Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K M Weiland is exactly the writing book I needed to read to make sense of what is meant by how a story should be structured. I have been a longtime reader of her newsletter (and I encourage anyone who is an aspiring writer to subscribe to it immediately) and had high expectations for this book. In fact, I was eager to just devour it. Unfortunately, early in the book she says she’ll be drawing on four particular “texts” and I had to first watch a movie. Fortunately, I’d read the two novels mentioned and had seen the one film so I only had a little catching up to do.
Once I felt ready to start, I found myself unable to just plow through the book. I began reading with a vague idea of a story and, as I was reading, I found myself forming more details about my story. Weiland explains some basic narrative rules which are typical for how stories are told. At the 25/50/75% mark, certain events should happen and, while it seems restricting, it does make sense. And yes, rules are made to be broken; but first you have to know the rule to know when and how to break it. In thinking about my vague story idea as I was reading this book, I found it all becoming more concrete for me.
As it turns out, however, I could have started reading this book right away because the author doesn’t discuss the four source texts until the fifth chapter. Furthermore, they are not her only sources she uses for exemplary purposes. I literally had to skip whole paragraphs because I loathe spoilers and had not read and/or seen some of the sources she uses. I found this off-putting and somewhat dishonest. Had I known that so many other resources would be used, I doubt I would have made the effort to familiarize myself with all of them. That would have been too time-consuming. Still, that other sources were used and the ones I was clearly told will be used weren’t even mentioned again for four chapters . . .well, I found that odd.
I also did not like the final chapter, which felt tacked on and wasn’t remarkably useful. The points made in the chapter are the things I repeatedly point out to writers when I’m editing their work so maybe it wasn’t strong to me because the advice seemed obvious. It felt like Weiland didn’t know what else to say and decided to just dump one more idea into a book that is otherwise strong. I think she could have devoted this last chapter to sharing a more personal account of her editing process, of how she may know all these rules for writing, yet she has to go through her finished rough draft manuscript and polish it, etc. Thematically, this would have flowed better with the rest of the book.
Don’t expect any writing exercises. This book is not going to hold your hand and walk you through some step-by-step process. Instead, it presents its points in a clear manner that makes it practical within your own process, whatever that process may be. I would still suggest, if you haven’t done so already, to devote time to the four source texts if you are as troubled by spoilers as I am. If you don’t particularly care one way or the other, then read with impunity.
I definitely want to read her other writing book, Outlining Your Novel, because, while I feel like I’m one step closer to knowing how I will structure my young adult novel, I’m not sure I have enough of a concrete vision for it to start working on it. Not yet, anyway.
The four texts used as examples are:
Pride and Prejudice (novel)
It’s a Wonderful Life (film)
Ender’s Game (novel)
Master and Commander (film)