The Craft of Writing: Structure, Shape, and Interest

I’ve been beta-reading a manuscript by a local writer. It’s a middle-school novel aimed at boys. The prose is for the most part okay and there’s some particularly strong dialog. Yet . . . and any of us who have critiqued manuscripts know that YET . . . the story wasn’t working for me. I could point to a number of superficial elements, but something deeper kept nagging at me. I adopted one of my standard techniques, which was to pay attention to when I got bored. Alas, the moments that engaged my interest were all too short. And yet, the story wasn’t inherently tedious. What was going on? Was it simply that I have never been a 10 year old boy?

It wasn’t until I read Bill Bryson’s hilarious memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, that I had an inkling of what was going on. Bryson’s book centers on growing up in Iowa in the 1950s; some of the material is Iowa-nostalgia, some is 50s-nostalgia, but what swamps them both is Boy Stuff. Boogers and worms and vacant lot baseball and mail-order chemistry kits and B movie matinees and a thousand and one tricks played on friends, each more grossly disgusting than the one before. The things that grabbed me were exactly these (for instance, two brothers figuring out how to have water balloon fights through mini-time portals, although why they didn’t shove their baby sister through one just to see what would happen was never clear to me).

This is a long way of saying that a story should have congruence between its structure (three acts, plot, etc.), its shape (rising tension, climax, etc.) and a third element, interest (the cool stuff, the things that make the reader perk up). The scene in which the boys discover how to use the time portals to ambush each other lasted maybe half manuscript page, yet that was where the money was for this reader.

In general, the more intense the drama, the slower the pace should be. This means drawing the moment out and digging deep. When I began writing, I thought that if the action was fast and furious, it shouldn’t take up much manuscript space. Just the opposite is true. Passages in which nothing exciting happens merit terse summary. Agonizing do-or-die moments, “the fate of the world depends on your next move,” have the emotional weight to carry blow-by-detailed-blow narrative. (Not necessarily long sentences — in fact, short sentences and paragraphs work well.)

To return to the story in question, what the author had done was to skim the stuff that made this story different from all other stories (and in all likelihood, would appeal to the target audience). This created a discrepancy between the tension-shape and the interest-shape of the story. If I were to diagram the two, they would peak at different places and at different heights. The result is that I as a reader was left frustrated by not getting to explore and live out the fiendishly inventive adventures of two brothers, so I wasn’t particularly interested in what was at stake in the climax.

After I’d set the manuscript aside for cogitation, I picked up a recently-published alternative-history novel. The book began with strange and wonderful twists on real history, a heady mixture of actual unsolved mysteries, and plots between villainous aliens and people who were true villains in history. Oh, and William Shakespeare. Twist built upon twist until about half-way through, the book devolved into a depressingly conventional action-adventure. I felt as if all the wonder had been sucked out of that world. Either that, or I’d been hoodwinked, a victim of bait-and-switch. I became so disinterested, I almost set the book aside during the climax. The cool stuff was all window-dressing, scene-setting for a blow-em-up battle that could as well have happened in Poughkeepsie.

Good fiction of any kind offers us congruence between interest and action, between what grabs our imagination and what grabs our adrenal glands. Great fiction integrates not only our imagination and our hormones but our hearts as well.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online.

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The Craft of Writing: Structure, Shape, and Interest — 4 Comments

  1. Hmm. I think long sentences work best in scenes of suspense. It’s the action scenes where short sentences and paragraphs work best.

    (Long sentences connect things. Short ones mark them out as discreet. Until they just seem staccato.)

  2. Hmmm… There are long sentences and then there are complex sentences, that force the reader to slow down. There are long words and then there are complex words, ditto.

    Maybe the secret isn’t so much “long vs short” as variety, so you don’t have paragraph upon paragraph of staccato brevity or polysyllabic latinate complexity.

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  4. Deborah: what I think you are saying is that dramatic moments need to be scenes, transitioned to by summaries. And that it’s a mistake to summarize action. If so, I agree.

    It’s somewhat distancing for me as a reader to come across something like And so Hero ran across the city, every so often throwing hand grenades through windows, as the enemy chased after. While he ran he considered his next step.

    I want to be inside Hero’s head (or a chaser’s), feeling the sudden blasts, smelling the sharp sweat, the hot tinge of smoke, hearing the rattles and bangs and footsteps, and I want to feel Hero’s emotions as it happens.