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.
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.
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.