The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
At some point, usually early on, beginning writers stumble across the term plot structure. It’s a loaded term, a deceptive term, a deceitful term, and a necessary term.
The premise underlying most mentions of plot structure is formulaic: follow the prescribed steps and you’ll have a hit on your hands. In the first paragraph of this section Hills addresses and dispenses with that premise in exhaustive fashion, neatly demonstrating that all such formulas are of a kind:
There seems to be no limit to the formulas for the movement of fiction that can be devised: anyone can make up his own quite easily. If any one of them really means anything, then it would seem they must all mean the same thing — which strikes me as a frightening thought.
Underpinning all plot formulas is the rather inescapable truth that anything that is written (or read) must have a beginning, middle, and end. But there’s a critical difference between the beginning and end of what you write and the beginning and end of the story you’re telling. As noted in previous sections, a big part of the craft of storytelling involves deciding what to emphasize and detail and choosing what to glide over and omit.
The temptation to embrace plot structure as a storytelling template is compelling for both novices and veterans alike, in all genres. But doing so puts the writing cart before the storytelling horse. (Which is, of course, the appeal.)
Writers who cling to structure as a guide tend to invent scenes that fulfill whatever formulaic approach they’ve adopted. Scenes are filtered first through the prism of structure, then, if they pass that test, are written and riveted into place. (To be fair, the result may in fact be serviceable — although probably for reasons other than the formula employed.)
The proper approach to plot structure is to embrace the story first, even if only roughly and in your mind. Why? Because understanding what Character X or Character Z is doing during the story is necessary if you’re going to judge which moments to depict and which to elide.
So instead of:
STRUCTURE –> SCENES –> STORY –> WRITING
STORY –> SCENES –> STRUCTURE –> WRITING
Structure acts not as a blueprint, as in the first instance, but evolves as a result of the editorial choices you make in shaping your story. Yes, it’s always necessary to fuss and finagle: that’s what the draft process is for. You get your story as close as you can in your first pass, you figure out what needs to be fixed in your next pass, and on and on until you’re happy, or so sick of it that you can’t stand working on it any more.
For Hills, concerns about plot structure are ultimately beside the point:
A short story, in theory, and putting exceptions aside, should probably be as much of a oneness as possible; and probably it is something of a fault in a short story if there is an obvious separation between its beginning, its middle, and its end.
Because of the constraints and aims of literary short fiction, authors are effectively compelled to spend most of their fifteen-page allotment on details that evoke the meaning of a story rather than the action. That’s the liberty and difficulty of the form: truncating and condensing the introduction and summation in order to bring to life the moment — however subtle it may be — when something changes.
William Goldman, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, famously said, “Screenplays are structure.” What’s forgotten about that quote is that Goldman was speaking as a novelist. And in that context he’s absolutely right: when you write a script you don’t have to evoke tone and mood with your prose or highlight colors or get into people’s heads because somebody else is going to do all that later. What you have to do, literally, is create a blueprint for a film.
Yet even in film it’s a mistake to treat the story you are going to tell as a structure first. And I guarantee that’s not what Goldman does when he sits down to write a script. He tries to understand the story first, then writes down those aspects of the story that will most effectively tell that story in cinematic form.
Again, despite the fact that screenplays are structure (relative to prose), the proper process is still:
STORY –> SCENES –> STRUCTURE –> SCRIPT
For all writers in all mediums, the antidote to the tempting idea that a formula will set you free is to meet the simple definition of story that Hills offered early in his book:
A story tells of something that happened to someone.
Implicit in that definition is a beginning, middle and end, no matter how complex you make the events themselves. Keeping things simple also helps remind you of your original intent when you get lost along the way. And you will almost certainly get lost along the way.
Fortunately, no matter how lost get, your audience will intuit a beginning, middle and end, both because of the nature of digesting a story and because of previous experience with how stories progress. This built-in advantage allows you to wander a bit — particularly in longer narrative forms — without alarming anyone as to how things relate or resolve. Provided, of course, that you fulfill your end of the bargain and make sure they do.
Next up: Beginning.
— Mark Barrett
I suspect I’ve spent the last seven years of my life reinventing a lost wheel. Although it’s good to know someone else also saw the terrible abrupt nurses. I suspect Hill would have made a good blogger.
To play Devil’s advocate, I also suspect many people can’t “see” the story and need structure. Serviceable, like you said.
No time spent writing is wasted. None of it. Half of any writer’s ability to tell a story is about how they themselves work, so there’s always a benefit.
As to being able to see the story for the trees, yes: it’s not easy, and not instinctive for a lot of people. There’s nothing wrong with doing anything and everything as a means of learning the ropes and coming to terms with the process. A very few people ‘get it’ right away, but most have to struggle, and it can take a lifetime to get anywhere close to mastery.
As Hills says in this section:
Every writer goes down roads that will be, to them, dead ends. But others will push ahead on those same roads, whether because of temperament or objective. There are a million ways to get the writing done. What matters is how you do it, and that you acquire the skills that allow you to write what you want to write.
wise man, and I mean both of you