Write it now, part 21: changing the frame of your story structure

Over the past few weeks I’ve been arguing that the debate over “planning” versus “free-form” is a mirage. The real answer is “a mix of both”.

"Hmmn...books. New fangled rubbish. They'll never replace scrolls, you know".
“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

These days the joy of “discovery writing” has to be tempered with hard reality. The bar has been lifted. Books have to be structured to sell – and that doesn’t happen, for the novice or even early- career writer, by free-form improvisation.

So there you are, idea in your head, and blank screen or paper in front of you. What now? A lot of the how-to books recommend spreadsheets or a card index system. Some software does the same thing – Scrivener, for instance.

It’s whatever works best for you. But what I can say is that whichever one you use will frame your work.

Say what?

The framework is the limiting factor. Our minds soar. We imagine ideas – imagine the perfection of a character in a story, of a feature or blog post, or an argument. Then we have to write it down. And it loses the moment.

Planning helps get around that – sometimes. But if you write notes on index cards – as I was taught, way back when – the result is something that often reads like a succession of index cards. Personally I think they’re a bad way to structure an academic argument because they don’t lend themselves to a linear thread; it is too easy to splurge tangents on cards. And that doesn’t sort into the linearity which, by nature, constitutes good writing.

Writing by spreadsheet...
Writing by spreadsheet…

It’s better for novelists; cards – or a spreadsheet, or Scrivener’s features – become a handy reference, especially for characters. Can’t remember your protagonist’s shirt colour? No problem – it’ll be on your database.

And yet, it seems to me, characters defined via lists must also be framed by them.  Whereas life is the other way around. As Hemingway put it, writers have to create real people.

I think the answer is a blend of reference cards – or a spreadsheet, or Scrivener’s note-taking structure – and that free-form creativity. The process is iterative. Work up the character via the notes – but then let them flow.

If necessary, revise the story – or the notes – to suit, keeping the character consistent.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next time: applying this technique to story structures, more humour posts, more geekery – and, well, you’ll see.

9 thoughts on “Write it now, part 21: changing the frame of your story structure

  1. Because I am writing a series, I need to keep track of characters… some appear in book one, briefly, then don’t appear again till something happens in the next book. So I have a spreadsheet. I recently discovered I would also like cards… for groupings. E.g. Roman soldiers, brethren in ‘named’ fellowship, etc etc. I use my spreadsheet as a back up plan. There are a great many characters in the series.
    Cheers Matthew


  2. Great post. Way back in the beginning, as in when I started my novel, my protagonist was merely a thought. I provided her a description and a past and a rough personality. As the book progressed she tossed aside some of the personality I’d provided and added her own. She’s rolling her eyes at this comment, but then that’s something I’ve discovered that she does.


  3. Another fine writing post, Matthew, and again, thank you for this series. As a confessed pantser and a writer far too capable of creating one tangent after another, I agree there has to be some framework but it is always subject to revision so the process is a constant re-visioning, at least for me. Also, your marvelous point about the perfect writing that goes on in one’s head versus what appears on one’s screen or piece of paper is so spot-on, Matthew. Just had that “conversation” this morning….

    BTW, loved your post regarding your beloved Toyota (A Final Farewell to an Old and Faithful Friend). I, too, love Toyotas.



    1. Thank you. It’s fun to write – and also helps get my own thoughts in order regarding stuff I’ve learned or felt I’ve ‘always known’ (which I am sure I didn’t ‘always know’). The key theme, I think, is that writers have to do what is most comfortable for them…but there are common frameworks around which writing can be organised.

      Apropos my Toyota – yes, I’m an absolute fan. Somewhat uninspired stylings, but they have cheap reliability and my next car will be a Toyota too. I am not too bothered about the loss in the sense of a lost possession; we must not get attached to ‘stuff’, and the memories of what I did during those years will not be lost.


    1. Neither….it’s bits of A4 paper with random notes scrawled over them, which translate eventually into something usable on file. I’m helped to the extent that a lot of what I write is non-fiction, which has a quite different requirement for content, though the structural requirements are the same.


  4. I’m so glad to hear that doing a mix is fine. I was beginning to think that either way I went I was wrong. I usually have a vague outline which should probably more detailed, and then go with whatever my characters are doing.


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