Monday, May 24, 2010

Structure, Structure, Structure

There's actually been a surprising amount of internet access on this vacation. Free wi-fi on the plane (thanks AirTran). Free wi-fi at the hotel (thanks Holiday Inn). Makes me wish I'd brought my laptop, so I can actually work instead of just outlining, but that's also part tradition. I've actually written most of my outlines for stories while on vacations. And then torn them up, but I digress.

While waiting to leave the hotel and check in at the cruise ship (on which, dollars to doughnuts, there will be no free wi-fi, and if there is, I will be extremely irritated that I didn't bring the laptop), I figured I'd write up a quick post about story structure.

A lot of the way I structure stories comes from Babylon 5 which, ironically, J. Michael Stracynski (creator of that show) called a "novel for television," more or less. I actually admire the television format quite a bit for telling arc-based stories. Arcs develop slowly and with great buildup. In Babylon 5 there might be week-to-week, episodic plots, but the arc would always be there until it finally kicked into high gear and really took over the story, integrating elements that one might've thought would just disappear. In my mind, it's a really powerful methodology. All too often, I think writers try to make things happen too quickly and don't give time for characters to organically grow. This slower pace feels more natural, however. It feels like the characters are truly the sum of their experiences.

When I was writing Echoes, I was coming at it from the approach that I'd had with my last original works, which are called Nicholas Torrence and Shepard Clay. I won't talk about plot there, but structurally, I'd done each of those as chapters with 10-15 scenes. The chapters were almost all invariably eight thousand words, which I kind of took as a red flag. Indeed, starting with Echoes, I realized I wanted some smaller subdivision of action. It was from there I started doing numbered acts, and with Identity, I've really put a lot more importance on these structural units. While the chapter in Identity is still extremely vital, the acts have much more standalone footing here than they did in Echoes, I think. And I think this is also a big reason why they're larger than their Echoes counterparts, even though I still generally aim for 4-6 acts per chapter.

I will say that this structure is not a one-thing-fits-all stories structure. For what I do--right now, that's stories with several different POV characters and multiple plotlines--it's a structure that makes sense to me. I'll note that Nicholas Torrence and Shepard Clay were not those kinds of stories (they're both first person POV). "Before and After" isn't that kind of story either; while I'm writing it like I write acts in Identity, it doesn't have that mid-level structure.

I don't think a writer will necessarily know the structure of his story even at the outlining stage. You may have an idea, but often the story demands to be told in a certain way and pacing. It's a process of discovery, and you have to figure out what gives you room for your characters to grow and for plot to unfold at the place and time that you like.

And now that I'm back from vacation, no, there was no free wi-fi on the ship. It was 75 cents a minute, and I used it very, very sparingly.

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