Anatomy of a Story

On a semi-related note to my post “No Character? No Problem” I wanted to point out that no step detailed there exists in isolation. I write iteratively, where my WIPs are a result of countless passes. Sometimes I’m only adding a comma, fixing a typo, changing or eliminating a modifier. Others, I am rewriting every other sentence, crossing out swaths of text, and adding new ones penned in slanted chicken scratch along the margins of my copy.

There’s a woman in my writing group who calls herself a “sprinter,” in that her first attempt at the writing prompts we work on at our weekly sessions are stunning. I don’t mean just clever turns of phrase or immersive details. She has all that as well as a definitive voice, symbolism, and recurring themes. And more often then not, she is able to fully realize her piece in one 20-minute session with an appropriate ending. I am always in awe by her ability right out of the starting gate.

I, on the other hand, usually only have time to focus on one, maybe two, aspects of my piece before I’m scrambling to find a way to tie everything up in the time allotted. There’s a kernel of something in the piece, sure, but it’s not until I go back through and revise ad nauseum until I find something that shines, until it feels finished.

This carries over to when I’m working on first drafts. Then I find myself focusing on two things: action and dialogue. For me, these elements serve as the skeleton, if you will, of my story. When I’m drafting I am only concerned with fortifying my story with strong bones and building good posture, and I feel action and dialogue serve as the essence of most stories. Plus when I come back to the piece on a revision, the action and dialogue tell me exactly what’s going on in a particular scene even if it hasn’t been rendered in full detail.

Which is the goal of the next pass: to bring action and dialogue to life. Adding context and description – the meat on the bones, the muscles that power the skeleton of my story along. And it can take countless iterations until I have bulked up my story’s muscles to the best of my ability. I don’t want my story on steroids, but I want it to be lean and mean.

Now for the hard part: the skin, the protective casing, the unique container that holds everything together. All stories have skeletons we can identify (plot and structure), and the muscles that do the heavy lifting. But the skin is what sets your story apart, makes it unique, makes it – dare I say it – marketable. This is where originality, heart, and dumb luck come in.

When I’m convinced my story has strong bones and sleek muscles, it’s time for another pass. Here, I’m focused on craft. Tightening up everything, cutting the fat, ratcheting tension, shaping the story the best way I know how. But that will only get me or any writer so far. I must determine what makes my work unique, what will set it apart. When I have my answer, I need to ensure that is obvious on each page, that every aspect of my story is working in harmony towards that end. Then, and only then, can I say I’m done.

This doesn’t mean my story will be symmetrical, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and model-thin. It could be a snub-nosed hunchback with an acne problem. But conceptualizing your work into layers is useful:

Bones – Essential elements of your story. Think plot and character.

Muscles – Elements that connect the bones together. Think description, detail, transitions.

Skin – Unique qualities that make your work yours and make the bones and muscles hang together. Think voice, style, and any number of inexpressible characteristics.


For another discussion of layering during the development of your story, read Janice Hardy’s post Books are Like Ogres at The Other Side of the Story. See Chuck Wendig’s post “Story vs. Plot; Ghost vs. Bones” at terribleminds for a different (but related) take on how your story’s bones should operate.

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3 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Story

  1. Saumya says:

    As a medical student/writer, I absolutely love this analogy!! I'm completely with you in needing to start my work with some sort of framework instead of just tackling it. Your level of attention to detail will only make your work that much more layered and enriched. Good luck!

  2. Laura Marcella says:

    Loved this post! And I'm really envious of those “sprinter” writers. In college when we were assigned 10 or 15 prompts, we had the option of reading aloud what we wrote. I was always so amazed by some of my classmates. How did they write so well so quickly? It takes me a while to make the body of my writing whole and healthy.

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