By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
I’ve come to believe that part of the reason writers can work for years on a book and still have it be unready for publication is because we don’t always understand the different layers that need to go into a great story.
A lot of this happens because most of us learn writing piecemeal. We read a blog post here, attend a writer’s conference workshop there. We don’t usually have someone sit us down and explain the anatomy of a book to us in a 101 type fashion.
(If you’re an experienced writer, don’t click away. This might be a refresher for you, but it might also help you understand story in a new way, or it might simply give you another way to explain it to a newer writer.)
So today I want to break down the anatomy of a story for you using the analogy of a human body. I’m going to start from big picture and work my way down.
Protagonist and Plot
Our protagonist is the character whose goal drives the actions (plot) of the story and whose life changes through those events.
Where this tends to trip writers up is in a fundamental misunderstanding about how the two relate. The purpose of the external plot events is to force the protagonist to change. Throwing random events—however interesting we might think they should be—at our protagonist doesn’t make for a good plot. Throwing events at our protagonist that don’t force them to think, feel, and grow doesn’t make for a good plot. Our protagonist should change somehow through the pursuit of their goal.
The protagonist—with their individual backstory, personality, and brokenness—also needs to drive the plot forward. The choices and decisions they make need to matter. And if anyone else were the protagonist of the story, that plot should play out differently than it currently does. If you could swap your protagonist for someone else without anything significant changing in your plot, then something is wrong.
I look at these like the muscles and bones in a body. If the muscles in a limb atrophy, the limb doesn’t work. If the bones in a limb turn to jello or break, the limb doesn’t work. In other words, if there’s something wrong with the muscles or the bones, it doesn’t matter how amazing the other layers are.
And one is not more important than the other.
Sentence-Level Writing Craft
Sentence-level writing craft is elements like showing vs. telling, dialogue, point of view errors, and so on. It’s what most people think about when they talk about learning to write. It also tends to be what we spend the most time on, especially in the beginning.
In our human body analogy, this is the skin. People can be distracted by the condition of our skin regardless of how strong our muscles and bones are. Like it or not, people judge us by how our skin looks. A kid in high school with bad acne is less likely to be popular than a kid with flawless skin. It can happen, but they have to be absolutely amazing in some other way.
It’s the same with our books.
Grammar and Punctuation
Grammar and punctuation is what a copy editor works on. It’s the small-scale details of commas, typos, misused words, and awkward phrases. Most writers think of this level when they think about hiring an editor.
If we’re talking about a person, it’s the hair, make-up, and clothes. It’s the polish. In our lives, if we were walking into a professional situation where we wanted to be taken seriously, we wouldn’t show up in ratty sweats and bed head, smelling of BO. We’d try to make our best first impression by taking care with our appearance. That’s what good grammar and punctuation do for our book. If it’s not working, readers are less likely to take us seriously. They’ll be distracted by it.
(I spend most of my time on this blog teaching you about the two higher levels, but I want to help you in all ways so I’ve enlisted a regular guest columnist. Starting this Saturday, we’ll have The Editor’s Corner, where you’ll learn about grammar and punctuation for fiction writers.)
Do you have another way of thinking about story that helps you understand it better? Or do you think one level or story is more important than the others? I’d love to hear your opinion!
Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.