Developmental Editing

  • Master List of IndieCat Blog Posts

    Master list of IndieCat blog posts

    Master List of IndieCat Blog Posts

    In order to make it easier for new site visitors to explore the blog posts here, I have made a master list of IndieCat Blog Posts. I’m still drawing up this list so not all posts have yet been listed here.

    What is developmental editing?

    Developmental editing or manuscript critique? This post looks into the differences between two common developmental editing services.

    Wasting money on a copyedit or proofread? Please don’t hire copyeditors or proofreaders if you later intend to use a developmental editor. In this post I explain the correct order of editing.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    When is your novel done? At what point is it appropriate to start looking for feedback?

    Should you dust off that old novel? Is it ever worth returning to an old abandoned or rejected manuscript? Or is it time to move on?

    Case studies in developmental editing

    This list looks at examples of developmental feedback which changed the outcome of a novel. There are also posts where I put on my developmental editor’s hat and explore narrative choices a writer made when writing their novel.

    How developmental editing feedback improved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This post looks at editor Maxwell Perkins and the developmental editing advice he gave to Fitzgerald after reading an early draft of The Great Gatsby.

    How developmental editing feedback changed Interview With The Vampire. This post looks at the development of Anne Rice’s first published novel, including the developmental editing advice she received from her editor. This advice caused her to radically alter parts of her novel, turning it into a classic of the vampire and gothic genres.

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. This post digs into Chiang’s use of point of view, tense, and structure in his award-winning novella, Story of Your Life. He also wrote the novel in an interesting way, starting with the ending!

    How narrative devices support a novel’s theme. This post looks at the viewpoint, tense, and other choices Sebastien Japrisot made for his award-winning novel A Very Long Engagement.

    Narrative choices Diana Gabaldon made in her first Outlander novel, Cross Stitch. In this post I give a developmental editing perspective on the choices Gabaldon made in her popular novel.

    Novel outlines – 3 case studies. Here I look at how three of my clients used outlining to help them write their novels.

    When publishers drop the ball. Even if you get a mainstream publishing deal there is no guarantee that you will get all the developmental feedback you need. This post deals with an unnamed published novel which had multiple issues.

    Famous first lines… or how to start your novel. A dive into famous opening lines in fiction and what they accomplish. Also, just how much depends on the opening line?

    Developmental editing basics

    Character credibility and the domino effect. What is the most common problem I see in manuscripts?

    10 ways to improve your novel’s pacing. While your novel doesn’t have to gallop along at a fast pace, sometimes storytelling gets bogged down and momentum is lost. Too slow and a reader could just give up. Be vigilant of anything that pulls your pace down. This posts has some tips.

    The Story Spine – the simple 8-point storytelling structure. Used by Pixar Studios.

    When dialogue ruins your scenes. A dive into how dialogue can sometimes work against the best interests of a scene.

    Too much period language in a historical novel? How much is too much? And why is it an issue?

    Too much internal dialogue? What can go wrong?

    Here is a check list for authors wanting to do some developmental editing on their manuscripts before hiring an editor. It’s also useful for authors who can’t afford a developmental edit.

    Fear of exposure in first-person narratives.

    Location issues in your novel

    Researching your novel’s locations online.

    Avoid this location issue in your novel.

    Historical fiction

    Too much period language in a historical novel? How much is too much? And why is it an issue?

    Laurie McBain – exploring the career of bestselling author Laurie McBain. She was one of the ‘Avon Ladies’ who rebooted historical romance in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon. A look at the narrative choices Gabaldon made in her first Outlander novel.

    Interview with author Dorothy M. Parker about her time travel historical novel, The Angel of Incompleteness. Among other topics, we discuss the issues related to writing about real historical people.

    Historical fiction as a time machine. A look at the appeal of historical fiction through the lens of old New York.

    A Place of Greater Safety. A review of Hilary Mantel’s French revolution novel.

    Indie publishing

    So indie authors aren’t real authors? This blog post was written after I read a very annoying and ignorant post from someone who completely underestimated the commitment and talent of indie authors.


    This post looks at memoir and the issues memoirists face when telling their stories.

    Interviews with indie authors

    An interview with Dorothy M. Parker, exploring the inspirations behind her time travel novel, The Angel of Incompleteness.

    Articles on authors

    This post is my deep dive into the life and work of Irish-American writer Maeve Brennan. The Irish author was the daughter of Irish republican parents who later moved their family to the US for work reasons. Maeve would remain there until her death. Glamorous in her youth, she worked for the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. She also wrote short stories and a novella, The Visitor.

    Joan Lindsay was 71 when her famous novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, was published. Here I dive into her life and the background to the novel.

    Laurie McBain was one of the stars of the historical romance genre in the 1970s and 1980s. Here I look at her career and the mystery of why she disappeared after ten years of success. I also look at the writer who inspired her, Kathleen Woodiwiss.

    Beautiful Shadow is a great biography of author Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith wrote Strangers on A Train, The Talented Mr Ripley, and the lesbian romance novel, Carol. All three of these books were adapted for the screen. Here I review the biography and explore Highsmith’s life and career.

    Book reviews

    A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. A detailed review of the award-winning French Revolution novel.

    General tips

    How to order short stories in a collection.

    Productivity tips for authors

    My best productivity tips for authors.

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique.

    How to establish a writing routine.

    Social media blockers.

    Need Freedom from social media distractions?

    Is social media harming the writing community?


    Fear of marketing yourself on social media.

    How to use Facebook and Instagram ads.

    Promoting your books on social media.

    Have you figured out your author brand?

    Why your book cover design matters.

    Terrified of reading your work in public?

    You need author photos but you’re camera shy.

    Don’t make this mistake on your author website.

  • Writing Your Memoir

    Writing your memoir

    When writing your memoir, you’re not telling the story of your whole life. Instead, memoir focuses on a specific period or event in your life which you dig into, reflect on, often addressing the issue in ways that are closer to a novel than a chronologically written autobiography.

    This is why memoir is seen as a form of creative non-fiction.

    A memoir offers readers intimate glimpses into your life and experiences. It’s also a chance for them to see what lessons you’ve taken away from your experiences.

    But writing a memoir comes with a set of problems – from reliability of memory to many other issues including the right to privacy of those around you.

    Memoir versus autobiography

    Some people confuse memoir and autobiography because they are both usually a first-person account of the subject’s life. It’s true that there are similarities. However, there are also major differences between them.

    Autobiography is more concerned with a whole life and with facts, dates, etc, given greater importance. There can also be less focus on a central unifying theme. Other than the story of a life.

    A long life can produce more than one autobiography. This is especially true if the author writes the first book when they are still relatively young. Years or even decades down the line they can write a second book if they have a lot more to tell about their life. This often happens with celebrity autobiographies.

    Memoirs, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on a unifying theme or particular time or experience in the author’s life. They are much narrower in scope. One life can still produce several memoirs precisely because they are limited in scope. It depends on whether you have the material to cover more than one book.

    In Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS, author Helga Schneider visits the elderly mother she has been estranged from for decades. Her mother left home when Helga was still very young and went to work for the SS at a concentration camp. Helga hardly ever saw her mother from that point on. Her memoir circles between her visits with the old woman at a retirement home and what happened in the past. The book does not cover Helga’s entire life.

    But Helga returned to the trauma of her abandonment in a second memoir, The Bonfire of Berlin: A Lost Childhood in Wartime Germany.

    Meanwhile, in Until The Final Hour, Traudl Junge does not write about her entire life. The book is about her experience working as one of Hitler’s secretaries and includes the final days with him in the bunker.

    In all three of these books, the scope is narrow. This allows for a deeper dive into the subject.

    13 points for memoir writers

    For obvious reasons, writing a memoir is a deeply personal form of expression. It can be intimidating, especially when it comes to revealing intimate details or events in the past. It can also be cathartic and therapeutic.

    But writing memoir also comes with particular challenges and dangers. Here are some common problems or topics you might face when writing a memoir:

    1. Telling the truth versus privacy

    Writing your memoir means revealing intimate details about your life, including your actions (positive or negative), and your thoughts and emotions.

    This can mean talking about things you’ve kept secret from those around you or shared with very few. Putting these things down on paper inevitably leads to emotional vulnerability.

    But in striving to tell your truth, you can also expose the intimate secrets and breach the privacy of others, including loved ones. There is a delicate balance here between authenticity and privacy.

    Some writers change details to protect the identities of those they are writing about. In that case, the exact truth is sacrificed for privacy, but there is still an emotional truth.

    However, if a writer is clearly making things up and it comes out later, readers will cease to trust them.

    2. Memories are subjective and unreliable

    In autobiography and biography, there is a greater emphasis on facts.

    This is particularly true of biography.

    In memoir, the author is using their own memory of events – which of course can be aided by diaries and letters from the period concerned.

    But no one has a completely objective take on their life.

    Memories can change over time. Things can get added or subtracted in your mind. You can start to misremember things like seasons, or even years.

    Memories – even diaries and correspondence – are not 100% reliable. It’s one person’s subjective take on what happened and may clash with others who were around at the time.

    Consequently, it’s not unusual to start doubting your own memory! Especially if you talk to others who don’t remember events or remember them very differently.

    3. Emotional vulnerability

    Writing a memoir is like putting your intimate diary out into the world for all to read.

    Of course, you can edit some things out. But in exploring your most intimate thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you’re often revisiting painful or traumatic events.

    And this can be triggering and lead to shame, fear, embarrassment, or discomfort. There is also the sense that once you let the cat out of the bag, you can’t stuff it back inside. When your truth is out there in the public domain, it’s out for good. Or for at least as long as the book remains in print.

    This realisation can lead to writer’s block and other avoidance strategies when it comes to writing things down.

    4. Structure, story, dialogue, and scene versus summary

    Even though you’re not writing a novel, you are still writing a narrative. And there are many overlaps between fiction and memoir.

    For one thing, you need a coherent narrative arc in memoir writing.

    While you can circle around in time, it must make sense. And the reader must be able to follow you.

    Memoir writers must also decide which events to include, how to order them chronologically or thematically, and how to keep readers engaged from beginning to end.

    As I’ve said, there are similarities between fiction and memoir. In both, you should have a proper story structure, fleshed out characters, sensory details, and a strong theme.

    You are also more likely to have dialogue in a memoir, compared to an autobiography. Of course, this can mean having to recreate a distant conversation as best you can. No one remembers exactly what was said decades ago, unless they carefully recorded it in a diary.

    Another technique borrowed from fiction is scene versus summary. There will be times when you don’t need to write out an event as a whole scene. You can just summarise it. You can also weave in your reflections about it in the summary.

    But including summary, action, dialogue, etc, will bring the more important parts of your narrative to life.

    This results in a far stronger and emotionally gripping story.

    5. The importance of musing

    In addition to scene versus summary and dialogue, you also have something that is particularly important to memoir. And that is musing or reflecting on past events.

    The reader wants to know what you have learned. And if you’re writing a memoir, going over the past, trying to understand it better, it will be imperative to have some level of musing.

    Otherwise, you are simply recreating your own version of the past, without learning from it or offering up conclusions. And that means you’re leaving out a crucial ingredient of memoir.

    Musing can be done in various ways. You might reflect on some events within the period itself, but much of it will be done from a distance of years or even decades, as you look back from the present.

    Musing can occur in fiction, but it is even more important in memoir.

    6. Finding the universal in the personal

    While memoirs are always inherently personal, the best ones resonate with readers on a universal level. Yes, even when the experiences described are far removed from the reader’s own life. This is because, as a memoirist, you can still connect your experiences to broader themes and emotions your readers can relate to.

    In Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS, Helga Schneider’s narrative deals with a less common problem – a Nazi mother who served in a death camp. But in spite of Helga’s personal distaste for her mother’s actions, there is also some compassion for the forgetful old woman who sits before her.

    In that example, many readers can have the same experience of being estranged from family, yet find themselves having to deal with them in their later years. The reader will also wonder what they would do in Helga’s position.

    Would they refuse to visit the elderly Nazi war criminal who abandoned them when they were young, or try to do the decent thing as Helga does?

    Helga’s narrative, complete with the research she has done on Nazi atrocities, offers the reader food for thought. What would any of us do in her position?

    In Traudl Junge’s case, her experience working with Hitler raises issues about our complicity with wrongdoing around us. At what point are we accountable? Can we really blame youth and ignorance? Ultimately, Junge realised she could not.

    7. Perspective, voice and tone

    Determining the perspective of the memoir can be challenging. Writers must decide whether to narrate from their current time/perspective, which can lead to a greater degree of self-reflection, or go back in time to capture the voice of their past self.

    It’s a case of striking a balance between authenticity and readability.

    First-person narration though is the norm. Problems like head-hopping are far less likely to occur, compared to fiction.

    When it comes to tone, we’re really talking about writing in a humorous way versus anger, etc. Some memoirists deal with difficult topics from a position of humour. Sometimes that’s the best way they have to approach an otherwise painful subject.

    It’s worth thinking about the kind of tone you want to aim for in your memoir. Of course, it can vary somewhat as you circle between different scenes, but an overarching consistency of tone will bolster your narrative and theme.

    8. A sense of time and place

    I’ve already mentioned the importance of sensory details. This also applies to fiction writing.

    Here’s another thing important to both memoir and fiction writing – a strong sense of place and time. When you’re writing many years or decades after the events of your book, it’s important to try and recapture that place and time for your readers. You can include sensory details and also cultural references – music, film, fashions.

    With memoir, you can transport not only yourself back to that distant time, but your readers.

    9. Legal and ethical concerns

    Writing about real people and events can raise legal and ethical concerns, particularly when it involves portraying others in a negative light, making allegations, or revealing sensitive information.

    Writing about the living is a tricky subject!

    Memoirists should be mindful of potential repercussions and consider obtaining consent, legal advice, and changing any identifying details including names and appearance where necessary.

    10. Revising and polishing your manuscript

    Like fiction and other forms of non-fiction, your manuscript will require careful revision and editing to polish it to a publishable standard.

    But while it can be difficult with novels to ‘murder your darlings’ and cut out cherished characters or scenes, it can be even more difficult with memoir. Writers can feel that removing an important event distorts the truth.

    They might also find editing and rewriting painful events over and over again emotionally triggering. In this case, it’s best to take breaks and give yourself some time and space from your manuscript.

    11. Fear of judgement, criticism and rejection

    Memoir is the most personal of writing genres. Matched only by diaries or published letters. But people don’t usually plan to publish their diaries or letters, least of all when they’re writing them. Whereas memoirs are usually written with the intention to publish or be shown to others.

    Putting deeply personal truths out into the world can feel intimidating. All writers feel fear when their books are about to be published. Bad reviews and bad sales are common fears. But with memoir there is the potential for deeper and more personal criticism and judgement.

    And not just from readers or reviewers – but from loved ones and family. The people whose opinions often matter most.

    Fear of rejection can lead to self-censorship and suddenly deciding to remove parts of a book. Often to the detriment of the memoir.

    Yet, some memoirists have undoubtedly alienated family and partners/ex-partners with their published books.

    12. Will you find closure?

    For many memoirists, writing their account helps them make sense of their past and find closure. However, please be mindful that this is not always possible.

    If you are writing to help others in the same situation, that can offer a kind of closure in itself.

    But it’s worth remembering that with publication comes criticism and reviewing, and the reactions of those you’ve written about.

    This does not mean you shouldn’t proceed. It’s simply a matter of being realistic about the outcome.

    13. Leaving behind something for your family

    Sometimes writers are telling their story to share with family. This could mean private publication rather than a book put into general circulation. But it’s also about leaving behind a legacy after you’re gone. Something for loved ones to read and remember you by. Even descendants who are not yet born.

    Some memoirs are deeply rooted in a particular geographical location and will contribute to the larger tapestry of local history.

    Memoirs can tell us about the lives of women and other groups in the past, opening a door on experiences that are often forgotten today. Even though the memoir is not concerned with facts in the way an academic book is, that doesn’t mean it has no relevance to social history.

    Because history is more than facts. History is about people.

    Developmentally editing memoir

    I’ve edited a few personal stories. Some were very personal accounts of difficult childhoods where the author wanted to get their personal story out into the world. Often with the intention of helping others.

    One author I worked with used her childhood diaries to craft a narrative that read more like a novel. And it was one of the most memorable manuscripts I’ve worked on. I can still well remember scenes from the life of this young girl back in the 1960s as she walked around San Francisco and the likes of the Tenderloin district. The people she mixed with often lived on the margins and I found myself wondering what happened to them. Though some are dead now, they still live on in her manuscript and in my head. I will always associate Dionne Warwick’s Walk on By with her story.

    There is something really magical about vividly recreating the past, the emotions of that period, incorporating the fleeting nature of time and youth.

    It also gives those who never lived in that place or period a brief chance to walk in the author’s shoes and see through their eyes.

    Need feedback on your memoir?

    If you need developmental feedback on your memoir, you can contact me about your manuscript. I offer opening chapters developmental edits, full developmental edits, and manuscript critiques. Feel free to use the contact form on the page link below.

  • How narrative devices support a novel’s theme

    How narrative devices support a novel's theme using the example of Sebastien Japrisot's novel, A Very Long Engagement.

    How narrative devices support a novel’s theme

    Writers are often more concerned with plot, character, and world building when they’re outlining or writing their novels. Consequently, theme is often something that gets lost.

    Theme and subject are not the same thing. Theme relates more to the message of a story – be it a film, play, or novel. In Sebastien Japrisot’s novel, A Very Long Engagement, the subject matter is World War One and its aftermath. The theme is the horrors of that war and of war in general.

    The subject matter supports the theme. But there are other narrative devices in this novel that contribute further to Japrisot’s message. In this post I’ll examine some of these devices.

    A Very Long Engagement

    Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that’s the way of the world.”

    So begins Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel, A Very Long Engagement, winner of the Prix Interallié.

    Japrisot was a crime writer, screenwriter and film director. But his real name was actually Jean-Baptiste Rossi – his pseudonym is an anagram of his birth name.

    By 1991 he had already written a number of extremely successful crime novels. His career started off in literature and A Very Long Engagement is both a crime/mystery novel and a literary meditation on the horrors of war.

    From the first page, A Very Long Engagement immerses us in the horrors of World War One, and we are introduced to five condemned soldiers. We learn something of their backgrounds, their personalities, and the reasons for their terrible predicament.

    This is also the first time their families back home are referenced, and most of their wives and partners will later appear in the narrative.

    Then, before these soldiers reach their destination, the novel cuts away, leaving us to wonder about their fates.

    The rest of the novel is an investigation into what happened.

    The central character of A Very Long Engagement is Mathilde. Still a teenager at the beginning of the book, she makes it her life’s goal to find out what happened to her fiancé who was one of the condemned men. She does not know at the outset that he was sentenced to death, believing instead that he died in the course of the war.

    She’s a memorable heroine – determined, loyal, not above lying and plotting to get what she wants, and immensely stubborn in the face of opposition.

    The theme

    As previously mentioned, A Very Long Engagement is a novel highly critical of war. More specifically the First World War which saw an enormous loss of life without the moral purpose of defeating something like the Nazi regime. It was a senseless war, a crime against humanity which contained many smaller crimes, to be hidden by the relevant authorities if necessary.

    Indeed, the novel begins with a crime – the sentencing of five men to be shot by enemy soldiers. This is the novel’s opening hook. The deliberate withholding of the letter of reprieve is also a crime of a different sort, and we find out about that much later.

    There are many comments throughout the book about the futility of war. The novel criticises both the military and political hierarchy.

    The characters, from different classes and walks of life, also show through their experience how the war impacted different parts of society.

    One of the condemned men, Six-Sous, a trade unionist with family connections to the Paris Commune, dreams of a time when countries no longer go to war.

    The men who mutilated themselves to be invalided out and sent home are portrayed with compassion and sympathy. They are not seen as either cowards or traitors. Their actions come from desperation, from fear, from a longing to see their loved ones, wives and girlfriends, or because they’ve simply had enough of the whole nightmare.

    Furthermore, the author never condemns the German soldiers in the opposite trenches. They are portrayed with sympathy and at times show more compassion for the condemned men than some of those responsible for sending them over the top.

    While there are many comments condemning the war, what’s more important is the way Japrisot illustrates his theme by showing the impact on those left behind, and on those who made it out alive. He accomplishes this through a layering of narratives from different people from different backgrounds.

    Characterisation merges with viewpoint to illustrate theme.

    Point of View

    The central narrative belongs to Mathilde and is reported in what appears to be omniscient present tense.

    However, the author leaves clues throughout that the narrator who sometimes comments on things from their god-like perspective is really Mathilde – old Mathilde, looking back on the quest of her youth, to find her lost love.

    She has a mahogany box in which she stores all the paperwork collected over the years, including her own notes where she represents herself in the third person.

    The rest of the book is mostly first-person past tense, including the letters that make up so much of the book, as well as the accounts told directly to Mathilde.

    So, the novel uses different point of views: present tense third-person, omniscient at times for the present story (which is actually being told decades later), and first-person past tense for the witness accounts.

    I never found the switch in point of view styles to be inconsistent or abrupt.

    The advantage of the first-person viewpoint in accounts of the past is that it makes those events more vivid for the reader.

    The advantage of the third-person and omniscient point of view is that they provide a commentary, emphasising the war theme by showing humans used as pawns, their lives disposable from an almost god-like perspective.

    First-person accounts told directly to Mathilde are not presented within quotation marks. This embeds them more firmly into the main narrative.

    The use of first-person voice also distinguishes these narratives from Mathilde’s sections.

    Japrisot is so deft with his use of viewpoint and tense that the reader should easily follow the past and present narratives without confusion.

    Looking at the point of view alternatives – a constant omniscient or distant third would have led to a less engaging and poignant novel, characters forever kept at a distance. A close third following Mathilde would have made the first chapter, the men marching through the trenches, impossible. The opening scenes of the novel could then only have come through a witness statement.

    As it is, the opening chapter is the hook for the novel, with the events of that January night up front and centred.

    The use of a commenting omniscient voice, with a close third, and then an intimate recollection of events through first is probably what makes this novel so successful.

    Each of the points of view has a function that ties in with the book’s themes, the structure, and the method of delivering information, emotional impact, and rueful commentary.

    To mix these different points of view creates a highly complex and layered narrative. This occurs partly through additional devices such as the use of letters.

    A large proportion of the book is made up of letters. They enhance the narrative rather than disrupt it. They present layers of evidence and witness statements.

    This is an excellent device when it comes to a mystery or crime novel. Indeed, it also worked very well in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where the body of phonographic recordings, letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings and a ship’s log built a body of evidence for the existence of the vampire. In the case of that novel such devices added credibility to the story and aided suspension of disbelief.

    In this novel, the letters also offer clues which Mathilde and the reader can piece together. Because they are date stamped, they also contribute to a clearer chronology in the main narrative.

    Timeline and chronology

    Chronology and time are incredibly important to the structure of this book and the subject matter and themes. Many novels are told in a simple chronological or linear manner. Japrisot opted for a different way of telling his story, since there is a mystery that needs to be solved.

    Mathilde must return again and again to the events of that January night and the days that followed, listening to different accounts, piecing it all together.

    These accounts become a multi-layered testimony.

    It helps that chapters begin with date headings, or with dated letters. The puzzle within the narrative and the complex chronology demand clarity on time and place. This keeps the reader straight on the timeframe of each scene. Letters within the narrative are also dated, and there is much reference to particular dates, and also the use of transitional phrases like ‘some days later’ or ‘the next day’ and so forth.

    Japrisot uses another technique too – as mentioned before, Mathilde’s third-person viewpoint is almost always in present tense, whereas the accounts are in past tense (and usually first person).

    This helps separate the different narratives further in terms of time.

    Yet, Japrisot is in some ways playing games with the reader when it comes to time and the omniscient narrator. As we discover, Mathilde is the omniscient narrator.

    Towards the end of the book, the narrative jumps decades ahead, more than once, ending in 1965. Periodically Mathilde has still, in those future years, added more pieces of evidence to her box. Since the narrative’s latest time period is 1965 (though merely in a passing reference), this leads to the assumption that Mathilde is remembering her search and investigation as an elderly woman. But she is reliving it, through the detailed notes she made and the letters and other paperwork she received.

    If the real ‘now’ of the novel is the 1960s, even though it’s barely touched on, then this explains the reflective voice of the omniscient narrator who knows so much about Mathilde and some of the other characters (who in the future have become friends).

    This presents two ‘nows’ for Mathilde – the future and the present time of the book. The Mathilde of the present doesn’t know what the Mathilde of the future knows. But the Mathilde of the future understands the young Mathilde perfectly.

    Japrisot’s narrative has a very complex approach to time and moving around in time, yet there is an underlying pattern. Letters and first-person accounts are presented in order. And Mathilde’s thread is also presented chronologically. So there is a definite structure in place when it comes to dealing with time.

    Given the many viewpoint threads, the different accounts of the past, and the present meanwhile moving forward, structure and chronology are intimately fused, and they fuse again with point of view.


    In this example, the author has utilised a number of devices to illustrate and strengthen the book’s theme. This is perhaps a more complex example with the layering of different narratives, points of view, etc, and the complex use of time.

    Of course the central mystery of what happened to the men sent to their deaths at the beginning drives the plot, allowing the truth about the war to spill out over the rest of the novel.

    There are other devices like characterisation – even when it comes to the more minor characters – where the impact of the war resonates on them years down the line.

    No one who survives fully escapes the fallout of World War One.

    A Very Long Engagement was made into a film starring Audrey Tatou and directed by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It is very much worth a watch.

    Other blog posts

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life

    How editorial feedback changed Interview With the Vampire

    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    When publishers drop the ball

  • The Story Spine: The Simple 8-Point Storytelling Structure

    The Story Spine: The simple 8-point storytelling structure.
    The Story Spine

    The Story Spine

    The story spine is a storytelling structure attributed to Pixar or to writer/director Brian McDonald. McDonald himself has been using it a long time but can’t recall where he got it from.

    The eight-step structure can be used on screenplays, novels or short stories. You could even apply it to a narrative poem. It’s a great road map for storytelling and one worth keeping in your back pocket. Here is how it breaks down:

    1. Once Upon a Time…

    2. Every day…

    3. Until one day…

    4. Because of that…

    5. Because of that…

    6. Because of that…

    7. Until finally…

    8. And ever since then…

    You can see from this list that it’s actually a pretty simple structure. Let’s break it down further:

    1. Once upon a time…

    Of course you don’t have to actually open a story with those words. But this type of opening sets up the main character(s) and their world right up front. Who is the story about? Where is it set? Who is the reader meant to be rooting for?

    2. Every day…

    With this step you quickly establish the normal life of the character(s) at the start of the story. This norm will be overturned by coming events.

    3. Until one day…

    Now we have an event which disrupts the normal life of the main character(s). It’s an inciting event which will throw the character into a new situation.

    4. And because of that…

    Now we’re entering act two of the story. The character is now dealing with the consequences of the inciting event. They are reacting. They may know their ultimate aim, but winning will not come easily. Their early attempts to fight back might fail or lead to more problems. They can also achieve a goal only to find that they now need to do something else.

    5. And because of that…

    More consequences. Characters need to work hard, facing challenges, suffering defeats, but pushing on anyway. They can have low moments and times when they feel like quitting, but they carry on. A good story needs conflict. With no conflict, there is no story. If the character always wins out at the start, there’s nothing else to tell about them. This phase of the story spine shows the escalating situation as one thing after another impacts the character. Think of a set of dominoes going over in a chain. The chain of events should be related and show actions and consequences. The midpoint of your story could also be in this part.

    6. And because of that…

    It’s not an absolute rule that you should have three stages like this, but it’s worth remembering that too few means less conflict and less drama for the main character. This applies to novels and longer stories. Shorter stories won’t have the same amount of time for a long chain of events. You might only have one or two ‘because of that’ in them, depending on their length. But here you are in the latter part of act two.

    7. Until finally…

    You are now in act three. Your main character has reached the point where their ultimate goal is in sight and achievable. You should be hitting the climax of your story. What all previous events have been building up to. Not all characters win out in the end – some stories end on failure. But win or lose, this is the point where the character’s fate is established.

    8. And ever since then…

    There could be a moral to your story, or you can show how events have changed the main character(s) (which can also relate to the theme of your story). Or you simply want to return the story to a point where the main character is in a new normal. Their life might have changed, but their new situation comes from their efforts fighting against the obstacles before. The resolution stage cannot drag out too long because once the conflict is over, there is no dramatic tension left to drive the story forward. Long resolutions after the action is over leave readers struggling to finish. Make sure your story doesn’t drag on at the end.

    Story Spine 1: The Lady of Shalott

    Earlier I suggested you could apply this structure even to narrative poems. Think of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.

    1. Once upon a time there is a mysterious lady in a tower who can be heard singing by locals working in the fields.
    2. Every day she works at her loom in the tower, weaving the sights that pass before her mirror. There is a curse that says she must not look out the window and can only see reflections instead. She sees passers-by, including young people and lovers, which makes her wistful.
    3. Until one day Lancelot appears in her mirror. He is such an awesome sight that she forgets about the curse and turns to look at him as he rides by outside.
    4. And because of that her mirror cracks from side to side and she realises the curse has come upon her.
    5. And because of that she goes out and takes a boat, painting her name on the prow. Then she unmoors the boat and lies down. She sings as the boat carries her towards Camelot. She slowly freezes to death.
    6. And because of that people in Camelot see the boat passing and even the high and mighty come down to see the dead woman in the boat, crossing themselves in fear.
    7. Until finally Lancelot sees her and says: “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace,
      ⁠The Lady of Shalott.”

    The final step of ‘and ever since then‘ doesn’t appear in this narrative poem. We don’t know how the story later impacted Lancelot or the other witnesses.

    Story Spine 2: Rebecca

    You can have a number of ‘And because’ sections in a longer story. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is an example. WARNING: SPOILERS.

    1. Once upon a time the young unnamed narrator works as a companion to a rich American woman called Van Hopper.
    2. Every day the narrator has to run errands and suffer her employer’s embarrassing manners. Mrs Van Hopper constantly puts her down and the MC is nervous and lacking any confidence.
    3. Until one day they stumble across Maxim de Winter at their hotel. Mrs Van Hopper is very keen to chat to him and mentions his dead wife, Rebecca, who was very beautiful. Rebecca died in a sailing accident a year before. Though Mrs Van Hopper’s manners embarrass the narrator, Maxim is kind. When Mrs Van Hopper falls ill, Max invites the narrator to breakfast with him.
    4. And because of that, they spend more time together, while the narrator lies to Mrs Van Hopper.
    5. And because of that, when Mrs Van Hopper suddenly announces they must travel to America, Max proposes to the narrator and she returns to England with him, to his estate, Manderley. The house he lived in with the mysterious Rebecca.
    6. And because of that she meets the unfriendly housekeeper Mrs Danvers who is still loyal to Rebecca, and constantly feels out of place in the house and with Max’s social set. She is living in Rebecca’s shadow and believes Max still loves Rebecca.
    7. And because of that, she takes Mrs Danvers suggestion to wear a particular gown to a ball, which turns out to be a copy of something Rebecca wore. Max is furious and it’s clear Mrs Danvers wants rid of the narrator, even trying to tempt her into jumping from a window.
    8. Until finally Rebecca’s boat is found after a storm and it’s clear it was sabotaged. Max confesses to the narrator that he never loved Rebecca, he hated her, and he tells her what really happened. The narrator is relieved that he never loved Rebecca. But with a body found inside the boat, it becomes clear Max deliberately identified the wrong body the previous year. An inquest ensues. Rebecca was terminally ill with cancer. She had no intention of suffering and deliberately goaded Max into hitting her. He is now cleared of any suspicion. Mrs Danvers, who didn’t know of Rebecca’s illness, sets fire to Manderley, dying herself in the fire.
    9. And ever since then the narrator and Max have lived abroad. Manderley is destroyed and they can never go back.

    It could be said that this second example could include some ‘because of that’ plot points during the inquest with the revelations about Rebecca and Mrs Danvers’ ultimate reaction to destroy the house. But the discovery of the ship wreck and Rebecca’s body, together with Max’s confession to the narrator, is the key turning point into the climax. It’s inevitable that there will be more revelations to come.

    The Story Spine

    While there are other ways to plot out your story, and there is no suggestion here that either du Maurier or Tennyson used this model, the story spine is a useful tool. This is partly due to its simplicity – it forces you to think about the most important plot points in your story. It reminds you to introduce your characters, set the scene, and then introduce an inciting event, following that up with a series of consequences and challenges, until finally the story reaches its climax before settling into a new normal for the characters.

    Other useful blog posts:

    Novel Outlines: 3 Case Studies

    Developmental editing self-check list

    Character credibility and the domino effect

    10 ways to improve your novel’s pacing