Questionable: Story Form and Function
Mary (Egads) Wrote:
I’d like your thoughts on how form affects story.
I’m reading Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction Writing by David Jauss. Jauss gives an example of student writing that failed to flow, not because of syntax, but because of form. The short story had six scenes, each scene was about the same length and structured the same. Despite the good writing, the story was dissatisfying because “the sameness of length made the story’s rhythm seem choppy, almost staccato, and worse, it implied that each scene was somehow of ‘equal’ importance, when some were clearly more dramatic and life-altering than others.” He speaks to the similar scene structure saying, “the effect of six consecutive sections of similar structure and length was oppressive… This student’s story failed to flow because it was, structurally, repetition without variation.”
This probably comes up as part of revision, but what do you think about when you consider how form shapes story? How do you use form to give weight or emphasis? How can form reflect what is happening in the story?
Oh, boy, that’s a book in itself.
The shape of the container becomes the shape of the thing itself; transfer something to another container and it will reform to fit that shape. So the shape you pour your story into becomes part of that story.
If you tell your story in a first/second/third/fourth chronological structure, the most important thing about that story will be the effect of cause and effect on the forward movement of the plot.
If you break your story into pieces and arrange them in a pattern that is not cause and effect, the most important thing in the story will be how those pieces relate to each other, the patterns they form in the reader/viewer’s mind.
Change the structure, change the story.
In the example given with six parts to the story, each the same, there’s no movement, no sense of rising tension, because each piece feels roughly the same. If the pieces are part of a pattern, that’s fine. If the pieces are part of a chronological, rising action, then you have a problem because there’s nothing about that structure that escalates. If you want escalation, make each subsequent piece shorter so that the turning point/endings of each piece come closer together. That picks up the pacing and increases tension.
But there are other ways that structure can inform story. If you’re writing a story set in farm country about someone who is reaping the outcome of an action, you can set the first part of the story in the spring when she sows the action, set the rising action in the summer when she copes with the fallout, and put the climax in August when she reaps what she’s sown. You can structure a story on the sections of a boat race, instructions for assembling a stereo, recipes, song structure, the seasons, the progression of a storm . . . anything can be a structure as long as it reflects and enhances the story you’re telling.
Most of my fiction is cause and effect; that is, the story begins when my protagonist does something, that causes the antagonist to do something, that forces the protagonist to do something, etc. Because I’m interested in the protagonist’s character arc caused by outside pressure, the classic, linear structure appeals to me because it pushes my protagonist to the breaking point.
However, that’s not the only kind of structure I’ve used. When I wrote short stories, I played a lot with structure.
“Just Wanted You To Know” was an epistolary story, a letter with four post scripts, so the story was in five parts that tracked how the writer worked through her grief and pain at being deserted by her husband. It’s chronological, but there’s no antagonist pushing against her so it’s five separate episodes about different people pushing her and where she ends up with each one, with a pattern in how she reacts differently to them each time. So even though it’s chronological, it’s much more of a patterned structure. I’d never try that form in a novel, it’d be awful, but for the short story, it worked the way I wanted it to.
I did another longer story called “I Am At My Sister’s Wedding” that was a first person narrative about a woman at three of her sister’s weddings and at one of the husband’s funerals (written so long ago it was before Four Weddings and a Funeral). It was patterned again because I wanted a story about this woman at four family functions, coping four times with trying to understand her sister and trying to deal with her father; she’s fifteen at the first wedding and in her late thirties by the last one. I went for patterned structure again because I wanted the reader seeing the parallels among the events but not necessarily seeing a progression. She changes each time because she’s older and experienced each time, not because of an event in the story. It’s not a step by step process, but more of an observation of the way she changes between the events which gives her a different outlook on the same things. Again, I wouldn’t do an entire novel like that, but for that story, that structure fit the best.
Every time you tell a story, you look at the best way to tell that story, to give it the shape it needs. Example: Watch Soderburgh’s Out of Sight paying close attention to the scenes. When it’s over, replay the movie in your head, putting the scenes in chronological instead of patterned order. The exact same scenes in a different order tell a different story, with a completely different emphasis, a story I would argue is much less. If you want an even shorter example, go find the love scene on You Tube and watch it, then re-imagine it so that first you see all the scenes in the bar and then you see all the scenes in the bedroom. Vastly different and vastly inferior even though it’s the exact same scenes. That’s the power of structure to give meaning.
Ninety percent of structure in today’s storytelling is classic, linear, cause and effect, so that’s what we talk about the most. But the only rule for structure in storytelling is that you have to have one, preferably one that informs the story you’re telling.