Scaffolding and the Art of Scene-building
Part of the reason I’m such a structure nazi is because I’m a fan of controlled scenes. I think one of the primary reasons writers get rejected for “bad writing,” which an editor will never generally cop to in a rejection letter, is because the writer is self-indulgent and/or isn’t in control of their scenes.
When a writer comes to me with a complete manuscript that’s been rejected multiple times by publishing houses, or that they know needs editing for whatever reason, nine times out of ten they confess to not having done any scene-mapping. I understand why writers don’t like to do it. It’s hard! It can be hard to find real joy in mapping out your whole book when you find fulfillment in the writing. And yet, the real fulfillment comes in being able to write and know where you’re going.
Scaffolding Is Your Friend
“Scaffolding” is a term I use for outlining. Scaffolding, according to Wikipedia, “is a temporary structure used to support people and material in the construction buildings and other large structures.” Which is exactly what an outline is: a temporary structure that supports writers in the construction of their large project. And just like a builder who tries to build a skyscraper with no scaffolding, anyone who tries to write a novel or a memoir without scaffolding either has or will run into a big mess somewhere along the way. Writers need the support of scaffolding to know where they’ve been and where they’re going. Perfectly adhering to every scene you lay out is not a requirement. The outline is a living document, subject to change as you explore what you want to say. But tending to the scaffolding and making sure that it’s caught up to you is important. You’re not in a good place if you’ve reached the eighth floor of the building and realize that you’ve left your scaffolding five floors down.
The primary reason to do scaffolding is to keep track of your storyline. I talk about the creation of storyline as planting seeds. Have you ever finished a book feeling disappointed because some major dilemma or theme or problem was left unresolved? This is the result of an author planting seeds and letting them die rather than cultivating and harvesting them. Seeds die when authors get too overwhelmed or too distracted and fail to remember (or sometimes to care) about aspects of the plot that were laid down in earlier scenes. For any number of reasons, books get published with these kinds of flaws all the time, so there’s no shortage of editors who are similarly overwhelmed or distracted, or perhaps simply don’t see what needs to be fixed.
Harvesting these seeds is your responsibility as an author. It’s the payoff the reader is hoping for when they buy your book. It’s the reason people want to read books. If we’re going to hang in with you, the author, for 80,000-plus words, for the days and weeks it takes to get through a novel or a memoir, we want you to remember to tell us what happened to the stalker ex-boyfriend who showed up in Chapter 2. We anticipate that you’ll circle back to share the ways in which an early trauma affects the man or woman your character becomes as he or she ages. We expect you pull through your threads so that, if you’re writing a food memoir, food shows up in every chapter. We expect that you will not get so distracted by the storytelling that you forget the promise of your book.
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian, kept a flow chart above her writing space to help her keep track of her characters and storylines. This is extreme scaffolding! But the complexity of her story and the ways in which she was able to weave stories within stories is testament to the value of this kind of exercise. (Read more.) Readers need the author to hold the big picture for them and to keep their needs and desires front and center. Reading memoir and fiction, after all, is mostly for pleasure. A good novel or memoir is not about you, the author; it is about your audience.
Control Your Line Breaks
Another aspect of scaffolding that’s beautiful, when it works, is that it tells you exactly where to place your line breaks. Most of you need line breaks in your work. A line break is the equivalent of a fade-out in a movie. You don’t notice the switching of scene. It’s fluid because the story progresses; this is true in well-written novels even when there is a point of view change after a break.
Line breaks, however, must be used intentionally. Knowing where to place them is a skill in and of itself. Most novels and memoirs have them. Obvious placements include: between point of view shifts; after a scene comes to a close and before the following paragraph that opens at a later time or in a different location; following a particularly intense scene where you want to give your reader a moment to collect themselves.
Start reading other writers for line breaks. Notice where they’re placed and what the impact is on you. Some writers use them too sparingly, and others use them way too much! But they are as critical to your chapters as the scenes themselves. Just like a rest in a piece music, line breaks are intentional; they’re part of the rhythm of your book. As much as they can provide the reader with a moment to catch their breath, they can also function as a rest stop, a good place to bookmark until tomorrow.
Tip: As a general rule of thumb, have at least two or more paragraphs of text between line breaks and don’t overuse them. They serve a purpose, but too many of them will feel jarring to your reader.
Call to Action
No matter where you are right now with your book—even if you have a complete manuscript—stop and do your scaffolding. If you intend to shop your book at some point, this scaffolding will become the chapter-by-chapter summaries portion of your proposal, so it will not be for naught. It’s a valuable exercise and good practice.