Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge
When I originally got the idea for my first novel, Scarab, some thirteen years ago, it was as a series of questions: What if a quantum computer, exhibiting human-like consciousness, is used by unscrupulous people to change the laws of physics by utilising quantum mechanics’s “observer effect”, and in doing so, runs foul of a powerful threshold guardian – the Sphinx of Giza? What if the hero is a reluctant, middle-aged, recovering alcoholic in love with a young film student who is looking for a good story to put herself on the map? And what if their endeavours bring them into conflict with these same unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to fulfill their power-hungry ambitions?
These thoughts, which were to form the basis of my novel, had less to do with story structure and more to do with right-brain musings. I let my imagination wonder, gave my characters desires, beliefs, and goals, placed them in interesting environments, gave them a general direction, and let them write their own story while I tried my best to keep up with them.
But if stories spring from the imagination, essentially a right-brain activity, where does all our hard-won knowledge of story structure come in? Part of the answer is: after the first draft. This is when one reviews the story in earnest and checks it against structural requirements: does it contain the must-have scenes? Are the structural components such as turning points, midpoint, and pinches, in the ball-park? If not, would reshuffling them and adjusting them benefit the story?
There is, however, a longer term benefit associated with the prolonged study of structure: The more we think and learn about the subject, the more we understand it, the more spontaneous the process of writing becomes. Corrections and adjustments that had to wait for revision to be applied, begin to appear in the first draft. Theoretical knowledge becomes practical knowledge, pointing to an increased integration of two largely different processes born in different hemispheres of the brain. It is this integration, perhaps more than any other process, that marks our growing maturity as storytellers.
A thorough understanding of story structure helps the writer strengthen the first draft of a story. As the writer’s understanding of structure deepens, so does the ability simultaneously to apply analytical processes in tandem with creative ones – the mark of a maturing skill.
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