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Architectural Writing Part II: Into the Weeds

How to Write Part 7: The Skeleton

Before we keep going, we need to take a moment to remember where we are in the process. In the previous six sections where we learned the basics of starting with notions and moving toward fleshed out characters and plots, and how to know what to keep and what to lose. This was in an effort to learn how architectural writers create books. It is a front-loaded writing process where the details are worked out ahead of the writing so that when we write we can focus on each scene at a sentence and paragraph level.

We aren’t quite there yet though. Real pen to paper time is soon, but not yet. What we have now is a series of self-consistent plots, characters, scenes and themes that are the book’s bones but they aren’t organized. It’s a skeleton that has been placed in a box and jumbled about. The next step is to organize the framework. For that we need to discuss story structures.

Storyboarding your tale

Stories can be linear, progressing from front to back in a chronological way. They might have a framing story, something that takes place later, or separate from the main story, which is used as a window into the main story. For example, a flashback is a typical framing story, where one or more characters are alive in a future date discussing the main tale. Some stories have two threads which go back and forth between two points of view, showing us perhaps the same chronological tale from different angles. Of course, some stories tell many MORE stories, in large complex books like George RR Martin’s works.

Now is the time to start thinking about how you want to organize your story.

Grab all the scenes which are related directly to your main plot. Even if you do not want to write the book in a linear fashion lay them out front to back this way for now. This is the first time you need to start asking yourself, “Do I have enough scenes to carry this main plot forward?” Forget side plots, forget theme or character development for a moment, and look only at the core story.

  • Are there major elements of the tale which take place off the page that readers won’t see?

  • Is it okay if this happens or do you need to generate a new scene branching the parts you already have?

  • Does the sort make sense? If you were to read a 250-word outline of JUST the scenes you have in this linear thread to someone, would they understand what happened? If not consider that you may need more scenes for your plot to make sense.

 

Generate those additional side stories as you need them.

 

The next step is to start to do the same thing for your sub plots. Line your sub plots out in a row for their own story. Usually, a novel will have at least one or two subplots. You have scenes for those plots which may interweave with the main plot. If you have redundant scenes, line them up anyway, as though they were independent.  For example, if you have main plot thread scenes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 a secondary plot scene collection A, B, C, D, where C and 4 are the same scene, and a tertiary plot with scenes W, X, Y, Z, where Z and 5 are the same scene. Lay them out on paper or an Excel sheet or Word file as such:

  • Main:                    1             2             3             4(C)       5(Z)

  • Secondary:          A             B             Filler       C(4)     D

  • Tertiary:               Filler       W            X             Y           Z(5)

 

You now know when scenes must take place with one another and when you might want to separate them. For example, if you find a scene getting too cluttered when you write them you can always divide them. This decision comes during the meat on the bones step later.

Let’s get concrete if a bit terse. Returning to the story of the levitation society.

 

Main plot: I have scenes: The son’s life.

1: The son is shown being rude to the grounded.

2: The son is told that he must marry a grounded for the sake of family ties and control of wealth.

3: The son meets the woman he will marry for the first time.

4: The son finds out that the woman he is being forced to marry is seeing a back-alley genetics dealer to become a levitator.

5: The son finds value in her whether she can levitate or not and stops her from making the deal concerned that she will be hurt by a poorly regulated system.

 

This series of events alone (FAR too brief though they are) can have more than one order. If 1 happens before 2, we have that this is just the son’s disposition. If 1 happens after 2, perhaps we have that he is doing it out of anger or spite at his mother and father. If 1 happens after 3, we have that maybe he is doing it for spite at his future wife or his parents or both? If 1 happens after 3 but 3 happens before 2, then we could find he is insulting the woman he will marry before he knows who she is to him, making the relationship awkward later.

 

Orders of scenes have major ramifications even without changing the scenes’ action beats.

 

As noted, these are far too few scenes in this story and there would be many others, but this is a start to understand where in the thread a scene takes place can greatly change the tale. Now we have to consider what gets woven into the main plot.

Secondary plot: The wife to be wants to be a levitator now.

A: She finds out she will be sold off in marriage to cement an alliance.

B: She learns there is a back-alley dealer who can manipulate her genetics.

C: She learns that there have been people who have had this process done who have died.

D: She has the procedure completed to be able to levitate.

 

Again, by itself there are variables in their effect. If D happens before C she may regret the process, or have more fear than having faced it head on, knowing the risks. If D happens after C, she went into the procedure knowing the consequences, and faced it bravely. If A takes place after B, we can see she was already looking for a solution to wanting to levitate before knowing she was a financial prize. If she is told she will be married off first, perhaps it serves as a catalyst to her actions.

 

Now let’s look at a connection to the main thread. If she went to get the procedure as part of event D, before she met the son in event 3, we can say that her decision is not related to how she feels about him. If she goes and has the procedure done AFTER she meets him, we can create situations around how her interactions with the prince might have influenced her decision, perhaps not wanting to be looked down on by her arranged husband.

 

Once we add the third tertiary story, perhaps a love story with a person who is the prince, we can start to weave between other events. You can move these around, mix them and match them any way you want. Each time you move a piece it will have an effect on later pieces. Take your time in this process. Once the skeleton is built, and you have decided you like it, and start to put meat on the bones, it will become very hard to change to skeleton during the writing process. Far more and deeper rewrites will be needed with higher chance for loose threads.


Take notes about the arrangements, and impacts different pieces have on later pieces in each arrangement. Think of it as writing a book with a 50 word chapter, so that you could “read,” the entire book in perhaps 2,500 words, but you get to change those 2,500 words around easily.

Go forth, and start building your skeletons!

And always remember, writers write.

The Skeleton, Part II

A reader DM’ed me and said “a linear order is not as important to me as a 'meaningful order.'" My question is as follows: Since for most readers there is an order which is most satisfying, is there a way to know what the most “reader satisfying” way to order the plot and subplots?”

Let’s take a stab at this.

Skeleton, some assembly required.

Book bones, some assembly required. 

I think it is safe to say there is no such thing as an answer which satisfies everyone. There is always a balance between the story a writer wants to tell and a story the reader wants to read. If a writer enjoys non linear narrative, but some readers like linear storytelling, the writer and reader will simply never jive. If a reader wants complexity as part of their escape to a book, but a writer is aiming for short, digestible chapters and a straightforward three act tale, the reader may feel bored.

That is to say the old adage, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Authors should aim for the readers liking the same things they like to write. That is very touchy feely, but your beta reading group can give you a good idea of, “This works, vs. this doesn’t and I don’t like the pacing, etc.” Be sure you have a beta reader or three who like your genre, and your kind of subgenre.

More specifically, let’s touch on some rules of threading tales together.

We have to take a brief segue. Ziefle, M. (1998), Effects of display resolution on visual performance, Human Factors, says the average adult reads prose text at 250 to 300 words per minute. The average American citizen over 15 years of age spends around 16 minutes and 48 seconds reading for personal pleasure during the typical day as of 2021 according to some sources, closer to five minutes by others. Now it is important to remember these numbers account for people who read avidly and those who don’t read, so the range will be quite wide. I can’t find reliable numbers on the number of words an avid reader consumes per day. My wife clears an easy 10,000-15,000.

Why is this important? The first rule of threading plots:

Do not wait so long between threads the reader loses interest, or forgets the relevant details of the plot you are returning to. There is a reason people binge watch TV and binge read book series. It becomes more real to them. If a person is on the low side of reading time, say 5 minutes a day, at 250 words per minute they will read about 1250 words a day. That is an average length novel every seventy or so days, or two and change months. Will they remember something which was only touched on 15,000 words ago which was to them almost two weeks ago? On the other hand, if your reader reads a lot, the 20-minute range, they would have read that same related piece only about three days ago.

I would use all this to say don’t let any thread go completely for more than about 7,000 words. This would be less than a week for a slow end reader. Of course, no rule is absolute.

How many threads can your book handle? If you are talking about two unrelated storylines, my recommendation would be to find a way to alternate one chapter than the next with even levels of material. It will keep readers moving forward with a desire to know more, and you can bounce between POV’s easily enough to learn from different perspectives.

Now the original question did say explicitly “most reader satisfying,” and I think we also must consider genre. Action packed books which are serious page turners, need to be structured that way, with shorter chapters, high notes constantly hit, whereas slower burns, or perhaps romantic fantasy elements might need to slow, long chapters, with characters not interacting for long stretches to set the tension higher as they think about one another. I.E. The perspective of the reader lets them see both characters' thoughts, even though the characters don’t know they are both pining away. Satisfaction comes from meeting the reader's expectation or if you subvert it, doing so knowingly in the genre.

For order, I believe it is important to start on the right foot with the main plot and the core protagonist or antagonist in the story. This is part of being honest with our readers. We need to make the promise of the kind of story they are getting when they read our novels, and if we start with a one hundred percent romantic subplot in a book that is 90 % not a romantic story, it will confuse the reader as they set out on the journey with us.

An argument can be made for introducing plots in the order of importance after that, though as you did your scene layout, you can also work to intertwine more events into one scene as you go.

I hope this helps, and next time we will talk more about the first layer of meat on the bones, and how we flesh out chapters. Until then, remember, writers write.

How to write part 8: Meat on Them’ Bones

To this point we have created scenes, characters, plots, outlines, and flow for our tale. The time has come to start adding the details. It is also time to start to consider how far down the architectural writing hole you want to go. For many people this has been structured enough or already far too structured. That is not a problem! Some people make better authors when they write completely spontaneously, and if that is right for you, go for it. As I have always said, people should experiment with multiple forms of writing to learn what works for them.


If you were to stop the architectural writing at this phase, having only what we have constructed up to now you are already fairly structured in your writing. If you keep going you will join me in the super structured land. Here is what I mean: This is a time to stop and reflect that I have not been hyper specific about what “A scene,” means.

Example from earlier entries in our example levitation world included:

  • A rich or powerful levitation family has a child who has passed puberty and is not demonstrating any skill yet. There is a conversation circling on infidelity, loss of familial power, and passing over the child to the next born because it is what is best for the family.

If above is the “scene,” you have written that is perfectly fine. It forms the skeleton. However, if below is the scene you have written, you are in a very different place.

  • Father is standing near crib which is holding his second born son. He is gripping the sides white knuckled. Behind him Mother enters. They begin to discuss his eldest son, and his prowess at fencing in the academy today. She waxes poetic about his achievement for several minutes to no response as the grip gets tighter. He then slams the crib, waking the child, startling her. The baby begins to fuss, but is not yet crying. He stalks away to the window, and responds to her finally about how his eldest still can’t get his toes off the ground for more than a hop. He’d be better off passing the house to the infant before he can even read for all the power they will lose. She will counter that he could set up the succession through their daughters. He scoffs and states how that would be losing the family line and inheritance as soon as she becomes some other house’s princess. Or perhaps that is what she always wanted? She protests. He reminds her of the flirtations with a different house’s prince some years before. Maybe his recessive line is showing. She is now holding the colicky infant, but frees an arm to smack him.

 

…Etc…

 

One of these is a notion. The other is the start of a summary, or blow by blow example of every action and primary dialogue point that happens in the story. This is what is meant by putting meat on the bones. Adding meat to the skeleton is to perform the following for every scene you have in the order they will happen on the page:

  • Outline key actions need to drive the plot forward / change the status quo. Remember, every scene must change something or it has no purpose.

  • Outline actions which will be used to set the mood.

    • In this example we have anger demonstrated by the grip. We have sexism, or at least cultural preference set by the treatment of his daughters. We have his inconsiderate nature yelling and waking his youngest son.

  • Outline key dialogue points which need to be made.

    • In this example the elder son is capable from an effort and skill as told by his mother. We establish the size of the family. We establish the worldbuilding of who is supposed to be successor and how wealth is passed. We establish he accuses his wife of cheating on him long before. She denies it.

  • Outline the setting.

    • This is shown as a private argument, without servants or others around. Perhaps in their own bedroom or an adjoining room. Identify enough reminders that when you write the scene you avoid white room syndrome.

  • Consider working in a character trait, physical or otherwise, to keep establishing or embellishing characters.

  • Consider at least one world building element in each scene.

  • Consider outlining your dialogue if dialogue comes slowly to you. Note good quips and one-liners you might like to use. Outline the basic back and forth of the dialogue.

 

Think of the outline as something on the order of a 200-to-300-word sketch of the scene minimum. Depending on the length of your book, how many scenes it has and how long each scene is, you could very well generate 10,000 words or more doing this.

What is this? Besides being a meaty skeleton to write from, it is also a very easy way to read your entire book in one sitting. And you should. Keep this object when you are done, no matter what. Never erase it. One of the time consuming and hard parts of rewriting a novel comes from how much needs to be ripped up and rebuilt whole chapters at a time. If you become very familiar with this outline version you can more easily move pieces, change pieces, even whole personalities that may not work for you through the entire thread in less than a few days with tweaks here and there to the shorter version.

The real use of the meat is to let you make substantial changes without substantial investment.

Get meaty. Go create a draft of your novel in micro!

Next up, fleshing it out… The last microstructure.

How to write Part 9: The Final Frontier

The last step for any architectural writer is to begin to put even more meat into each scene. Like a painting, the scenes will be built up one layer at a time, giving them depth and texture. This is where the architect writer's and garden writer's methods meet. There is little difference to the act of writing now, and you will use the outlines you have left yourself, to write each scene in its true first draft.

A few things that are important to remember. First drafts are the way an author tells themselves the story. You don’t need to be perfect; you don’t even need to be good; you need to be complete. Editing is a different skill set than writing, and many, many authors have said publicly that the editing cycle can mire them in the early parts of a novel and prevent a completed piece. Trust your past self. You already worked out the big brush strokes. Don’t give in to the temptations to make massive changes here unless you encounter something so utterly wrong it can’t be fixed. If you run into this back out of the last round of meat to the bones, return to the skeleton, and work the story there, changing the details you realized that don’t ring right.

Be excited! This is it. The moment has now come for you to really write the book. Finishing a novel is something very few people ever achieve. That is your goal now. You put in possibly months of hard work at the steps before this one, and you need one big push to see it through.

Remember the more densely you can write, the more self-consistent your writing will be. This means that you should try your best to avoid leaving a novel behind for months at a time between writing sessions. Find time at least weekly if you can. Remember to follow your outlines and meaty structures.

 

Let’s look at one of our examples as it moved from idea, to skeleton, to meaty skeleton, and what this last fleshy one might be. In our previous skeleton we reached sketched stories like what we have below.

  • Father is standing near crib which is holding his second born son. He is gripping the sides white knuckled. Behind him Mother enters.

  • They begin to discuss his eldest son, and his prowess at fencing in the academy today. She waxes poetic about his achievement for several minutes to no response as the grip gets tighter. He then slams the crib, waking the child, startling her.

  • The baby begins to fuss, but is not yet crying.

  • He stalks away to the window, and responds to her finally about how his eldest still can’t get his toes off the ground for more than a hop. He’d be better off passing the house to the infant before he can even read for all the power they will lose.

  • She will counter that he could set up the succession through their daughters.

  • He scoffs and states how that would be losing the family line and inheritance as soon as she becomes some other house’s princess. Or perhaps that is what she always wanted?

  • She protests.

  • He reminds her of the flirtations with a different house’s prince some years before. Maybe his recessive line is showing. She is now holding the colicky infant, but frees an arm to smack him.

 

Each of these bullet points more or less represent a paragraph or two of writing. Lets do a few. For the sake of argument let’s name the king / father King Lear, the mother Queen Cordelia, and their sons, infant Albert and teen Timothy. Our first bullet becomes something like:

Lear turned his eyes down to Albert’s crib, his head held straight ahead balanced the silver crown’s weight with practiced ease. He slipped his left hand along the smooth wood that once held his own infant form forty years past, and gripped the railings. How recently it felt that he had done the same over the crib of Timothy. Timothy, the grounded.

They whispered that blasphemous name in the halls when they thought he wasn’t able to hear. Foolish. A king’s ears always hear whispers in his own house. Wood creaked beneath his white knuckled grip, and the door behind him opened. The long heavily beaded dress brushed the doorframe as Cordelia spun about, clacking against wood, as she thanked the servants, as though it were not their duty to attend her. They needed no niceties.

We have established it is the king’s POV, that he is not particularly nice to the servants, and he isn’t fond of his elder son. Let’s look at the next piece. How they begin to discuss his eldest son. In the outline there is a detail missing. She walked in, but in my mind, she would not just start speaking straight out. There is an action beat missing from the notes. That’s ok, you can add merging sentences or even a short linking paragraph to move you between the sections you outlined. Hold to the outline!

Cordelia moved past him, running her hand across his shoulders. She walked toward the wine glasses set out on the silver platter etched with the house symbol beneath the rose window.

“Have you seen Timothy yet this evening?”

“Ambassador Stevens just left for Morrehold.”

Didn’t she pay any attention to the court comings and goings?

“He will be thrilled to tell you. Do you remember last week he fenced with Peter? The boy who gave him the bruise on his shoulder? Today in front of no fewer than a dozen of the dukes’ and earls’ boys he gave him a sound saber lashing. You should have seen him. Don’t act like you know when he tells you later.” She sipped from her crystal. “Ung. Should have let it breathe. Too sharp.”

Wood creaked beneath his grip, Albert stirred and let out a soft moan.

“Anyway. He was clearly toying with him. Rapier may not be your boy’s forte, but when you put a saber in his hand we might as well set him to sail the seas in pursuit of bounty. And Jessica was there to watch. He was positively beaming when she took off her lace to clap for him.  Maybe we should get him training with the mounted cavalry. They use sabers in training, don’t they? It would be good for them to see their future king in action so young.”

“And a ladder so he can mount the beast.” He slammed the rail with his free hand and set little Albert immediately to crying.

Are these perfect? Of course not. Are they a passable first draft? Probably. If we continue in this vein all the way through the novel, we are never faced with writing a novel. We are faced with writing a few good sentences at a time. That is the power of architectural writing. It is not for everyone, and different people will have different levels of success using it or chose different depths of using it.

If you have never tried it, I recommend widening your writing horizons.

 

Remember that writing your novel is in your hands, and you can do it. It is work, but it is rewarding work. Get out there and make your literal dream and imagination a written reality. Nobody else can. Always remember, writers write.

 

Next series in our writing… Tropes that work. If you have enjoyed this series, remember to subscribe here for more helpful hints and motivational tips.

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