Evaluating Structure

Evaluating Structure

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.

Basic Structure

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.

Advanced Structure

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.

Evaluating Genre

Evaluating Genre

Evaluating genre anchors many of the best developmental editing approaches. Knowing whether a story works begins with knowing whether it achieves what it sets out to do. The reaction of its intended audience—not necessarily the editor—matters most. An editor also needs to know how a book will be received by the gatekeepers involved in the author’s chosen publishing paradigm. That can be Amazon algorithms and reader-reviewers in indie publishing, or agents, editors, and professional review outlets in traditional publishing. Evaluating genre helps an editor do that job.

What is Genre?

Before an editor can evaluate genre, they need to develop a working understanding of what genre is. For this, I highly recommend Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid, which lays out an innovative “Five-Leaf Clover” approach that breaks each story up into several genres based on length, prose style, plot type, distance between the setting and reality, and structure. I cannot recommend this book enough. If you don’t have time to do that reading, here’s my quick-and-dirty definition: genre is a set of expectations readers carry into a book based on how it’s marketed to them. When we say a book is fantasy, readers expect magic. When we say it’s a thriller, they expect lives to be on the line and the pacing to be fast. When we say it’s a romance, they expect a love story. And once we set those expectations, we need to deliver on them.

How to Evaluate Genre

To evaluate genre, I focus on three parts of the five-leaf clover: plot type, structure, and distance from reality. Plot type tells you what readers will expect in terms of the obstacles the protagonist faces. Is this an adventure story? Is it a romance? Is it a coming-of-age novel? Structure tells you what kinds of narrative expectations the audience will carry. Is this a traditionally structured three-act novel that maps to the hero’s journey? Is it a circular, character-focused novel that explores cycles of action and how they affect lives? Is it a postmodern takedown of the very idea of structure? Distance from reality tells you how far the reader wants to suspend their disbelief and what kind of spectacle they’re looking for. Is this a fantasy built around a fascinating magical what-if? Science fiction that stems from a startling technological innovation? A historical novel that begins with an evocative description of a famous time and place? A contemporary novel built around cues the reader will understand from their day-to-day life?

Identifying each of these genres helps you narrow down the audience’s expectations. And once you’ve done that, you can begin accurately evaluating how well the novel does its job.

How Do I Learn Genre?

To evaluate genre, an editor develops a fluent understanding of setting types, plot types, and structures. They also learn how those things funnel into and interact with the broad marketing genres (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Thriller, Mystery, Romance, Young Adult, Middle Grade, etc.) used in bookstores. Typically, editors do this by reading a lot, and by training themselves to evaluate genre in every book they read. If you’re thinking about working with an editor, it often pays to ask them about their experience in your genre, as well as their approach to evaluating genre overall. Not all editors pay as much attention to evaluating genre as they could, and their editing sometimes suffers as a result.

Next we’ll talk about evaluating structure. Or you can return to our developmental editing resources.

Do I Need Developmental Editing?

Do I Need Developmental Editing?

Given that I edit for a living, you might expect my answer to the question “Do I need developmental editing?” to always be “Yes.” But I’ve had clients who didn’t need it, and I’ve advised others that it probably isn’t the best use of their time and money. All manuscripts benefit from developmental editing. But some of them benefit more than others. In this article I’ll run through a few questions I ask when determining whether to recommend developmental editing.

How Far Along is the Project?

Developmental editing typically provides the most benefit late in the life of a novel. If you’ve just finished your first draft, it’s probably too soon for you to contact an editor. Instead, I recommend you go back through the manuscript yourself at least once. Chances are you’ll spot a lot of problems, and be able to fix them, on your own. Once that’s done, find three or more trusted beta readers to go over your manuscript and tell you their thoughts. Then go back and revise again. Once you’ve made the manuscript as good as you can possibly make it? Once you don’t see any problems or can’t fix the ones you see? That’s the time to contact a developmental editor.

How Good Are Your Story Instincts?

Some writers have preternatural talent when it comes to story but weakness at the line level. I’ve come across projects with nearly perfect structure, compelling characters, glorious settings, fascinating themes, and borderline incomprehensible prose. Stories like that still benefit from developmental editing. But if you’re choosing between a developmental edit to take you from 95 to 100 (on a 100-point scale of “How close is this story to its ultimate potential?”) and a line edit to take you from 20 to 85, you should pick the line edit. This case is rare—it’s only happened a handful of times in the more than 100 novels I’ve edited—but it’s still important to keep in mind.

Will You Trust the Feedback?

The best developmental editing in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t use it. Many writers, after being kicked around by critique partners, agents and editors, college professors, and friends and family, develop serious resistance to letting anyone else influence their story. Their novels would still benefit from developmental editing. They as writers would certainly benefit from seeing good feedback. But if you’re truly committed to going it alone and seeing what happens, then developmental editing isn’t for you.

Next we’ll talk about Evaluating Genre. Or you can return to our developmental editing resources.