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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

New Book Update: Structure Gives Writing Freedom to Evolve

My previous post introduced the paradox that imposing structure as I revise my novel gives me more creative freedom. This “structured freedom” allows characters and scenes to evolve with dissolving.

How the Draft Evolves by Changing Locations

evolutionofideabulb writers blockThis how my drafting evolved when I started adding new scenes for my new POV character Kat:

Day 1: Draft the first new scene (from scene card 4.1) for Kat with Daniel in an alley

Day 2: Tweak first scene (4.1)

Day 3: Draft the second scene (from scene card 6.1) in a laundromat where Kat tells her father how she met Daniel.

Day 4: Add an argument I “heard” Kat and her father have while I was walking the dogs where Kat is offended that her father is having her tailed for her own protection. Revise Kat’s first scene (4.1) to show Kat knows someone is following her.

Later on Day 4: Realize that if Kat’s father is having her tailed, he wouldn’t need Kat’s explanation of how she met Daniel and other plot points would become pointless, so ditch that idea.

Day 5: Realize there is no extra significance in placing Kat and her father in a Laundromat. Revise second scene (6.1) to change the Laundromat stage business (folding clothes, shifting clothes from washers to dryers, etc.) to details that fit being in a park (walking barefoot, falling leaves, etc.). Draft new details that arise because being in the park allows us to see Kat’s father’s reverence for the natural world. See how the characters are more themselves in the park than in the Laundromat.

Day 6: Return to first scene (4.1) to delete the revisions made on Day 4.

Why I Draft Scenes in Order

a_woman_climbing_a_mountainI once thought that hopping from scene to scene to draft whatever I had the inclination and inspiration to write that day was creative freedom. But I wrote myself into all kinds of corners and unsolvable problems that way.

Now I draft the scenes in the order they’ll appear in the novel. Because I do that, what I draft today might affect scenes I’ve already written, but it won’t affect upcoming scenes. If I were to write Kat’s sixth scene before I drafted the second scene, the spontaneous changes I made on Day 4 would not only ripple back to alter the first scene, they also ripple forward to change Kat’s scenes three through six.

My willingness to explore my creative intuition and new options (like changing the location or changing what a character knows) would be inhibited by knowing how much I would have to change both backward and forward in the plotline. I would get overly rigid in how I perceive scenes when my vision should still be fluid.

Drafting the scenes in order and knowing that the only changes I’ll have to make are in previously written scenes keeps me willing to explore. Once again, structure gives me freedom.

Why I Let the Draft Wander

big ideaSo why not just stick to the structure and details on the scene cards? Why allow the draft to drift from the scene cards at all? Aren’t the changes I made on Day 4 a waste of time? No.

The “detour” I took on Day 4 was not wasted time. It deepened my understanding of my new POV character. If I hadn’t taken the detour, chances are I wouldn’t have pushed myself to move Kat and her father out of the Laundromat and into the park.

As I write each scene, I’ll know more about my characters and the story. Upcoming scenes will need to flex to accommodate my new knowledge and greater intuition. The alternative is to become a slave to the cards (the way writers can become slaves to an outline).

Fortunately, it’s easy to change a scene card. And I can easily change following scene cards that also need to change. Changing scene cards gives me freedom. Changing at the level of scene cards prevents the resistance I sometimes feel when I anticipate how difficult it will be to change already drafted scenes.

Working at the level of scene cards, I can be sure the changes fit and enhance the overall structure of the novel before I draft those possible scenes (and in drafting them, fall in love with them and be less willing to modify them). When I do draft a scene from the modified card, I have confidence that the modification will work with the rest of the novel.

I dreamstormed the cards to the best of my ability but with limited knowledge. I need the cards to guide the drafting, not dominate it.

It becomes increasingly clear with each day I revise that writing my first draft without the guidance of the cards was the real waste of time and creativity.

If you’re intrigued with the idea of structuring the first full draft of a novel or memoir at the scene level or have a first draft you want to revise by structuring the scenes and want to learn more about the exercises I’ve described, check out my new online Loft class Revisiting the Flow that starts October 27.

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5 Comments on “New Book Update: Structure Gives Writing Freedom to Evolve”

  1. Michael Kelberer (@MichaelKelberer) October 16, 2014 at 6:14 am #

    Love how your approach creates synergy from the practical benefits of outlining (and I love McKee’s Dreamstorming approach too!) and the creative benefits of wandering wither the Muse leads.


  2. Joel D Canfield October 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    I can have a conversation with someone I agree with, and someone I disagree with, and learn something from both of them.

    Sometimes I review what I’ve written and change stuff.

    Sometimes I review what I’ve written and know it’s right.

    Anything that makes the process less frustrating and more productive and rewarding is a useful tool.



  1. New Book Update: How Potato Chip Chapters Made My Novel Leaner | The Bane of Your Resistance - February 19, 2015

    […] I returned to working on the actual manuscript of my novel. [In previous posts, I reviewed how I added new scene cards to my novel and used a Word table to restructure the novel at the level of those […]


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