favorite book on the writing craft, I will say Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. And if you say, “Structure? Really?” then I will most likely buy you the book myself and say READ IT.

My degree is actually in professional writing, which means that my junior and senior year in college, I took no less than seven classes related specifically to writing fiction with the intent to sell. And most of those classes spent a lot of time dealing with the structure and the building blocks of a story.

At the time, I wasted a lot of breath railing against structure. It was so different from how I’d been writing that I had to break a lot of habits I’d formed in order to do it properly. It was hard. I didn’t understand it well.

Collectively, it took me probably three years of consistent practice before writing with structure in mind didn’t feel clunky and awkward. And it took me an in-depth read of Scene & Structure and a few dozen notecards before I finally applied it properly to my story.

Since then, I may have become a little obsessed with it.

Structure is a necessity.

Structure: a necessity for buildings and stories.

THE WORLD’S FASTEST WORKSHOP ON STORY STRUCTURE

Now, by “structure,” I’m not talking about the seven-part story structure or what have you. I’m talking a much smaller scale.

There are basically two parts that make up a story: scenes, wherein your character has a goal at the beginning and a disaster of some sort at the end, and sequels, wherein your character deals with the fallout of the scene and makes a new plan.

Scenes are made up of three parts: the statement of the goal, the conflict, and the disaster.
Sequels are made up of four parts: the emotional reaction to the scene disaster, the character’s thoughts, their decision, and then action toward their new goal.

The most important thing I learned on my most recent pass through Scene & Structure? Making sure your goals have high enough stakes. That was one of my biggest problems in the beginning of my 2006 NaNo: the goals simply weren’t strong enough in relation to the overall story. Going back and fixing that alone helped me solve a lot of problems.

Weakness: Off-Screen Character Development

I am fucking TERRIBLE at this. (And yes, that requires “fucking” as a modifier because I am about to tell you a story that will make you go “Sweet God, Michelle, how the HELL did you ever think that was a good idea?”)

It’s like characters are “out of sight, out of mind” for me. If they’re not on the page, I don’t pay attention to what they’re doing OR why they’re doing it.

For example, let’s take my 2006 NaNo novel, TSB. I have been working on it on and off for the past several years and it has gone through three complete rewrites and a fourth significant revision.

I spent a lot of time with my MCs, Kiral and Ari. Like, a lot. I knew everything about them. I was set with them. The other characters? Meh, not so much.

As you can imagine, this led to a little issue after draft one, when Jess and I sat down to review it.

Jess: Why is your villain acting like this?
Me: (paraphrasing 15 minutes of vague justifications for actions that didn’t make any damn sense) …because he’s the BAD GUY.

Yeah. Completely forgot about the bad guy. Because, you know, it’s not like the villain’s motivation (which was driving the entire plot) was important or anything.

And it’s not just villains I’ve done this with. In the same aforementioned novel, it took me two and a half drafts to realize that a major secondary character had a SIGNIFICANT change in status and an emotional arc that I damn well needed to include in the story.

I haven’t often had a character sit down in my head and say “We need to talk,” but in the summer of 2012, when I was about halfway through draft three, Mason did just that. I wrote about 10,000 words of scenes from his viewpoint that would never end up in the actual novel, and ended up with a much better, more well-rounded, and more interesting character because of it.

And the story got better as well! WHO WOULD’VE THOUGHT?

Since then, as soon as I come up with a scene for what my protagonists are doing, I immediately write down what the antagonist is doing then as well. Or, in one case, I’m actually building the story backwards: writing out the villain’s plot and goal and motivation, and then figuring out how that intersects with what the protagonists are doing.

Hopefully, this will keep me from failing so epically on future stories. Because I really don’t want it to take me three entire rewrites to find a massive mistake like that.

What part of writing is easy for you? What parts are hard? How do you shore up your weaknesses?

Picture by zigazou76

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3 thoughts on “Of Story Structure and Character Development – Writing Strengths and Weaknesses

  1. I seriously wish I had a group like you guys where I could go to discuss, learn and understand all this stuff. It’s easy to read. But when you have someone there to disect it with you (in real time) I bet that makes it so much easier to understand and you can actually have a WOW moment! I need that! :/

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