COMMUNITY LEARNING HUB: ONLINE MODULES

4.3 STRUCTURAL EDITING (2)

In this section you will learn:

  • Plotting and structure. 
  • Story beats, 5 act and other common structures.
  • Climactic points in a story. 
  • Ways of representing structure.
  • Planning your second draft.

Recap: In the last session we thought about character-based structural edits, thinking about motives, heroes and villains, and how character journeys can affect the story. We also covered some common character-centred structural edits. 

There are lots of super technical ways to think about structure – and you may find it useful to look into different forms of structure to see which fits your book. The five-act structure is of course the classic – and you can find lots of information on this online, along with other story structures, if you want to look into this further.

But when I edit, I try to think more loosely and instinctively about how structure works. For me, structure is about the peaks and troughs of a story, the moments of excitement and the experience of reading it. The thing I’ve noticed about ‘acts’, in the classical sense, is that each act ends with a ‘climactic moment’. This might be an important revelation, a death, a kiss, a secret uncovered, a big fight… whatever it is, it’s something we’ve been gearing up towards throughout that act, and it’s something that changes the story completely thereafter, setting your characters on a new or changed path. Effectively, these plot points draw the reader through the book like a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the big gingerbread showdown at the end. You might think of them as ‘story beats’, too – they count out the rhythms of your plot.

EXERCISE 1: STORY BEATS

Referring to your synopsis, write out a list of the climactic moments, or story beats, in your book. You might like to highlight these moments in the synopsis as well as writing them down on a separate list. 

Roughly, now, you can separate your story into parts, with each part ending on a story beat. You could write these on notecards or post-its, or pin them on a cork board, so you can display and move them around more easily.

What do you notice after completing this exercise? 

Are some parts very long – or short (you might like to take a note of the word count of each section to help with this)? 

Do the climactic moments feel too similar – are there two or three deaths in a row, for instance, and does this work in the context of your story or might it feel repetitive? 

Are there an awful lot of parts – in which case, could you think about combining a couple and shifting two climactic moments into one big moment? 

Or perhaps you don’t feel you have enough. 

Add your thoughts and comments the editorial notes you started last time.

EXERCISE 2: PLANNING AND PRESENTING YOUR EDIT

Gather your thoughts on structure all together – your work on character from the previous session, which you’ll have written out in a list of notes. As an editor, I would work on turning these into an editorial letter. But as a writer, there are probably more helpful ways to display these to help you self-edit. Here are some ideas for ‘mapping out’ your edit. 

Cork board: For those of you who have a dedicated writing desk or office space, it could be helpful to display your edits. You can use moveable notecards and post-its to map your plot, perhaps working character-by-character (with a different colour card for each character) to show how the story comes together. 

Spreadsheet: Some of us don’t have the space for this, in which case a simple spreadsheet can do the trick. The advantage is that you can have a row for each of your characters along the top, and the passage of time represented in the columns beneath. In this way you can systematically map each character’s journey through the book. Instead of characters, you could use this to map different storylines or reveals, depending on what works for your story. 

Notebook: For those of us who don’t like plotting on-screen, a simple notebook session can do the trick. This is my personally preferred method. I write a very sparse plan with the main points of my edit on the first page, then as I go through the notebook I tackle the individual parts in turn. It’s very un-fancy and basically consists of pages of bullet points, but it helps keep me on track. When I finish editing a section, I cross it out in the notebook – it’s very satisfying!

Once you’ve mapped out your edit, it’s time to get started. Depending on what you’ve decided to do, and how much work lies ahead, you might like to work on a blank document, with your original manuscript available for copying and pasting. Or, you could work on the original manuscript directly. Either way, I would spend quite a bit of time at the beginning of your edit simply cutting those scenes you’ve decided to lose, adding notes where you’ve decided to put in additional scenes, or change what’s there. Make this a document that you can work on fluidly, while simply referring to your overall notes for guidance as you go through. The worst thing for editing is having to constantly jump around, stop and start, or forget what you decided to do. 

Remember, when you get to then of the edit, don’t spend hours trying to perfect the prose – because that’s when my next session comes in… good luck!

Kesia Lupo studied History at Oxford University and Creative Writing at Bath Spa. She lives in Bristol with her husband and works as a children’s book editor, writing in the mornings before work.

She is a Senior Editor at Chicken House publishers.