Monthly Archives: February 2016

Structure of Stories and Intuition

Structure of intuitionSTRUCTURE is helpful in showing us how to write stories that flow well.

Developed from Aristotle’s core advice that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, the study of structure has expanded then crystallised into a set of techniques that add detail to specific parts of a typical story, such as the inciting incident, turning points, and the like.

Certainly, tweaking a story at the editing stage through knowledge of such structural nodes helps the writer to smooth out the drafts that inevitably follow.

But how does a knowledge of structure help us write a better story while we are actually writing it? Surely, few of us write while thinking about such abstractions? Don’t we mostly follow the fire of the story, wherever it may lead us, at the level of the story and not of structure?

Structure and Intuition

Sidestepping debates of whether you are a plotter or a pantser, and avoiding an outright cognitive discussion of the process, I think the answer is that we do, at the point of contact, have to shift our synopsis to the background and write from the gut. We have to follow the fire.

But the fire is inevitably influenced by our knowledge of structure. And, of course, by our experience of life. So, while it may appear that the words flow spontaneously from our brains, they have been cultured, at a deeper level, by our knowledge of the craft and life.

We all have different ways of manifesting this deeper knowledge while we write. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘midpoint approaching’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to flit to exemplars in order to intuit how great works have navigated similar problems.

My own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence, which alerts me to the possibility that I may have missed a structural node, or that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my mind, then, I often find myself jutting out an elbow, or pushing out a hip as I try to feel, in a visceral sense, necessary changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance – a free flowing stream that assumes shape through bends, turns, through its changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth – that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the creative flame.

Summary

Our awareness of story structure during the first draft should nestle in the background, influencing the story but not inhibiting the creative fire.

Literature. Can it be as Popular as Genre Fiction?

Popular Literature?JUST LATELY I’ve come cross several blogs and editorials in social media that criticise literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies are seen as boring, introverted, and static while the former are pacy and exciting.

Now, goodness knows, literature can be slow and boring, as can off-beat movies. I’ve said so here on more than one occasion. But the same can be true of popular writing and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against laughable plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

Literature versus the World

I don’t know about you but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find a large number of them to be more boring than most literature or art films. Which is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in the potential of convention.

But I do believe that there are many things we can learn from literature and art film.

What kind of things, you ask?

Well, how about integrity, truthfulness, and enhanced observation that lead to a strong sense of connection with fictional characters? In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I tried to create just such a connection between the reader and my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos.

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with truthful observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot need not harm the deep search for truth and meaning – the purvey of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to run-of-the-mill readers and audiences as well as endowed with deeper layers of value – namely, meaningful stories that contain strong and exciting plots.

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Old Age and End of Life in Stories

Old Age and End of LifeIn this final article on age-related categories drawn from Linda Seger’s book, Advanced Screenwriting, I examine themes related to old age and end of life.

Old Age

As we age even further we feel a pressing need to reconcile past deeds with our conscience. We seek to resolve past hurts, overcome alienation, heal relationships, deal with regret. On Golden Pond, tells the story of three generations of characters who meet in order to reconcile with one another. In Magnolia, the dying father recognises that in order to affirm his own integrity he has to reconcile with his son.

In my own novel, The Land Below, the aging Troubadour, wracked by guilt for having kept a startling secret from the young protagonist, Paulie, chooses a climactic moment to reveal the truth about his lineage.

End of Life

But as the prospect of death creeps even closer, another issue gains prominence. Linda Seger relates her observations in a nursing home for the aged where she noticed two basic types of reactions from people close to death – anger and mellow acceptance.

There were those who felt that they had somehow been cheated out of their just deserts, or that life had somehow passed them by. These were issues that they had not resolved earlier in life and that were now coming home to roost.

Then there were people who seemed to accept the end of their lives with a mellow acquiescence and a deep gratitude for having participated in life’s adventure at all.

Although some stories, such as Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, deal with the subject of death and reconciliation in a breathtakingly insightful way, there is generally a dearth of stories featuring this last stage of one’s life – certainly in film. This could be a rich source to explore in the future, especially for a population that increasingly is achieving longer lifespans.

The point to stress, as Erik Erikson indicates, is that if we fail to deal with life’s themes at the time they occur they will continue to fester, under the surface, until we do.

In Dead Poet’s Society, Todd is forced to resolve issues of self-esteem, identity, integrity, and belonging because he never resolved these issues as a teenager. In Rain Man, Charlie, who carries with him the pain of a childhood in which he felt he didn’t belong, has to reconcile issues of achievement and success juxtaposed against the need for intimacy and integrity before he can resolve his inner conflict.

A character who is dying, then, may be forced to face unresolved issues at the time he is least equipped to do so.

Summary

Confronting unresolved themes during old age is the last great task we have to perform as people, and through fictional characters in our stories.

Fifties through Eighties in Stories

Fifties through EightiesIn Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson, the German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings, ends his discussion on the subject of one’s development by focusing on the topic of integrity versus despair – a topic that becomes more pressing as one enters one’s fifties.

Linda Seger defines a character’s integrity as the ability to hold to one’s ethical or moral identity, despite the powerful forces that threaten to knock one off track. Erikson believed that discovering how we can hold onto our integrity as we move through life is something we have to confront head-on.

As we begin to look back on our lives we ask the questions: How have we used our talents? How have we contributed to the world? In short, have we made of our lives something to be proud of?

Whereas during our earlier years we tend to focus on our achieving or rounding off success in the world’s eyes, our later years are devoted to scrutinising the true meaning of that success.

Fifties through Eighties

If one has compromised one’s integrity in pursuit of gain during our twenties, thirties, and forties, dealing with the spiritual and psychological consequences during our fifties and sixties becomes a growing preoccupation. Stories abound of unethical practices being revealed later in life, often stripping the character of her material possessions and public esteem.

Although Erikson sees this conflict as maturing in one’s sixties, it can pop up at any age. At home and in grade school, we are taught not to cheat or steal, and we do so at the expense of our conscience, leading to inner conflict – although it is probably true that our later years grant us more time for reflection.

The importance and longevity of this age-related theme is reflected in the number of films that have received Academy Awards in recent years: The Green Mile, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, Elizabeth, The Lord of the Rings, Traffic, The insider, L.A. Confidential, and the like.

Summary

Advancing years – fifties and beyond – offer us the perspective to consider the true value of our lives, and to reflect this in our writing.