Picking Up the Pieces: How to Organize an Unstructured story


Let me tell you something: I have always been one of those people who is much fonder of skipping the outlining process and letting the story take me where it wants to go. My characters take my hands and lead me along, telling me their secrets and pasts along the way. In short? I’m a pantser, which, for those of you who don’t know, is someone who writes without outlining, therefore writing by "the seat of their pants”.

While being a pantser isn’t a bad thing, and has many benefits, there is one problem. When you finish your rough draft, full of lovely twists and turns that you never dreamed of, with characters that have fleshed themselves out, you are more often than not left with a few holes in your plot, character arcs, and overall story structure. A lot of us have been there. That’s why today, I’m going to be telling you how to patch up those holes and make your rewrite go smoothly and relatively pain free.

Rewrites are one of the most stressful things any writer ever goes through. It’s agonizing, to be honest, which is why I avoided the rewrite of my first novel for the longest time. I wasn’t content, exactly, letting the rough draft sit there and collect dust, but in my mind it was far better than starting the next draft. I knew that I had made some small errors along the way, especially since my writing skills have improved massively from when I started to when I finished. I adored my characters, my story, and my plot, but my structure was not sound. Finally, I realized that all I was doing was harming myself in the long run. Stalling was not going to help me, and it definitely wasn’t going to make my book rewrite itself. 

So what did I do? I sat down, opened my laptop, pulled out all my notes and diagrams, and started to re-outline.

Let me just go ahead and tell you, it’s not an easy process. It took me several hours to do, but by the end I was so ecstatic I wanted to sit down and rewrite the whole thing right then and there. It was so worth it that I sat back and thought to myself: “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”

 I’m going to be giving y'all my tips on how to scrape together all the loose ends, rearrange a few things, and come out with a better, fuller, clearer structure. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, though, story structure is not your plot outline. While both are important, it’s more important to know the difference. If you haven’t already, I’d highly suggest reading up on story structure. If I were to attempt to go over that here, I think this post would be a little offputtingly long. I’m not going to cover every aspect of structure, either, but I’m going to give you tips on how to find these parts within your book. Specifically, the five points I’ll be covering are the three plot points and two pinch points, all of which are essential to creating a sound structure.

Step One: Finding the Pieces


1.    The First Plot Point


Not only does the first plot point mark the end of the first arc of your story (which is the first 25% of your story, and both draws your readers in and sets up the story by introducing your characters and getting them involved), but it is also the first large change in scene. This is your protagonist’s point of no return. This is where they’ve gotten fully involved in the story, and more often than not they’ve changed their surroundings. To find this point in your book, look for this moment.
  •  For my superhero novel, Mind Over Matter, this moment for me is when my MC, Ashlyn Green, decides to leave home and join a group of other power-gifted teens. She has literally moved on, changing her surroundings and fully involving herself in whatever comes next for the team. 
It’s not just a change of surroundings, either. It’s a change of personal mindset, a decision to put everything else aside and jump into the story. I had this moment marked out quite easily, and hopefully it shouldn’t be too hard to find for you. What’s a moment when your character makes a decision that pushes them into the stream of the plot? What catches them in your story’s current?
  • Another example, if you’re still lost, would be in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo flees the Shire with the others to attempt to meet Gandalf in Bree, in order to save the Ring from Sauron.


2.    The First Pinch Point


If you’ve never done your reading on story structure, which you should go do, you may be wondering “What is the difference between a plot point and a pinch point?" Well, a pinch point is defined by a power display by the antagonist or at least his presence. The first pinch point is the first real appearance from your villain, and occurs somewhere between the 35-40% range, not too long after your first plot point. This should be a pretty easy one to find within your novel. 
  • In Mind Over Matter, my antagonist first shows up after Ashlyn and two of her team mates go to try and investigate the death of a renowned scientist that she believes is connected with everything. The villain ends up ambushing them on their way home, using some dangerous and interesting methods. 
  • In The Fellowship of the Ring, this occurs when the hobbits meet Aragorn and get attacked by the ringwraiths on top of Weathertop, and Frodo gets stabbed in the shoulder. It’s the first main display we see of Sauron’s power, outside of just terrorizing hobbits and chopping up beds.


3.    The Turning Point


The turning point marks another plot point, one that is very important. As the name suggests, it is the turning point for your characters, marking a change of direction and a push from reacting to your antagonist’s plans to acting to prevent them. It also marks the 50% point of your novel, meaning you’re halfway there! This is also a bit of a change for your protagonist as well, since it marks a change in mindset.
  •  For example, in Mind Over Matter, Ashlyn’s turning point occurs after the incident with the antagonist, when the team takes action and starts hunting down all possible leads to finding him. They have identified him by now, and are just trying to work out his plans and stop him. It’s also a personal change, because she’s fully committed to her internal battle and the solution she thinks will work to obtain her “lie”, something I may talk about in my next post.
  •  In The Fellowship of the Ring, the turning point occurs when Frodo wakes up in Rivendell and decides that he will carry the Ring to Mordor, along with his eight companions.


4.    The Second Pinch Point


Back to the pinch points! This one also marks a display of power from the antagonist, although this one is more to reaffirm it. Not just for your characters, but for your readers. It’s to show them that yes, this antagonist means business. This one occurs somewhere between the 60-65% range. Again, pinch points are fairly easy to find within a novel, due to the obviousness of an antagonist’s attack.
  •  For Mind Over Matter, this takes place during Ashlyn and three of her teammates attempt to locate the villain-only to find themselves confronted with him-telepathically-and fighting among themselves as they attempt to escape his underground base, their only exit blocked. 
  • In The Fellowship of the Ring, this pinch point happens in a slightly more indirect way. At least, that’s what it looks like. When they go through Moria and fight the horde of goblins and finally the Balrog, this may not appear as a display from their antagonist. But it is. See, the antagonist in Lord of the Rings is not just Sauron, although he is arguably the biggest, flashiest villain. No, they are fighting the darkness that is threatening to take over their world-which includes the Balrog.

5.    The Third Plot Point


The final plot point marks the final change for your protagonist. They are now set on an unstoppable course for the climax, and have no choice but to hang on as they go for this wild ride. The third plot point-the 75% mark-is often also the low point for your protagonists. They are still recovering from the second pinch point, a little worse for the wear. Quite often this is something along the lines of an unexpected event.
  • Going back to Mind Over Matter, the third plot point occurs with a rather jarring experience of Ashlyn’s, making her realize how truly unsafe and unprepared they are. The exact details of this event…Well, I’m not going to spoil that yet. 
  • If you want a more specific example, let’s go back to The Fellowship of the Ring. The third plot point in this story is when the Fellowship arrives in Lothlorien, still shaken from their experiences in Moria, and Frodo offers the Ring to Galadriel, wondering if it would be safer kept with her. She rejects despite the temptation, knowing it would ultimately corrupt her.

Step Two: What Now? 

Whew! That was…that was long. If you’re still here, my friends, I applaud you. Either you are quite desperate for advice as to rewriting your novel, or you are very, very bored. I’m sorry, either way, as I have been in both positions.

Still, the journey is not over yet! While I have assisted you in identifying these points in your story structure, there a few things that still must be acknowledged.

The first, what do you do if you can’t find a point? Take a deep breath. First things first: try looking a little harder. Maybe there is a shining scene waiting for you, ready to be polished up and highlighted to increase the conflict and tension, as well as meet the requirement for a point. Also, moving scenes around are not the end of the world. I had a few things that I switched when I began re-outlining and structuring Mind Over Matter. Now that I’ve finally started the rewrite, I will say that as hard as it is, it’s worth it.

There’s probably some of you as well who have the point, but they’re a little bit off the exact mark, and moving them would actually mess up your outline. Again, breath. It’s okay if it’s not perfect. My first plot point occurs a little sooner than 25%, and I know I am not the only one. The structure outline is there as a guide, to show you the way to creating a smooth, flowing structure. It does not need to be followed rigidly, to the point in which you cannot budge a single percentage. If your second plot point happens at the 65% mark, or the 80%, that’s okay. Don’t stress yourself trying to edit it to the exact mark.

The second thing: unfortunately, no matter how much we love them, sometimes scenes must be removed. This one is the hardest part of rewriting. Sometimes, you write a scene that you adore, but it doesn’t fit in the flow of your structure, let alone the plot. As much as I want to include a dozen scenes of my characters just goofing off and bonding, they mess up the smooth flow of my structure, and over all weigh down my book. Even some very small scenes had to be removed, simply because they slowed down the plot.

As for re-outlining itself, and why I didn’t talk about the outlining process, this is because outlining is relatively easy once you’ve got your plot and structure. You know what happens, and all you must do is write it out. My only tip that I think I have to give after that is to remember to consider each scene carefully. As I mentioned above, sometimes your emotional attachment level is quite high. You will want to keep the scene in, but let me tell you a secret: keeping it in, no matter how much you initially wanted to, is going to be something you eventually regret. If you know, deep down, that the scene does not belong, then let it go.

No, do not sing the song from Frozen. That's not what I meant guys. Stop!

Ahem, anyways, as I was saying, check each scene as you go. If it would do better elsewhere, or if it shouldn’t be included at all, then make the necessary adjustments. It’s not going to be easy, but writing never is, my friends.

Finally, remember to relax. Don’t frustrate and stress yourself out over trying to create the so-called “perfect” structure. It doesn’t exist. Every story has its flaws, because every person has its flaws. In fact, I’d say a flawed book is far more realistic and human. After all, that means that the writer has poured much more of their beautiful, unqualified, flawed selves into that story. If you strive for perfection, not only will you be disappointed, but you may lose your passion for your story. There is nothing that kills passion faster than frustration and irritation. No one enjoys doing something that annoys them.

So, sit back, relax, take a sip of your tea, and get writing. Scribble down a few words, swap around a few scenes, or do some character bios. Whatever it is, from outlining, to structuring, to working on your first lines (something I’ve been coming back to throughout this week), just get writing. After all, that rewrite isn’t going to happen on its own. 

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Until Next Time, Your Sister in Writing and Christ, 
~Arella Noreen

4 comments:

  1. This article is excellent, Arella! I'm sure it will be super helpful, and I can't wait to test my book to it when/if I ever finish! ;)
    C.g.K.

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  2. Thank you! I'm so glad you find it helpful, and I hope your writing goes well!

    ~love, Arella

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  3. Awesome post! I'm in this exact stage of rewriting my first draft and this was incredibly helpful! Great work. :)

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  4. Thank you so, so, much for this! I finished writing my book last year and have been putting off re-writing it (scene cutting, grammatical errors, more in depth character development... etc.) And this article has encouraged me to stop procrastinating and start revisingi, no matter how agonizing it might be. :D

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