Sunday, February 25, 2007

Story Structure 1: Organization of Information

It's fairly easy to think of something to say. We all have witticisms and stories blooming like a riot of flowers within us. The trick is to devise a way to communicate these stories in a compelling fashion.

The primary job of any writer, regardless of genre or category, is to convey information. The organization of this information is critical to its usefulness. The choices we make about the information flow have a direct correlation to the way our story will be received.

Part One: Where to start?

The first question that we'll look into is that of a starting place for a story. In the old traditions of storytelling, there tended to be a great deal of exposition at the beginning of a story. Historical information was dispensed, characters were introduced, and there was frequently very little action in the first one-third of a novel. One would often have to “read through to the good part”. While this structure has its merits, it is generally not viable for the modern market. There are too many “fast” entertainments at hand. A story that doesn't start quickly will often go unread or unpublished.

In the search for a strong beginning, we have to examine our story as a whole. Where does the crux of the story occur? What is the first and most dramatic inciting event? How much information does the reader need to understand the events at the core of the story? Will the story work best in a purely linear structure, or will jumping back and forth in the time line make for more drama?

Many writing professionals recommend beginning in the middle of the action, right at a critical point. This is a good strategy, and makes for a powerful opening scene. The downside to this method is that there will be some stories that will consistently require the storyteller to go back and convey information from before the opening scene. This information can be given as exposition or portrayed via flashback scenes.

What I mean by “giving exposition” is to actually have the narrator of the story interject certain factual information into the tale.

“Years before, Ellen had fallen through the ice of a frozen pond and nearly lost her foot to frostbite.”

That's an example of exposition. It isn't immediate, and can only be artful to a certain degree. There will be times that all stories will require exposition, but it should never be the majority of the word count. If there's not enough in the “here and now” segment of the story to keep a reader on track, you may need to spend more time planning before you move forward in the drafting process.

Anyone who's watched television or the movies knows what a flashback is, but we'll go over it briefly, if only for clarity. A flashback scene occurs at some point in the past, generally from the perspective of one of the main characters, but occasionally taking the form of a tale a smaller character tells. Flashbacks, if they are to be successful, must convey some important fact that had previously been hidden. Either the remembrance of the character give our reader some new insight, or the story that is relayed informs the future mind-set of the main characters in the story. While flashbacks are more dynamic than exposition, and an exciting or eventful flashback can be a great addition to the story, they should be used with caution. Just as weekly television shows that overuse this tactic, liberal use of flashbacks throughout a novel can lead to an imbalance in the story. Flashbacks, if used to convey trivial information, can try the patience of the reader in a big way. Just as with any scene in your story, make sure your flashbacks “need to be there”.

If you're uncomfortable with these techniques then you'll have to take a more linear approach, skipping over time periods in the story that are of lesser import or drama. “Hit the high points” is a good policy. If nothing of great import happens for several months, don't torture the reader with daily minutia. Maybe you know all the details of a workday at the steam-fitting plant, but only the reader only wants the illusion or feeling of that knowledge. All your knowledge of a subject should inform your writing process, but that doesn't mean that you'll actually convey even a small fraction of it in the text.

Another technique for structuring a story is the “frame story”. In this structure, you'll start at or near the end of a story that might take place over a significant period of time. The frame story is often told from the first person perspective, though the narrator is not always the main character of the story. Frame stories generally begin at the moment of some great, dramatic event, setting the scene. They will then go back in time to the beginning of the story, working their way forward toward the about-to-happen conclusion. Frame stories will often have a short story segment that takes place in the current time frame, interspersed through the story, and a longer tale that happens “within the frame”.

The frame story allows the reader to enter the story at the point when the conclusion is about to happen, giving the beginning of the story great dramatic tension. As the story regresses back to the historical tale that came before, the reality of the impending conclusion will hover over all the events, allowing the reader to feel that tension and wonder how the events of the past will lead to the concluding drama they already had a taste of. In essence, the frame story is its own prequel/sequel set.

The frame story is an effective method in books and movies. Examples include the movie “Titanic” and the Stephen King serial novel “The Green Mile”.

Another method of structuring a story is the prologue/main body/epilogue format. This allows the storyteller to convey important information outside the normal chronological bounds of the story. Popular writers such as Clive Cussler often use this format. The epilogue segment can be dispensed with if it is not required, of course.

In this method, an exciting event from some earlier time period is described first. This event will end up being critical to the rest of the story, though the links between the prologue and the main body of the story do not have to be obvious right away. Prologues are frequently from a different perspective than the rest of the book, and can feature a completely different set of characters. For instance, if the book you're writing is about a group of adventurers searching for a relic of some long-dead empire, a prologue describing some apocalyptic event that brought the ancient empire to ruin, told from the perspective of the high priest who watched the whole thing happen, might be a great prologue. The prologue should certainly be action-packed and important to the story, giving the reader some essential information that will help them understand what's going on, perhaps even before the characters in the story will.
Prologues need to “carry their own water”. If a prologue wouldn't stand on its own as an exciting vignette, then they need to be improved upon. If they don't give the reader information and perspective they'll need for the rest of the story, they need to be dispensed with.

Epilogues are, perhaps, trickier than prologues. They are a segment that allows some final word on the events of the story. They are, in essence, falling action segments. They take place after the climax of the story has been achieved. As such, we need to be careful about letting them go on too long. As tempting as it is to “snuggle” with the story for a while before letting go, the falling action segment needs to be of modest proportions. After all, it's all over but the shouting by then. Beware of clouding the issue of the whole story in the epilogue. This can really aggravate a reader (myself included). Also, having the whole epilogue be a “happily ever after” ending can weaken the story. It should tie up a few loose ends, give the reader some sense of closure, and allow her to walk away with something to consider.

And now, on to the warnings:

Some things to watch out for: Beware “walking to the story”. Often, beginning writers (myself certainly included) will begin a story far away from the critical events and allow the characters to wander around for dozens, if not hundreds of pages. No. Bad. If you find chapters going by without really important events happening, then you're not starting the story in the right place. Just having interesting exposition and character building is not enough. Readers want meat, and meat is tension. Making them wait for the good stuff is a bad idea.

Some things to watch out for: Beware “flashback overload”. If you're in the past more than you're in the current time frame, you'll have to think hard about changing your structure. The frame story format will be far more effective for you in this case. Either that, or just write the story in that tumultuous past and dispense with the mundane present altogether.

Some things to watch out for: Beware the “sagging middle”. Many stories start and end with a bang, but have a long segment in the middle where the action stagnates. The middle of the tale should continue to be tense, exciting, and interesting. If you're finding that the story loses its “pop” in the middle, figure out if you're giving the characters hard enough challenges, thwarting their efforts with realistic problems, and continuing to portray the events in a vibrant way. Also, be sure that you're not going overboard on explanations you don't really need.

Some things to watch out for: Information Dumps. It's easy to have all the information about a particular topic come out in a single scene. Character X steps up to the microphone and tells the history of everything to do with the ancient empire of Zool without so much as stopping for a sip of tea. Easy, but wrong, wrong, wrong. No. Bad. Avoid this temptation. Give the information out in little packets along the way. Use dialog to convey some of it, let the character find out other things by investigative work. It's okay for the character to have the wrong idea about some facts, or labor on in ignorance of what's really going on. If the reader knows the character is being led astray, that's even better, since that creates a great source of tension. As a secondary caution, make sure that a character doesn't convey information via dialog that everyone he's talking to would already know. This is what Monte Cook calls an “As you know, Bob” mistake. Real people don't re-explain an commonly understood point to each other. Well, they might, but only for comedic effect. When was the last time you explained gravity or the way road signs worked to anyone older than five years old? Think about it, and make sure that your characters are not making mistakes of this sort. A great way to eliminate this issue is to have the main character of the story be either innocent of the conventions of the world where she finds herself. Beware this, too, since some genres of writing are so overfilled with outcasts and loner characters that you'll be crafting in a huge cliché from the start.

Part Two: Planning

The subject of how much to plan is one that many great minds have lingered upon since the beginning of the writing business. Some writers have found great success without employing any concrete plan, others have found that meticulous planning helps them write their best. This is a personal issue, but I think that writers should try some of the techniques out there before they discount them.

Arguments for pre-writing and outlines:

By planning out your story and fleshing out your characters before ever writing the first scene of your story, you'll be able to examine the flow of the story, its balance, and the place of each character within the tale. You won't have to go through and completely rewrite the story when you find out that one of your characters has to be completely changed. You won't have to re-draft your story when it occurs to you that it would be much better if events happened in a different order altogether. You'll be able to consider who the narrator should be, what the tone should be, and so forth. In short, you'll be able to fully imagine your story, and will have to do less trial and error.

Arguments against pre-writing and outlines:

Some writers find it difficult to shape a story in abstract. They don't know what will happen next until they've finished the scene they're on. If you're constitutionally incapable of thinking out an outline, you'll have to abandon the enterprise. Some also find that they feel duty-bound to stick with their outline, and find that it constrains their thought processes as they write. This, to my way of thinking, is not the fault of the outline, but of the writer. An outline isn't etched in blocks of granite, after all. It's a guide, a helpful tool. If you need to go away from it to make your story better, that's fine. Finally, there's the issue of time. Writers tend to be perfectionists, and if you're getting so absorbed in your pre-writing efforts that you never get down to the actual business of writing the story, then you're blocking yourself. Don't let obsessive tendencies stand in your way.

If you choose to plan:

There are many great resources out there that give you methods to plan out a story. I encourage you to look at them and find one that seems to fit your personality, or help you with a problem that's come up in the past. I don't have the space, knowledge, or time to outline all the various tactics available to you here, but I will give you a checklist of things you'll want to look at when planning a story.

Topics to address with an outline:

1)Craft a sentence that will describe your story on the basic level. It should sound exciting. It should be something that, if you heard it, you'd be moved to read that story.
2)Envision the big events of the story. Where does it begin? What sort of journey does it take the reader through? How does it end? How should it make the reader feel? What changes during the course of the tale?
3)Sketch out the main characters in the story. How do they interact with each other? What problems do they face? Will the readers identify with these characters, even love them? What are the characters' hopes and dreams? Do they achieve them, or do their own aspirations have to be abandoned? Do the characters strive against some outward force, or are their troubles more internal?
4)Where does the “meat” of the story begin? What structure would work best for telling the tale? Should the story be told from a character's perspective, perhaps in first person, or would a third-person narrator be more efficient? Does the narrator only know what the point of view character know, or does he have a god's eye view of things?
5)What's the purpose of the story? What's the tone? Is it light hearted and fun, or grim?
6)Does the story end with this tale, or is this just a segment of a larger saga (to be written, or simply imagined)?

Some final thoughts on organization:

1)Like Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Don't include things that don't enrich the story or move it forward. Don't explain things that the reader already understands. Don't describe things that they can visualize without your help. Don't run off and include dead-end segments of the story just because they feature scintillating prose and are heartbreakingly beautiful. If they're that cool, spin them off and make a separate story out of them.
2)Don't start things you can't finish. If you introduce an idea, you'll need to see it through to some kind of conclusion. There's nothing more frustrating for a reader than to reach the end of a story and find that you've “dropped a thread”. Don't have characters and situations simply fall out of the story. If you've put them in there in the first place, let the reader know that you didn't forget, and that the situation has some resolution in the end. This helps the reader maintain her “suspension of disbelief”.
3)If the structure of your story is constantly giving you fits, don't be afraid to go back and start again. Often times, it's easier to begin with a clean sheet of paper than to try and hammer a flawed structure into shape. It's painful to set aside dozens or hundreds of pages of text, but sometimes it's necessary.
4)Even if a story doesn't work out like you wanted it to, there's no such thing as wasted time when you're writing. Every time a story fails, go back and try to figure out where it went wrong. We have to learn from our mistakes. If we can look at a busted story and say, “Oh, it didn't work because I've got a main character that everyone hates,” or, “The story bogged down because I never had a clear idea of how to arrive at the final scene,” we can often keep from making that mistake again.
5)You've probably heard this before, but nothing teaches you like experience. Don't sit and dream about writing for years, but never manage to pick up the pen or touch the keyboard. Take the advice of people who have been through it all, but remember that your own experiences will always give you nuances of understanding that second-hand information could never have. Write as often as you can, try all your crazy ideas, and learn from what fails and what succeeds. Don't put pressure on yourself when you're experimenting. Your first try won't be perfect. Most likely, neither will your fifth. You will get better, though. Keep your optimism alive, but be honest with yourself. If you do these things, you'll know when you're ready to be successful.

Next time: Grammar (Much shorter, I promise!)

2 comments:

Braleigh said...

You're such a gifted writer, my God. I can't believe how long it took me to uncover this whole slew of sites! I lament the days that I passed during which I was ignorant of all this.

You're officially my new mentor, regardless of your input on the matter, though publishing articles such as this is a sure-fire way to acquire cling-on proteges, so you can only blame yourself. Most inspiring. And informative. And masterfully written.

I'm going to go skulk around your stories when I have more time.

Oh, and I completely agree with your assessment of King. I got caught up with the belief he was meant to be bad-mouthed until I started reading his better work. The Dark Tower series completely exploded my brain. I could rave for hours about his genius because of how overly under-rated he is.

To end this on an awkweird note, I'm going to bed now.

Firehawk said...

Braleigh,

First of all, !!!Waaahooo!!!

I'm so pleased to see you back again. I figured you'd outgrown me, what with your world-traveling, arch-ninjaing ways and all.

I'm glad you like my little articles on writing. I have a good, long ways to go on them, if I'm to cover all the topics I've outlined. It's good to know that at least one person in the universe is reading.

If you ever need me to manifest my Mentor superpowers, please feel free to call upon me. It's not even necessary to invoke the power of Greyskull or anything.

The thought of you skulking through my stories fills my heart with a sense of impending happiness, so please feel free to do so. If you'd like to comment, so much the better.

King...I think that some of his more recent books have been victims of his own "King-dom", wherein he's trying hard to not be so much "like himself". Many of my favorites are from before 1990, but the new stuff still has a lot to offer. As for his being under-rated, I think that the literary community tends to scoff at anything that is remotely fun to read. If you need a tenured professor to tell you what it all means, that's what they like. I think it's all job security, but that's another story.

In any case, thanks for coming by. Hope to see you again some sunny day.