Tuesday, 3 November 2009

STORY STRUCTURE AND SHAPE

(To the eagle-eyed among you  -  no, you have not gone mad: this is a post from last week. The reason for that is complicated, but then so is my life at the moment... So, yesterdays and tomorrows are misleading because yesterday is about four days ago and tomorrow was yesterday. See, I'm really making your brains work today. You may even need to go and make some Brain Cake.)

Yesterday, I had a sign. [Tomorrow I'm getting a sign too  -  but that's the one in front of my house saying For Sale.] Actually that's not as irrelevant as it might seem, for it was thanks to the imminent For Saleness that I was yesterday clearing out some stuff, of which I have too much, and came upon the sign which is the subject of today's lesson.

The thing I found was a large board covered in blue material, with pieces of white card pinned to it in vague lines. In fact, perhaps you'd like to see it now happily affixed to my office wall.



Those of you prone to serious plotting of your novels might recognise this thing. It is a storyboard. A board on which to plot stories. Or put your plumber's business card on, if you prefer. I don't normally use them [storyboards, not plumbers], which is why a) this was stuffed behind a sofa and b) I was surprised to find that it existed. But it reminded me that I did use it to help me plot my last novel  -  not the last one I had published: the last one I wrote, which is the next one that's being published, the details of which I won't burden you with because you'll hear way too much about it when the time comes.

Look closely at the pic. That is the state the board was in when I stopped using it and stuffed it behind a sofa: not when I'd finished the book, but when I'd got the idea of the plot of my story and didn't need it any more. My "system" is unorthodox  -  I plan as I go, never in advance, and use the board more as a reminder of where I've already been, rather than where I'm going. But enough of my unorthodox systems and back to the sign.

This was a sign of two things.
First, it was a sign that I should be plotting out my next novel. (Which I will, I will, o wondrous agent.) Second, it was a sign that I have never done a post on structure and that I fully intended to.

I fully intended to particularly ever since reading and bookmarking this v interesting article which appears to be about structure. Actually, it's not really  -  it's more about plotting, which is a) not the same though b) it's what my board-behind-the-sofa was all about. So, you see, it was a sign after all.

Today, on a two-for-one basis, I am going to say something about plotting AND  structure.

What I'm going to say about plotting is this: do whatever works for you. Or don't. As I've indicated, I don't do this plotting / planning / organised stuff. I just write and muddle along and sometimes do some backwards plotting but mainly I walk the dog and it all becomes clear. Honestly. So, can we leave it there?

But, structure, now that's seriously important. And you can't just do what works for you. You have to do what works for the story.

Your story must have a shape.
That's what structure is. That article that wasn't about structure did start to talk about it  -  the three act / five act stuff. And I remember long ago attempting to be taught about short stories and learning that you had to have a conflict, then an obstacle, then another obstacle, then a bigger obstacle, and then (if you had time) a really massive obstacle which seemed insurmountable, and then a resolution. Obviously.

Well, stuff that, frankly. Have as many obstacles as you like: obstacles create reader motivation and story-pull, not structure. That's the driving force, not the shape of the road. The shape of the road is important, but it's not as important as the driving force. [Though, as with roads, if you get a good shape, it helps the driving force.]

Structure is shape
I know I've had two glasses of wine this evening but I see shapes in stories. The shapes are spikes and curves. No squares. And they have direction, left to right. And though they move up and down (probably those are the obstacles getting in the way) they move upwards overall. And they always end way higher than when they started. But the last movement is downwards, after the climax, the outlet of breath, the sigh of relief.


Below, you will see why I'm not an artist. It is my shape-based impression of three stories:









The first one is Fleshmarket. Note the seriously major opening  -  that's the shocking surgery-without-anaesthetic scene, which causes people to faint; then we gear down (relatively) and then we gear up in stages towards the climax. And breathe out for the resolution, wiping away a tear.

The second one is Deathwatch  -  no shocking opening, just a build-up of suspense until the big climax and, again, the release and wiping of ubiquitous tear. [I do like the odd tear at some point, preferably near the end.]

The third one is a totally crappy structure such as I would never write. No tension, no shape, no driving force towards the end, either  -  just three boring car-chases. No wiping away of tear at the end, no outbreath of loveliness.

Talking of breath, breathing describes another form of structure: chapter structure. 
There are two ways of structuring your chapters, breathwise. Generally you want a mixture and the precise choice at any given moment depends on the pace and feeling you are trying to create.

Let me explain. [Thank God for that, I hear you say. What the hell is she wittering about now?] See, we breathe in and out. [You're still with me?] We breathe in before we breathe out, not the other way round. In, out. Not out, in. We breathe in when we're expecting something, getting ready for something, including something scary or dramatic. We breathe in before speaking, before jumping into water, before eating, before screaming, before dying. We breathe out when we've done those things. We breathe out at the end of something. So, if you end a chapter on a knife-edge, before the dramatic thing has happened, it's like ending after an in-breath, in other words mid-breath   -  and the reader cannot stop there: the reader must read on, in order to breathe out, to finish. So you drag the reader along. Whereas, when you end the chapter after the thing has happened, the reader can relax.

And the point is this [and it is the WHOLE point about writing]:
You, the author, god in your own world, get to control the reader's breath. Because sometimes you want your reader to relax and sometimes you don't.

How cool is that? To be able to control someone's breathing? That is power indeed.

Another thing about shape:
Of course, we also have to feel that the story is a rounded whole, however many spikes and peaks and troughs and prickly sharp bits there are. The whole thing has to feel complete, like an in- and out-breath, like a circle. So, beginning/middle/end, three acts of five, symphony or concerto (because music loves these shapes and structures too), it really doesn't matter  -  just as long as you know what shape you're creating and why, and as long as you are in control.

And then there are arcs.
You've probably heard of story arcs? Well, see, shape again. Told you. You can picture your stories like arcs, if you like. But I prefer spikes. What you could do is imagine an arc gently curving over those spikes  -  comes to the same thing: overall shape of the story, and the shape must be going upwards. A symmetrical arc would be like that boring car-chase story 3. 


Now I guess I'd better get to work on that storyboard. Because I must remember that finding it was a sign that I am supposed to be working out a new novel. Thing is, though: a storyboard doesn't really help with shape [or mine doesn't]: that's something you just have to feel. Feel yourself draw the reader upwards; feel where the points of highest drama should come; don't peak too early; remember your breathing.

Before you go back to your own storyboards, I thought you might like to see my desk, with the storyboard positioned above it. Until yesterday I had lovely glass shelves above my desk but, because of that For Saleness thing, I had to take them down and polyfilla the walls [and, er, cover the polyfilla with pictures]. Funny thing is, though: if I hadn't taken them down, I couldn't have put the storyboard up there. Clearly, then, a sign.

And then I thought you might like another picture:


Nothing to do with signs or storyboards, but very sweet. Because I'd like you to finish this lesson with an out-breath, a finishing, a resolution. But for goodness' sake, there's no need to wipe away a tear. It's just the Halloween chocolate judge, his dog, and a picnic. 

27 comments:

Caroline Dunford said...

Story structure is very important, but I think before you even get there you need to know what your story is about. It sounds like a very obvious comment, but the number of times people have told/shown me their work and I've said, but yes, what's is about? It's all too easy to get carried away with world-building and character development and forget you need something to drive that structure. (Not that you'd ever do this of course, but it's something I constantly have to think about.)

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you. Until I read this I was in a fog as to what to write about next about short stories on my blog. It's structure. Of course it is.

Marisa Birns said...

Wonderful post, as always! Yes, important to leave reader waiting to exhale at end of section so they have to turn the page before they turn blue, eh?

I find it difficult to have storyboards and to plot, plan, organize everything ahead of time. Maybe I should learn how to do this but, so far, I sit down and begin.

So. Red or white?

And, while there wasn't a tear at the picture of the Mr. and Dog, there was a big smile :)

Jessica Maybury said...

Thank you very much! My last two posts were about my inability to plot or structure (or my perceived inability anyway) and this helps an awful lot :)

David J Griffin said...

Yes, an excellent post. Structure is so important, as well as the "hearbeat" is, to the novel. I love your description and explanation of "breathing" with reference to novels. I've never heard of this before but it hits the nail on the head exactly; it's an excellent concept to keep in the mind, helping enormously the pacing and emotional aspects, I think.

Donna Gambale said...

Thanks for making a control freak get happy about structure!

Lexi said...

Interesting...I have only one question.

Won't you have to polyfilla the holes where you put in the nails to hang the pictures that cover the filled holes the shelves made?

Anonymous said...

Instead of Deathwatch, you should've called the book Deathblow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkwJ_Iyvilk

Also, you're doing it wrong. You should plot the way I plot.

Proe

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Love this post, structure actually gets me really excited. I love it!

Emma said...

I love the breathing analogy, it's very helpful.

And that was a very sweet photo at the end!

Sulci Collective said...

Heartily concur about breathing analogy. But don't stop at just story & breath control. You can control their breathing through the language within your sentences. Microbreathing.

Arabella said...

Personally, I like the infinity story structure--you know, the one that's shaped like the infinity symbol. I once had a CW prof draw a whole lot of story shapes on the chalk board, and that was one of them. I always wanted to try it.

Flixton Mum said...

Thank you. Structures of novels terrify me. I'm off to make some pointy mountain pictures.

Thank you again.

Nicola Morgan said...

Proe - I know: you do everything so much better than I do.

Sally - i'll be looking out for your words of erudition: you always add a touch of class to the class.

Marisa - me too. But I would *like* to plot in an organised fashion instead of something hastily scraped together after the event for my editor. Mind you, the second draft is where i usually get my structure properly sorted (without ed's help, I hasten to add).

Lexi - no, I'll just run away.

Others who said nice things - glad it's helped. Though Frankie, your excitement is slightly concerning...

Flixtonmum - you don't have to make the pictures, just imagine them.

Sulci - absolutely. It's all tied up with pace, but then structure is, isn't it?

Patience-please said...

Thank you! You are always so informative and helpful, and you manage to wrap it all in the most entertaining words.

Rebecca Knight said...

The breathing analogy really helps me wrap my mind around building and releasing tension in my chapters :). Thank you for that!

catdownunder said...

But Ms Morgan I was told I should have the whole thing planned in detail before I start! I was told that pre-planning in detail is the only way to ever write anything good enough for publication. You mean you do things differently?
I know when I put my paws on the pedals and get some fresh air through my fur things happen. I may not even be thinking about what I am writing but, suddenly, I will think, "So that's why X is..." and another piece slots into place. It is a very strange feeling when that happens.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great info! I don't/can't/won't plot out before hand - takes away the fun for me. But it works. I love how we all vary so much in our styles.

Pen said...

Great post, thanks.
Something I often do which helps me visualize my story is to draw the zig-zaggy valleys and peaks and jot at each point the event it is related to. (I.e.: first crisis or peak - pro's father's murder, then a slight dip when she is rescued, another high as they escape the castle etc etc.)
This kills two birds with one stone plot and structure = DONE!
Does anyone else do this?

DanielB said...

I always get my novel students to start with a list of questions including "Whose story is this?" and "What do they want?" Vagueness on those two central questions is what causes most of the unpublished MSs I have read to fall apart.

Graphs and shapes are great if they work for you. I believe Robert Goddard (master of the tortuous plot) uses colour-coded cards pinned to a board - one card per scene - which he then moves around until he finds the most interesting order! Something like that, anyway.

I'm trying to remember who first came up with the "Dramatic W" shape. I've seen it used in screenwriting lectures, and I think I first encountered it in Malcolm Hulke's _Writing for TV_. I think novelists can learn an awful lot from screenwriters, even if they never intend to write for TV or film themselves. _Babylon 5_ supremo J. Michael Straczynski's book on scriptwriting is excellent, especially on the idea of "arc".

Clare said...

Thank you for another enlightening post (and it clarifies your comment about my Hallowe'en entry)-the breathing analogy is particularly helpful.
My limited published writing has been mainly non-fiction and the word "structure" in relation to an article obviously means something totally diffferent.
I tend to write intuitively never having studied creative writing but I'm beginning to wonder if there might be something to be said for learning more about the craft of writing? (Or is that just another excuse for procrastination?)
I was really surprised by the photo of your dog - I had always assumed she would be a chocolate labrador (but she's lovely all the same!)
Off to polish my broomstick now - we take Hallowe'en very seriously in this household......there shall be nuts, there shall be apples, treacle scone, turnip lanterns and CHOCOLATE!!!

Nicola Morgan said...

Catdownunder - never take any notice of people who tell you how you "should" get from A to B. As long as you get to B and the whole journey looks beautiful and perfect, it doesn't matter.

Pen - you are way more organised than I am: those peaks were just a random impression. I guess i could try your excellent-sounding method, though.

clare - I've never studied it either, just picked it up as I went along. The thoery's easy - the practice is harder, and more important. And yes, it could be another bad excuse not to write! But if you want to study it, it sounds as though DanielB knows all you need to know.

Me, I am just off to do my own thing - whatever works

Patience-please - thank you! And Rebecca, Jemi and Rebecca - good!

Helen said...

Gosh, lots to think about in this post. I took part in NaNoWriMo last year and made a storyboard much like yours. It was great for keeping me writing - every day I picked a few cards and wrote the scenes described on them - but I did feel rather restricted. This year I'm doing NaNoWriMo again and I have done no plotting at all. It's just an experiment to see what kind of novel will come out spontaneously without any planning. I hope one day to find the method that works best for me.

catdownunder said...

Yes, I tend not to take any notice when I get told I lick my fur the wrong way! I think the important thing is to what works for you.

Glynis said...

What an interesting post. I like the story board idea. I am trying different methods so will try this one soon.
The picture was just scrummy!

Harry Markov said...

I would like the author to have mind controlling powers over readers in order to raise an unstoppable army, but those are some overlord tendencies from my father's side.

The topic is important and usually quite tricky to nail, since it is more or less based on intuition as to how a story flows and the actual shape manifests after many sleepless nights. And there are still quite a few foggy aspects for me as well.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I use a different method to develop story structure, but your post is very interesting to me. I like the idea of trying a different approach. I wouldn't have said I'm a storyboard kind of gal, but I'll admit to being intrigued. :)

I'm tweeting this one.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder