I use Grammarly’s grammar checker online because Yoda-speak is only for centuries-old Jedi Masters.
I’ve been thinking a lot about structure since I started my edit-in-progress. For one thing, the chapter order has been weighing heavily on my mind. Normally, chronology would be my concern when it comes to ordering pieces of a story, but a good writer knows that a story isn’t always as interesting in chronological order. More than that, chronology isn’t the only structural factor to consider in a book.
Syntax, pacing, as well as devices like flashback and foreshadowing, all factor into a story’s structure and the way it achieves the most impact on the reader.
Syntax and grammar
One of the biggest issues I find when I review what I’ve written is syntactical errors. Sometimes the writing does come out in what I like to call “Yoga-speak” during that crazy, hazy, shitty first draft. (I suspect it happens to just about everyone who can’t write or type as fast as their brain churns out the words.) Changing the order of a sentence is just as important as rearranging the scenes in a chapter. A sentence that is ordered incorrectly can completely alter its meaning.
In logic, there’s a fallacy of “amphiboly” in which the error lies in the ambiguity of the structure of the sentence. In logic, a fallacy specifically refers to an argument or a premise, but it applies to grammatical errors as well in this context. An amphiboly could be a missing or misplaced punctuation mark, an unreferred pronoun, a misplaced or unreferred modifier, or some other grammatical error that creates confusion in the sentence’s meaning.
For example, take this headline:
“Helicopter powered by human flies”
Source: Jay Leno (compiler), More Headlines: Real but Ridiculous Samplings from America’s Newspapers (Warner Books, 1990), p. 56.
Is the helicopter powered by humanoid flying insects? Or did a helicopter, which was powered by a human, succeed at flight? Without punctuation, this sentence is confusing because it adds a clause in between the subject and verb instead of somewhere else in the sentence. It’s also missing articles like “the” or “a” which could also help clarify the meaning.
That same principle applies to every level of the story: on the sentence level, things like punctuation and word order keep your meaning intact. On the chapter level, things like foreshadowing, recall, and progression of events and thoughts help the reader follow along. Even if those events don’t occur in chronological order on the page, the language surrounding the events points toward past, present, or future. Having a progression of pace is often more important than having an orderly progression, because sometimes, the stuff in the middle isn’t that interesting.
Speaking of which…
Pacing and scene order
Determining the pace is more than just putting an action scene after a description scene. While there are programs that will help you rearrange your story digitally, sometimes it helps to spread out.
I’m a visual person, so having a dozen notecards, or even printed pages cut into paragraphs, helps me figure out which scenes are needed in which order. With the story literally in pieces, it’s easy to reorder them in the way that makes the most sense, sounds the best, and keeps the story interesting.
Structure matters, from the twelve-word sentence to the 50,000+ word finished product.
Flashbacks, like the ones Harry Potter had of the night his parents were killed, are one way to tell a story without obeying chronological order. Jumping forward in time, like in the Dollhouse season two premiere, accomplish a different goal in the story.
While some stories, especially those set within a very limited time period, work well when told in exact chronological order of the way the events happened, others can be enriched by having a character recall a fond childhood memory, or perhaps dream about a train crash that’s going to happen 31 hours from now.
There is no wrong way to tell a story when it comes to using plot devices like these, but the way in which these devices are used is a finely honed skill. It’s important not to give too much away by foreshadowing an event to come, but it’s also important not to get hung up on history and back-story if it’s not actively explaining something or moving the plot forward in some way.
If you want to get in on the beta reading process for the new book, take a look at the blurb, check out what type of feedback I’m looking for, and contact me if you’re interested.
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