An Exploration of a Hypothetical Structure

Last blog, we structurally mapped a hypothetical story to see how it worked out. Let’s now look at the questions that came up.

Does the pacing look right, focusing on just a couple of days, then skimming through months?
This suggests that the author has tried to ground their characters as a means of introduction by starting with a new beginning – moving into a new house. As a device, this would probably work well.

The story itself is either about some dissonance the protagonist is experiencing and how they reconcile it in their life, or about this torrid affair that’s going to disrupt the protagonist’s present-day life. It could be a combination of the two, but weighted heavier in the rationale of the former scenario – this seems likely given that, wedding aside, the protagonist continues to reminisce about sad times in her life.

But to get to the disruption (the affair) the author skims through four months of story time. Four months. Why? Probably because the author wants to illustrate that life has become ordinary for the couple as they settle into a routine. Then the protagonist meets somebody, flirts with them, and an affair results.

Unfortunately, nothing in that present-day story of that four months seems particularly meaningful, instead existing to introduce the backstory which is giving us context about the protagonist – she has emotional issues, and these might motivate why she strays later.

So what’s happening is that the narrative becomes weighted in telling backstory, rather than sticking to the current story.

How about the digressions – particularly the one about the father’s funeral, and the parents’ divorce?
Some authors handle digressions well. Others devolve into inexorable backstory.

Exposition is always going to be a necessary evil, but we should fall back on it as a last resort. Also, it’s imperative we avoid talking at the reader, e.g. And this happened, and that happened, and that’s how we got here. Some authors unwittingly put their story on hold to do this so they can arm the reader with the information they require to move forward with the present-day narrative.

The moment you leave your current-day setting/scene, you’re probably producing exposition.

In the case of our graph, the author devolves into an unwieldy and distracting amount of exposition relating to the father’s funeral, and the parents’ divorce. I’m sure the author considers this required to show that the protagonist came from a household where the parents broke up, and the father’s death affected her deeply – possible reasons why she might risk suburban contentment for an affair.

But there really is a lot of this exposition. A lot. Is it all needed? Is there ways we can show this? How could the author show that the parents were divorced? And that her father has died? Simple suggestions are pictures of the father everywhere, which shows she’s close to him, even enshrined him. The separation could come in a single line of dialogue, e.g. ‘I don’t want to end up like my mum and dad, divorced and never moving on.’ Sixteen words, instead of twelve paragraphs – what probably amounts to 700–800 words. This also answers the question, Are there too many digressions?

Alternatively, we might learn about it in a conversation the protagonist has with her mother. E.g.

    Protagonist: ‘Anniversary of Dad’s death this weekend.’
    Mother: ‘Have you replaced those tattered curtains yet?’

Thirteen words of dialogue and look at what it shows us: the protagonist is mindful enough of her father’s death that she remembers the anniversary. The mother doesn’t want to speak about him, so she moves onto some inane topic, like the curtains. Either the mother has been so affected by her husband’s death she doesn’t want to talk about him or, likelier, acrimony existed between them and she wants to gloss over it.

Is the timeline complicated or confused?
An interesting point is that the couple was married two years ago, but the protagonist’s miscarriage was four years ago. Did she have a miscarriage with her current partner? Was their relationship that serious then that they planned to have a baby, or was it an accident? If their relationship was that serious, why did they not get married for a further two years? Did she have a miscarriage with somebody else maybe? Or perhaps this is just a changed premise – often, when we’re beginning stories, the details are vague, and they can change as we go on. So maybe this is just an error. But it’s definitely something worth noting.

Does structural mapping help?
If you’re confused about structure, or a novice to writing and are unsure if you’re getting structure right, a structural map is invaluable. It can help identify what’s working, what’s not, and what’s being overplayed. Often, we might not realise this as we’re writing, or (not) spot it as we’re revising because we’re too immersed in the manuscript. But a simple map like the one displayed in the previous blog can chart the forward progress of our narrative, and the backward dips that slow it down, and which amount to a ship dragging an anchor behind it. Otherwise, it might help us identify incongruities.

So think about structural mapping when you revise. It might help you identify issues you otherwise have trouble seeing.

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