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On Story Structure: What a Maze Can Teach You about Fixing Rough Drafts

Yesterday I told you how I wandered away from writing and got lost in mazemaking for a few years. It baffles me why I did that, but it absolutely proved to be a good thing.

Not because I added a new art or hobby to my life. Not at all. I dropped it just as quickly as I’d picked it up. It did add a valuable dimension to my storytelling, though.

When it comes right down to it, every maze is a story. It’s inherent in the structure. A story, as I’ve often repeated, is little more than a beginning, a middle all full of complications, and an end — all the things mazes are famous for.

That was exactly the structure I learned to build in the story I told yesterday. The way the different sections fit together created the plot. And the expectations that the reader (or player, or mazer, or whatever you’d call them) brought to the table — the need, having entered, to exit safely on the other side — created the conflict, the complications, the climax and resolution. It’s a microcosm of novel-writing, without any of the messy words.

That’s a valuable parallel, and an important image to bring with you whenever you begin the process of finishing a book. As you review your story, searching out opportunities to rewrite, revise, or edit, a big part of your job is to look for those very things I demanded from my mazes:

  • Make sure your structure is intact (fill in all the plot holes)
  • Make sure it’s challenging, the easy answers hidden in the structure (after all, that’s what makes it interesting)
  • And make sure it’s solvable (with a plot that your reader can follow from start to finish)

Solid Structure Doesn’t have to Be Obvious Structure

Does all this talk of structure make the whole book sound like it would be boring to you? If so, I can understand that – in fact, when I really started putting deliberate structure into my novels for the first time, I worried about precisely that. I thought that maybe writing to a solid structure robbed my story of life.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The problems – and all of the examples that might spring to mind – are not cases of solid structure, but obvious structure. If you let yourself lean too heavily on boring genre conventions, using the same complications and resolutions everyone else uses, then sure, the whole thing becomes predictable and uninteresting.

Mazes are exactly the same way. I talked before about the benefits of drawing some solid boundary lines, boxing out my maze. Behind the scenes, those lines were what turned the maze into an interesting, challenging puzzle. If I’d given that to a reader, though, it would have been child’s play – huge open areas, each with exactly one entrance and one exit, plodding across the map from the start to the end. It wouldn’t have been a maze at all, and it certainly wouldn’t have been interesting.

The lesson there is the importance of everything else you have to say. All the extra lines, all the filler, are what make a game out of a handful of boring boundaries. Your structure defines what you say and when you say it, but the bit that makes it interesting is how you say it.

That’s your voice, your style. That’s your own vivid characters and clever reversals and everything that does make your story unique. Maybe there’s only a handful of possible storylines, and they’ve all been written, but none of them has been written your way.

Guiding Your Readers to the End

There’s one more key lesson from the mazemaker to the storyteller: make sure your readers can navigate your story’s plot. Come back tomorrow for more on that, and a writing prompt to boot!

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