Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Claire Light is many things including a writer, a blogger extraordinaire, and a teacher. She provides this blog with its first guest post on how to write, which is odd. I was kind of expecting that there’d have been more than one by now. See what happens when you give people a free reign? But it’s worth the wait because this is a most excellent post on structure. Something I find it very hard to articulate my thoughts on. Thank you, Claire!
– – –
Claire Light is a writer and freelance nonprofit hack living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a cat who’s allergic to people (although he really likes them) and she sometimes teaches creative writing to unwary victims. Her first collection of short stories, Slightly Behind and to the Left, was just released by Aqueduct Press in December.
Hi everyone! I’m thrilled to be posting on Justine’s blog, which I read religiously. Justine was one of the folks who got me reading YA again, after a long hiatus of absurd adulthood, and I find her blog just as entertaining and interesting and fun as her books.
I thought I’d bust out something today from my writing classes (for you budding writers out there.) That’s right, I’m teaching (FREE!) writing classes in Oakland, California through the Oakland Word program. This program is a (FREE!) gift of the Oakland Library (and the California State Library) because they are awesome. Libraries are truly Our Friends, people. So if any of you are in Oakland or the East Bay and want to take a class, you can sign up for our second session here for FREE! (but you do have to sign up. By the way, we have classes for adults and teens.)
I’m teaching a fiction class and a memoir (or “life stories”) class, but what I’m REALLY teaching in both cases is how to put together a story. Because whether you’re writing about “true” things that happened to you, or whether you’re making sh%t up, your readers sorta kinda expect you to write the story in a recognizable story shape. Stories are shapes that information (about what we think life is) comes in that make the information easy for us to take in, pick apart, and digest. We learn the story shape in school, and by reading lots of books. So your readers are primed and ready to receive stories, and your readers know when a story is shaped right and when it’s not (and will throw fits when it’s not.) Sometimes writers deliberately distort story shapes (the way Justine did with Liar) just to make things interesting.
But to mess with things in that way, you have to know what the “proper” story structure is, at least, what it is in our storytelling tradition. Now, when I say “our tradition,” let’s be clear, I’m talking about a western, primarily European tradition of storytelling that goes back over 2000 years to Aristotle (or back even farther than that, but Aristotle wrote the first creative writing manual about it.) We’ve altered, added to, and refined this tradition along the way, certainly. But the way James Cameron shaped Avatar is still pretty frakkin close to how Homer (if he existed) shaped The Iliad. (footnote: This western tradition persists in the US and other former European colonies, despite their increasing multiculturalism. And this tradition is making inroads into nonwestern storytelling traditions through the movies (and TV and books) that are exported all over the world. Folks from other cultures often add aspects of their own storytelling traditions to the western tradition. But what rules on English-language bookshelves is largely western storytelling.)
At the heart of both of these stories, and of most of the stories you read in our tradition, is conflict. Conflict, simply put, is where someone wants something and can’t get it, at least not immediately. Now maybe they can’t get it because someone else wants it and is fighting them for it (Avatar, The Iliad .) Or maybe they can’t get it because it’s hiding far away somewhere and they have to Have Adventures before they can get it Lord of the Rings, Holy Grail romances.) Or maybe they can’t get it because they’re crazy neurotics who love to make things difficult for themselves (any Woody Allen movie, the story of my life.) But you can reduce almost any story down to a formula: desire + obstacle = conflict. Keep in mind, of course, that the best stories are complex and will have more than one conflict, or will have conflicts going in all directions among many different characters, or will have the same set of conflicts repeat again and again in different ways.
Take the movie The Matrix for example. (If you haven’t seen it, go see it immediately! Whether you like it or not, it was a game-changer in filmic storytelling.) The core desire is Neo’s desire to understand reality. The core obstacle to his understanding is the Matrix and the beings who created it. So the core conflict is Neo’s quest to understand reality in the face of the massive illusion that is the Matrix and the resistance of the creepy Agents. The story starts out with Neo’s feeling that something is wrong with the world, and his search (mostly on the internet) for clues as to what that is. Once Neo meets up with Morpheus and Trinity and the rebels and learns about the Matrix, his quest then becomes to understand reality by learning to control the Matrix.
The desire + the obstacle necessitates action. The protagonist must take some action to overcome the obstacle, and achieve the desire. Neo must take action to overcome his initial obstacle, which is his inability to find out what the Matrix is. He overcomes this obstacle by spending waaaay too much time on the internet and not sleeping. As each obstacle to achieving his desire is overcome, another obstacle arises, and he must take new action to overcome that obstacle. So once he goes to a nightclub and meets the rebels, he has to decide whether to take the blue pill or the red pill. Once he exits the Matrix, he must download kung fu (whoa.) Once he learns how to manipulate the Matrix, he must go back in and fight the Agents. Because the film was set up for a sequel, Neo’s main desire is never quite achieved in the first movie. But he does reach a good resting place, where a large part of his desire to understand reality (mastery of the Matrix) is achieved.
Because The Matrix is a competently written movie, there is more than one conflict in the story. Many characters want many different things: Morpheus wants to find The One, Trinity wants to find her true love, Cypher wants to get back into the Matrix and eat steak, Agent Smith wants to control the human virus and destroy the rebels. Because this story is a very traditional hero story, the desires of the good guys align with the protagonist’s desire, and the desires of the bad guys run directly counter to the protagonist’s desire. But the difference between the good guys and the protagonist is that, while the good guys have desires and obstacles and do stuff to overcome their obstacles, it’s the protagonist’s desire that moves the main action of the story.
So how do you use this in your own writing? Well, pretty much every story writer everywhere has had this experience: you get a great idea, you come up with some great characters and a great setting, you start writing with great enthusiasm, and then at some point … well, you kind of stop. What happens next? You don’t know. You’re stuck. You’re out of ideas. (footnote: Don’t worry. This happens to the best of ’em. Look carefully in published novels and you’ll often find a point somewhere around the halfway mark where the author suddenly gets very philosophical about what is happening in the story. Yeah, it’s because the author ran out of ideas for a while and is stalling.) This is usually because you haven’t entirely understood your conflict yet, so you don’t know what your protagonist needs to do to resolve it. The question isn’t “what happens next?” the question is rather “what does my character make happen?” And to answer that, you have to understand what your character wants, and what is keeping your character from achieving it.
So here’s what I ask my students to do. Think about where your protagonist comes from, in terms of culture, in terms of family and upbringing. What are her expectations of life? What are all the things she wants in life — not just the big things but the small things too. Does she want to be famous? Does she want to fall in love? Does she want for everything to stay the same always (a common conflict, in which the protagonist has to overcome the desire instead of its obstacle, which is the fact that everything changes.) Does she want to acquire a complicated skill set? (Swordsmanship, for example, or mechanics.) Does she want a particular dress? (Paul Gallico created a wonderful fairy tale of class conflict around a cleaning lady’s desire for a couture dress in Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.)
Now think about your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, her fears large and small. Think about the world she lives in and the people around her. What do they want? Think about all the ways she can be stopped from getting what she wants: the desires of other people, her own fears or inabilities, the distance or the difficulty of achieving the desire. Try taking notes about all of these as you think about them. And when you have understood the situation all around think about this: what would your protagonist do first to achieve her desire and what do you think would come of it? Write that. When you’re done writing that, think about it again, and take the next step. I guarantee that your dry spell will end quickly and soon your brain will fill back up with ideas.
Good luck with the storytelling, and feel free to share your writing problems and solutions in the comments!