Lesson 4: How To Find The Structural Issues In Your Novel
In our last lesson, you revised/created chapter maps to represent your manuscript in its current form.
Now, we’ll be using these chapter maps to find the main issues within your manuscript. We’ll be studying these maps and looking for plot holes, illogical sequencing, missing details, and more.
This method is a lot faster than reading through your entire manuscript without knowing what you’re looking for. So, what are you looking for?
- Would these events really happen?
- Does the inciting incident happen early enough to grab the reader?
- Are there errors in the chronology of events?
- Are you able to trace the plot arcs throughout the whole manuscript? For example, is there a storyline that just drops off mid-way through? Can you follow all your subplots to the end?
- Are the events well-linked? Are there any holes in the plot that need to be filled?
- How is the manuscript structured? Chapters, parts, various different sections? Is it working in this format? Can something be done to strengthen how it’s presented to the reader?
- Is there enough conflict?
- Have you made the stakes high enough?
- Why are these events happening? Have you adequately described what set them in motion?
- Does each individual event progress the story?
- Is the plot complicated enough to sustain the story until the last page?
- Is the plot too complex?
- Whose story is this? Who is telling it? Is it engaging enough?
- Do you believe the characters’ motivations? Are these clear enough?
- Are the support/minor characters sufficiently developed? Is there a character you’d like to see become more prominent? Is there room for a new subplot or point of view? How would this affect the current structure of your novel?
- Is the development of your characters limited by the point of view you have chosen for your novel? For example, if you've used a child’s point of view but need to explain something complicated, how can you resolve this?
- What are the reasons behind your protagonist’s decisions? Do these link back to their original motivations?
- Do the characters talk in a believable way? Does this reflect their upbringing and background?
- Is the reader given enough reason early on to care about your characters and what happens to them later?
- Do your characters change and develop in conjunction with their experiences?
- Does the reader see your protagonist at their best and their worst?
- Have you made your characters as in-depth as possible? Where could you add in more backstory?
- Do the backstories of your characters affect the plot? How? Make sure this is worked in throughout the novel.
- Do the relationships in the narrative progress realistically over the course of the novel?
- What else can you do to make things difficult for your protagonist?
- Does the reader experience a range of authentic emotions due to the characters and their interactions?
- Would the character really react in this way to an event?
- Is each character the appropriate choice for the role they play in the narrative?
- Do you have both likeable and unlikeable characters?
- Is your protagonist active enough?
- Are the traits of your characters distinctive and consistent throughout the novel?
- Are the descriptions of the characters consistent throughout? For example, you don’t want a character’s hair to be red in Chapter 1, but blonde in Chapter 11 without any reason.
- Is there a strong sense of place? Are there elements of history and culture? How can these factors be developed further?
- Does the setting suit the events that are occurring?
- Does the setting create a sense of intrigue? Enough that the reader wants to spend time here?
- Are the settings described using multiple senses? E.g. Sight, sound, touch, taste, feel…?
- Do you favour one sense in particular? Make sure you even this out with the other senses.
- Are the settings logical in terms of their relation to one another?
- Are the details of the setting such as climate and conditions realistic? Does more research need to be done?
- Does the setting require fact-checking?
- Would a different setting be more effective?
- Are the settings consistent throughout the novel? Such as the number of rooms in a house, or the position of a window?
- Consistency of pacing: do the subplots, climaxes and tension work in their current order?
- Is the speed at which events unfold suitable to your genre and target reader?
- Are the major events in the novel given the weight they need and deserve?
- Is there enough description in the manuscript that the reader feels grounded within your world?
- Is there so much description that the story lags?
- What are the turning points of the narrative? How can the tension be built further in these sections?
- Examine the beginning and end of the manuscript by themselves: are they gripping enough? Do they convey enough information without giving everything away? Are they effective in terms of the author’s intentions?
- Are there too many action scenes in a row?
- Are there passages bogged down by too much detail?
- Is the story accessible to the reader? Can the reader relate?
- Does each chapter start and end with a hook?
- Are the tone, content and language appropriate for the the target reader?
- Is the point of view maintained throughout the various scenes? Is it consistent?
- Is there one element of the story that overwhelms the rest? Try to even things out.
- Are character thoughts, actions, and dialogue balanced out with setting and description?
Task: Remember that initial edit list you wrote while you were taking a break from your manuscript? Now it’s time to build on it.
Using the questions listed in this lesson, examine your chapter maps and identify 20 issues with your manuscript, from biggest to smallest.
Use the headings we provided in the lesson and write these issues down in the appropriate sections.
This master list is what we’ll be using to rework your novel.
Lesson 5: How To Address Structural Issues
Now that you have your list of issues to fix, you may feel a little overwhelmed.
This is completely normal, but also unnecessary.
If you can write a book, you can edit one. And we’ve got some quick (yes, quick!) solutions for the most common problems writers find during their structural edit.
1. One of your characters is flat, and lacks drive
If this is one of your concerns, you’ve probably missed one of the crucial steps to creating this character: giving them a motive.
A motive is what drives every character (even the minor ones) through the narrative.
Has this character got a motive? Yes? Make it an obsession.
Without overpowering the rest of the story and characters, turning the motive of a flat character into an obsession can do a number of things for your book: ramp up tension, create inner turmoil, provide comic relief, and change a boring character into a favourite.
2. You need to convey a lot of information, but don’t want to info-dump…
You don’t want to bore your reader with chunky paragraphs of text about something that happened 80 years prior to the events in your novel.
But at the same time, the reader needs to know this information in order to understand the plot progression…
The answer? Dialogue! Dialogue is a great way of masking the ‘info-dump’ as well as developing your characters at the same time.
The simplest way to convey your information is have two characters discussing or arguing about it. Paragraphs of information can be conveyed in a quick conversation.
Don’t feel that you have to give the same amount of detail, though! Remember what makes dialogue authentic.
Alternatively, you can include an interior monologue from your main character.
Perhaps they’re mentally going through all they know about a particular event, or are trying to decide on a course of action based on their own knowledge and experience.
3. Your ending feels forced
The ending is one of the hardest elements of the novel to perfect, so don’t worry if you’re not feeling so crash-hot about yours just yet. Great endings take time and lots of revision!
First of all, you need to identify what’s not working in your ending.
Most commonly, it’s the author trying to tie up the loose ends of a complicated plot in a rush.
Examine your ending closely.
How many storylines does it resolve? Does it tie every plot point up neatly – perhaps too neatly? Are there any instances of deus ex machina – that is, overly convenient plot devices that ‘save the day’ or bring the story to a close unrealistically?
The key here could be as simple as leaving a few loose ends unresolved. Often this feels more realistic to the reader anyway, and makes the storylines you do resolve all the more meaningful.
If you’re writing a series, an effective ending is even more important than it is in a standalone novel. The ending of each book in a series needs to make the reader desperate to read the next instalment!
Try to approach the ending from the reader’s perspective.
Have you left enough of the story open to be continued in the next book? At the same time, have you brought this volume of the series to a satisfying close within itself? Is it complete and well-rounded as its own individual book?
If something doesn’t feel quite right, it could be because you haven’t achieved this balance.
Look back at all the storylines you’ve covered, choose a couple of minor arcs to resolve so readers have some feeling of satisfaction, and leave the rest open and intriguing to entice people to read the next book.
4. You’ve forgotten to include a vital piece of information that affects the whole plot…
Surprisingly, this is quite easy to do! As the author, we know our story so well that sometimes we think we’ve included something when actually, it’s remained in our heads.
First, you need to identify what you’ve missed.
Perhaps your heroine was meant to find a magical locket halfway through the book? Perhaps your hero’s mother was supposed to go missing, and never did? Perhaps there was meant to be an avalanche to bury some evidence, but it never happened?
Retrace your steps using your chapter maps and locate where this event or scene was meant to happen. Write it in.
Next, trace your steps forward again and locate where this scene should be referred to as the story progresses. Add these references in too.
5. You’ve included too much action and not enough depth…
In a bid to make your story fast-paced and gripping, you’ve provided tonnes of action, but have forgotten to develop the rest of your story and characters.
The story might be so fast-paced that it actually isn’t effective, because you’ve got no slower scenes to contrast.
So, how do you slow things down so that your action scenes are really gripping when they occur?
Include some description!
Whether this is painting a portrait of the setting, or a passage of exposition describing some of the events unfolding, description gives the reader a chance to breathe and recharge before they’re thrown back into the action.
The slower scenes are also important in grounding your reader. They need to know where they are in the story, and the context of the situation.
6. You’re concerned your dialogue’s not working…
Dialogue is definitely one of the more trickier elements of fiction to master. More than anything, it just takes practise to get right.
So, let’s practise!
Take a section of dialogue from your manuscript that’s not working and examine it. Why isn’t it working?
Is the dialogue itself stiff and unnatural? Are the dialogue tags interrupting the flow of the conversation? Have you used dramatic beats correctly? Most importantly, does the dialogue suit the person speaking it?
Read your dialogue out loud. By doing this, you’ll stumble over what’s not working, and will gain a better understanding of how it should sound, and therefore, read.
Still not working?
If there’s a section of dialogue that you just can’t get right for whatever reason, scrap it. Note down any important information or character development contained in the scrapped section, and try to work it in elsewhere.
While we’re on that note, be sure to examine all your dialogue in the context of its purpose.
What function does it serve? Does it provide readers with information important to the story? Does it develop or provide insight into a character? Does it examine or further the relationship between two characters?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, you should strongly reconsider that particular passage of dialogue. If you can truly justify its inclusion with a valid purpose, that’s fine; but if you can’t, be brave and brutal and get rid of it altogether.
7. You’re worried the manuscript is too boring…
Just so you know, this is probably not the case.
You’ve been working on your novel for a while now, and you’ve thought about it from so many different angles that it’s possible you are bored of it – or, probably more accurately, just tired of it.
However, manuscripts can sometimes be boring. That doesn’t mean they’re not salvageable.
In addition to the main goal of your protagonist (this should be super clear to your reader from the get-go and throughout), you should also ensure that in every scene, your characters have goals.
In other words, they need to be active – whether mentally or physically is up to you. But each scene should be propelling the narrative forward, and this means ensuring characters have something they’re trying to achieve in each scene.
Raising the Stakes
Often, events in novels can seem boring when the stakes aren’t high enough. Your characters are active, working towards their goals, but your reader still doesn’t care – why?
Because you haven’t given your character enough to lose, or to gain.
Not every scene or action should be life-or-death, but there should always be consequences, whether those be minor or major.
If you raise the stakes, you also raise the tension and the reader’s care factor.
Another reason for reader apathy and therefore boredom is a lack of strong characterisation.
There can be goals and high stakes, but the reader doesn’t care because they don’t care about your protagonist.
Examine your main characters.
Have you given the reader enough reason to care about them? Have you developed their backstories and motivations adequately? Have you fleshed them out enough that they seem like a real, complex, living, breathing person?
Revisit your character profiles and ensure that you’ve included enough detail about their personalities, their histories and their relationships.
Identify which aspects of your characters readers might sympathise or empathise with, and ensure these are woven throughout each character’s development within the novel.
8. One of your chapters stalls…
Often chapters stall because either the author didn’t know what should happen next, OR they were too eager to get to the scenes that happened afterwards.
Either way, a chapter that stalls isn’t in anyone’s best interests.
First, you’ll need to consult your chapter maps, and work out what happens before this chapter and after it.
Is it between two big action chapters? Is it from another point of view? Is it a flashback?
Here, you need to identify what about this chapter is preventing it from working.
Next, you’ll need to brainstorm. What else can happen? Is there something you wanted to include but didn’t know where to put it? Do you want to explore another character?
9. You’re feeling defeated about the whole manuscript…
Trust us when we say: we’ve all been there.
Even the best of the best have at one point or another thought ‘This book is a pile of rubbish’.
What you’re probably doing is comparing the first draft of your novel to the novels of published authors – books that have gone through hundreds of rewrites, edits, and proofreads by professionals.
Still feeling awful? Here’s how to get through it.
The best thing to do first is take a step back. Take a break. You can’t let negative thoughts about your writing consume you, or you’ll never pick up a pen again.
Talk to another writer
We’ve all been through it, and talking to another writer about it helps so, so much. Just being able to feel as though you’re not alone in this is a beautiful thing.
Yes, outside – out into the real world, away from your computer.
Whether you go for a walk in your local park, go see a movie, or park yourself in the nearby beer garden with some friends, going outside and experiencing life again for a little while can sometimes be all you need to come back to your novel feeling refreshed and more down-to-earth.
Find inspiration in other art
Are you at the point where reading other novels only makes you feel worse about yours? Totally normal.
Why not try seeing a movie instead? Or going to your local art gallery? Or dancing to your favourite Madonna track at a dodgy bar? How about picking up a paintbrush or a ball of clay and immersing yourself in a different kind of creative pursuit?
Expressing your creativity and admiration for arts in other ways can really help bring you back from that sad, writerly void in which we all find ourselves sometimes.
Task: Start to work your way through your list of issues, from the biggest to the smallest.
Take your time. Many new authors try to rush through the editing process as they’re eager to submit to publishers or publish the work themselves.
Don’t rush – the work you put into your manuscript now will save you many, many hours further down the track.
Use our advice from this lesson to help you identify what’s not working.
If you’ve identified the issue, but don’t know how to fix it, take a step back. Brainstorm different outcomes and solutions. Sleep on it; the answer is usually closer than you think.
As we’ve stressed, this process takes time, and that’s okay!
Take as much time as you need to work through the structural issues in your book.
Lesson 6: Update Your Manuscript
At this stage, you’ve identified the main issues in your novel, and you’ve worked out how to resolve them.
Now, it’s time to update your manuscript.
Remember, this should be a separate document to your first draft (you’ll want a record of the original manuscript later).
As we mentioned earlier, the easiest way to do this is to copy and paste your entire first draft into a new document and make the changes to this version.
Save it as ‘TITLE-DRAFT-2-DATE’, so it’s clear which is the current version of the manuscript.
Apply all structural changes to the current manuscript, save it, and back up this file in the cloud or on your hard drive.