Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Breaking that crazy glue structure

I’m not always the most concise person, but I kept looking at my notes on structure during the workshop and thinking—this is way too short. There’s got to be something more, some other way to explain it so it clicks faster.

The trouble was that I was looking at it full-on. It’s not just how plot fits into structure and how to pick the right one for your story (although I need to expand on that), but the reasons they’re confused with each other.

Even shorts take more than a day to write, and it’s normal to write them in the order events occur. If I write the opening, I’ll probably write the stuff that comes right afterwards. And over the course of days or months, I’m going to get attached to the way things are. Especially if I have a plot (in this post I'm using the word "plot" as what happens in your story) that says, “this” happens here, and “that” happens there. And in a lot of ways, it’s like baking. You need to do certain things to get a set of given results.

To get a a decent chocolate chip cookies you have to follow the recipe, but what if after you pull the cookies from the oven, you look at them and say, “They're edible, but what I really wanted was chocolate-chip shortbread?”

Since you know the basic framework of a cookie, and how the ingredients go together you simply take your basics and combine them in a different way. The ingredients are the same, but the way they’re put together produces a different result, and that’s a good definition of structure—knowing how to get a certain “effect”.

In other words, scenes, the basic units of a book are movable, but sometimes scenes don’t need to be there, are missing, or in the wrong order.

Looking at your story as a whole, after it’s been roughed out is the only time you can evaluate for effectiveness—and let me back that up. If the plot of my book is John decides to go back to school, goes back, meets a girl and later, after graduation, marries her. It’s a good plot. It has rudimentary structure, because it has a beginning, middle and end.

But why does it begin where it does
? What if it began in a different place? Is the plot good and tight, or does it drag? Would it be stronger if you used one of the major structures?

What if your story is about John going to school to find himself, meet that girl and marry her, but your gut feeling says you should put more emphasis on how John changes over the course of the story?

Then maybe Michael Hague’s six point structure—which closely parallels the transformational arc would be useful and take your story to another level.

Or maybe you like the idea the way it is, but have this feeling something is wrong, and realize you have scenes that seem like part of another novel. Then the straight arrow of Aristotle’s “rising action” or dramatic structure would work to keep your story focused on the end.

It’s like making a cookie. The end result can be whatever you want, but you have to use the right ingredients, not just throw everything in there. And you have to know the recipes, because sometimes, the right structure is the intuitive one that breaks all the rules, but works for you. Good cookie bakers know that once you learn how things work together, you can take that knowledge and create new cookies. That's why there are so many forms of structure. Someone got tired of chocolate chip cookies and using what she knew, went on to create Hot Peanut Butter Fudge shortbread bars.


Alice Audrey said...

I have learned so much in the years since I got my diploma. This kind of tool set was what I wanted, but back then the teachers were all about critique groups and that was about it. You have such lucky students.

jodi said...

lol, Alice (and my word ver is "deadli", very weird) They still are pretty much all about crit groups. Although I've noticed an upswing in the number of people talking to me who are doing it alone.

Maybe it's sort of a reverse backlash. Y'know? With the people who've been around a long time and haven't found what they're looking for? I dunno.

deanna said...

What if you prefer chocolate chips without the cookies? ;o) Anyway, good analogy.

jodi said...

lol, I prefer chocolate chips. Never thought about it, though. O.o it's a very existential question.

I was making brownie shortbread today and messing around with ingredients for Christmas cookies, probably why it came out that way. :)It's getting cold and time to break out the honey and big bags of walnuts for lebkuchen. :)