Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Shape of Things to Come

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One of the things we anguish over whenever we start a new novel is finding the right shape to tell our story. It's more than simply following the structure of a plot that develops rising action, builds toward an irresistible climax, and ends with satisfying resolution. The tale's got to unfold inside a shape that's organic, and one that fits the characters we want to talk about.

And therein lies the rub.
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First, though, this is the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop, hosted by our incomparable Ninja Captain, Alex J. Cavanaugh (thank ye, Cap'n!), postings shared on the first Wednesday of every month by a host of conspiratorial scribblers:

"Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!"

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Now back to the promised topic:

The Shape of Things to Come

[A solo post by Mark]

When I teach undergrad fiction writing, which focuses on short forms from 100 to 7,500 words, I tell my students they need to think about the best shape for their stories, an initial form that can help guide them in deciding what their story needs to accomplish -- and when to stop. If they can figure out the right shape, the story itself can lead them along a trail of intrinsic breadcrumbs all the way to the end.

After all, we know there are only a limited number of plots (Georges Polti declared back in 1895 there are
only 36 "dramatic situations," and he wasn't far off the mark -- themes like "pursuit," "revolt," or "abduction"). And they've all been told over and over again. What makes them fresh, of course, is our own individual voices, how we reinvigorate the telling of those archetypal human themes.

But the shape I'm talking about is altogether different. One little gem I point my students to is Jerome Stern's book, Making Shapely Fiction, which offers advice on sculpting fiction into shapes like Visitation (where the main character arrives at a new setting) or Juggling (where the main character is struggling with conflicting personal agendas), or Iceberg (where the main character thinks or believes one thing but does another).

For example, Kym and I decided to use Visitation as the shape to unfold the story of Little Greed Men, where our protag, conman Billy Noble, arrives in Silverville and tries to cash in on a local UFO craze. Following the principles of a visitation -- where everything is new and unexpected for the main character -- helped guide us toward the right kinds of complications and, eventually, the right kind of resolution.

But shapes come in lots of different flavors. When it came time to craft the shape for the second book in the series, All Plucked Up, we decided to use an entirely different tack -- the Hero's Journey. In our version, that journey described protag Pleasance Pantiwicke and her descent into the dark (but still funny) "underworld" of black marketeering, only to have her world turned upside down and inside out before she figures out how to climb out of the abyss and triumph in the end like a hero.

And not wanting to tell the same song with a different verse, we opted for an entirely different "shape" when we crafted the third book in the series, The Magicke Outhouse. For this one, we decided to follow the Blake Snyder's advice in Save the Cat, which is really a blueprint for ensuring that screenplays don't sag in the middle. Our goal became one of shaping a story of cascading and entangling events that rushed into a series of irreversible consequences -- or so it seems to the characters (and the readers, we hope). Not so, of course.

It was still a kind of shape, one that told us when to move to shut up and move on.

What we've discovered is that it's not enough to have a good story, good characters, or even a good plot. The way we shape those elements into a good read has a lot to do with how we shape the reading experience. 

And that all starts with how we think about shape and stories as writers.