When you compare the pace of the “substantial happenings” in your work to best-selling books, does yours hold up? Analyzing the structural language of a New York Times best seller can give you a whole new view of writing and how great stories are put together.

Writers are wordsmiths. Everyone knows that. Writers pick and choose words, wrap them around each other, and use them to create parallel worlds to the real one we all inhabit.

We also know that words — single thoughts — fit into sentences. And sentences fit next to each other into paragraphs, which mount into sections, chapters, and finally… books.

So, where does the action really happen in this nest of words? Rarely do actions occur with a single word. Verbs need context. Who did it, why, when, to whom, where, and how?

Sometimes it might take a paragraph to dictate action. Often, one action spills over a larger chunk of text and pages of narrative.

How well do you “think” at these higher levels of writing? Your ability to do so will make or break the power of your story. This is where great structure is pivotal.

The “structural language” of a story is similar to a detailed outline. A character gets married, then divorced, then married again. The villain captures the hero, steals the gold, and gets caught for a satisfying ending.

See the world of writing in a new way

The next time you read a great book, jot down the main action points every time you feel something substantial happens. In a runaway best seller, you’ll find the action is thick. Each page will have something big, and often more than one.

As you do this, you might see the world of writing in a new way. Many new authors spend entirely too much of their budgeted creative time thinking at the word level when what they really need to do is put some excellent structural language in place.

Pick up another book and do it again, or pick up your own work and compare the pace. Some books have more exposition and backstory, but look for the big reveals embedded when done right.

When you compare the pace of your substantial happenings to great or best-selling books, does yours compare? Does it take you three pages to say what a seasoned author presents to the reader in three paragraphs – or even three extremely well-chosen words?

Or are you The Flash? Do you run through so much content so quickly that your reader’s head spins? That key details are lost in the rush? That there is no sensory fabric that draws the reader into the story?

Great structural language has its own pace and rhythm that a reader can follow and enjoy. Here’s an example taken from a New York Times best seller. It’s not the opening page, and it’s not an action book, but a drama.

It’s the story of a loving couple hit with tragedy (if you recognize it, feel free to show off in the comments).

The structural language of this book goes like this:

  • the wife finds out she’s pregnant
  • she wants to write letters to whole family
  • her husband (about whose past she knows little) says not to write to his side
  • the husband remembers going to find his estranged mother whom he hadn’t seen since childhood
  • he arrives at her place and finds she’d been dead three weeks
  • he is crushed, leaves money to pay her overdue rent
  • a tender scene between wife and husband leads to name picking for the baby
  • he wonders where this “baby’s soul was before”
  • he remembers how bad his father was
  • he tells his wife it made it easier for him to go to war knowing no one was waiting for him at home (so sad!)
  • there is a huge storm
  • he stays up all night to keep everything safe
  • the noise is so loud he doesn’t hear her calls
  • she suffers a miscarriage

How many pages do you expect all that action covered? 200, 100, 10, 2? For context, this book is 408 pages long and each page has around 320 words.

The answer proves how much action is packed into books readers enjoy most. These “substantial events” take place in only nine pages. Imagine how much must happen in the other 399 pages!

These events cover a range of exceptional circumstances that are perfect book fodder as they are both highly emotive and universal: conception, loss of a parent, the intimacy of deep love, picking a name for a baby, going off to war, miscarriage, and the death of an unborn. WOW!

These events show how much the couple both want a baby, what a strong couple they are, how tender and caring the husband is even though he’s had such a difficult past himself, how brave he is, and how tragic life can sometimes be: precisely while he is away helping others, she needs him most. The passage in which he ponders where the baby’s soul came from is deeply profound.

These few words are doing major heavy lifting.

If you have the patience, do this for a whole book. It’ll give you a whole new view of writing, what makes a book compelling, and how great stories are put together.

How does your book compare?

 

The End

 

Related Posts
What writing rules do you live by (and which ones do you break)?
Conflate, and Tighten Up Your Story
Tightening Your Story’s Cause And Effect Chain With “And So”
How much physical description is enough when you create characters?
The Importance of Setting In Your Story

 

Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 48 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

8 thoughts on “Structural Language Is The Foundation Of A Great Story

  1. I just finished reading the “Light Between Oceans” and you picked a great example for this subject; it is dense with meaning and meaningful action. As an editor, I often point out that an author has started the book way before the story, so there are chapters of nothing but extraneous (at that point) description and expository.

    1. Dawn says:

      Yes! And this was ‘at random’ – I just opened the book. I’d love to talk more to you about this subject!

  2. Southerner says:

    Plot points mean nothing until they are translated into scenes. Some scenes will take twenty seconds to depict on the page and others will take five minutes. The success of a scene can’t be measured in how well it gets the plot point across. A successful scene grips the reader emotionally and makes them feel wow.

    Right now I’m struggling with an essential plot point. I’ve written it three or four different ways and it’s not working. My hero, a decorated veteran, has to explain why he would rather pay the mob than fight them. The harder I try the less convincing it gets. My first attempt was less convincing but it is good theater. I think I’m going to go back to that version.

    1. Dawn says:

      Yes – interpolation – the hard part!

  3. Deryn Warren says:

    This is so helpful. Thank you.

  4. Nicki Chen says:

    I’ve been writing the “structural language” of my first draft on index cards, one card for each chapter. When I’ve finished the first draft and started on a second, I think the cards will help me see where the pace slows.

    I enjoyed your post. The point you made is a good one, even if we don’t get around to jotting down the main action points of the next book we read.

    1. Dawn says:

      I’d be interested to see it!

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