Does framing out a story make you feel like a lion tamer more than a writer? Visiting Professor Amy Atwell cracks the whip on structural chaos in today’s post.
Chaos? Tame It So You Can Write.
I’ve always loved the Friday theme here, because chaos is how I start every manuscript. Literally. Look up chaos in the dictionary and you’ll see one definition states: “the formless matter supposed to have existed before the creation of the universe.”
Now, let’s be honest—when you write a book, don’t you feel a little like the all-knowing Creator? There’s joy in the creation of a story, fleshing-out the characters, unfolding the plot, the revelations of evolving emotion. It’s thrilling and cathartic. But it can be hard to break through from total chaos to the point where that story begins to really take shape.
It’s that shape that makes all the difference. Because a well-structured story speaks to readers. Don’t misunderstand—I’m not going to give you the magical formula for a story structure. I don’t believe there’s just one. Every story is organic, but just like every plant and animal that breathes life, every story will have a structure of its own that defines the shape.
How do you know when you’ve found it? The key evidence of structure is clarity. This means clean writing, well-chosen, powerful words strung together to weave a story that not only engages the reader, but succeeds in making the reader believe that every choice made at every turning point was absolutely the right and natural choice. It’s clear descriptions, clear actions, a voice and style that are natural to the story and engage the reader.
I’m not prescribing an info dump at the beginning of your book. But as each piece of information is revealed, it must be a clear and logical fit with the character’s previous actions. It must have meaning (even if the reader isn’t clear yet what the full meaning is). Highlight useful information to build clarity and cut the extraneous details that muddy the story.
Often, I find, clarity is lacking from my first draft. It comes with the revising and the polishing. That’s because I need to see the whole story before I can decide what elements need to clarified, what points need to be revealed when, what aspects of the characters will speak to the reader. I storyboard my story after the first draft to find all the lumps and bulges and sags in its shape. This is when I structure the story—again, not to any one formula, but to its natural shape. (See my former RU post on Linear vs Non-Linear Storytelling for a bit more on structure.)
Another important factor I find to achieving clarity with my story is focus. My focus. Focus is clarity’s friend and chaos’s worst nightmare. Focus allows us to immerse ourselves in the world of our story.
Ever been snorkeling or scuba diving? Try this analogy. Chaos is being thrown into the water with a mask and some sort of breathing apparatus (snorkel or tank). You have to get your bearings, clean your mask/visor. You have to come to terms with not breathing through your nose. You have to acclimate to water temperature, waves, wind, sun. I swear, it takes me fifteen minutes or more to even dunk my face below the water.
But when I do, I immerse myself in that world. The filtered light, the sounds of bubbles (yes, you can hear bubbles beneath the water) and splashes, the power of my limbs moving me through the water. I lose myself and simply exist while I watch fish and plants, corals and turtles, eels and starfish. I become one with the habitat and cease to think about anything that happens above the water.
Total immersion with your story leads to faster, cleaner drafting and better clarity of the final draft. But in today’s techno-speed, multitasking world, that kind of focus can be hard to achieve. Email and social media beckon us. We may have current releases to promote, blogs to write and read, a web site to update. We have contracts to review, negotiations to consider, readers we want to connect with, reviews we want to celebrate or wish we could ignore. An author’s life requires more than just writing fiction these days.
We want to immerse ourselves, but there’s always something making us bob our head above the water line, break focus, get slapped with a wave and forget how to breathe. Some authors learn to adapt and happily churn out pages in the midst of household chaos. Others, like me, flail about, trying to control the chaos (or ignore it) long enough to get in a few thousand words here and there.
If you’re a fellow flailer—or perhaps a debut author or someone who weeps every time technology changes—I invite you to visit Author E.M.S., a new online community for authors that I’ve started to build with the instrumental assistance and great advice of Kelsey Browning. The web site acts as a resource library filled with tools and tidbits to help answer your business questions so you can get back to writing fiction. Save Time. Reduce Stress. Improve Focus. Watch our intro video.
You may not always conquer chaos, but you can tame it in both your fiction and your life as a writer. Take the time to build structure in your writing day, find the organic shape of your social media interactions and clarify a plan that balances new fiction with necessary promotion.
What do you find to be the most chaotic part of your writing life or writing process? Have you experimented with different structures?
On Monday, May 7, C.J. Redwine returns with her monthly column. Join us!
Amy Atwell worked in professional theater for 15 years before turning from the stage to the page to write fiction. She now gives her imagination free rein in both contemporary and historical stories that combine adventure and romance. When not writing, Amy runs the WritingGIAM online community for goal-oriented writers and has recently launched the Author E.M.S. online resource library. An Ohio native, Amy has lived all across the country and now resides on a barrier island in Florida with her husband and two Russian Blues.
- It’s All a Matter of Time: Exploring Linear vs. Non-Linear Story Structure
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for Nov 1-5: C.J. Redwine, Adrienne Giordano & Amy Atwell
- Changing Courses Part Three
- Changing Courses Part Two
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for Sept 27 – Oct 1: Merrie Destefano, Elizabeth Naughton, Bruce Sallan & Amy Atwell