Writer's moments

Learning Structure

I’m learning about structure, about how to build a story so that characters, events, reactions, and outcomes all come together to create a cohesive plot. I tell a great story, I truly do, but I get bogged down in the details of my characters lives—especially their pasts. It’s a common thing for a writer to do. I sent one of my manuscripts to my favorite book doctor, Lani Diane Rich, who is an incredible writer and co-host of the StoryWonk podcasts. If you aren’t already listening to StoryWonk, you should be. Lani and her husband and partner, Alastair Stephens, know their stuff. Their weekly podcasts are informative and very entertaining. Sunday evenings, I grab a glass of wine and spend an hour learning about stories.

Lani recommended that I watch movies and read—absorb narrative, pay attention to how the stories transition and flow. So, I’ve been doing my homework the last few days. Read a fabulous book by Keith Cronin called Me, Again. Read it! Keith did a great job telling the story of a man who has a stroke at age 28 and then is in a coma for six years. The story begins as he awakens from the coma and follows the character’s journey back to himself…except that he’s no longer the man he used to be. Fascinating stuff and Keith brings the past and present together so skillfully that the reader never get bogged down in the details.

Movies are a fabulous way to learn about structure. The storyteller has roughly two hours to get the job done, so anything extraneous has to go. Some movies do this flawlessly, others—not so much. I’d never watched a movie with the intent of learning structure before, but it’s a fascinating experience. Sister PJ and Husband would tell you it’s a pain in the butt to watch movies with me now because I kept stopping the DVD to turn to them and say, “See? See how they did that transition?” or “There, perfect! Look how they gave us all that information in the first five minutes of the film.” By the last twenty minutes of Love Actually, PJ finally said, “Shut up and watch the damn movie!”

Last night, Husband and I watched The Family Stone—a very well-done, quirky comedy-drama about a family at Christmas. Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson are wonderful as the parents, whose adult kids all come home for the holidays, bringing their own particular joys and sorrows with them. I won’t detail the plot, but structure really hit me between the eyes in the first few moments of the movie. Within the first two scenes, we learn all we need to know about the backgrounds of the characters—who they are, what they’re dealing with, and how it’s going to affect the family holiday. Writer/Director Thomas Bezucha did a masterful job of filling us in without dragging us down into backstory.

When the movie was done, we watched the “Special Features,” including the “Deleted Scenes.” I love hearing the director talk about the behind-the-scenes stuff with the movie, but the deleted scenes are particularly significant when you’re watching a film for structure. Seeing what the director cut helped me understand why Lani told me to cut out all the flashback and backstory from Novel 2, THE MUSIC IS YOU. “Stay in the NOW!” were her instructions. When I saw what Bezucha edited out of The Family Stone, I totally got it. It was great stuff and so are my backstory scenes in MUSIC, but they’re not necessary. The deleted scenes would’ve bogged down the movie, just as my flashbacks are bogging down my story.

So, now my job is to edit. Edit ruthlessly. It’s painful to cut good writing, but paring down is the only way to bring this story into the here and now, and allow my characters to live out their present dilemma. How they got there can be dribbled in as it’s needed, but I understand that it’s imperative to stay in the NOW.

Thanks, Lani…I’m absorbing narrative, my dear teacher…and I can already see why it’s so important to learn from other people’s work.




    • Nan

      To my mind, you’ve gotten it pretty well mastered, Liz! Your writing is amazing and when I read your books, I feel like I’m learning from you. What ever you’re doing, keep doing it!

  • Robena Grant

    Wonderful post, Nan. I’m currently cutting 6K from my last story. : )
    It’s interesting too because I also loved Keith’s book. And I just read an interview of his on writing that Barb Samuel posted on FB. AND, Love Actually is my most favorite holiday movie, AND I just picked up The Family Stone in the $5 bin at Walmart. Ha ha. I will now watch TFS with a closer eye to detail.
    Happy, happy, happy holidays to you and yours.

    • Nan

      Roben, thanks for stopping by! Wasn’t Keith’s book marvelous! I’ve been recommending to everyone I know! You’ll love TFS–can’t wait to hear your review. Happy holidays to you, too, baby! Enjoy celebrating 2012–your year of magic!

  • Shannyn Schroeder

    Hi Nan, I agree Lani is great for teaching structure. I took her revision class a couple of years ago and it helped me finally revise a book that had been kicking my butt for too long. Lani is fabulous.

    • Nan

      Hi Shannyn, thanks for coming by. Lani’s the greatest–I truly depend on her for learning about stories and storytelling. And she believes in me, which does so much for my very fragile writer’s ego! Just pre-ordered your book, can’t wait to read it!