Thursday, February 19, 2009

Structure in Stories

Teaching has started where I work, and I'm spending a lot of time reviewing all my materials on mythology for one of my subjects. But I'm doing the same for Story Structure, bringing in some new information and ideas. I team-teach this with a scriptwriter, and we learn from each other as we go along. This week we wanted to look at shorter stories and films, such as Tropfest, but we're also going to analyse some TV drama.

I've got plenty of books on my shelves about scriptwriting - very often the structural stuff they talk about relates just as well to fiction writing. But I had little on TV writing, so today I bought a new book, Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. I have no intention of writing TV drama myself (however, if they were still making NYPD Blue, I might have a go at a script for that!). But it was fascinating to read what these guys had to say about how a one hour drama works.

They start by saying "Every TV drama series is the same." And go on to explain the four acts, how each one works, and what each act needs in terms of building tension. What is even more interesting is the next chapter where they talk about why audiences watch. Not for the plot (which usually has the same elements, depending on the genre and setup), but for the characters and their lives. If we care about them, we will want to tune in every week to see how they're going.

They also talk about the key scene in any episode, and how the whole story of that episode is about leading up to that key moment. Inevitably, I started thinking about how this relates to fiction writing. What is our key moment? The climax. How often do I talk to students about the narrative drive, the main character's intense need or desire that propels them through the story, the fact that you need to continually increase the tension to keep the reader turning the pages?

And how often do I see people start writing a novel and come to a grinding halt after three chapters or 10,000 words? Because they don't really understand where they're going. They haven't worked out what the key scene or climax needs to be about, what needs to happen in it, and how everything you write in the novel should be leading up to that. And all of that still comes back to character, 98 times out of 100. The other two times are, I'd say, in movies or novels that are thrillers (think James Bond) where the climax is about saving the world.

Even if you resist writing any kind of outline, even if you are a "seat of the pants" writer, don't you still know somewhere in your writing gut what that thing is that your main character wants? And if you don't, how much writing do you have to do before you work it out? 50,000 words? 100,000 words? One chapter? What works for you?

9 comments:

Katherine Battersby said...

Sherryl, that's really interesting. I love learning from other creative industry's techniques - it can help to stand back and look at your own work in a new way. I'm more of a 'seat-of-pants' writer, but the climax scene usually comes to me a few thousand words in, once I know the main players, and it's often so vivid in my head I have to write it then and there. You're right - without it, the story would end up just ambling about.

Sherryl said...

I know of one person who writes their ending before they start their novel!
I think everyone has to find their own best method, and a few disasters can show you what you need to fix.

The Scarlet Tree said...

Really interesting... I have two novels on the go, one in the 'on hold bucket' and 'one in the full steam ahead bucket'. I have to say, I write using a bit of each method. I outline some major concepts, them I'm full steam ahead. But I tend to write chunks as im going that I realise all of a sudden, one chunk or another, ties into information that happens earlier or later and so the chunks get shifted around. Then when Im at about 20,000 words I start getting all overwheled. It is a rollercoaster....

Sherryl said...

I'm always intrigued by how other people write. Do you enjoy the rollercoaster feeling? Or do you find it ultimately is not a positive for your writing?
I noticed you used the word 'overwhelmed' - just curious.

fozmeadows said...

With the series I'm writing at the moment, I've got a key revelation planned for the end of each book, plus several important things that need to happen beforehand. I know how some characters will develop as a result of these things, and I've got an overall plan for where things will end up, but I still find it extremely fun to write everything in between, letting the characters tell me where they need to go and what to do. For instance, I'd planned to keep a relationship between two characters secret until the end of the book, but one of the participants decided to have a little wine and confide in a friend, which was the most plausible use of their time at that point. Glee! :)

Lee Goldberg said...

I'm glad you found our book so helpful...and that you were able to apply the lessons to your fiction as well.

Lee

Sherryl said...

Lee, it's also entertaining! Your stories about various experiences are both enlightening and funny. And I'll definitely be watching to see who the writers are on this season's shows.

Sherryl said...

fozmeadows - That's what I like to tell the students. Knowing where you're heading in no way takes the fun out of the journey.

Kristi Holl said...

For me--for a trip or in my writing--anticipation is half the fun. Knowing where I'm going and how exciting it's going to be is fun for my trip to England. It's equally fun when I'm writing and I what the climax will be. Without an outline, however loose, I wander too much and have WAY too much revising to do later!

Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog