In a recent post about my first VCFA residency I mentioned how it was an eye opening experience. I thought I’d take a moment to elaborate on what exactly I meant.
While at residency I realized I’ve been sitting in a room with my writing. When I write I’m facing the corner of “what I know.” That doesn’t seem unnatural, obviously we are all writing with the tools we have, but what I didn’t realize is that there was a whole room behind me. Prior to attending The Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) I’d reached a plateau in my work. I’d pushed my novel as far as I knew how and it still wasn’t ready. I was frustrated! Of course I was, I was trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. I thought the round hole was the only option, who knew a square hole might exist?
Let me get specific for a moment. My particular corner is screenwriting. I have a degree in screenwriting and it’s how I first learned to construct character and
story. As a screenwriter there’s a very specific formula (round hole) with which you tell a story. There are rigid rules that include specific page numbers in which events must happen. It’s true I can take any movie and tell you within five minutes where the inciting incident will be, the first plot point, the climax, etc. (Don’t believe me? Check out this site: Screenplay Mastery) This formula has been helpful in understanding structure, and as a screenwriter its essential. But as a novelist,
I didn’t realize I’d trained myself to see only one type of structure. I didn’t realize how desperately I was trying to force my story into one line of thought. Who knew there were other structures past Aristotle’s Dramatic Structure? Who knew we could push past the classic “climbing the mountain and overcoming of obstacles” plot line we see over and over (which actually has official names like Fichtean Curve and Freytag’s Pyramid)? There are in fact other ways to construct structure and plot including: vignettes, picaresque plots, argumentative plot, allegory, intellectual structures, expressionism, surreal fiction, and metafiction. And who knew that the traditional (and celebrated) Hero’s Journey is a primarily patriarchal concept of story structure. Could it be true that women can enjoy a different plot structure and have different goals when reading than the overcoming of obstacles?
I didn’t know any of this.
Yes, it’s true that in terms of structure the use of a sequence of causally related events is the most common. Myths and Hollywood have been using them for years! I’m not saying it isn’t useful or we can’t use it. But my personal revelation is that not every story must fall into that structure. In fact, maybe a story needs to be told with a different structure. Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s the only way to get it done. Personally, I’ve been struggling with structure for awhile because I thought there was only one way to skin a cat.
Turns out I’m wrong!
At every conference, agents and editors tell aspiring writers to work on craft. For a long time hearing this felt like a dead end. Craft, was such an ambiguous word to me that I didn’t even know where to being. But in truth, now that I’ve begun to see what areas of craft I can (and should) work on, I’m starting to agree. Craft may be the only thing I can affect. I can’t control the market, after all, but I can control my own ability to tell story.
Story structure was just the tip of the iceberg for me, a humbling and inspiring iceberg! As I hack away at that iceberg, I’m going to post tidbits of what I’m learning here on the blog, and hopefully it will spark something for you as well. I know it’s already February and we’ve all forgotten our new year’s resolutions, but maybe a good one to think about is pushing ourselves to look at the rest of the room, at what’s behind us, at what we don’t know.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain