Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Structure -- My best friend, my worst enemy

I've been pondering this post for about 3 weeks, ever since I attended a full day workshop by Michael Hauge, in Ottawa. He's a screenwriting/storytelling guru and I really like his approach to describing three act plotting and especially how he integrates outer journey (plot) with the hero's inner journey (character arc). He also has the best theory of what makes great romances great that I've ever heard. (And I've heard a lot of romance authors speak on the topic.)

I'm pretty analytical and like "systems" and so I'm bit of a junky when it comes to storytelling craft topics. When I read my first few books and attended my first few workshops on structure, it all seemed like the keys to the kingdom to me. Magic. Now I understood how it all works, I thought. It was just a matter of execution.

But of course, it's never that easy (which is why every writer rankles at the word "formula") and no two books for me have been the same, and now I feel like thinking about structure can either work for or against me, depending on that particular WIP and what stage I'm at when I try to analyze what I've been pouring into my computer.

And that workshop 3 weeks ago was all the right stuff at EXACTLY THE WRONG time.


Or maybe it will all turn out fine.

I was feeling a little lost about how the third act of my story should play out, and I thought that sitting through this workshop would help me figure it out, but instead it made me question every step I'd taken so far. Was my "opportunity" too soon? Was my Act 1 turning point too late? And what exactly was my character's goal after all. I'd been positive I knew that...

I walked out of that workshop thinking that I needed to start the book over. That it was a total mess.

And then I sat down to read through the first 100 pages again and wow. It's not as bad as I thought. Yes, all that scary thinking helped me figure out a few places where I think things could be tweaked, and I'm sure once I finally let my critique partners see this book they'll have some other great suggestions (for which I'll hate them at first, and then love them...) But all in all, it's not as bad as I thought.

And in this particular case, thinking to much about story structure proved a bad thing. I should have just relied on my instincts. (I think.)

How about you? Do you think about structure? Do you have any one particular storytelling/plotting method you really like?


Bev Katz Rosenbaum said...

I teach the three-act structure (and the snowflake method of plotting) to my Centennial College students, but sometimes I do think overdoing all this plotting/planning stuff can be harmful. The best writing is, I think, instinctive, not clinical...

Eileen said...

Structure is always my enemy. It's the thing that's hardest for me. I'm always looking for the magic keys and always thinking that the next craft book will be the answer.

They always are and they never are. I think Bev has a good point about instinctive vs. clinical. There's a place for both. For me, the thought of structuring a whole novel just from my head is terrifying. Yes, I realize I've written several now. That doesn't make it any less terrifying.

What all the structure craft books/lectures/articles give me is a starting place. They give me a method to start organizing my thoughts and themes and characters. At a certain point, I abandon them all and let the story organically unfold.

Sinead M said...

thinking about this while writing a first draft will only paralyze you. you can fix anything, but trying to get it perfect the first time is almost impossible. I say write now, think later. Heh!

Alli Sinclair said...

I'm with Sinead - write now, think later. :-)

Like Bev and Eilieen, I also believe the best writing is instinctive, not clinical.

I try not to bog myself down with too much of "by page 100 you need to have blah blah blah". I get this needs to happen, but I don't think about it when writing the first draft. And most times when I go back to edit, woila! those turning points are already in there. So I guess I'm saying I go with instict first, then get clinical second.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I use think about structure when I need it - at the beginning of the process - the charting of the arc's etc, and then when everything falls apart just after half way. I think all these lessons and ideas are tools to use when you need tools to help the magic, otherwise you can make yourself crazy and kill the magic. And a book that's well plotted but without any magic isn't a great book.

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