Intro to Project 2015: Scaffolding, or How You Build Something Out of Nothing

Hello, fellow writers! As we begin a new year, it’s time to take a deep breath, acknowledge last year’s hard work, and start the project of 2015: make this year your best writing year ever. What are your goals?

– Work on an aspect of your craft, such as writing dialogue that zings?

– Read more published books in your genre?

– Attend a writing conference?

– Improve your focus and productivity during writing sessions?

– Make smarter, effective revisions?

Let’s call this “Project 2015.” Every few weeks, I will be sharing tips on this blog to help you walk the walk of being a writer. Let’s make 2015 the year you reach the next level—whether it’s getting an agent, publishing your own manuscript (and doing it right), or reaching a milestone in the evolution of your craft. The goal is that elusive “story magic,” when your writing creates such a vivid, urgent world for readers that they forget they’re reading. If you can practice the techniques of “un-put-down-able” fiction, success in all your other writing goals will follow.

An apt place to start something as big as Project 2015 is with scaffolding. We’re going to build high and build fast. Likewise, in storytelling, scaffolding is a first-draft technique for building your story. It’s the storyteller’s version of the complicated system of rods and platforms that we need before our novel can stand perfectly on its own, a means of constructing a skyscraper on what was once a patch of bare ground. That’s what 2015 is going to be for us, and it’s going to help us put together one hell of a novel.

(A word of gratitude where it’s due: The term scaffolding comes from Portland’s vibrant workshop culture, the Dangerous Writers system developed by Tom Spanbauer. In the hands of fellow teachers Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred, it worked wonders for my own writing in 2004–2006, and I use it in my editing to this day.)

I’m going to assume you already have a couple of things in place: the desire to write, the foundation of style (such as what you’d find in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style), and an idea you want to work on. Maybe even a finished draft of a manuscript. In early drafts of that manuscript, I’ll wager, is a lot of scaffolding. It’s all the writing that comes out in a hurry, placing vital pieces of information about your story on the blank page: character motivations, world-building, informative dialogue, important information about the setting or situation. Basically, it helped you rough out the shape of your story as you wrote, using the blank page as a place for exploring connections between people and events.

I want to affirm that this is okay. Really, you do need to tell yourself the tale before you can begin perfecting it for the reader. Tricky world-building details are easier to sort out when you explain them to yourself on the page, on the fly. And as your characters get mired more deeply in the action, the easiest way to work out the hows and whys of their motivation is to just write it as you go. It keeps you from getting stuck. It’s normal. When you’re focused on pouring a first draft on paper, it’s just easier to tell instead of show.

Now it’s time to revise. The fastest way to improve your manuscript is to identify these passages and put them under the microscope. Ask yourself these questions.

– Have I repeated myself?

– What can be shown? Is there a great detail hidden here? Maybe even a whole scene? 

– What unplanned discoveries did I make while I was writing?

– What problems did I keep getting snagged on? Did I try to explain my way out of them? 

– Does the dialogue sound true to each character’s real voice, or are they explaining things to the reader?

Bottom line, to become a stronger writer, learn to identify scaffolding for what it is. It doesn’t work the kind of story magic you need in a final draft. To practice thinking about scaffolding like an editor, take one scene from an early chapter (where we writers often do a lot of explaining) and highlight every informative line. How much explaining does the scene do? How much of that information is absolutely necessary, and can it be dramatized instead? If the entire scene is yellow with highlighter, it might not even be a scene at all: all explanation and no action doesn’t move the story along.


In the middle of Oakland was a saltwater lake, and on a Saturday morning the path around its shore was full of joggers, walkers, and parents with strollers. Paige always ran two laps—six miles—with her dog.

Those are two okay sentences. They give you a general idea of a popular lake, time of day, and what the character usually does. But it’s a little vague, unless you’re writing from the POV of an assassin whose dossier on Paige has suggested where to find the target on a weekend morning.

More likely, though, this is Paige’s POV. How can you add a little more life to these lines? Effective revision involves transforming information into vivid, realistic writing, applying what you know about human beings. Get us inside Paige’s skin; let us experience the location as her. Even better, make this day different.

Paige told herself to run fast around the back finger of Lake Merritt. The gravel was uneven and heaped with bird guano. Most of the Saturday walkers and joggers stayed on the pavement along the road; the old guys with red-rimmed eyes and coats that reeked of pot hung out at these benches. Paige pushed harder, even though the benches were empty this morning. Especially because the whole path was empty and isolated. And that was when the leash snapped taught and her dog lunged at something in the trees.

It’s more vivid, and now something is happening. You don’t need the sentences in the first part of the example. Let the reader do some of the work. In this second part, I went from nothing to something by involving the character in her setting, and giving her a problem that makes this day of her life different. We don’t know what that problem is yet—if I’m writing a murder mystery novel, the dog will find a body; if I’m writing humor, what the dog finds in the trees probably won’t be quite so gory.

In short, I brought a lot of techniques to bear on getting rid of this little piece of scaffolding. In future blog posts, we’ll cover them all. Stay tuned for the next installment of Project 2015 at the end of January!

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