We like to believe that perfection sprouts effortlessly from our mind like the great goddess and warrior Athena, but her story is the quintessential myth. We are more like Icarus, struggling to keep to the middle path lest we get swallowed by the churning waters below or singed by the searing sun above. We’re always fighting turbulence, which does its best to ensure our flight remains precarious. Yet, its this very precariousness that propels us forward and keeps us incited.
No work of art emerges perfect and whole. Revision is the monster we wrestle with. We stumble through the process like tunneling inside a mountain trying to find our way out the other end. Structure is the lifeline. Writer Emily Breunig stated that there are two kinds of writers, those who start with structure and plan and plot the whole project out and those who throw everything they have onto the canvas to see what sticks. No matter what type of writer we are, at some point, we have to sit down and do the painstaking work of organization. In Natalie Angier’s New York Times article“Bringing New Understanding to the Director’s Cut” published March 1, 2010, she writes:
According to the new report, the basic shot structure of the movies, the way film segments of different lengths are bundled together from scene to scene, act to act, has evolved over the years to resemble a rough but recognizably wave-like pattern called 1/f, or one over frequency — or the more Hollywood-friendly metaphor, pink noise. Pink noise is a characteristic signal profile seated somewhere between random and rigid, and for utterly mysterious reasons, our world is ablush with it…
…So, too, for many features of our natural and artifactual surroundings. Track the pulsings of a quasar, the beatings of a heart, the flow of the tides, the bunchings and thinnings of traffic, or the gyrations of the stock market, and the data points will graph out as pink noise. Much recent evidence from reaction-time experiments suggests that we think, focus and refocus our minds, all at the speed of pink…
The shape and body of a work is determined by its heartbeat, and Angier taps into the essence of rhythm, which is all around us. As we divvy up chunks of narrative and cut and paste exposition, we need to maintain the balance between random and rigid, sustaining the mystery of our project to keep our readers engaged and invested in the story. Angier goes on to explain:
…Why our attention flits about in a pulsatile fashion that resembles heart beats and star beats and the fluctuating pitches of speech, nobody can say. “It depends on whether you think it’s telling you something very deep about the general organizational principles of natural systems, or not,” said David L. Gilden, a professor of psychology at of the University of Texas. As he sees it, complex systems are characterized by something called self-organized criticality. “They tend to migrate to the point where they are partially ordered, partially disordered,” he said. “They’re at the melting point between order and disorder.”
Chapters and scenes help us walk the fine line between order and disorder, and the clearer vision we have of how many scenes we need, how many chapters necessary to give the bulk of our word count a structure, the stronger are writing will move with agility. Word counts instead of page counts force writers to think about conciseness at the atomic level. In revision, we should be scrutinizing, balancing, and weighing each word against one another. We can do guesstimates on the pace of our story, with some really rough rules of thumb:
- 4,000-5,000 words is about 8 pages.
- 8,000 words is 15 pages.
- Reading aloud, and often, will always give you the best sense of how fast or slow your writing moves.
As we plot the pace of word counts in each chapter and scene, we also need to constantly decide between narration versus exposition. Part of the decision depends on who is telling the story and what they’re capable of seeing, thinking, and relaying, or not relaying and thinking, to the reader. Answering these questions can help inform your choices:
- How long does each scene need to be? How fast do you want the scene to unfold?
- Does it need space for philosophical musing or background explanation? Can any of this be dramatized?
- Should a scene or chapter run quick, leaving the reader breathless for more? Or would you rather linger for affect?
- What kind of mood do you want to evoke?
- How much information do you need to get across?
- The bottom line in deciding the above is how do you keep the reader hungry?
We must remember that we always have options. There’s no one way to tell a story. Linearity is the surest way to make a reader yawn. Though we may start with structure, the architecture of the work can always be remodeled and renovated. Visualize constantly, the pace, the scope, the physical makeup of the piece. Draw diagrams and be flexible and brave enough to let those diagrams morph.
Some of the options we have for structure to avoid linearity are:
- Backtracking- introduce a character in chapter two, have her disappear only to pick up her up again five chapters later.
- Toward the end of the novel, only then fill in the reader about how the mystery introduced at the beginning. Think of Sophie Mol’s death in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or Myrtle Wilson’s brutal murder in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
- Read other writers and follow closely their narrative structure. Take note and try it yourself.
- Have strong concrete images in mind for each chapter and scene. Ground readers with these objects and images, giving them a fixed point they can steady themselves on as the character’s and their unpredictable actions upset all expectations. These images may work best at the beginning or end of a chapter or scene though not always.
- In every scene and chapter you have to know instinctively what each character desires. They should be angling for something in each and every scene and chapter. Their desire doesn’t have to be on the page, but we need to know as the author, and that desire is like a cog running as one part to the whole engine of the plot. Individual desire is the DNA to each character, and every character has their own sequence to be unlocked. Every scene, chapter, and paragraph should have some block of the DNA depending on who the lens is aimed at for the moment. Something always has to be at stake. The story must be tipping over, ready to crash onto itself at all times.
- Think of the story lines in fragments, and drop threads liberally, picking them up five maybe seven chapters later. No need to string along every single plot line, readers will remember as long as you give clues and a heads up. Make readers leap and stretch with the story-lines.
- Check your maps and revise routes as you move along, meaning keep a chart that diagram of your outline handy with an eraser in hand.
Finding patterns, mapping structure, this is what inherently makes us human. Dancing the line between order and disorder, we prefer to play hide and seek with chaos. Structure may keep us grounded but structure is also a fiction, there to guide us only when we have the faith to trust in it. That faith can always be lost, so we must let chance and mystery rule as well. Revision is when structure matters most. The more physical we can envision the structure to our project the easier we’ll find our way through the process.
For some examples of visual diagrams, check out The Period Table of Storytelling by ComputerSherpa, The History of Science Fiction by Ward Shelley and, finally, Franco Morreti at the Stanford Lit Lab is practicing “distant reading,” which is described by New York Times writer Kathryn Schulz, in her article “The Mechanic Muse” published June 24, 2011, as “hypothesis-testing, computational modeling, quantitative analysis… by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
What methods do you have for reinforcing structure in your projects? Come across any visual diagrams that have put a new spin on storytelling for you? Come share at the salon.