Life and our ability to assess our own knowledge goes in phases. There are many summaries of this, but since this is a writing blog, I wanted to point out that attitudes about story structure can change over the course of a life, or over the course of writing a novel or story. I am working my way through a new novel during NaNoWriMo, and I’ve noticed that although I’m a great fan of story structure (for reasons I’ll go into below), I don’t really follow the structure religiously, and yet things seem to work.
I just read the first half of the notorious screenwriting manual Save the Cat, and I’m surprised to say that this book doesn’t deserve a lot of the bad reputation it deserves. What makes Save the Cat notorious is its insistence on a rigid unfolding of the story, such that the hero goes through certain emotional states or does particular things on specific pages of a screenplay. You can translate the proportions of Snyder’s “beat sheet” onto the pages of a novel and get yourself a very rigid unfolding of your protagonist. Hollywood has gone through phases with Snyder’s work, where as of its writing, Save the Cat was praised as the definitive work on screenwriting structure. Now, a few years later, people contend Save the Cat has ruined movies forever by being too rigid.
I don’t think Snyder’s book deserves to be hated, since his main point in the book is not actually story structure, but that you, as a writer, absolutely need to know what your story is about. This is even more crucial for novelists than it is for screenwriters, because it’s easy to get caught up in all the details of a novel, have multiple story threads, and just too much complexity. The worst part of writing a novel for publication is trying to write a query letter that condenses 90,000 to 200,000 words of very careful character development and worldbuilding into a single sentence. Snyder insists that the writer have a good logline that tells the script reader what the movie poster looks like. My goal before I started work on my WIP A Mother’s Curse was to come up with a tagline that could go on the cover of the book, and would tell me what the cover looks like. It really helps.
Hollywood has also gone through this phase of praise and abandonement with The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s description of the common elements of mythology across all the world’s cultures. I think the hate is mainly self-inspired, since people have figured out that The Hero’s Journey is not a story structure, but a descriptive model of mythological storytelling. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t tell you how to write a story, it tells you how stories have been written (and not all stories, as Campbell makes clear). The Hero’s Journey is really a psychological theory, i.e. about the mind, and its reflection in storytelling, not a theory of storytelling. Thus people who try to write strictly according to The Hero’s Journey are often going to write stories that fall flat, and they’ll be at a loss to understand why.
Just like The Hero’s Journey, these trends in Hollywood illustrate how understanding of how things work goes in phases, tempered from within by the writer’s (or human being’s) attitude and maturity. In other words, these are phases of life, not just phases of art. In general the phases are:
- “I’ve eaten plenty of pizza in my day.” The novice writer has read tons of books, and even has an inkling of what goes into a beginning, middle, and end of a novel, and sets out to duplicate that without really being conscious of what he’s doing.
- “Why does this taste like saltines dipped in tomato soup?” Confusion reigns as beta readers (or mom) tell the writer how creative he is, but there’s something missing. This is often the stage where writers face a lot of rejection and don’t know why, or they can’t complete a novel and don’t know what’s missing that would supply the energy to finish it.
- “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look at a cookbook.” The writer realizes he’s in over his head, and consults a few books on the subject of novel writing. He goes “back to basics” and finds formulas, three-act structure, realizes he didn’t have a friggin’ antagonist (!), and starts from scratch.
- Arrogance. Once all the elements are in place, the writer finds how much easier it is to finish a work, and comes to believe that structure is The Solution, and goes around telling everybody about it.
- “Maybe my oven’s not hot enough.” Something is still missing, despite the writer figuring out that stories do all have to have certain things, those things alone will not make a great novel. This is when, in my personal experience, a lot of humility, firing a deadbeat agent, and getting a writing teacher will help a lot.
- “Flour, water, yeast, salt, and attention.” The writer goes back to back-to-basics, and learns how to break the rules.
Now, just as with The Hero’s Journey, this is not a prescribed set of steps, it’s something that mimics the stages of life, and has to be experienced from within, not set out on. I haven’t observed enough writers to know at what point publication happens, but according to Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, it could happen at any stage. Maass writes that books often get published with authors in Stage 1 or Stage 2 and then they don’t know what the hell happens when they can’t write the next book.
My guess is that they had all the necessary elements for a reader to really love a book without really knowing what they were doing. The author had intuitive knowledge of what makes a great book, and was able to put that on the page, but didn’t have enough discursive knowledge to know what to do when something went wrong. I completed my first novel without any planning, without saying who the antagonist was or what the central conflict was. My short stories, on the other hand, were missing many of the elements that actually make up a story. I had to
- Go back and analyze what a story is in the most basic formulation, as in “You know I was walking to the store today and this guy nearly ran me over while talking on a cell phone…”
- Look at some books on what a story exactly is.
Only then was I able to write a decent story. I got really hung up on story structure for a while because reading about it made it so much easier to make sure that things didn’t happen too fast or that I wasn’t boring the reader. There really is a beginning, middle, and end to every story, and if certain things happen in the wrong place, readers will be (at best) left with a funny feeling. The Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn, for instance, feels like two stories because instead of a fake death followed by a real climax, it has a real climax at the two-thirds mark, followed by a coda of another two hundred pages, which works up to a second climax.
Recently I’ve realized that trying to lay out a story structure is a hindrance rather than a help when you can discover those stages as you tell the story. It took me two months to get started on my WIP, and most of that time was trying to figure out what the right inciting incident was. Trying to lay out plot points and get them in the right places seems like a good recipe, but it actually has slowed me down since I don’t know enough about the characters to know what trouble they’ll get into before I write about them. This gets into “architects versus gardeners,” and plotters versus pantsers, but my basic point is that as you’re writing, you can discover where the plot points are and assign stuff to happen in the newly-discovered Act I.
Having one “inciting incident” is a little misleading, especially in a novel. In a two or three-act play or film, you may only have time for one thing to really get the ball rolling, but in a book there’s often a series of events that really ramp things up so the reader feels like she’s in “the middle.” I got into a situation in The Last Omen where I couldn’t decide what the inciting incident was. The problem was not that there was no inciting incident, but that there was an escalation of events between one upset in chapter 2 and several more before the main character was really in over her head. That’s fine in a book. Also, books can afford things like flashbacks and misleading narrators in ways that just make films confusing. So, although movie advice is often superior to novel advice (which tends to focus on “inspiration”), there are crucial differences between the two forms that need attention.
A lot of structuring happens in revisions, and so I’m not worrying about structure so much as I write a first draft. Without the discursive knowledge I’ve gained through stages 1-6 and not being an expert at any stage, I couldn’t make revisions, but trying to stick to a stucture ahead of time is too restrictive. Write now the focus is on the first draft.
I have been working hard on NaNoWriMo and I’m almost done. The work in progress is called A Mother’s Curse, and is heavily-influenced by Celtic Revival material, and an anecdote I read in Bede about the founding of Scotland. Apparently the Picts didn’t have any women with them when they arrived in Ireland, so they “borrowed” wives to found their new civilization in Scotland, under the agreement that they revert to the Scot side of the family in any succession disputes. I thought this was a nice recipe for political mixups, so the story begins (this time) with the death of a king (who wants buildup anyway). I’m mixing this in with a fair bit of magic, Lovecraftian monsters, a nasty femme fatale, and an occasional first-person narrator, a behind-the-scenes sort of puppet master.
I’m still querying The Last Omen, and have received some positive attention from agents. I also have gotten more personalized rejections in my short stories, which I’ve just decided to keep in rotation until one of them gets published.