Okay, it’s time to start a story. Or is it? Because before actually writing anything, you need to decide on what structure the story will have; or don’t decide: just take off instead.
Let’s look at these two approaches:
A lot of writers like to stick with the same structure, for example:
1. CHARACTER in a
2. SETTING with a
4. TRIES and FAILS
5. CLIMAX, FINAL TRY
6. SUCCEEDS (or fails)
Writers that use a rigid structure tend to claim it works for any kind of story. However, if that’s true, then an obvious problem will be that their readers will eventually know exactly what to expect.
A writer can use a structure like the one above but deliberately push it back in their writing mix, rather than letting it control too much. So the story will end up (possibly) being resolved but its journey through the other six elements can be flexible according to what the writer wants to explore.
Or to put it another way, say you decide to go on a day trip. You plan exactly where to go, the time you’re going to leave and return; you hire a guide to show you all the key sites; eat your meals on time, and so on, right through to the resolution which is you lying down in bed and saying to your partner, “Well, that all went exactly to plan.”
Or, you could go the same place but become so engrossed, say, in the conversation you’re having with your partner, that the wonderful scenery and slightly over-knowledgeable guide’s take on his role become just background and contrast points. Now, you have two dynamics that play off each other: the trip and the conversation which may actually be the antithesis of the highly ordered event.
Yes, of course, you could create the same contrast within a rigid structure but the danger is that your subconscious will rush the in-between points’ magic, because it’s too keen to get to the next stage; to complete its homework successfully.
Not deciding on structure:
It’s very difficult to make a story work that has no structure. Yet the attractions are clear. If you don’t know where the story’s going, neither will your reader. (Well, that’s not entirely true: readers can be better aware in a genre than the writer and therefore spot a trope he’s following even when he’s blissfully unaware of it.)
Now, perhaps a slightly controversial view: the degree to which a writer can produce work that surprises, elevates and enriches is determined by how fixed he is in his career objectives. If, for example, he has decided firmly that he’s going to be a commercial writer who makes a good living, that’s fine; however, such a goal will probably mean he’s never going to approach a story without a pre-determined structure to ensure he doesn’t waste any words.
Of course, the weakness of a writer who isn’t so sure of his objectives, is that he may actually waste a lot of words following no-structure leads that don’t result in a story that makes any sense. What this kind of writer needs is a different kind of objective; just as strong as the desire to make money but not so easy to follow, to map out, to rationalise.
So, at this point we need to re-arrange the starting categories into:
1. STRUCTURE (RIGID/FLUID) – PLOT/CHARACTER/SETTING/STYLE PACKAGE – STORY (ENTERTAINING PERHAPS, PREDICTABLE ALMOST CERTAINLY);
2. DESIRE TO SAY SOMETHING NEW – STORY (USING WHATEVER ELEMENTS OF STRUCTURE ARE REQUIRED TO TRANSCRIBE ‘THE NEW’) – SOMETHING HAS BEEN SAID AND LISTENED TO AND REMEMBERED.
What I’ve tried to do with this post is add some clay to the kind of semi-solid tools I use when writing a story. Of course there has to be a plot of sorts, and characters, and a setting; and a writer has to understand how all these work, to the point their facilitation is instinctive.
However, if he then wants to produce work that isn’t ultimately more of the same, he needs to find ways to limit the rigidity of these principles. This rigidity is inevitable, if only through centuries of teachers showing ‘how to’. But a great story is one that seems to flow without a fixed structure, with characters that appear to have chosen to attend, rather than have been moulded by their creator.
Finally, of course no one wants to be thinking all this at the point of writing a story. That’s like being on a date, operating from a guide book.
The way it works, I think, is something like this:
1. Write some stories without thinking about it.
2. Realise you need to learn how to; learn how to.
3. Write some more stories without thinking about why.
4. Develop some skill and the beginnings of your own voice or voices.
5. Go back to the start and think about the sort of stuff raised in this post.
6. Write some more stories while thinking.
7. Let the stories begin to tell you why you’re writing and what you want to achieve.
8. Steer in the direction you want to go – e.g. commercial or artistic, or both.
9. Keep learning from your chosen direction; keep improving.
10. Do what you love to do.