Framework, or Cage?


100_doctors_1I’ve been following a blog by a self-admitted mid-list author offering an ebook on writing (and which mid-list author isn’t offering a how-to book on writing?), in which he asserts story structure is the most important thing in the writing universe.

Now, anyone’s who’s spent a bit of time reading my online (rough-draft) manuscript, Ghost Hunters, knows in-depth plotting and story structure aren’t big strong suits of mine.  My plots (to me) feel very simplistic, straight-forward, lack twists and turns, and seem about as thickly woven with subplot, subtext and theme as a Stephenie Meyer “novel”.  In part, I want to believe this is due to lack of story structure and architecture.  Because that’d mean I can fix it by learning about and practicing those things.

Let me tell you the story of the story.

I started writing manuscript-length works in seventh grade.  Before that, most of my stuff was short.  Vignettes and short fiction seems to be where I excel; with novel-length works, there’s a lot more stuff happening, and a lot more interest-holding has to take place.  I’m on shaky ground there.  Eventually, I started trying longer pieces, but I either lost interest or lost control of them.  In 1992, I finished a manuscript which, being kind about my first effort, sucked like a Hoover.  I stayed away from writing for a long time after that, and focused on art.  In 2004, I finished a (very, very) long manuscript, and when I look back on it now, it’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve written since 1992.

Then, in 2006 or 2007, I started getting serious again.  I began writing my childhood memoirs, and found if I focused and worked at it, I could write something entertaining and fun.  Then I decided to tackle something I found especially troublesome in my writing historically – dialog.  I decided to create a situation in which two very different characters talk to each other with speech patterns so different, speaker tags would be unnecessary.  Then introduce a third character and keep the distinctions going.  Beyond three, I felt, would be way too hard.  I’d have to use speaker tags.

Well, I showed my wife the exercise, and she gushed.  She said she loved it, it was great, write more, please.  Every day she urged me to write more.  Keep going.  Push on, you’ve really got something here.  You know what?  That turned into Ghost Hunters, and I’ve received a lot of compliments on it despite how it’s lousy with adverbs, overwrought descriptions and too-long back-and-forth banter between the characters.

It’s the first time I’ve written something manuscript-length which 1) kept its focus, 2) had a single, unaltered storyline, 3) had scenes which either focused the reader on the story or developed characters, and 4) wasn’t completely lame.  Oh, and I received the most compliments on my dialog, which I always held as my weakest point.  But there wasn’t any real planning in it; because of how organically it grew, it just … happened.

It was easy, and mostly fun, but it feels very simple, basic, uninteresting.  To me.

Part of me thinks it’s because there’s no structure, no architecture, and I’ve long heard how important those are.  Pants-seat writing, I’ve heard (though I can’t tell you where or when if pressed), is bad writing, is strictly luck when it works and flows and has depth, and isn’t something anyone serious about writing should do consistently.  (My wife thinks I’ve over-structured my current WIP, which is why I can’t bust through this wall and write.)

What do you think?  I think for me, I need to have some combination of both.  I need to have flexibility in the structure, but I need the framework to keep me focused (though I did write all 94K words of GH’s first draft by the seat of my pants with no clue about how it’d turn out) and to solve sticky plot issues like I’m facing with my WIP.

If you’re a writer, do you do it with structure, pants-seat, or a combo?  If you’re a reader, how do you read?  Do you look for story structure, plot points, subplots and subtexts, foreshadowing and theme?  Or do you just … read?  Also, anyone have recommended books on plot or structure?  A favorite you have, one you swear by?

Let me know.  Hope you all had a wonderful weekend.

-JDT-

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18 thoughts on “Framework, or Cage?

  1. For me, I guess you say I’m a by the pants type. Normally it’s me waking up at 2am and something just comes to me out of nowhere. The next day I will slave away to try and get it down and make it captivating. My mentor says I need to do outlines or a bio if I am to do a novel. But everytime I sit down and try, it just doesn’t work out. So I have put Alice and Bella (my two main novels I’d like to write) on the side. Focusing on my short stories and learning to be a better writer. I hope someday to be able to pick my girls back up and write them again. I know where I want them to go, but getting them there, I just don’t have enough organization to do it and keep it right.

    I understand the need for the story structure, but I think a lot of people might disagree about NEEDING an outline. I think you can get something started if you want to without one and see where you (or for some, the characters) think the story needs to go. Worse comes to worse, you can always rewrite. Right? 😀

    I read those that keep me captivated, make me turn that page to find out what’s behind that door, or where you are going. I don’t care if it’s perfect, or all the words are exactly right. Just give me more and don’t stop. I like a book that leaves me feeling like I was ragged and beat up with the main character. 🙂

    Reader engagement in the story: Is anything better? 😀

    • It seems a lot of people agree, just write it down, don’t worry about everything else. When you go back and edit, then you can worry about if it works or not. Granted, to me, editing a whole novel when I’m just learning to edit my short stories is daunting, overwhelming. But, it’s all part of the process I suppose. Just reading your short stories, you have no problems at all. You are an awesome writer, your wife was right to nudge you along. 🙂

      Aw, thanks, Beth. But I have plenty of problems. I’m working on them with every piece I write, but motivation is one I can’t seem to exercise my way through. 🙂 I really appreciate the encouragement though. Keep the words spilling out of your head. Everything’s eventually going to fall in place — editing too. 😉

  2. I am a big believer in story structure. When a story is well structured, I think it reads better and had a better shot at packing an emotional punch.

    Lots of truth in there. No idea HOW to do it, but you’re right about this part. 😉

    That’s not to say that all the figuring and structuring needs to happen before the writing, though. I think seat-of-the-pants is a fine way to go, and then during editing you can check out what structure is there.

    That’s an interesting idea. Have you seen this proposed by anyone? Or would writing a synopsis sort of reveal the structure? How do you find it after the writing is done? Dish, Bryce, dish!

    I don’t thing the structure that Larry over at storyfix lays out is the only way to think about the structure, but I do think it’s a good one. Rather than plot points and pinch points and such, I’ve seen the structure organized (at a high level) as “Three disasters and an ending.”

    Interesting. I don’t know the full “Larry way” because I can’t find his 13-part series on his site, despite his posts indicating it would be there. I also haven’t (can’t, won’t) cough up for his book. So if you don’t feel like it’s stealing to share the “Larry way”, feel free to let me know what it is. I’m willing to try anything to avoid having stagnation like this on any other project I launch.

    That being said, I’m laying out my next novel “the Larry Way” to see how it goes. Assuming I ever finish what I’m working on now.

    Story of our lives, iddn’t it?

  3. My post today sort of ties in to this topic. Is that any surprise? lol

    Hehehe! Should I be creeped out? 😀

    I think simple plots are just fine. Where did you get the idea that “good” equates to “thickly woven with subplot, subtext and theme”? How about a simple, straightforward story that allows other elements, like characterization, to shine?

    Well … I guess then it’d be a matter of whether those characters did in fact shine. A whole NEW set of things to worry about! Woo!

    Ditch those shoulds!

    Tryin’! Tryin’ like heck!

  4. Knyt

    What do I think, since you asked. I think you say I CAN’T way to much. Dont think it, dont say it, don’t go near it. Just buckle down and write. Put it on paper all the conversations you remember in HE SAID SHE SAID framework then go back and adjust. For me reading books about writing are baloney. Write whats in your head the way you see it or remember it..then let someone else fix the parts that need to be fixed..had a great weeked thanks..cut the neighbors grass thats always fun…zman sends

    There’s quite something in these words, Zman. Thanks. Glad your weekend was solid. 🙂

  5. I can’t contribute much to this thread since I haven’t actually tried to write anything other than a poem recently–but–I do read 🙂 I don’t give a hoot about structure or anything else unless it is horrific writing and exposes its inadequacies in these areas.

    I think once I do start writing it is going to be a seat of your pants type of thing. Otherwise, it will seem like work, not something enjoyable. That’s my opinion. Consider the source, though–I’m not one with much experience in the writing arena.

    Oh, I think you have more to say than you might think. Writers are, after all, readers too. Maybe readers first. And sometimes they have some of the sharpest insights for us to learn and grow from. 🙂

  6. Two thoughts:

    1. Over-structuring/-thinking before the work is done is a good way to blind yourself to those lovely bursts of surprise which happen all through the process of making a new story. Characters suddenly veer off in new directions, plot points almost click audibly into sudden place, secondary characters suddenly assert themselves, etc. That sort of thing is so much fun, I’m surprised that the advocates of outline-in-detail are still finding an audience!

    2. It’s also a good way to postpone getting started at all (just like “research” that way). Heh.

    Guilty on both counts. I think I’ve discovered something here, with the help of all you brilliant people as guidance, and I’m well on my way to finding a methodology that works for me and won’t hem me in so tight I can’t flex some. Thanks, JES! Glad you came by today! Good, good thoughts, those two.

    • Just a thought on what JES said. Some of the best stuff (IMO) I’ve come up with happened because I had an outline. I knew exactly where the story was going so I could focus on an interesting way to get there – but that’s just how my brain works.

      I like the idea of a track to run on, personally. I don’t think having a general idea of what has to happen in the story means you can’t change lanes along the track, you know? It still ends in the same spot. I’ve learned a lot about this method today, and I’m likin’ it.

      Besides, why can’t secondary characters assert themselves, storylines veer off, etc. while you’re expanding an outline? If you do have an outline, you can still have those surprises as you write. You can always change an outline, it’s not like once it’s made it’s set in stone.

      True enough. That would damage my brain, but that’s me. I think for NORMAL people that’d be a great option; it’s not a marriage. It’s an outline.

      A non-outliner might say “that takes out all the fun of discovery.” While an outliner might say “It clears away all the junk and makes discovery easier.”

      I think it’s personal preference.

      I think you’re right. Every writer has to find the way that works best for them.

      • Bryce, agree with you pretty much. Flying entirely without a flight plan may not be a great idea (although it also depends on how good the pilot’s instincts are; some are pretty good at dead reckoning).

        When writing my original comment I was thinking of a younger sister, who’d sent me an early and incomplete draft of a long story she’s writing. Real early. Her question to me was along the lines of “So, what do you think? Am I on track here? Is this headed in the right direction?” I told her it was way too early to be asking that question — that she couldn’t really know what the “right” direction was until the story (at least the first draft) was complete… that if she decided too soon on the “right” direction, she’d be closing off whole avenues of possibility which might, in the long run, actually turn out to be better.

        In the WIP, I pretty much know what the outcome is going to be and in fact have already done two complete drafts and a third partial — now rewriting, really, rather than revising. (It had been years since my last stab at it.) While many of the key scenes are unchanged in their basic structure, within and among them are all sorts of hidden surprises — surprises for me which, I believe, are going to make for a better book. Or I hope so, anyhow. 🙂

  7. I am a pantser. It probably isn’t the easiest way to do it. Basically though, I think you should do what works and not expect it to be the same every time.

    Now, THERE’S a thought. Try mixing and matching styles as you go. Interesting. 🙂

  8. Everyone has his or her way. Look at all the novels out in the world and think of the ones you love–are they all heavily structured? How can you tell? Who knows how the writer came to the structure if they don’t tell you?

    I don’t structure. Whatever. Maybe I should. I was a lousy outliner in school. But if it works, then hurray. There is no one way/right way except the way that gets it written for you. A lot of my students want to know how to write better (granted, they mean academic writing, but still…). They want the magic rule, the formula, the one that will make it all fall into place. And all I can tell them is to write. Write. Write. The more you write, the more you learn about what works. I’ve written five novels–in various messes I suppose–and I’m always learning, relearning, figuring it out.

    Just for the research, pick up a New York Times Book review. See what they say about all the books inside. This always gives me ideas about the myriad ways to write a book. See which books grab your attention. Go with that. Start there. Start.

    I make it up as i go (which you can probably tell) but that’s how I like it. Sue me. And later sometimes I lay it all on the floor in pieces (scenes) rearrange it, think about it, see where there are gaps, repeats, whatever. I don’t really care if it might save time to outline/structure first because I can’t do that. Time will pass either way, so go write.

    Hated outlining in school; still do, I think. I get too rigid in my outlining, get too detailed, don’t know how to fly at 30,000 feet and just give an overview. I micromanage myself when I outline. So today — just today — I figured out how I’m going to go about it. I can’t have NO structure; that won’t work for me. So I have to find something. Processes — I need processes. I think today I’ve found one that will work for me. And now, I can start. And if it DOESN’T work for me, well … NEXT!

  9. The only structure I require in my writing is a tight story question that isn’t answered until at least the climax. And I try to end every chapter with some kind of hook or note of dread. Other than that, I don’t worry or even think about structure.

    You’re one of the blessed ones. 🙂 Oh, and can you define “tight story question”? I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds very useful. 😀

    When I’m writing, I don’t really do outlines, but as I’m writing, I write down things that must happen and information that needs to come out, then incorporate those points in future scenes. With my newest book, I have no exact clue where I’m going and it’s creating a bit of drag. I usually work faster, but I have to wrestle my way through so many points, so finishing it has been very slow-going.

    That’s something the creator/marketer of this system indicates is a problem it solves. Like you, I jotted things to cover down in my last manuscript especially near the end, where things started coming to a head. But in my current “WIP” (if you can call it that), I had an outline and tried to make the points I had to cover as I went, and it just … bogged and died. I can’t explain it, but I think rewinding and going forward with some of the stuff I’ve learned in mind MIGHT solve it.

    • A story question is the main concern that writers should give to their MC in chapter 1 and also to readers. It serves as the big hook. Like in the first book in my series, my MC overhears a plot for mass murder. So the questions posed in readers’ minds are who are the conspirators and will she be able to stop them. She fails early on and this amplifies those questions as the threat for more and worse destruction grows. Although I have other subplots for readers to concern themselves with, this is the main thing that keeps them reading. And I don’t answer it in full until the epilogue. If a writer withholds the answer to their story questions until the climax though, that’s good.

      Interesting. I’ll have to ask myself if the manuscript I’ve completed poses a question or not.

      In book 2, my MC receives a glimmer of hope that her dead daughter may be still be alive. Although I have several huge subplots that are separate until near the end when they finally collide, they all tether to this question in some way. And again, I don’t answer it until the end.

      Stories pose many questions in a reader’s mind, but there should always be a main question that holds taut. The very first book I wrote was faulty because I didn’t understand this aspect of structure. In it, the MC was kidnapped as a child but was led to believe her parents had perished. She finds out the truth at the 2/3rds mark, which is way too soon.

      Interesting; the author of the system I just learned points to milestones along the manuscript’s path within the four-part structure he’s positing. One occurs at the 20-25% mark, another at the 3/8ths mark, another at the midpoint, another at the 5/8ths point, etc. 2/3rds might be too soon, but not by much, although this isn’t answering the main story question, to use your term (a good one, may I add). I guess some writers just instinctively know what to do. 🙂 Thanks, Courtney!

  10. We’ve had this discussion before and you know my feelings on bestselling mainstream authors such as Stephanie Meyer. Lately I’ve been reading the Southern Vampire Series by Charlaine Harris. Her use of passive verbs drives me to distraction and I want to get out my little red pencil and start editing. However, when I look on imdb.com I don’t see a picture of me standing on a red carpet with Alexander Skarsgard’s arm around me. Nor do I have a huge hit series on HBO.

    Well, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a better writer than Harris. Keep that in mind too.

    I guess there comes a time when we have to stop worrying about how to and, ahem, just do it. As if I’ll ever take my own advice.

    Yeah! Take your own advice! Physician, heal thyself! 😀

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