Evaluating structure forms the core of many developmental editing approaches. When I talk structure, I mean the overall shape of the story. Is it a romance? Is it a hero’s journey? Is it a heist? The answer matters because it shapes reader expectations. Evaluating structure can be a little difficult to wrap your head around in theory, but it’s usually intuitive in practice. Our minds constantly evaluate structure. It’s a big part of how we decide whether to engage with a story. And it’s an even bigger part of how we decide whether that story is good.
I highly recommend Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid to learn more about evaluating structure—he presents an interesting, novel, and useful set of tools for thinking about story structure. But after over ten years working with fiction, I’ve noticed that every structure seems to boil down to a single basic formula: a series of escalating confrontations between a protagonist and one or more antagonists. When evaluating structure, I always look for that series of escalating confrontations—if the tension doesn’t escalate, or if there’s no specific protagonist and antagonist, a story has major structural problems, and we need to address them before moving on to higher-order concerns.
Within that basic formula, storytellers employ an astonishing variety of advanced structures. A three-act structure creates heightened tension and builds to intense confrontations at specific points in the narrative. A hero’s journey uses twelve (give or take) scenes to create a compelling character arc. A heist involves a protagonist trying to steal something from the antagonist, with escalating confrontations driven by the theft. A thriller means your antagonist tries to kill your protagonist, usually while the protagonist tries to figure out who they are.
Does It Match Up?
When evaluating structure, I focus on how well a story matches the audience’s expectations. Casual readers intuitively understand dozens of advanced structures. Heavy readers know many more. If that sounds unlikely, I suggest an experiment. Pick up a book you haven’t read. Read the first three pages, and pay attention to how that opening shapes your expectations. When a protagonist talks about stealing something in the first chapter? You know it’s a heist. When there’s an unexplained attempt on their life? Thriller. When someone finds a dead body, and the protagonist wonders why? Mystery. We all evaluate structure, unconsciously, every time we read.
Once a reader intuits the structure of a novel, they develop expectations about how it will play out. A heist that wanders away from the theft for twelve chapters leaves a lot of readers frustrated. So does a hero’s journey that leaves out the Dark Night of the Soul, or a thriller in which attempts on the protagonist’s life stop without resolution. At its heart, evaluating structure means uncovering these reader expectations, and then making sure a book fulfills them in an exciting and novel way.
Next we’ll talk about evaluating pacing. You can also return to our developmental editing resources.