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Welcome you’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team. I’m excited today to speak to Young Adult author Swati Teerdhala about story structure. Swati, thank you so much for joining me.
Swati Teerdhala: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Sue Stanley: Great. For those of you who may not know, Swati is the author of the book The Tiger at Midnight from Harper Collins. It will be coming out in April 23rd or on April 23rd of this year, 2019. So congratulations on your debut.
Swati Teerdhala: Thank you so much.
Sue Stanley: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Swati Teerdhala: Sure, so starting at the beginning I’ve been a writer for a long time since I was a kid. And then really kind of focused in on publication a couple years ago. Really just because I really thought that dream that I always had was something that people actually did. And for, I can’t explain why, but before that I never really made the connection that my favorite books are written by actual humans. and that authors were real. So yeah, I went the normal route. I work in marketing at a tech company. And then there was a point where I was like, oh what else do I want I do? I’ve always, I’ve always wanted to work toward publication and write books. And I started doing that just for fun at first. Nothing came of it. And I found a lot of joy in that. That’s kind of what led me to where I am now. I just kind of worked at it, and yeah. I still have that day job but I’m really excited to be here speaking to everybody at WriteOnCon. I remember being part of the conference for the past two years and getting so much from it. So I’m really excited.
Sue Stanley: That’s great. Thank you. We’re very excited that you’re here. Today’s topic which I did not mention, is story structure. So can you take a minute to talk about what story structure actually is.
Swati Teerdhala: Sure. So I’m actually really passionate about story structure which is kind of a funny thing to be passionate about. But I think it’s a really great framework for how to tell a story. And I often say that writers often, they fall into one of two buckets. Either it’s this great mythical thing that they think they’ll never understand or story structure is something that they think is, it’s all kind of you know, hogwash. And it’s a trap to make their stories less original or unique. I actually think the truth is somewhere in the middle. And I think structure really helps find, kind of the points that allow you to really engage and resonate with a reader.And in particular l, you know like, different cultures have different versions of what the most common structure is. But in the West, we typically look at story structure as three, three the acts or so with that rising action throughout a story, a climax, and then a resolution. I think a lot of people learn this in grade school and it still kind of holds true. But there’s a lot more nuance to it and it’s really exciting to kind of dive into it.
Sue Stanley: Okay that’s great. What is the most important value of thinking about the structure of a story before you begin to write?
Swati Teerdhala: Yeah. I think, well one thing as I kind of mentioned before is like having that framework before you start writing I think can really help with creativity. It allows you, it gives you this universal language really to tell your story and tell the change that you want your care to go through in a more common way. So what I mean by that is, structure gives you the scaffolding you need to find the heart of your story and it forces you to think about your characters and how they’re changing and growing within the plot.
And so I think, I know when I started writing initially, and a lot of first novels, it can, it can often be the story doesn’t quite go anywhere. Nothing really happens. I remember my the first book I wrote, it was really just like a slice-of-life vignette in a fantasy story and things happen occasionally. And I think structure really helps you kind of prop up what you want to say and say it in an engaging way. So stories are about change. So it’s whether it’s the smallest changes someone has a character arc over a story learn something new about themselves. Discovers a new facet of their world or you know, it could be change as in saving the world in an epic fantasy. Either way, structure really helps you deliver that story in a way that it like resonates more.
Sue Stanley: For your process, do you, do you take the time beforehand to look at, you mentioned the three acts, do you take a minute to outline the entire thing? Do you, do you write about the arcs themselves? Like or do you, do you look at, because I know some authors will take a story and divide it by different outlines. The character outline. The plot outline. Any other outline. The fantasy if it’s a fantasy story. And they’ll kind of, and then they’ll weave those together in the end to build that scaffolding that you’re talking about. Do you work that way or do you have a different process for building the structure in?
Swati Teerdhala: Yeah so, when I first start outlining and this is before my first draft. Before I really get any words on the page. I do kind of a quick outline. I like to make sure, well in particular, I use the seven-point structure. And I kind of weave it in with a couple other different types of story structure. But you know, something that’s really great for beginners or even as you get more advanced, is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.. It’s for screenwriting, but I think it’s really useful. And making sure that you’re having a constant drumbeat of change and of plot within a story. So I kind of just put that down. I start thinking, you know where do I want this story to go? What am I trying to say? And how does the plot tie into that and get my characters to where I want them to be at the end? So I always know my beginning and I know my ending and I have a few really big things for the middle. And then I write the first draft. And that’s really in the next round and revisions is where I’ll go back and kind of take all the pieces and start weaving them together a little bit more in that way.
Sue Stanley: Okay so let’s say hypothetically, that an author has already written 35 or 40 thousand words and they haven’t really thought too much about structure. What are some methods that they can use other than stopping where they are and reading a book like Save the Cat to start looking at the structure that they don’t have yet. How can they, so in other words, if you were looking back at your first novel, what would your first step be to trying to build the structure into that story that didn’t have it.
Swati Teerdhala: That’s a great question. I think what I always end up doing is, I, you can usually tell, I think when something’s going wrong. It’s, one thing I’ll say is that I think all writers have an innate sense of story structure. They know. You know, when something is meandering or is not quite the right plot point. But sometimes it’s hard to really stop yourself or know where you may have gone wrong. So in a moment like that, when you can kind of tell that you need more structure or you need some more guidance and outlining. I like to just kind of go back read what I have and start to figure out how the Domino’s fall. So what went wrong or what can I start setting up for the rest of the book.
You’re right, like it’s really hard to just kind of go and re-outline everything when you’re in the middle of a book. But even just stepping back and just thinking, what do I want to happen? How am I making sure that every single scene is driving towards change and towards that ending that you know, you may or may not know but you have an idea of where you want your character to end up. So I think you don’t need to stop and redo everything, or make a huge outline, but just taking stock more often I think will help in that kind of situation.
Sue Stanley: Okay. You mentioned at the very beginning that some people are afraid that using story structure or being very cognizant of the structure of your story can make a story predictable. What do you, what do you have to say about that? Or what do you think about that idea of predictability?
Swati Teerdhala: So I definitely have an opinion on this. And I think, I think structure does not make a story predictable. Honestly, if you, if you think about the books that you read or the movies you go see or people really enjoy, they go because they want that predictability to some degree. You know when that moment is gonna happen when you’re watching a rom-com. When you know everything is gonna fall apart. And then you know, or you hope that everything’s going to come back together. If it doesn’t, usually you end up very disappointed. And that’s because stories are kind of ingrained in us as humans. We’ve been telling them for eons at this point. So I think predictability is not a bad thing. It’s when you start to lean into a lot of clichés or over do certain things and you’re moving away from the story you’re actually trying to tell and are just doing things for the sake of doing them, like having a big explosion because you think you need something big to happen and change everything.
Like, you can often see that in action movies where all of a sudden you know, the stakes have been heightened and the world is gonna end but that doesn’t tie into the, you know, the beginning conflict. So it doesn’t resonate. It doesn’t feel earned in a way. So I definitely think that you can go wrong. But I don’t think predictable stories are bad necessarily. I do think, you know I’m a dancer. And I’ve been learning dance for decades and I didn’t get to the point where I could choreograph an entire routine until I knew steps. And then I learned the steps. I got good at the steps. And then I was able to kind of craft things around that. And that’s kind of what I think about with stories. And you know, go see lots of dances and all they are different combinations of the same steps. But each one is very unique because it’s each person putting their own spin on it. So I think structure can be really useful. It can go wrong, but usually it doesn’t. I think usually it’s what people want.
Sue Stanley: The story you tell within the structure is what matters it sounds like.
Swati Teerdhala: Exactly, yeah. I think a big part of it is just being honest in a story and not like I mentioned, like having an explosion for no reason.
Sue Stanley: Right. So if someone is writing a series, do you need to use the same structure for every novel do you think?
Swati Teerdhala: I don’t think so. So, in fact, I would say you probably don’t want to. So I am, I am I’m thinking about a trilogy. I think that’s the easiest example that most people understand are familiar with. First books in a trilogy tend to be a little more complete. They’re a story from beginning to end and it’s its own kind of contained arc. And not every book is like this. I will definitely say that. That there’s a caveat right there. But a lot of books will you know kind of wrap it up. And then the second and third books are where you kind of continue that story. But they’re also continuing that overall plot arc or whatever that big question might be about the story. Are they going to defeat the huge monster king? Or you know, are they really going to end up together at the end of the day?
And so often in that current situation the end of book 2 will not be neatly tied up. And that’s because you need that kind of push to get you into book 3. And then the end of book 3 obviously needs to have a satisfying resolution. So I think the endings of books will definitely have to be different. And the reason for that is you look at each book individually in a series. But you also think about that overarching series arc what are, what is that question you’re trying to answer? What’s the story you’re trying to tell and how do you layer structure over an entire series? So the second books usually end up on a cliffhanger because that’s the point where things are supposed to go wrong. Like things, you need to know that the character is kind of in the worst part of their situation and that carries you over to that huge climax and conclusion that is a third book. And again, caveat, not all series are like these, like this. But I think in general, that’s kind of how I would look at it at least.
Sue Stanley: I can think of four off the top of my head that are exactly like that just sitting here listening to you talk about it. So one of the questions that was contributed for you which I think is kind of an interesting one, we’ve talked about the three act structure. But, and you also mentioned the seven-point structure, and the you know, Save the Cat which is screenwriting. So there is not, it sounds like, there’s not one prescribed type of structure that is required for success in say middle grade or YA or even adult fiction or even picture books. Do you have a point of view about the best place for people to start or do you think that, or do you suggest that people kind of go with their gut?
Swati Teerdhala: That’s a great question. I think, well what I did at least is, when I first started out is I started reading everything I could grab my hands on. And actually started out just, a lot of blog posts by other authors. So the one resource I can think of off the top my head is Susan Dennard. It’s a blog, she has incredible resources on structure, on revisions and how to go back and kind of analyze the book that you’ve written. A lot of really great nuggets of information and I think that’s kind of a less intimidating place to start. At least it was for me. A lot of these craft books I think can be kind of overwhelming. And I still feel this way to this day when I’m outlining. I’m like, I need to have this. I need to have this and that. And you know, this book tells me I need that thing to happen at this time and it’s a lot. So I think, read what makes you excited. What inspires you. Take from it what you will, but trust in yourself that you know how to write a story. We all grew up on stories. I think everyone knows how it should go. So take your time. Do it at your own pace. Like, do your own thing.
Sue Stanley: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. Is story structure different for short stories? For novellas? For novels?
Swati Teerdhala: Yeah. I think it’s not so much that it’s different as much as that with a short story or with a novella it’s, the structure is truncated in a way. So you might need a shorter middle or a more clipped ending without as much resolution just because of the format.But you still need a clear beginning. You need a moment of change for yourI mean, for your main protagonist. Something that propels them. Some obstacles. And you need an end. So I think it’s the same building blocks. It’s just the degree of how much you use them and how, and where each thing happens that varies. But yeah that’s, you still want that rising action. That like moment. That big moment and then a little bit of resolution. But I think you can play around with it a lot more in short stories and novellas. Actually something that this makes me think of is Mary Robinette Kowal. She has this really great, she’s an author of some amazing books. But she also is part of the Writing Excuses podcast. And one thing that I remember her saying is that short stories and novellas oftentimes it’s a snapshot. It’s like if there’s a gymnast winning a gold medal, it’s them landing that, you know ten out of ten vault. Versus the whole process of them getting there, nailing the vault, and then winning the medal. So it’s like snapshots. But you still kind of need that arc and a the beginning to end type of story.
Sue Stanley: That makes a lot of sense. So one more thing about structure. There are a lot of authors that are determined, they’re pantsers, right? They’re very determined pantsers and as you mentioned there are some authors that are really good at that probably because they have that a very strong sense of structure already as a part of themselves because of the amount of reading they’ve done. Because that comes naturally to them. For those authors where it doesn’t come naturally. Where the idea of writing off the top of their head is really appealing but their ability to build the structure into their story while they write off the top of their head is not helpful. So my, or doesn’t work for them. So my question for you would be, is where do you start? Like if you were to step back and say okay I’m gonna write a novel. I’m gonna do it in a different way. For someone who generally writes by the seat of their pants or just is a stream of consciousness and then goes back and edits. What would you say would be the first, say three things that they would need to do to really put structure first before they put words on the page?
Swati Teerdhala: I think that’s always gonna be difficult for pantsers. I have some friends who are pantsers and seeing their process it’s very different from mine. But it’s really interesting. I think the top three things, I would never want to say, it’s hard I think for pantsers to always know what their ending is but they know what change they want to see. So you might not know exactly where, you know, the image of your character at the end. But you know who you want them to be at the end. So I think even just identifying emotional beats. How that can often inform where you’re going with the story and your plot. So either focusing on plot and kind of knowing a little bit about where you want to go or focusing on that emotional core of the change of the character and just having those beats. You don’t have to sit down and outline everything. Even if it’s just like five bullet points and a word tuck. It’s just something to give you a little bit, like headlights.
Like I know a lot of people call themselves headlights writers and that they know where they’re going for the next half a mile and past that darkness. So maybe that’s, I think that could be a really great way to just get started. The second thing, and this is deviating a little bit away from what your question was, but I think revisions is really where pantsers shine. This is our opportunity to take all the great stuff that was in their head and then layer structure over it. Kind of retrofit it. I think that’s really where structure can be most useful. I know sometimes adding it earlier in the drafting process with my friends and the people I know, it can really make them kind of seize up. And if that’s, if you’re good at being a discovery writer and being a pantser, you should really lean into your strengths, I guess. So that’s not three things, but that’s like kind of my thoughts on it.
Sue Stanley: That makes sense to me. So here is the hard question for most people who are discovery writers and I love that term much better than pantser. When you do start to build that structure in on revision. Every single time without fail I would guess from my own experience, and from writers that I work with as well, that means that at least one scene that you absolutely love has got to go. So how do manage that?That feeling of kind of like loss and that probably happens to writers who are very organized too and very outlined. That they have to in revision at some point, their favorite scene or a very popular favorite scene of theirs, a heartfelt scene, has got to be removed. How do you manage that?
Swati Teerdhala: A lot of cookies and a glass of wine. [laughter] But in truth, it’s really difficult. I think one thing that revisions and being a little more analytical about structure has helped me do is to let go of things that aren’t working. And I may not always let go of it in that first draft, but if I’m so actually, you know, stepping back a second. Give a little bit of insight into my process. If this helps any writers. When I do revisions, like I am an outliner, but I often find myself veering away from it. And certain revisions I’ll end up with a bunch of scenes I’m like, where did these come from? I don’t know. And so I like to go back and make story maps.
And that’s essentially me going step by step through my novel writing down what happens in every scene and maybe something like the major plot lines, or subplots within each of those scenes. That allows me to kind of look at my story more holistically and see where its gaps are. Where, where is, where is a huge plot hole that I need to fix. Like where my character is acting really out of the norm and you know, where is the pacing lagging? And by giving myself those kind of really clear objectives like, I know I want a fun fast-paced book. I know I want people to cry at this, you know, this part of the book or something. Whatever it may be. If you know what your goals are, that story map helps you identify which scenes are just not hitting your goals. And I think that really helped me to start pulling away from this idea that like, written words have to be carried into a story because I think any work you do is always good work. It always informs you know, you as a writer. And you can always reuse it later. You might find an opportunity to, whether it’s in this work or in you know, your next one. To use those words again. And to kind of, you never have to really give it up I think. But for me, when I get really emotional or really attached to a scene, I try and just think about you know, justify my goals. If not, maybe I need to take a sec away. And if that doesn’t work, chocolate.
Sue Stanley: Chocolate and large files of deleted scenes for later.
Swati Teerdhala: Yes.
Sue Stanley: So you can put them in to some other story with some other people.
Swati Teerdhala: Yeah.
Sue Stanley: Where that might work. All right. Well thank you very much for joining us today and talking about story structure. This has been really enlightening and I hope it’s been helpful to the people who are listening as well. Good luck to you and again I just to review, Swati has her debut novel coming out April 23rd of 2019 and the name of the Young Adult novel is on my page. Sorry. The Tiger at Midnight from HarperCollins. So congratulations to you, Swati and thank you so much for being here.
Swati Teerdhala: Thank you. Thanks for having me.