What You Don’t Know

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

Screenwriting Structure

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,

Freytag's Pyramid

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

10 thoughts on “What You Don’t Know

  1. I am actually having similar revelations about seeing the “whole room”. I’ve been reading John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and it’s just blowing me away the way he talks about things, because I feel like I’m only getting maybe 20% of the references he’s making. I’ve never formally studied English or writing, but now I’m starting to think it may be time to enroll in a class or two, or get a second major or something.

    By the way – a question about residencies and writing education: What kinds of things should I be looking for if I don’t want to take a lot of time living away from home? (At most, I would only want to be away for a weekend) I know college courses aren’t the only way to go, but I really don’t know much more than that. What other kinds of things are out there?

  2. You know how sometimes an idea has been swirling around in the back of your head, and all it takes is seeing or hearing that same idea from another source to tell you you’re on the right track?
    After reading your post, That just happened.
    Now I have to figure out how to make it work…

  3. Great post, Ingrid. I constantly struggle with structure, and it really helps to understand that there are other ways to do it than the traditional–sometimes, those seem too forced or predictable. Thanks for this–looking forward to your future posts!

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention What You Don’t Know « Ingrid's Notes -- Topsy.com

  5. Beth,

    I’m reading Gardner’s book too! It’s great!

    In terms of education, I’d look for a low residency program like the one VCFA has (they have one for both adult writing and writing for children). I know another school in Vermont called Goddard also has a low residency program. These do require being at a 2 week residency twice a year however. So if that is too much time away from home I’d look into writing seminars or weekend retreats. SCBWI (society of children’s book writer’s and illustrators) has some, and I’m sure there are plenty of others out there too! Good luck!

  6. Hi Ingrid,

    Just wanted you to know that I love your posts and always look forward to reading them!

    The inciting event in Casablanca isn’t in the first five minutes. It doesn’t occur until Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into Rick’s cafe.

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on structure, Ingrid. It’s a big challenge for many writers, including me! How many times have we heard, ‘Think outside the box?’ There are many ways to go about it, but I think that’s what makes it even more challenging!

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights with us during your MFA program and I’m glad you’ve learned so much!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing such specific revelations from VCFA. I’m going to check out all of those links to the various story structures (most of them I’d never heard of). Can’t wait to hear more and live vicariously.

  9. Sounds a lot like what Laura Backes and Linda Arms White teach in their Bootcamp for Children’s Writers. Linda studied screenplay extensively and taught us the same structure. (I attended last April.) Thanks for sharing!

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