You’ve all heard that before you submit a manuscript you should polish it until it’s the best it can possibly be. Right? You have to resist the temptation to send your glorious masterpiece out the minute you type THE END. Well, I’d heard the same advice. And I listened, too. But I still got it completely wrong.
You see, when I finished my excruciatingly bad first manuscript, I thought I was doing the right thing. I revised. In fact, I revised the hell out of that thing. At 140,000 words I knew it was too long. I trimmed 20,000 words, nipping and tucking as I went. I spent nearly a year honing that manuscript. Great, right?
What I did was launch straight into the kind of editing I was used to from my days writing academic articles. I now know it as a line edit.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the process of editing a fiction manuscript, as I was, the line edit is one of the last passes you run over your manuscript. It’s where you examine your prose line by line, looking at word choice, sentence structure and flow, and how the words feel as they chase one another through the text.
“A hero who makes mistakes is preferable to one who does nothing. At least you can learn from mistakes.”
So, with my manuscript edited within an inch of my life, I sent it out. Imagine my surprise when the feedback I received was all structural. Character motivation, coincidences, plot problems, pacing, length. I needed to cut at least 30,000 of my carefully-chosen words and re-write at least 50,000 others.
Which was how I learned about structural edits, and why you do them first. There’s no point agonising for weeks over the perfect sentence if that whole scene is destined to be cut. Get the story down, get the story right, then make the words perfect.
What is a structural edit?
A structural edit tackles the big picture issues in your story. Sol Stein has an excellent chapter in Stein On Writing where he compares this kind of edit to triage in a hospital. Can your story be saved? To find out you focus on the most critical things first. My take on a structural edit is informed by his notion of triage, mixed with the splendid editorial feedback I’ve received on my own manuscripts.
Even if you write in a traditionally plot-driven genre, your story needs characters. There’s no point writing extravagant explosions unless you also write some characters who feel the heat from the blast.
What does your protagonist want, and what does she need? Does she have a clear external goal to strive towards, and some inner need — sometimes called the hero’s wound — that she fulfils over the course of the story?
What does she stand to lose if her plans go awry? The stakes need to be high enough for her actions to ring true as she starts taking greater and greater risks. When she suffers inevitable setbacks, we need to believe her motivation to get back up and try again, try harder, rather than give up and go home.
Another critical thing a protagonist needs is agency. She has to do something. Several somethings, in fact. Yes, bad things happen around her and to her, but she must be active in the pursuit of her goal. If some of the bad things are the result of her own poor decisions, so much the better. A hero who makes mistakes is preferable to one who does nothing. At least you can learn from mistakes.
Unless you are writing a man-against-nature story, where the antagonist might be a shark, or a mountain, or a storm, (or even a shark in a storm on a mountain) your story needs a bad guy. Somebody for the protagonist to clash with. Somebody to personify the other side of the conflict. If your story is about values, then the antagonist likely has the opposing set of values to your protagonist.
But your antagonist needs to be more than these things. A cartoonish villain might work for a movie, where the whole story needs to be crammed into two hours. For a novel you need to dig deeper. Your antagonist needs a reason to behave the way he does. Just like your hero, he should have goals he is striving toward and consequences should he fail to reach them. The best villains are relatable. As is often said, the villain should be the hero of their own story.
There aren’t many novels that succeed with only a single protagonist and a single antagonist. Usually you need a cast of secondary characters to populate your story. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. A common theme in stories about structural edits I’ve heard from other writers is the advice to keep secondary characters to a necessary minimum. (Apparently nobody told this to George R. R. Martin.)
Each character needs a clear and distinct purpose in the story, one that can’t be fulfilled by another character. This can result in characters being merged or cut completely during a structural edit. It can be hard seeing your fictional world depopulated, but your story will be less confusing for readers, and they’ll thank you for it.
Another thing to examine in your structural edit is what is at stake in your story. Donald Mass devotes a chapter in Writing The Breakout Novel to them. Of course, there are personal stakes for your protagonist and antagonist, but many stories need these to be reflected in the world your characters inhabit. How you achieve this will differ according to the genre you’re writing.
In a thriller, the external stakes sometimes come first. Depending on the predilections of your antagonist, they could involve mass destruction and loss of life, or total societal upheaval. Think Dan Brown. The personal stakes for your protagonist may be a loved one whose life is in danger should your villain’s nefarious plot succeed.
In a romance novel the personal stakes are often finding or losing true love. The broader issue at stake could be keeping or losing the multi-million dollar family company, or having to abdicate the throne. Whatever it is, there must be external consequences that flow from your protagonist’s internal struggle.
A structural edit is also when you take care of any plot problems. Of course you want twists and turns, reversals and surprises. But your story needs to follow a logical progression of events from the first scene to the last, all based on the actions of your characters. This is where you search for plot holes, inconsistencies, weak motivation for critical character decisions, and the dreaded coincidence.
Let’s look at coincidences for a moment. Have you ever read a story where the hero desperately needs a thing to survive an encounter or make her escape — then, like magic, a thing just happens to be lying on the ground within easy reach? I have. And it was frustrating as hell. Your hero should work for everything they gain in the story. It comes back to agency. Any progress your antagonist makes should be the result of her own actions rather than a propensity for outrageous good fortune. Emma Coates from Pixar summed it up well when she tweeted:
“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
The other thing to look at closely is how believable your characters’ actions are in the context of the story. As the stakes get higher and higher, both your protagonist and antagonist are likely to take greater and greater risks. I’ve mentioned the importance of having a sound motivation in these scenes, but there’s more to it than that. Your character might be highly motivated to grab a parachute and leap from a plane moments before it plummets into the ground. But does she know how to strap herself into the parachute? How or when to pull the rip-cord? How to land safely when she hits the ground?
If your character needs to perform an extraordinary action, it pays to layer in hints or backstory to explain how they are able to perform the incredible feat when the time comes. In this case, mentioning a sky-diving trophy or souvenir photo from a tandem jump might be all it takes.
We expect the pace of a novel to vary over the course of the story, but if your reader swings wildly from heart palpitations to soporific torpor you have a problem. The structural edit gives you a chance to address any pacing issues in your manuscript.
I’ve described before how I divide my manuscript into four sections based on key plot points. Each section should, ideally, be of equal length. That’s a quick way to see if one portion of your story has blown out and needs to be trimmed back. But for a closer look at pacing you need to go scene by scene.
Just like with your characters, each scene needs to achieve a specific story goal. A good scene reveals character or advances the plot — the best scenes do both at the same time. During a structural edit I step through my manuscript scene by scene and try to identify the story goal in each. If the story goal isn’t clear, or if another scene could serve the same purpose, I cut the scene.
Don’t get me wrong. This is hard. And it doesn’t mean everything in the scene is gone forever. I put cut scenes into a separate folder called cutting room floor, so I can salvage any snippets of description or lines of dialogue that are too good to throw away. Then it’s just a matter of working these pieces into other scenes. The result is that much of the flab in my story, where nothing important happens, is excised before I even get to line edits. And the pacing of my story is all the better for it.
I’m in structural edit mode with my current manuscript. That means I’m cutting heavily, increasing stakes wherever I can, and cranking up the dramatic tension. I’ve added the proverbial ticking clock, creating urgency for my protagonist. I’ve added layers of conflict between key characters. And I’m going to make my spectacular climactic sequence even more spectacular.
I have to admit that I’m also doing line edits as I go because I can’t help myself. But I try not to line edit scenes that may end up cut.
How do you approach a structural edit?