I suck at structure.
Well, I suppose I should broaden that to plot structure, pacing, broad-strokes storytelling … the whole package, really. And maybe “suck” is too strong of a word, but I can say with confidence that it’s among the weakest aspects of my writing.
I’d guess that’s because it’s hard to teach any broad-stroke writing qualities. In my undergrad program, I was taught how to make beautiful sentences. My word choice, sentence clarity, lyricism, imagery, ability to cut needless verbiage, and other aspects of “tight prose” were repeatedly tested and refined. But while I could write thousands of sentences and learn through that process, it is a touch harder to write thousands of novels.
My awareness of this shortcoming has nagged at me for a long time, and I’ve made efforts to improve. Right now, though, I’m intent on focus-firing the issue until it’s nothing but ash.
My approach? Well, the number one thing I’m doing right now is studying conceptual frameworks for classic story structure. It’s not that I want to use this as a paint-by-numbers solution (tiny gods, no). But as I dissect various stories, having the language to describe what I’m seeing seems bound to make those readings more fruitful.
There is no singular framework that “defines” what a classic story is, but there are a few people who have done what they can to analyze the topic. I’m reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, exploring ideas from Save the Cat, thumbing through Wonderbook, and otherwise diving into the idea. The goal will not be to choose the “right” model for me but to define my own framework and come to my own language.
While I make no guarantees, I currently believe that writing here in a rather free-form way will be to my advantage. I intend to revise and re-revise my way of thinking as I move forward, but provide updates here along the way as long as that approach remains useful.
So it’s a sort of adventure of my own into the mysteries of the hero’s journey. I’ll link to new posts below as I write them.
The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the fifth part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish the other parts if you haven’t already. Enjoy!
Additions and Variations
This sequence might follow Step Three (Loving the whole miraculous world) in Memory & Adventure:
This part of the experiment is designed to help you focus on particular stories, to recover “lost” memories and sensory impressions, to discover compelling details, to confront the “gaps” in your recollections, and to make the leap from autobiography to fiction as you move between “happening truth” and “story truth.”
(The I Remember / I Don’t Remember / I Remember What I Don’t Remember sequence comes from Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg.)
Look at your “Matters of Life & Death” and “Moments of Wonder” lists.
Focus on the experience, impression, memory that seems most compelling to you today!
Try to remember as many details of the event as possible. Be specific! Focus on actual sensory impressions, things you can perceive with your miraculous body. (When you try to remember, imagine you are watching a movie of yourself in the past. What do you see and hear? If you could step inside the movie, what would you smell, taste, feel with your hands?) Avoid abstract words (love, hate, fear, rage, sorrow). Just try to conjure your private movie through the sensory details.
Begin this meditation with the words I remember. Every time you get stuck, say I remember again. Repeat the phrase until another image comes to you. Don’t stop writing! Write for at least 10 minutes, aim for 15. Don’t worry about telling the story. The purpose of this step is to evoke images, to discover what you already know, to fill your mind and your story with as many vivid details as possible.
Let yourself leap along your Web of Connections (and far beyond it). Remember: everything that enters your beautiful mind can be included! Keep your starting point in your heart and mind, but give yourself the freedom to explore anything that emerges.
I Don’t Remember:
Begin a second meditation with the words I don’t remember. Try to list all the things you wish you remembered but don’t. (For instance, one student could remember a gold brocade sofa in his parents’ living room, but couldn’t recall his dead mother’s face. The sense of loss in this juxtaposition is implicit. The reader doesn’t need to be told this is sad. We understand the bitter irony of seeing a piece of furniture more clearly than we see a mother.)
Sometimes saying I don’t remember makes you remember another detail. Don’t worry if you stray, but when you’re stuck, say I don’t remember and try to keep going.
Again, write nonstop for 10 – 15 minutes.
Try the I remember / I don’t remember meditations at least three separate times (in different moods, at different times of day . . . ). If several events seem linked, try separate meditations for each one.
[Variation: Try different positive/negative triggers: I hate/I love; I am/I’m not; I’m afraid/I’m not afraid . . . etcetera.]
I Remember What I Don’t Remember:
These experiments are designed to help you fill in the “gaps” of memory through imagination and research. This is the place where we leap (swim, crawl, scramble) from autobiographical territory into the uncharted landscape of fiction (or into a world of memoir that extends beyond our singular, isolated experiences).
(Again, thanks to Natalie Goldberg for her I Remember sequence)
Choose something from your “I Don’t Remember” meditations that seems essential to the story.
Try to render this scene or series of images as if you do remember. This is one of the small, constant challenges of making fiction, a basic part of the process that requires great energy and attention, and the willingness to explore the limits of your own imagination. (See Tim O’Brien’s commentary on this in The Things They Carried. I believe everything we read / write / experience has an ethical dimension, and O’Brien speaks to this most eloquently—as does Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire.)
This is where you might return to the Memory & Adventure Document, Part 4: Necessary Research (Dedicated & Discovery Research).
After you’ve done some research, you might return to this document to consider some of the possibilities for Design & Movement. (See all the Design & Movement Documents for more details.)
The Linear Path: This sequence of experiments is merely an outline, a great simplification of a very difficult, complicated, solitary, time-consuming process! I offer it as one example of how we may begin to design coherent, fluid narratives from a series of explorations. This example would lead you toward a traditional design, which is not (is not!) the only way you might choose to render a story, a play, a poem, a fragment of memoir . . .
Read Billy Collins’s essay “The Vehicle of Language”
Linear Variation: Okay, now you have a dramatic event, a main character (the person you once were), a swirl of images, moments of wonder, and a list of things you wish you remembered but don’t. Use these explorations to begin telling the story of that event moment by moment. Keep asking yourself:
What happened next, and what happened next? Feel free to add details. You may wish to alter or fuse characters, omit images that seem extraneous, or create tension by compressing the time frame of the story. If there’s something in the I don’t remember section that you need to remember, you’ll have to imagine it fully, and render it as if you do remember. The “factual” truth doesn’t matter. Your challenge is to tell the story truth, to make that fictional world as believable as possible. Tim O’Brien says, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”
Try to do this draft quickly. Trust your intuition. If you get stuck, make a note to yourself about the details you need to explore. (For instance, I once had a farmer killing a weasel in a story, and I knew I’d have to do research to conjure that event accurately. So I sketched out the scene and went back to it after I’d done some reading on weasels and understood why they will kill every chicken in the coop.
You might, at this point, look at the Design & Movement Handout on Breach, Conflict, Crisis, Climax, Redression, and Reintegration. I find it enormously useful for understanding and rendering social and environmental dramas.
But again, all the handouts on Design & Movement will be useful! You may be able to identify six or seven (or more!) patterns within a single narrative.
Writer Turns Critic:
Wait a day or two. Read your draft several times. Where does it seem strongest? Where is it vague or abstract? Can you see your people, your environment, the weather, all the living beings and potent entities? (Have you evoked your world? Have you made the dream vivid?) Is the sequence of events clear? Is there drama (notes of tension, notes of resolution)? Does the piece move toward climax of some kind, or do you lose your nerve and energy and move too swiftly to resolve the piece (or simply bail out of the story)?
Let someone else read it, and have that person tell you what s/he understands line by line. (It’s great to have someone say, “I really like this piece,” but if the person doesn’t tell you what s/he understands, you don’t know how much of your story you’ve communicated. Are there gaps in the story, missing images or events? Have your reader ask you questions. Is there anything else s/he needs to know to make the story feel complete? Have this person read the story aloud. Try to listen as if you are hearing this tale for the first time. Which parts are most interesting? Can you enhance them? Are there places where the language seems cumbersome or muddled? It’s surprisingly helpful to hear our own words in someone else’s voice. Do some parts seem unnecessary? Could they be compressed or entirely
omitted without sacrificing clarity? Has your intuition led you to the right tone, design, narrative distance, language, and point of view—or do you need to make adjustments? (On several occasions I’ve discovered that the wrong person is telling the story, that another being’s point of view would be more interesting—or that I need to explore multiple sensibilities. I’ve often moved from first to third person (or the reverse, doing a true translation, i.e. honestly considering what it is possible to sense/say/know from a different perspective). Be flexible! Sometimes you make surprising discoveries if you interrogate your basic choices.)
For Brave Hearts: Endless Translations:
This final step is meant to help you burst through all the limits of your personal experience, to begin traveling in the space between the self and the other, to gain enough flexibility, compassion, and curiosity to move in both directions (i.e. to sometimes begin in your own experience, and sometimes begin by focusing your loving attention on living beings who seem strange or terrifying).
Now you have a fictionalized account of a true event. But maybe a weird thing happened. Maybe the fiction feels more true because you’ve changed details or people in order to capture the emotional experience. This almost always happens for me. It’s the magic of making fiction.
It’s why I do it. I want to understand my people and their stories, and sometimes the simple “facts” get in the way. (See Tim O’Brien’s brilliant book, The Things They Carried, especially the sections “The Man I Killed”; “Ambush”; and “Good Form” for an exhilarating example and discussion of story truth and happening truth.)
If you still don’t think this is “fictional” enough, try telling the same story from the point of view of another person in the piece (or from the points of view of several beings, even some nonhuman beings). How do the “facts” change when you shift perspective, when you challenge yourself to imagine another being’s sensibilities, memories, associations?
Try altering “yourself.” Imagine the same story happening in the life of someone of the opposite sex, or someone 10 years older or younger than yourself. Or, if you want to be more radical, take the primary emotion (guilt, sorrow, rage) and change all the external circumstances. Here’s an example: I once wrote a story, mostly autobiographical, about a girl who hates her grandmother. When the grandmother dies, the girl feels responsible. The primary emotion is guilt. Years later I wrote a story about a white woman who feels responsible for the death of a slave in 1858. My intimate understanding of guilt was one of many autobiographical sources I tapped to imagine this story.
There’s no limit to the possibilities of translation. A story that’s essentially sad can be written in a comic way. A funny story can become dangerous, even deadly. Keep exploring until you find the version you like best, the one that captures the story truth most vividly.
Experiment, have fun, love the dream. Writing is an adventure, a plunge into the unknown, a process of discovery. Take delight in the journey, and try not to worry too much about the goal.
Once again, all of these steps can be applied to fictional as well as autobiographical material! Every story requires some kind of research. The dramatic events in any being’s life are fused and transformed by what s/he remembers and perceives—and by what s/he creates through imagination.
This is not the only way to make fiction!! Each writer must discover his or her own process. But this is one possible way to begin, and I offer it to you in the hopes that some of you will find it helpful (now, and in the years to come).
Sometimes the linear path is too confining. Perhaps you need to disrupt the time frame, moving between events of the past, present, and future. Sometimes the work comes in blocks of texts (modular design, see Madison Smartt Bell’s excellent discussion of this in Narrative Design) that create tension and texture through juxtaposition and exquisite attention to sensory impressions.
The options for experimentation are infinite.
In “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections and Began my Life Over Again,” Joyce Carol Oates breaks the traditional narrative form and creates a story in sections entitled “Events,” “Characters,” “World Events,” etcetera in order to conjure the voice and sensibility of her young narrator, a girl who is unable to reconstruct her story in a straightforward way.
This is the key: if you want to experiment, you need to have sound artistic, psychological, and philosophical reasons for your choices. Sometimes you understand these choices from the start, and sometimes understanding emerges through the process of exploration. If you’re going to make your reader’s task more challenging, s/he needs to be rewarded.
When I read John Wideman’s story “Fever” for the first time, I only understood about 10% of it, but that 10% was more riveting and emotionally satisfying than almost any story I’d ever encountered. Each time I reread the story, I comprehend more; each re-immersion is spiritually enlightening.
Be playful! Be daring! Then ask yourself why you’ve done what you’ve done and decide if the effects are the ones you desire.