Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Reading Like A Writer: Story Structure

Photo: The Golden Gate Bridge, in an aerial view, from the bridge's Wikipedia page.  Click it; it's a great pic.

I've been trying to read books lately with a writer's eye, so that I could learn what makes successful (defined here as published; maybe also as respected and/or successful writer) writers write successful things.  I've had (extremely) modest success recently, and I've been trying to learn why some pieces have sold and why some haven't.  Here's what I've come up with recently:

--Stories sell better if they have a structure, and not just a "this happens, then this happens" kind of feel.  Readers can feel the flow of the structure; they're pulled along by it.  So the story, the characters, the setting--all of that is important, but the flow of the structure is like a double-pull with all of those things.  Stories that are just a series of events don't have that flow, and so the reader feels disjointed right away, even if the characters and the plot and that stuff are solid.  No structure, no flow, no pull.

--The structure we've all learned in high school--the Shakespearean Plot Triangle--is not the only structure to use.  Some stories just won't fit to that form, especially if there's no solid climax in the middle of the piece, or a clear finish for the resolution.  And not if the story doesn't break cleanly into five or so different parts.  There may not be a clear rise to the climax, or fall from it to the end, especially if the end isn't tragic or definitive.  For example, if the ending is more in the Chekhov vein, where you're dropped into the lives of the characters, and they're not done at the end--or even if there really isn't an established end, then the five-part plot triangle won't fit.  And you can't make a story fit a structure that it just isn't made to fit.  You can't force a structure upon a story.

--A three-part story structure that works for me lately--that I think might work for one of my novel manuscripts that I'd been sort of forcing a five-part structure on--is called the Suspension Bridge structure.  It differs greatly from the plot triangle because there's not much building up, nor falling away from, though the ending is usually pretty solid like it would be at the end of the plot triangle. 

Picture an actual suspension bridge.  It starts at the land's edge, and the bridge's cables swing up to the first apex.  This is the build-up of the character, his traits, and his flaws, and the climax, if you will, of the peak there is when he gets something that he wants, that might better his plight.  This thing must change the character in a major way--or it has to at least offer the possibility.  Usually this involves a change in the character himself; it sets up the character vs. self conflict, though there must be many other conflicts to come.  Then the bridge cables drop.  And it's a long, long drop, and somewhere there is a rock-bottom, in which the character is threatened with the possibility of going back to where he started, if not worse.  This is also where all of the conflicts are established for that thing that he wants and here's where the antagonists are established.  This is also where the big reveal of a big conflict happens, something the protagonist might not even know.  But then he does.  Then the next upswing starts; he overcomes those conflicts somehow and succeeds in some way by the apex of that next upswing.  There was such a huge crash before so then, when he succeeds for the next upswing, that apex of that upswing has to be a major victory, much more so than the previous one, and it sort of wraps up the whole story.  The space between these two apexes is the vast majority of the story.  The last descent is not necessarily a downswing--it just has to establish the normalcy again of this character's new life as the bridge's cables connect to the land again.  The dust has settled, and the character's life is a bit more clear, usually in a good way.  The ramifications of the victories and successes are shown, and the character again carries on with his life, and both you and the character feel it'll be better.

This structure is much more open for characterization, and is an especially good structure to use if one of the main conflicts is character vs. self.  The best example I've noticed recently of this suspension bridge structure is the movie The Verdict, which I mentioned in the recent blog about signs you're growing old: it's the movie I sought, made in 1982, and I sought it because I needed to see it again, because it suddenly hit me, purely from memory, that it was the epitome of the suspension bridge structure.

I'll explain how and why in a blog entry to come.

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