Retrofitting Structure

This panel was for those of us who write our first drafts without a rigid structure like outlining acts or knowing our plot points ahead of time.

There’s no right or wrong way to get out a first draft. Once it’s out, though, you’re going to need to shore up the edges and see where the floor sags.

For those of us who are pantsers or gardeners, this can be a real challenge. There were two related pieces of advice that hit me and stuck:

  1. “Chefs learn by failure.” – Brandon Sanderson

A cook can follow a recipe and present a pleasant meal. A chef can take that same recipe and find the soul of the food inside. Once the rules are understood, you can manipulate and experiment and find new flavors. Understanding those rules requires making mistakes and understanding why it didn’t work.

2. “Just flush the toilet and trust the water will refill.” – Tex Thompson

Be willing to let go of the stuff that doesn’t serve the story. Trust your self. You can write new things – better things! If you have to save everything you delete in a file, do that, but don’t be afraid to let the crap go.

red pencil

Another great piece of advice was to be aware that a danger of outlining can be to write the ‘character’ or ’emotion’ right out of your story. While the reader being able to see the seams of your outline isn’t the end of the world, you should aim to blur and soften those edges. Any revelations should be “surprising, yet inevitable.”

How long are you holding a note? How fast do you get to your strengths? I really liked this idea from Tex. If you are great at making characters, do you need to spend more time working on grounding your reader in setting? If you are terrible at dialogue, are you avoiding it with large swaths of exposition? Listen for the harmonies of all the parts of the orchestra lending their sound to make a full experience.

A story should make promises, have progress toward those promises, and then have payoff. This doesn’t mean everything has to be perfectly resolved. A payoff is an emotional satisfaction, not just story resolution.


Tex Thompson was on her game, as usual. If you want a SUPER cool way to be a better writer, I recommend checking out her Writers in the Field gig. It’s an outdoor venue in October with horses, weapons, tools, and possibly a cadaver. And the price is amazing.

writers in the field banner


One thought on “Retrofitting Structure

  1. I don’t usually write this way (with little or no outline), but I am for my current project. Seems like it was a good way to get out of a rut.

    Very useful tips!

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