Are you a course junkie?
By any other name

The common scaffold

So my agent was sitting on a delayed bus into work, and I was walking along a long and snowy road in lieu of spending half an hour digging my car out, and we were on the phone discussing the latest version of my new novel. Basically she loves it, and thinks it's very nearly ready to fly: she awarded the ending three hankies and we've settled on a great title. She even spontaneously suggested something for the ending which I'd wanted to do all along but hadn't dared. Her only reservations were about some of the new material. I've totally re-written the first chapter and written an epilogue from scratch, so these are things which have had enough passes to be okay of themselves and to apparently do the job that needed doing. But when she pointed out the ways in which they're not really working, I felt, "Doh! Of course!"

Make no mistake, these aren't technical or high-level slips: they're common mistakes in storytelling that I see all the time in the work of aspiring writers. You'd think I would have pounced on them in my own, or even not committed them in the first place. But, since I was feeling cheerful by then, instead of beating myself up I started wondering why I hadn't seen them. And the clue, I think, is in "common mistakes"; these are things which are a very natural outcome of how most of us set about writing a story.

For example, at the macro level I see many novels where the real story doesn't start till Chapter 4: Chs 1-3 are all just trundling towards the starting grid. And then there's the cry that your research is showing; historical or geographical facts are deliciously seductive to the writer, and it's by making the detail believable that we get the reader to suspend their disbelief in the story. But we're storytelling, not writing a gazeteer or a history book, and anything that doesn't serve the story is weakening it.

And at the micro level I'm sure it's why I spend so much time saying, "Don't tell and then show". Don't tell us the picnic was a disaster then write the scene: one or the other ("tell" is an important part of any writer's toolkit) but not both. But this too, arises not because the writer is careless or talentless, but because of how stories come to us. Either explicitly or intuitively the writer realises that for the purposes of character-in-action and plot the picnic will be a disaster. So they write that fact down, then set about making it happen.

So don't beat yourself up. Ch1-3 are all backstory that you needed to work out: they're process writing, not a failure or mistake, and now they've achieved their purpose and can be cut. And it was only by putting all the researched material in, that you discovered which bits become part of the story-stew and which stay floating factily on the top. And think about it: maybe the writing down of that initial "tell" about the picnic helped as a note to yourself might, getting your creative brain to focus on the picnic's main purpose in the story, and not get bogged down in what's in the hamper.

Instead of regarding such things as mistakes, maybe we should see them as a dressmaker's tacking stitches; the wooden scaffolding over which the arches of the bridge are formed; the paper collar round the soufflé dish that you take off once the gelatine has set. They're part of the fundamental nature and process of creating that thing. But since they are functional they can be hard to spot, and it might be canny to do a pass through the novel purely looking for them. But even as you do, don't scold yourself for putting them there: without them, the story might never have got built at all.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jan Jones

Nice post, Emma. Lovely analogy.


Thank you, Emma. That's twice you've come to my rescue today. I marvel at your ability to pin the tail in exactly the correct place on the donkey (to create another analogy). I had been despairing about my current work in progress but now I can see that what I've been looking at and worrying about is the scaffolding it still needs. You have made me understand that it can stay for a little while longer until the structure beneath is ready to stand on its own.


An enjoyable post - Looking forward to the next novel!

Lev Parikian

Thanks Emma. Great stuff as always. In my experience (extensive musical and limited writing-wise) there is no such thing as time wasted, as long as it is time spent with at least part of the brain engaged. For example, if I'm learning a score, sometimes the frustrating hours when I think I'm not becoming any more familiar with the music yield rewards much further down the line (I know the conductor's experience is different from that of the instrumental performer, who must physically learn the notes, but I think they have similar experiences, when a difficult passage suddenly clicks because of all the tearing-hair-out hard work that has gone before). Similarly, when writing, I have spent mornings staring out of the window with a scene churning round in my head, making no sense at all. And then the idea crystallises while I'm doing the washing up (or, as is the case at the moment, listening to the cricket). And I wouldn't have reached the crystal moment without the churning.

Paul Lambl

I especially like your discussion of writing to "discover" the story. (This is why a race like NaNoWriMo would never work for me.) I am finding that much of my story, especially characterization, is being "revealed" to me as I plug along.

Also, I'll have to take your word on the nature of the souffle.


Insightful and encouraging, thank you.

David I

Very smart stuff, Emma. The scaffolding metaphor is perfect.

Bren Gosling

Exactly the process I 've been through with my own novel in progress. In the past year Chapter One has been written,moved to later in the early section, deleted altogether, brought back in as Chapter Two and now I've embarked on the final re write - deleted again. It's back story - necessary for my head but not for the page. I recently wrote a completely different Chapter one, now, 10 months after writing the first version, I know my story and characters much better. The original Chapter One is useful - nay - essential, but as back story.

Bren Gosling

Emma Darwin

Oh dear, I am being bad at keeping up with all the interesting comments!

Jan, JDWP, Brian, David - you're welcome, and glad you approve.

Sally, yes, I think it really helps to realise they aren't mistakes, they're a necessary part of the process, and there will be a right time to fish them all out - not necessarily the minute you spot them, if you're in the middle of something else at the time.

Lev, I do agree that it's often when you're not-writing that things click. It's easy to think of the staring-time as wasted but it's not: the click wouldn't have happened without it.

Paul, that's interesting, because my instinct is that it's fast writing which can help very much to discover the story - you don't get hung up on detail, but let your story-telling instincts uncover (which of course is really invent) the right stuff. I've never actually done NaNo, but I do write at NaNo speed in first draft anyway, for that sort of reason, among other reasons.

Bren, yes, exactly. Good luck with it!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)