by Clive Matson
The first topics of our new class, “Structure of Large Work,” seem straightforward enough. “Whose Story is It?” “What’s at Stake?” “Plot Works through Character,” “Sequence of Challenges,” and “Subplot.” What these compact phrases leave out are the intricacies.
Each topic is highly articulated, so much so that you could lose sight of why we write. Our texts, Field’s Screenplay and Vogel’s The Writers Journey, lay out schemes that are layered and absorbing. We could, instead of developing our writing, become entranced with getting each page to line up with what the guides propose.
These finely evolved schemes are recipes after the fact. We have, in our past and in our bodies, in our DNA perhaps, thirty-five thousand years of storytelling around village campfires. That’s salient story-telling, too, where the stories carry forth our identity and ensure our survival. In those thirty-five thousand years we learned more than two years in an MFA program can teach us. More than one author can put in a guide. That’s the scab we’re picking.
Why should we offer this class? For one, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of received wisdom on the basic structure of stories. Even after those thirty-five thousand years, however many times a year, it probably helps our mental editors, in understanding and editing a story, to review the concepts. This may enhance our rewriting and it could speed our next first draft quite a bit. But this works only if we don’t take the suggestions as dictums. Take them instead as stimulus.
What our audience gets involved with, at every level, is the story. The trance and the dream. When structural guides help the story speak, we are using them effectively. I saw a movie (Was it “Good Girl”? Or “Pirates of the Caribbean?”) where the structure was so well done I was bored. You could feel what was going to happen before it happened. Some might say the fault was the casting, some might say the directing. I think, with inspired casting and directing, the movie still wouldn’t work well. The structure was too micro-managed. Too obvious.
The second reason to do the class is the same as the first, with the angle of approach reversed. We, in our technological abundance, have removed ourselves a long ways from those village fires. We are too isolated from each other and too comfortable. We are no longer in direct touch with the elements involved in telling a fine story. We see too many movies, watch too many tv series, read too much slick fiction. We need to remind ourselves of the knowledge in our bodies and in our DNA.
We want the passion, the story, the dream to bend the structure in ways that are surprising, but only to the critical mind. The reader should go with the flow and not notice. Not notice because the story has carried the reader away.
That’s the goal. The reader is in a trance.