Running a little late this week. Again. Crazy busy these past few days. Craig DiLouie was here in southern California, so we hung out for a day. Then there was Valentine’s Day. And if you haven’t seen Black Panther yet I highly recommend it. Fantastic movie.
Oh, plus a couple of outlines for new projects, too...
This past week at the Writers Coffeehouse I babbled on about different forms of structure and how they work together. I haven’t really gone into that here in a couple of years, so I figured now might be a good time. While it’s all fresh in my mind.
Fair warning—this is kind of a sprawling topic so it’s going to spread out over the next two posts as well as this one. I also may use a few terms in ways of which your MFA writing professor would not approve. But I’ll do my best to be clear, despite all that.
Speaking of professors...
Structure is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot when we’re talking about writing. Sometimes in a generic sense, like that last sentence, other times in much more specific ways. You may have heard gurus talk about narrative structure, dramatic structure, three-act structure, or maybe even four- and five-act structure (if you’ve been dabbling with screenwriting a bit).
An important thing to be clear about before we go too far—all of these are very different things. I think this is why people get confused about structure sometimes. A lot of things fall into this general category, and while some of them are vital to the storytelling process... some aren’t. And it doesn’t help when “expert” gurus try to conflate them. I read an article once where one guy was trying to use the five-act structure of television shows to demonstrate that three-act structure was an obsolete form (ProTip--it’s not).
When we talk about structure, we’re talking about the underlying framework of a story. The skeletal system, or maybe the nervous system, depending on how you want to look at it. And, just like with anatomy (or architecture or programming) there can be more than one underlying system. And they all work together to make a functioning person. Or house. Or story.
It’s key to note that all these systems (or structures) are not the same. Sometimes things will overlap and serve multiple purposes. Sometimes they won’t. And, as I mentioned above, just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’ll work in my story.
Okay. Got all that?
Good. Get ready to take a few notes
The three main structures in a story, for our purposes these next few weeks, are linear structure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure. They all interact and work with each other. Just like with anatomy, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself. So it’s important that I have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
The one we’re going to deal with this week is linear structure. Simply put, it’s how my characters experience the story. There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula. Another term you may have heard for this is continuity. Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday. Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner. Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
There’s a simple reason linear structure is so important. Almost all of us are experts with it. That’s because linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day. We notice when effect comes before cause, even if the story gives them to us out of order. A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline. When detectives break down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in. If I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure.
A good way to test the linear structure of my story (a method I’ve mentioned before) is to arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order. My story should still make logical sense like this, even if it's lost some dramatic weight this way (more on that later). If my story elements don’t work like this (if effect comes before cause, or if people know things before they learn them), it means I’ve messed up my linear structure.
Now, I want to mention a specific example where linear structure gets messed up a lot-- time travel.
In a time travel story, it’s very likely there’ll be multiple linear structures. My time traveler might be experiencing Thursday, Friday, then Wednesday, and then Thursday again. They’re still experiencing four days in a row, though—even if their friends and coworkers are only having three. And their three are Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.
I mentioned this diagram at the Coffeehouse on Sunday. It’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—Jack Harkness and the Doctor himself. I’ve marked a few key, mutual events in their lives.
Jack’s life is pretty straightforward, for our purposes here. A is when young Jack first meets the Ninth Doctor and decides to travel with him for a while. B is when he later encounters the Tenth Doctor and Martha. C is when they all briefly meet again a year or so later to stop Davros and the Daleks. They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life. And E is when the Doctor’s there for Jack’s death at the ripe old age of twenty billion or so (mild spoilers, sorry).
That’s a pretty normal, linear timeline. Young to old. The one most of us have (just slightly exaggerated in his case).
Now... look at the Doctor’s. This is the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around (more on this next week). He travels in time, though, so he meets Jack in kind of an odd order. First time for him isn’t the first time for Jack, and vice-versa. But it’s still a logical, linear order for the Doctor—he’s living his own timeline, A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack. A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, the characters are experiencing the story in linear order. If halfway through my book one of my character flashes back to what happened a week ago, this isn’t new information for him or her—it happened a week ago. So all of their actions and reactions up until that flashback should take that information into account.
It sounds pretty straightforward and it really is. Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blab about over the next few weeks because it’s logical and objective. But, alas, people still mess it up all the time. And the mistakes are usually because of... narrative structure.
But we’ll talk about that next week.
Until then, go write.