Shaking Up Structure

One of the most difficult forms of editing, particularly for another person’s work, is structural edits. It’s difficult partly because of how invasive it can feel to suggest changing a story’s overall structure and partly because if we’re editing in a writing workshop we’re only going to see a story in small pieces at a time. Seeing a story in small pieces at a time takes us back to a reference I made earlier in the week to leaving structural edits until we’ve read a complete story.

The primary problem with structural editing is that writers sometimes begin suggesting structural edits to other writers before they’ve finished the story. Now, occasionally, this can work. For instance we may have an early scene that spoils the tension of a following scene by revealing something too soon. These can often be spotted without reading the entire story, they sometimes turn out to be surprisingly minor edits too because the same information is revealed twice, perhaps from different perspectives. In these cases it’s often a case of taking out one of the scenes, usually the first to maintain the tension. This isn’t the problematic structural editing because we have to read both scenes to identify this problem.

The problematic structural editing is when a writer begins suggesting structural changes based on how they think the story will progress rather than how the story will actually progress. The problem with this becomes immediately apparent. If we don’t know how the story is going to end we can’t make informed feedback on a story. We can say ‘at this point I think the story looks like X is going to happen’, there’s nothing wrong with this because we’re indicating to the writer how a reader is reacting and whether their twists and turns are apparent. However, we can’t say ‘you need to change this for X reason because Y is going to happen’.

This is particularly problematic because these readings often depend upon tropes and preconceived notions such as all vampires are full of angst, all love stories have happy endings, the hero always saves the day. None of these are wrong to write, they can all make good stories, the point is that if we’ve read ten or twenty thousand words of a seventy thousand, or more, word novel we can’t say any of these things will happen or are true. Even if we can guess these things are likely happen, for instance lots of love stories have happy endings, we can’t be sure that they will. It’s also important to note that although happy ending and heroes defeating villains are common endings it’s the how that’s the story.

In a love story we can be fairly certain that the protagonists are going to get together and live happily ever after. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s often the story the readers want because the story should make them love the characters and root for their relationship. But what hurdles will they overcome? Will they go down the wrong path then realise their mistake? Does the story end with them getting together or some point after they do? In between the point we’re at in our reading and the end of the story any number of things can happen that will impact the structure of the story. Perhaps we can guess what they are but they will only be guesses. We can’t edit guesses, we can only tell the writer what our guesses are at the point we’re at in our reading and allow them to react as they deem fit.

Once we’ve finished reading a story we can then see how our guesses compare and judge with an informed view whether changes need to be made to the overall structure. Often an objective eye can see where chapters need to be moved, shortened, expanded or sometimes removed to keep the tension or pace going. Other times we may see places where chapters could be added and things the readers would like to see more of, even if these are seemingly small things like the more interaction between certain characters where the story allows. Alternatively we can praise elements of the story’s structure, such as places where threads come together, twists and turns, and the balance of pace.

It’s always important to remember that any feedback we give must be balanced showing the strengths as well as possible changes.


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