Post: Structuralism

Screenplay is structure, they tell me. I tell them that it’s lucky I don’t write screenplays then, but this makes no difference, apparently. They tell me that even novelists need to be aware of the three-act structure, the need for second protagonists and inciting incidents and reversals – and by then they are usually speaking to the empty air, for I have run screaming from the room.

I cannot, I can not think about my work – or anyone else’s – in these analytical terms. (I’m avoiding other adjectives here – reductionist, or mechanistic, or formulaic – because they might come over as pejorative and that is not my purpose. Process is individual: a lot of people do think about writing this way, and for them it does work, and that’s grand. It’s just not me, that’s all. Not my process.)

Which is not to say, of course, that structure does not matter in fiction. Structure is crucial: doubly so, indeed, because there is both internal and external structure to a story. The skeleton, if you like, and the scaffolding.

Every story has its inherent shape, the logic that holds it all together, the truths of character and worldbuilding and consequence. These are the familiar structures of our own lives: things happen because of what we do, because of who and what and where we are. The world is as it is, and everything operates within our understanding of that. The same has to be true in fiction; ‘plot’ is a misnomer, it’s more a kind of inevitability. Nudge one domino, the rest just have to fall. The way they’re all set out ready – character, worldbuilding, mise-en-scène – that’s structure. Gravity and time, the laws that underlie all our experience.

And then there’s external structure, the devices of rhetoric and narrative that we impose on a story. It’s not possible to describe every moment of every character’s experience, so we have to make choices: whose point(s) of view and how intimately we sit within their head(s), how we break the story up and how we break it down, how we choose to tell it. My mother makes patchworks, and so essentially do I: a fragment here and a fragment there, these two stitched together with that for contrast, and like that. Chapters make patterns in the narrative, blocks of colour and shape; edges carry meaning, how this abuts against that. It’s all matter, it all matters. Propinquity is significance, or can be. Distance too.

And voice, of course, first person or third. Or second. Or a mixture. I once wrote a novel that mingled first with third, except that – well, no spoilers, but that was all about structure, the heart of the story built into the way it was narrated.

If narrative is a flow, then a novel I guess is a river, or at least a river runs through it. When I was writing the Outremer series (Crusader-based fantasy, since you ask), the first book is told strictly from two points of view in alternating chapters: strict structure. But the story grew wider than two characters could possibly experience; volume two opens out, to include the points of view of those people they met in volume one. I liked that, I thought it was smart as well as useful, so I did the same again in the final volume. I guess I wrote a delta.

[This post is brought to you by mid-novel anxiety: I’m thirty thousand words into a novel of eighty thousand, which is the ideal point to start worrying, I find. In the interests of variety, this time I’m worrying about structure, because it doesn’t have any. I love chapters, I insist on chapters, and this book refuses to break down that way. So far it’s just one continuous narrative, and if it has a sense of shape I cannot see it. Yet.]

Browse Chaz Brenchley’s bookshelf at BVC, and buy Dead of Light as an e-book.



Post: Structuralism — 5 Comments

  1. I think the danger of formulaic writing is obvious. I’m sure a lot of novels do fall into a rough three-act structure, but a lot more won’t. Why three acts anyway, and not four, or five? Film is a much more limited medium than the novel, which gives scope for so much more.

  2. I worked as an editor with a guy who had taken one of those “Secrets of Success: The Five Beat Plot” classes and seriously drunk the Kool Aid. Gods. He handed in a piece of work which, as he seriously pointed out, had everything:set up, attempt, crisis, resolution, validation (or something like that). It also had peculiar and unconvincing characters and made no sense. It was as if he’d got a certain number of words in, then thought “Right, then! That’s it for set up!” and plunged directly into rising action without finishing the setup (or possibly the sentence). And because his work was based on someone else’s authority, every time I tried to help him, he’d cite his teacher and curl protectively around his baby.

    I’m a “structure evolves” kinda girl myself. I know that’s not everyone’s way, though.

  3. For a second I thought you were going to talk about post-structuralism.

    I like your thoughts on structure. What continues to mystify and intrigue me is the intersection between the writer’s structure and what readers perceive structure ought to be.

  4. The ubiquituity of the three act structure is a result of ubiquituity of film and television anyway. Because older dramatic forms such as the classic drama and also opera libretti usually have five acts rather than three.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the three act structure. It’s only natural that a lot of writers gravitate to that structure, because storytelling in general has been influenced very much by film and television. But it isn’t the only possible structure out there, neither for novels nor for screenplays. And if a writer sticks too slavishly to the three act structure he or she has been taught, the result tends to get mechanical and also predictable. For example, there are a lot of TV shows where I can pretty much predict what is going to happen in a given episode, once I’ve hacked the formula.

    I don’t really think about acts either, when I’m writing (unless I am writing a play of some kind, though my teenaged attempt at writing and composing an opera had five acts). Instead, I use scenes and chapters as orientation. But then, every writer’s process is different.

  5. I am grinning at your current predicament, Chaz — when I wrote my first novel, FIRE SANCTUARY, it had no chapters. 110,000 words, no chapter breaks. Lillian Stewart Carl and I were reading for each other then, and she insisted on chapters. So I put them in. But they were after the fact — originally I broke things up into scenes, place, time and date to orient people.

    It was enough for me, so why have chapters? I still tend to make chapters 20-35 pages. Going to try short chapters intentionally in a new work.