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How to Write Part 7: The Skeleton

Updated: Mar 17

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.

The writer's Storyboard
Yeah... its gonna be like this.

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 steps 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 not the prince, we can start to weave it 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.

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

This one really made me think. It never occurred to me that order of events could influence tone and particularly character motivation so much. I usually think of it as just controlling pace and keeping the various plot lines interwoven. Thank you!

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