The Literary Assassin

Fashion, fiction, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

Strunk and White will tell you everything you need to know about Style. Story structure is much more difficult, and separates the masters from the students.

Structure Above Style: 4 Plot Problems to Fix Before You Start Fretting Over Adverbs

by Holly Messinger

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Occasionally one of those true-but-tired articles about writing style will flit across my radar–Weed out adverbs, watch for passive voice, blah blah blah. Not to be snotty, but when I hear that feedback in a writing workshop I know I'm dealing with an amateur. Beginning and mid-level writers tend to latch onto tips like these, because they're concrete and easy to understand. Just pluck out all those nasty adverbs and "to be" verbs and you're a writer!

It's perfectly fine advice as it goes, but style isn't what sells a book.1 Clean style might keep the agent or editor reading a little longer, but the gatekeepers of publishing are FAR more likely to take on a book with a strong story and 'meh' writing than the other way around.2 How else do you explain James Patterson and Kathy Reichs? Their writing mechanics are functional at best, embarrassing much of the time. But they know how to put a plot together, and their copyeditors know how to clean up clunky sentences.

Examining and evaluating story structure is much more amorphous and difficult. Here are four major structural problems I tend to see in unpublished manuscripts.

  1. Motivation, lack of. What does your character want? Backstory is not motivation. Motivation is the reason you are telling this story through this character's POV. Something has happened to knock his world askew and he won't rest until he's resolved the problem. This could be a new problem or something that's been going on a long time and he just can't take it anymore. Even if your hero is going about his daily life for the first three chapters, unaware of the evil about to descend on him from above, we still need to see his daily stresses and wants and needs. Those stresses and wants and needs should not vaporize, either, once the Big Bad comes on the scene. The needs and wants of his daily life should become MORE important to him once his world is knocked askew; those are the things that give him depth and roundness and a reason to fight.
  2. Cause and consequence, lack of. Your character's every action should have a motivation. And every action that he takes should have reasonable and believable consequences. Optimally, his actions will create new long-term complications. But don't make your character do things just because your plot says he must. Give him a plausible prod, a clue, a subplot that leads him to stumble upon the larger plot. Then play out the logical thread of events, even if it goes somewhere you didn't intend to go. Failing to show cause or consequence creates so-called "plot holes" where the audience knows something should have happened, but you didn't show it happening, so they lose trust in you as a storyteller.
  3. Emotional development, lack of. Creating good characters is a tricky business. Some authors rely on physical description and backstory to denote character, and some readers respond best to that type of characterization. I tend to fall more into the method-acting style of character development, wherein I rely on dialogue/dialect, actions, and descriptions of business or body language to convey personality. But whichever method you use, your characters must go through a range of emotions, and ideally come out with a different worldview by the end of the plot. Maybe they fall in love, or learn to trust, or find a home. Maybe they lose their innocence, or man up, or realize the world is not as safe as they thought. But they must change, and you must show the events that lead to that change. It should be gradual, earned (cause), and believable (consequence).
  4. Point, lack of. A plot is a series of events, but it is not a story. "The Moral of the Story" may sound like an antiquated phrase, because modern fiction is mostly written to entertain, not to teach. (Editors don't want preachy stories and readers don't want to be preached at.) Nevertheless, there has to be some payoff to the reader. The point, or payoff, comes when the hero a) resolves his conflict/gets what he wants/restores his world, and b) takes stock of how it has changed him. It's not enough just to come to the end of the plot. You have to show us what we learned along the way.

I'm not a big fan of how-to-write books, but one good title that discusses structural issues is Jack Bickham's The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). If you really want to improve your fiction, I recommend taking a persuasive writing class, the kind that teaches good old-fashioned rhetoric: narrative essay, procedural essay, argumentative essay. Most colleges require such a class for their incoming Freshmen. Most people have agonized memories of struggling through such classes, but these are your ABC's of structure, folks. If you can't craft a simple essay, you can't build a scene, much less a plot.

Beyond that, you could do worse than to take some literature survey classes or Poetry & Prose 101. Reading the classics and discussing why they work is a lot more useful than aping the current bestsellers.

1. Not most mainstream fiction, anyway. Style can certainly help you but it won't override a weak plot.

2. This is not to say, if you have a good plot you can just let your mechanics slide. I really would not recommend it, particularly if you are an unpublished novelist. Reading sloppy text really is painful and will probably get your manuscript rejected after the first page. Just as in grade school: neatness counts.

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