Advice For Writers -- Structure

Discussion in 'The Reading Room' started by MikeKardec, Sep 16, 2018.

  1. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

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    Since there are a good many writers here I thought I'd explore some ideas I've been experimenting with both in my own work and considering in examples of in the work of others. Today I'm going to deal with structure:

    Structure is the geometrical "proof" of your story. It is the all important promise that your story will eventually mean something greater than the sum of its parts, rather than simply being a rambling narrative of disconnected or superficially connected events. The build of a story through its structure toward a meaningful end point is part of your contract with the audience: They let you break into their life with your story, you promise that it will be worth the interruption.

    Before the current "religion of structure" completely took over Film and Theater and then slopped out into the world of prose writing, ace screenwriter William Goldman dispensed advice along the lines of "find A structure."

    That's a good way of putting it. We do create structure naturally, it’s amazing to see some of the most complex models show up in work where you never gave it the slightest thought. It is a pattern inherent to humanity. But the dogma created by Syd Field and all the supposed screenwriting gurus that followed him is just too narrow if you take it too seriously. It's all useful, incredibly useful, but it’s really just a place to start; a point of departure as you train yourself to create your own interpretation of the structural mechanisms to fulfill that contract with the audience mentioned above. The primary lesson is: audiences get bored so change it up. The secondary lesson is: they need to feel they are getting somewhere meaningful.

    There is something about traditional story structure that is built into our psyche. Aristotle kicked things off but people Field, Christopher Vogler, and Blake Snyder, have codified things based upon analyzing success in the motion picture business to a remarkable degree. Some offer three, four, five, or even twelve acts … but it doesn’t matter. Their suggestions are incredibly valuable if taken creatively, but strict adherence has reduced story telling in film to a sort of cartoon kabuki theater. All of them built on the astute psychological observations of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Christopher Booker. However, unlike those esteemed gentlemen, the movie gurus have rarely looked deeply into the unconscious and deeply important why of it all. To break the rules constructively you have to understand the purpose, not simply copy the moves of other practitioners.

    I’m not going to go into that further than the very basic rules I have laid out but is likely the best single book, if you want to inspire yourself to deep thoughts, is Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. This is not a book on how to write. It is about the evolving history and purpose of fiction. It is not the be all and end all (it draws heavily on Campbell and Jung) and there are plenty of things about writers and writing that Booker does not understand (or simply forgets to say straight out) but, if you allow yourself to be inspired by it as opposed to taking everything he says for granted, it will make you think about what you are up to with the perspective of someone who has devoted a great deal of time to literary scholarship. It’s a big book but it’s less time consuming than a Masters in English!

    Back to the subject …

    Three Act Structure is obsessed upon merely because it is the fewest number of acts you can have. Good writing is all about manipulating and reversing Expectation (the expectations of the audience or characters) versus Outcome. The Hope that things will go well but the Fear that they might not. Though always useful, at certain critical junctures this can deliver that “no going back” moment that is often talked about. It is the geometrical "proof" that your story has reached a minor conclusion which will be the foundation for future developments. In my opinion, this defines an Act. It is a preponderance of evidence that is best communicated in such a way that it is a surprise; a reversal of outcome that defies someone's (again, audience or character's) expectations yet is still logical. This is common in fiction and film yet is it also a part of good journalism.

    So, okay, if three act structure is the minimum, what does that mean? The First Act introduces. The Last Act resolves. Everything in between elaborates. Hopefully, it also heightens. But, believe me, though professionals tend to discuss structure as if it was limited to three acts, that is just for convenience. In fact I'd argue that Three Acts is a complete misnomer. If Shakespeare didn't dispel this idea then Series TV should have.

    I'd also argue that the most important structural aspect of story telling, because it goes to the heart of what your story is about as opposed to simply how it's being told, is the Mid Point. Now that term was probably coined by Syd Field and, as a simple signpost, it is extremely simplistic and stripped of meaning. To get more to the point I call this moment The Dilemma or The Fulcrum. It is generally the moment where the underlying issues in the story get serious, where the theme becomes clear. For people here at this site, think of the scene in Casablanca when Ilsa confronts Rick after closing time and you realize that the real story is about how these people will deal with who they have become since Paris. This Dilemma is possibly the deepest question about not being able to go back. It may not be as obvious and sudden as the more plot oriented and mechanical First Act and Last Act transitions but it can be the most critical of all the points in a story … so critical in fact that Shakespeare often gave it an "act" of it's own; the Third Act of his Five Act Structure. Skip to the middle of any film you are familiar with and you will see what I’m talking about. It is also present in prose but the exact moment (page) can be a bit harder to identify precisely.

    The Mid Point really turns most Three Act Structures into Four Act Structures ... but my concept is "who cares." The reality is that you have a First Act, a Last Act, and everything in between. I used to write TV movies. Because of commercial breaks we were required to produce 7 to 8 acts in 94 to 89 pages. Following William Goldman's advice, we are talking about finding A structure, not dogmatically following an externally imposed template (in TV this means a not template that comes from feature films). Releasing yourself from the dictatorship of the structural monolith also helps you deal with issues like non chronological story telling and whether structure is related to the order in which the events happened in fictional story time (as in a story with flashbacks) or in the viewing or reading order in which the audience perceives them. I'm still struggling with that myself, some of it is reading order but ...

    Practically I find the best way of working is like this: As you start to get an idea of what your story is figure out a potential Dilemma or Fulcrum early on. Following the traditional advice for First and Last Act transitions get those roughly figured out. Typically they are: the moment the conflict becomes apparent, and the moment when resolving it becomes unavoidable. Then just write like a maniac and get something down on paper, a version of the whole story that pays as little attention to structure as possible, just enough to get you to the end. With this in the bag go back and, as part of the rewriting process, apply all the other structural concepts that you have learned where ever you have learned them and see if they fit or help your story. Take them SERIOUSLY but not as rules, just suggestions. Use them to rediscover and redefine what your story is and is about. Don't be afraid to move some of the lesser elements around a bit. The positioning needs to be right for your story. As long as you have thought long and hard about why you are breaking the rules there is no need to follow a generic template.

    I have a 20 page outline of every theory of story structure I have ever run across all superimposed on one and other like one of those sets of transparencies in an anatomy text book. If I tried to write a first draft using it I would lose my mind. It is the ultimate tool if I want to destroy my initial burst of creativity. BUT, it is a great tool when it comes to discovering, in revision, if I started to let things drag, if I didn't change it up soon enough, and if I didn't change it up to the right sort of thing given where I am in the story.

    Having a good background in story structure is very important. We understand and control the world through telling stories and structure is the underlying code to those stories. However, in recent years a superficial understanding of structure has led to the imposition of superficial theories of structure. As a writer it is something that you’d better learn, because if you don’t you will be limited by how much of it you understand naturally or unconsciously. At the same time you don’t want to be limiting yourself with a bunch of silly and much worse, misunderstood, rules!
     
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2018
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  2. belfastboy

    belfastboy I'll Lock Up

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    Thank you for this post. I am travelling now with only my tablet. When I return home in two weeks will take time to read and digest.
     
  3. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

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    Structure: stick to the classic story arc... beginning (with a “grab you” intro”) that sets up the challenge or problem; middle that includes back-stories on characters and plot twists; and the ending that resolves the challenge or problem one-way-or-another and —very important— shows that the protagonist (or main characters) has “grown” as a human being. Bonus points if the whole story sets generally accepted norms and stereotypes on their ear. And do everything without stating it outright or, heaven forbid, launching into lectures. Try to set a fairly consistent “tone” throughout the story, doesn’t matter if it’s funny or tragic. Easy, right? Next step: acrue 1,000 rejection slips. Mileage may vary.
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2018
  4. Harp

    Harp I'll Lock Up

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    Read Edith Wharton if you haven't. Read all she wrote.
     
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  5. Mae

    Mae Call Me a Cab

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    Goodness me, yes the three-act structure is so obsessed over. Why is that? Have read blog after blog that alludes to the fact that if you're novel is not in three acts it will instantly be rejected. Not sure this is true. And watched an interesting video that analyzed Freytag's pyramid. How it could be overlaid on top of the three act structure and it was similar, if not the same.

    [​IMG]
     
  6. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

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    VERY few editors are reading potential novels, analyzing their structure, and then accepting or rejecting the work in any relationship to said structural analysis. VERY FEW. Maybe none. Most start reading, get bored or irritated with the material, chuck it into the "out" bin and pick up another manuscript. The only time an editor is going to put in the effort to carefully scrutinize a book is if it is good enough to deserve a contract but could still use a bit of work. In other words it is 95% of the way to publication. Nobody in the business has the time or energy to do otherwise.

    Also, if it holds a readers interest, especially a professional reader, and yet DOESN'T have a traditional structure ... I'm guessing no one will ever notice.

    A novel's structure, Three Act or otherwise, is likely a very large unconscious factor relating to whether that editor chooses to continue reading. But no one is taking to time to graph it out.

    Structure is most useful if you understand the "why" of it. Much of the time it is only taught as a "what" or a "how" kind of thing. What constitutes an act is fairly subjective. I heard a discussion recently with a pretty knowledgeable film dude where he made the argument that both "The Florida Project" and "Lady Bird" were essentially One Act films. Okay. I'm betting that I could find many demarcations of considerably more complex structure in either screenplay. The writer needs something to make them feel they are getting somewhere and that they have somewhere concrete to go. Structure is a LOT more important to the writer than it is to the audience. It's there to tell you where you are in the process or perhaps even that there is a process at all.

    As long as the audience believes in the author's promise that they are going somewhere coherent, and that sticking with the material is not a waste of their time, the structure has done it's job. You can emulate the classics or agonize over inventing something new yet equally effective, it makes no difference.
     
  7. Seb Lucas

    Seb Lucas I'll Lock Up

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    Not sure I'm always a big fan of structure but I know most writer/commentators seem to advocate structure. As you say, it can feel inflexible. One of my problems with structure is that the levers and mechanisms of story telling become very obvious and, for me, the whole story feels overtly manufactured. This is especially true in a 2 hour film.

    But if it is done well it's not too apparent. Sometimes people see structures and superimpose them where they aren't really there too, I think.

    I dislike the whole - intro: set up, development, conflict/set back, overcoming and triumph/pay-off of so many movies. Deathly dull and you can see it all coming a mile off. But as you say, really talented creators can mess with structure and give it twists and turns that disguise it and make it palatable.
     
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2018
  8. MJCR

    MJCR One of the Regulars

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    Interesting thread! I don’t know if anyone is still looking in on this one, but I’m a professional fiction editor, both freelance and commissioning, if anyone has any questions, or wants to chat about some of the comments above.

    Perhaps a separate thread? Let me know.
     
  9. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

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    Structure is like exposition, it has to be there but whether you are aware of it or not is the difference between good and bad. Most of the time we comment on it it is because it was too apparent. Of course one of the films that has the most in your face structure is Momento ... a story that is virtually ALL structure ... and that is fairly unconventional.

    I've taken that long complex document I created of all the story structure theories and compared it to scripts I wrote prior to learning any of it. Weirdly, I was doing most of it even prior to studying the subject. Story structure is wired into us at a profound level. Christopher Booker explores the history of WWII through the lens of structure and you begin to wonder if our tendency to impose certain structures isn't distorting our vision of reality. A "User Illusion" if you will. The User Illusion, now that's a book worth reading but seemingly on a different subject ... seemingly.

    Hey, Michael. Welcome to this thread.
     
  10. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

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    This is a great observation. For a long time I have been reading/watching "news" in the American Press as though it is an on-going serial saga of the comic book or pulp magazine tradition. I used to think that the press was purposely spinning tales in such a fashion to boost sales. But could it be an illusion? Maybe it is just me imposing my deeply ingrained expectations about structure on what are truly just daily news stories. We all want so desperately to see some sort of order in the world.
     
  11. MJCR

    MJCR One of the Regulars

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    And, of course, while structure as an identifiable ‘thing’ has been around since storytelling began, theories and popular books aimed at writers are relatively new on the scene. Historically speaking. The science of storytelling is, from one perspective, just people tying to analyse what writers who never studied the art do instinctively, and then trying to turn it into a formula that we can replicate. The very act of doing that, of course, alters the art of writing. There’s an interesting collection of essays called MFA vs. NYC that looks at the different paths to getting a novel published. The academic route, or the traditional one. I do encourage my authors to have a structural map, or plan, though, when writing a novel. It can be a one page or one hundred, but it helps to have something.
     
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  12. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

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    Reminds me of how, in "A Moveable Feast", F. Scott Fitzgerald tells EH that ---in order to earn money--- he (F. Scott) first writes a genuine/good story, and then he very consciously rewrites it (restructures it) to make it marketable to the magazines. EH was outraged and called this whoring.
     
  13. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

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    A pet theory of mine: Human knowledge is unconsciously distilled through the telling and retelling of the same story. Ever notice how you will alter how you tell a story based on your audience? I've done experiments on this and it's fascinating. Feedback, even very subtle feedback, continually causes the storyteller to up their game to keep the audience involved or to play to different qualities that particular audience has. Working the same story over and over creates many additions, subtractions, elaborations, structural shifts and other modifications. Stories, like various religious texts, have been sifted through the unconscious of the teller and the audience for thousands of years. Though he doesn't, to my knowledge, mention it, this is one of the elements at the heart of Jordan Peterson's biblical you tube lectures. mankind perfects stories ... until they are written down.

    If you read Christopher Booker (he too may not get it) you see that the most "perfect" examples of his models are stories, be they myths, ancient manuscripts or, most especially, children's fairy tales, are stories that were endlessly retold before they were written down. Modern literature struggles because it is written for profit, which requires stories to be set on paper in order for the writer to get paid.

    HOWEVER, many times rewriting, rethinking, reinventing, a story for a particular medium, length, or market, is as close as you can get to that process of retelling it for a vast number of audiences over a vast number of years. Rewriting allows you to be your own audience and to "have a dialog" with your own work if you do it right. The input of an editor or supervisor need not be a negative providing you don't take their suggested "fixes", accept that they have identified problem areas but, likely, have no real understanding of the problem, and allow you to analyze and fix it your way.

    That's a complicated way of saying that I violently do and don't agree with EH's opinion. No matter how much of an advantage writing stories down has improved our lives, it has not improved the universality of stories. All jokes have pretty much perfect structure. That's because they are told and they fail until, often unconsciously, the tellers finally get it right.
     
  14. belfastboy

    belfastboy I'll Lock Up

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    While EH was calling it whoring he was probably drinking F Scott's champagne or cashing a cheque from his wife to live on.
     
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