This is a possibly hard blog to read (sort of hard to write). It is even possibly a blog that might get daggers thrown at me from across the eerie knolls of the interwebs. But, throwing caution to the junk folder, I’ll just take a stab at this.
So, here’s my thing: when it comes to story structure, either you get it, or you don’t.
(So, yeah, I’m starting 2016 out with a bang, huh?)
What do I mean by this? Well, when I refer to story structure I’m referring to the natural (albeit completely manufactured and crafted) ebb and flow of a complete story. It is the structure that takes you through the build up of an opening, into a solid mounting conflict, to its eventual resolution.
I’ve been cutting my teeth on a great deal of beta, alpha, and slush reading for many years now, (Is your teeth ever done being cut in this art?) and one thing I’m noticing is how a GREAT deal–I do mean the majority–of peeps I’m reading are failing at story structure and flow. I’m reading, sometimes, pretty good, solid openings, followed by heavy nose dives into boring, irrelevant meandering. Other times (often times), I’m reading dragging openings that take forever to get to the main (or any, really) conflict, with unsatisfying endings. Or worse, a seemingly unconnected, out of focus, ending that does not reflect the story’s previous events.
However, the big one, here–the big ticket of literary sin–just an utter lack of conflict. It is like the plot trudges along without any conflict connecting the events (Is there really even a plot if there is no conflict?), without any characters making decisions, or choices about what is happening. These aren’t stories…these are happenings–a series of disconnected happenings befalling upon an innocent, often times undeveloped, character’s head, without their consent, unjustly, just…because.
Now, I could use the rest of this blog to try and explain some very fundamental rules about plot structure, but I’m not gonna.
Why? Because, I’ve done this all before–to every author who has ever handed me an MS of happenings to beta. I’ve sat them down and explained exactly what I meant when I said they were lacking a cohesive, logical story structure. I’ve explained until I was blue of face, and horse of throat, that you need periods of ebb and periods of flow to drive the conflict forward. Readers need breathers between tension, and more tension than breathers.
I’ve begged, on bent knee (well, not really), that endings at least have to have something in common, or some relevance, to the actions and choices of the present characters in the story. All this is wasted air and emails. All I get in response is defensiveness or blank stares. It seems that no one is getting what I’m saying, or really understanding that this mystical thing called story structure even exists, for realsies, at all. You’d think I was suggesting that purple, spelunking boob-wizards whispered the secrets of literary success from the cleavage of your ample bosom as you slept. (If only ye had the ears for hearing such wisdom!)
This just simply is not the blog to be reexplaining story structure. I, in fact, might never write that blog. I don’t think it will help. If you really care about learning, I’m outsourcing this job.
You see, I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’m talking about can not be taught. It can only be learned. The only way to learn it is to read. Read. READ!
And, I mean READ A LOT!
Not just for pleasure, I mind you, but, with a critic’s eye. Pay attention to how your favorite books structure themselves. Read them until you have a sense of their flow and build. Try to emulate it. Fail. Read some more, and fail at it until you just get it.
Me explaining over and over again the inner workings of story structured is no good. I’ve come to the conclusion that writing is like swimming. Some one can tell you, in detail, forever about how to keep your head above water. They can direct you in technique. They can tell you how important it is not to drown, even school you in the relative buoyancy of your blubber when submerged in water all day, but does it really matter?
Does it all even matter until you take your first plunge?–until you see what was meant when you were told that you, in fact, as a rule, can not breath under water no matter how much you wish it were so? At that moment, you might come to understand what all the rules were about. Why there is a deep end and a shallow end. Why it is so important to keep your head up and your ass down. Before that moment, it is all just intellectualized nothings.
You don’t get it.
And, once you do get it, you start developing natural impulses that keep you afloat. Pretty soon you need not worry yourself with the details of your swim instructor’s lessons, because you know how to swim. Your body just starts swimming, by reflex, when your rear hits water.
This, I’ve decided, is how one learns story structure. It can’t be taught. Nothing I say will ever make you, or anyone else, get it. You just got to take the plunge. Read and write until story structure and flow is second nature. Until it comes out of you naturally. Until any story of yours you read with poor structure runs up your nose and has you coughing up chlorinated public piss water until you square it up.
At that point, in my opinion, is when all the hoopla I, and anyone else, tell you about story structure will make sense.
You either get it, or you don’t.