Monday, October 19, 2009

Crafting the Bones, Part I

This is the magic of a well-written piece: for a few precious moments, you, as writer, hold the reader in the palm of your hand. Word choice, syntax, structure—all the elements of craft you spent so much time applying—fall away and your reader enters the world of story. Your story. Now come close, so I can whisper the secret behind the magic: the structure can only fall away if it existed in the first place. Yes, you need a great story idea and enough imagination to bring it to fruition—that’s its muscle. But to hold the reader in the palm of your hand, you also need some bones.

Bones give structure to a living thing the way lumber defines a house. Imagine the first draft writer allowing his inner seven-year-old to build his first tree fort with wood, hammer, and nails. Now that he’s done, step back and let your adult self take a look at it. You decide it is…inventive. It flows nicely. Boards angle every which way, mimicking the branches on the tree. You climb the tree, eager to explore, then whoa…you realize it isn’t that sturdy. In addition there’s no clear entrance, and it’s hard to navigate from room to room. Before you invite your friends to come see it, you’ll need to straighten the boards, strengthen their underpinnings, hammer some new nails home, and top it off with a roof that encompasses the entire creation.

Writing also requires structure. To write effectively, you need to identify and illuminate the statements of intent that will support your rewritten prose. In applying this structure, you are also applying clarity.

Stand back from your story, as you did from the tree house, and consider it as a whole. Then ask yourself, “What am I really trying to say?” Writers hate that question—haven’t I just spent all those words saying what I wanted to say?—but editors love it. Reality is we writers don’t always know what we’re trying to say until we’ve finished writing the piece, because writing is a process of discovery. We mollify our editor by re-reading, but the question of what we are trying to say fades to black as once again our words romance us. And they flow so nicely!

To that I say: snap out of it. Your piece could flow beautifully from A to Z without ever making a point—and if it had a firm structure, it would flow just as well. You need to assess how the words you put on the page really add up.

First check your title and opening: do they point the reader toward the main point of your piece? Because they raise reader expectation, these are the two most dangerous places to drift off track.

How do you find out if your piece is drifting?
The easiest way is when a test reader says, “I’m confused.” But the piece itself has many ways of telling us “this isn’t working.” As you re-read, look for the following indicators that your structure needs reinforcement. See if you might have:
  • included language that smacks of an authorial “note to self.” These can be rather entertaining, once you look for them. Possibilities include “Before I tell you more about that…”, “This may seem off-topic, but…”, “The point I’m trying to make is…”, and “All will soon become clear.”
  • reiterated aspects of the story because you were so off-track you felt compelled to remind the reader where you started.
  • stated the subject outright—yet never referenced it again.
  • put a line break in a short piece because after several misfires you needed to start again.
  • introduced too many notions for the length of the piece, thus exemplifying the very definition of “scatter-brained”—in shorter works, think depth, not breadth.
  • included sentences whose topics open up a whole different world—they may need their own story.
  • said you would “show” something when you’ve only shown the opposite—as in, “what not to do.”
  • used passive voice, which can obscure the cause and effect which creates structure.
Each sentence must tip the reader into the next, but from any one sentence, the possible directions are legion. It is up to you as author to pick one and guide the reader on the journey. If you find that the possibilities inherent in your prose are too numerous for one piece, great! Dump them into a file on your computer for development into other pieces at another time.

That’s what I’m doing here. More in the next post.

Kathryn Craft is a free-lance editor at, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. She indulged her interest in muscles and bones at Miami University (OH), where she earned a B.S. in Biology Education with a dance minor, and then a master's in Health and Physical Education.

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  1. Thank you for this! I am finally understanding more and more about fiction writing and I'm starting my 4th book! It isn't as easy as I thought years ago!

  2. Excellent stuff!

    Thanks for sharing :)

  3. I love this site. Such great advice. Thank you again.

  4. Most of those points are what happens when I write one of these BRP posts! I usually end up with a series even if I think I only have a brief point to make.

  5. That part about sentences going in another direction has happened to me. Sometimes all it takes is changing the order of when the sentences appear. Other times I have to lob off the offending sentence, much as I hate to do it.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. Thanks for another great post with tips for improving the craft. When we stop learning, we might as well stop writing. :-)

  7. An editor with a minor in dance. What a lovely combination you bring to your clients. A great story (or nonfiction piece) is a well-choreographed work of art in words. It's smooth. It flows. It peaks and ebbs. It reaches a stunning climax. Wow! This is a great piece that inspires reconsideration of one's own work to assure that the dance meets all the expectations of its audience.

  8. Thank you for this! It has been a wonderful help in editing a story for the creative writing course I'm studying.

  9. Kathryn, thank you so much. I am moving on to part 2 in a minute, but I had stop to let you know how much I appreciate this information. It's invaluable!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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