BTS015: Ask Me Anything on Writing and Story Structure
BTS015, Ask Me Anything on Writing and Story Structure
Welcome to the first ever bonus episode of the podcast. As you can probably guess by the title, this is my first Ask Me Anything on writing and story structure show. In this episode, I will answer the top questions asked by my Blog Readers, Youtube Subscribers, Podcast Listeners, and questions asked through my Ask A Question form on my website.
As I prepared the notes for this episode, I decided not to include the names of the people asking the questions. And, in many cases, I’ve also reworded the question asked because it contained details about the person’s story idea or current work in progress. In a few cases, I decided not to reword the question because it needs a little bit of background information to provide an answer that makes sense.
A Note About Your Privacy
In a nutshell, I’m trying to respect the privacy of the people coming to me for advice. This decision comes from my background as a life and business coach, and the coach and client agreement of confidentiality. However, in saying that, on my Ask A Question Form, I do point out that I will share the answer both with them through email and in a public forum like my blog, youtube channel, or podcast. I think the anonymity I provide gives people the freedom to ask those questions that can often feel too silly to ask. Quite often you’re too scared to ask because you believe it most likely has a simple answer, but it’s not clear to you. Anyway, I hope all of that makes sense for you.
I’m not one hundred percent sure if I will continue answering these questions regularly on the podcast or over on my Patreon page once I finish setting it up. But, I’ll keep you posted once, I make up my mind.
So, let’s get into the questions.
Q1: How Many Words Do You Need in a Chapter?
There isn’t a set number of words per chapter. Essentially, a chapter needs to be as long as it needs to be. But, in saying that. It’s important to note that you should write a story in scenes, not chapters.
Scene vs Chapter
A scene is a unit of a story that takes place in a specific location, time, and follows one point of view. If any of these elements change, you have a new scene. Whereas, a chapter is a tool used to group scenes together in a logical flow. You can have one or many scenes within a chapter. The separation between scenes is shown as a single line break.
Writing in scenes instead of chapters will help you understand the units of a story, and it makes revision a little easier. Dividing your story into chapters should be the last thing you do after you revise your story and before you submit it to an editor.
So, in regards to the “how many words” question, you need to as many words that will serve the story. It’s okay to have chapters and scenes of varying length. Just, know that there’s no magic number of words. All that matters is the story.
Q2: How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel
The answer to this question depends on, how you define the word ‘write’. I define the word write as the entire publishing process from start to finish. However, most people are asking about the first draft phase.
If I’m going to be perfectly honest, it’s going to take longer than you expect. There’s a tonne of advice in the self-publishing world about writing a novel in a certain amount of days. However, if this is your first novel, I recommend a twelve to an eighteen-month time frame. If you’ve been writing your novel for a longer period than this, that’s fine as well. It’s essential that you write and revise at a pace that works for you. However, if you want to stick to a twelve to an eighteen-month time frame, then I recommend you follow this timeline (in months). But, tweak it so it suits you.
One: develop your story idea and start outlining.
Two to Three: write your first draft.
Four: Give your manuscript a rest.
Five to Seven: Revise and rewrite your novel.
Eight and onwards: Hire professional editors for developmental editing, copy editing, and a final proofread. And, do rewrites based on this feedback.
Because this is your first novel, you don’t have an audience waiting or are pre-selling your novel, so you have flexibility. The real secret to getting your novel onto the various online retailers is consistency — work on your novel every day, or most days of the week. Whatever writing time you have, be consistent about it. I’ve made this mistake with consistency enough times to realise its value.
Q3: How Do You Know If You’ve Done Enough Research to Start Writing?
When you first start researching elements of your story idea, I recommend researching in stages. Create the premise, a synopsis, and a list of the major scenes in the story. After this, start reaching your story idea, then create a scene by scene outline of the story. Before you dive into writing the first draft, hold off for a moment and revise your outline. You may find at the outline stage that you need to go back an clarify a few things. So, do a bit more research here as well. It’s at this point you should start writing your first draft.
The key to knowing when you’ve done enough research is doing enough to get started. So, ask yourself the following question. Can I write a good foundation for a story with the knowledge I have right now?
Your first draft is a skeleton or the backbone of your story. You don’t need to know everything. So, research in stages. As you write things will come up. I place an X or a keyword and highlight it and continue writing. At some point, you may need to stop and research while writing the first draft. Do this, but don’t go back and edit. Continue writing with this new piece of knowledge and act as if the rest of the novel has been changed. After the first draft has been written, go back and make changes to your first draft.
As you read through your first draft and start revising your manuscript, you’ll probably do more research at this stage. That’s okay too. Sometimes more research is necessary to create a stronger story.
Q4: How Do You Flesh Out a Vague Story Idea?
When I first got the idea for my novella, Missing the initial idea was the backbone of the very first scene in the story. As I started to research the world of archaeology, I expanded on the initial idea with the information I had acquired. This expanded idea lead me to write a synopsis and a list of the most crucial scenes. After that, I turned to news from the archaeological world which resulted in a fleshed out story idea with a scene by scene outline.
The interesting thing about story ideas is an idea will tend to lead to another idea. So, don’t expect to have a fully developed idea straight away. You don’t develop a story idea after one writing session. The easiest way to flesh out a story idea is to start researching. It’s in the researching phase that your idea will grow into a more elaborate idea. Think of fleshing out vague story ideas as watering a plant. In order to see new green shoots, you need to water the plant over time. Write down the ideas that come to you, and over time, your story idea will flesh out into something bigger.
Q5: What Should You Do When a Scene in Your Novel is too Similar to a Scene in a TV Show, Movie, or Another Book?
If you’ve found a scene like this in your work, ask yourself these two questions as you read it over.
- Is the scene important to the overall story?
- Does the story make sense without it?
If yes, move the scene to a deleted scenes folder.
If the scene is important to your story, you need to ask a few more questions. Sometimes scenes are essential because they foreshadow moments at the end of your story or advance the plot. If this is where you are at, ask yourself the following questions.
- What needs to happen in this scene?
- Why does your character need to be at this particular location?
- What are the motivations of the characters in this scene?
- How can you do things differently?
The next step is to brainstorm ideas for the scene. Don’t choose the first option that comes to mind. It’s been recommended that when you’re brainstorming ideas choosing the third, fourth, or fifth option. The most important thing you can do in a situation like this is to strip the scene back to it’s most important elements. Think of new and interesting ways to execute the story goal the scene needs to achieve.
Q6: What Should You Do When Your Story isn’t Working?
I wrote my thriller novel, Silence during NaNoWriMo back in 2016. At the time, Silence was supposed to be a prequel, but now it’s book two in my James Lalonde series. In late 2017, I did a quick readthrough of the first draft, and the issue with the story became clear to me. I had a problem with a few of the characters motivations. As a result, the character’s actions don’t make sense, and neither did the plot surrounding that character. After I realised this mistake, I created an action plan to correct this mistake. As I look back over what I did, I created a three-step process to help you correct a story that isn’t working.
Step 1: Get Some Distance From Your Manuscript
If you haven’t already, I recommend taking a break from your manuscript. I’m not saying you need to take a full year break from your manuscript, but it’s important to get some distance. Possibly a couple of months. The next step is to read through your manuscript and pay attention to story structure.
Step 2: Embrace Story Structure
Compare your story structure to Three-Act Structure. I don’t have the time to dive into the three-act structure in this short video. However, if you want more information about Three-Act Structure, then check out season one of The Authorpreneur Podcast. Go through your manuscript and highlight the three-act structure plot points in your novel. If you don’t have a scene by scene outline, I recommend creating one in excel or word. Take a step back and pay attention to what is missing from your story.
Step 3: Create a Plan of Attack
Create a list of things you need to change or rewrite in your story. You might have to do more story research, add extra scenes, move scenes around in your manuscript, or press delete. Just a side note, I don’t recommend deleting work. Simply remove it from the manuscript and keep it in a folder of deleted scenes.
Q7: If I was Telling a Story Over Three Novellas, Does Each Book Need an Inciting Incident?
There are two ways you can write a trilogy or series. The first is a series of Stand Alone’s similar to Harry Potter or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Series. The Second is a series of books where each part is a crucial piece of the story, similar to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or The Hunger Games Trilogy. To answer your question, yes, each part of the trilogy needs a beginning, middle, and an end. But, the overall story can be resolved at the end of the series of books.
My best advice to you is if you want to write a story over three novellas is to find books that do this and dissect them in a spreadsheet. Plot out the key moments from these stories, and you will see that the stories follow a pattern. Because The Lord of the Rings trilogy is fantasy, it follows the Hero’s Journey. So, pay attention to the key moments in other trilogies and ask yourself the following question. How can I achieve a similar thing in my story?
Q8: How Do You Show The Passing of Time in Fiction?
Great Question! There are a few ways you can show the passing of time within fiction. In thriller novels, where you see the ticking clock plot devise, chapters often start with titles that are a location or date and sometimes both.
But, the most obvious choice is the start of a new scene. Remember, a scene is a unit of Story that takes place in a specific location and time. Therefore, if one of these changes then you have a new scene. In the context of a scene, I’m referring to a passing of time that isn’t necessary to document for the story, because not all events will happen one after the other.
Another way you can show the passage of time is by starting a new chapter that focuses on a new event or story moment.
But, sometimes these ways of showing the passing of time is not enough. In this case, you can explicitly point out how much time has passed since the previous scene or chapter. Quite often I’ve seen sentences of new chapters or scenes with a reference like, twenty years later or thirty minutes later. I would be cautious about doing this too often.
I’m writing a few different series, one is an archaeological thriller. The other is a thriller featuring a journalist, James Lalonde who is also the editor of a newspaper and I don’t want to show all of the detail of his job because it’s not relevant to the story. As a result, I chose to leave his editing duties out of the story. In some instances, I would say “twenty minutes later” especially if I left James in the same location. The passing of time but the same location still means that its a new scene. For me, that’s really important. I know not all writers do this but in this instance, you could start a new scene with twenty minutes later.
Q9: Do You Have a Framework and Things to Think About When Creating an Outline?
I love outlining. Yes, it’s a bit weird, but it’s the most creative part of the writing process for me. It’s where I discover the story. The first draft is more like a brain dump onto the page.
First of all, I start by figuring out the key scene of the story (aka, three-act-structure plot points). After that, I flesh out everything that happens between these key scenes. I like to do all of my outlining using an excel spreadsheet, but first I write the key scenes out in Evernote then move to the excel spreadsheet to use the columns. Sometimes I’ll start in Evernote then move to Scrivener when I’m excited to start writing. Once I reach a point where I need the columns I move the scene by scene synopsis to a spreadsheet.
I know, I’m a bit of a nerd.
I Use a Spreadsheet
The spreadsheet I use has a tonne of columns. So, I won’t bore you with the details now that I’ve almost finished writing my third book, I’ve added extra columns that would’ve helped me when I first started. Here is a short list of three things to consider other than the obvious columns for scene description and point of view character. I’m trying to keep it to three because my spreadsheet has gotten a bit complicated. A more detailed explanation needs more time and room to explain then what I have in this podcast episode.
A Day and Time Column helps me keep track of the novel’s timeline, and that the events are occurring at a realistic pace. I have two columns for Value Shifts. This is a story device I got from Robert McKee and Shawn Coyne from the Story Grid Podcast. Every scene in a story needs a value shift in order to give the scene purpose and the plot forward. A shift can be from positive to negative, negative to positive, positive to negative and back to positive, negative to double negative, and positive to double positive.
The third thing you should consider as you outline your scenes is the scene type. I got this from Chris Fox’s book plot gardening and I explained the four types of scenes in ninth behind the scenes episode of my podcast.
So, that concludes the first-ever ask me anything on Writing and story structure episode. If you have a question that you’d love to ask me relating to writing fiction or non-fiction or self-publishing then fill out the form here. All questions answered in this and future shows will be listed on the FAQ’s page unless you ask me through my Patreon.
Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
I’m Amelia. I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Missing, the first book in the James Lalonde series. On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process. Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.