The one valuable part of the Northwestern Summer Writers Conference I went to last year was a class on creative writing structure. The instructor brought to us forms and techniques from screenwriting, well-known building blocks of stories like Three-Act Structure, and The Hero’s Journey, which underlie great tales from Homer’s Odyssey to Pulp Fiction. Learning these structures was like the day someone finally tells you how sex works: you’ve seen all the parts before, and you’ve seen the results, but oh, so that’s how it works.
Since then, I’ve read my way through Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler and the essays of literary critics from Mythological / Jungian schools and Reader-Response schools and if you want to write stories, you should too.
A few months ago, I re-read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and again I was fascinated by how the way the story is written sucks you in and keeps you reading. Ender’s Game is a great book but it’s not a Great Book, and I don’t mean that in the snooty or academic sense: Slaughterhouse Five and Fahrenheit 451 are Great Books, and they have time travel and aliens and robot dogs, in different degrees.
Ender’s Game keeps you going, even when it’s not being brilliant in content or style, because it’s written in a brilliantly engrossing way. This has to do with keeping tension for the audience. Just when you start to lull is exactly when something happens you want to read more about – it’s as psychologically effective as advertising, but sustained for a story.
The cheapest form of doing this is the cliffhanger chapter endings that books like The Hunger Games use, but that’s a cheesy sledgehammer of tension building, and Ender’s Game doesn’t do that. Instead, its author knows when to deploy plot points and revelations and ramp up the conflicts and internal struggle at just the right times. There’s a form for it.
Screenwriters know to put the first twist into a movie about 20 minutes in when the novelty has worn off and audiences start thinking about the bathroom, then there’s always another twist before Act III, after the False Resolution. Every movie has this. There are forms. Every written story has a form too, whether deliberate and effective, or accidental and slipshod.
I know, you’re thinking, But I’m unique, I’m a real artist, and I don’t follow forms. But you don’t have to be iconoclastic about every detail of process to avoid being rote, or stereotypical, or unoriginal: for example, most of us still write on paper. You don’t have to write on Styrofoam cups, or discarded peach skins. Paper works.
And we all know stories have to have a conflict, and rising action, and a climax: these things work. They’re open enough to be unique within. One of my mythological criticism heroes, Northop Frye, sees structure itself as a language. The shape of stories (which you often see as Freytag’s Triangle, the rising line to a peak climax, then falling line to denouement) can be communication in itself, something recognized by humans as innately as a cave-drawing sun or cloud.
It’s just a judgment call how much to use the techniques that build tension and keep pages turning. If maximum tension calls for a plot twist at a certain point, but your aim for the chapter was to keep showing ordinary boredom, that’s your decision. You’re the writer. Knowing structures and how they work doesn’t confine you or your creativity. They just expand your options. Ignorance is never helpful to you.
Of course the greatest works come when the expected structure is uniquely changed, given a new spin, subverted, or even tossed out altogether. That’s the newness of art, and the progression of storytelling by overthrowing what is old, the “dialectic continuity of literature” from one movement to another, as the great Leon Trotsky once defined it.
Harold Bloom calls it “the Agon,” the competition, the great confrontation between new writers against the old, and it makes sense that this ambition breeds great ideas. It follows Malcolm Gladwell’s described psychology of “creating a framework for spontaneity,” from Blink, a set of rules that can be worked within with a roguish desire to upset the rules.
If you use that as an excuse to not learn and study the forms of your work, though, you’re just being lazy. Brilliance comes from changing techniques that you’ve mastered; ignorance is all that comes from never learning techniques in the first place, and you won’t benefit from all the wheels that have already been invented as you try to invent your own.
If a brilliant automotive design engineer with vast experience at the workshops of BMW or Aston-Martin says he has an amazing new kind of engine to unveil, the car world is about to change. If some inexperienced punk mechanic who never took any classes or learned from any experts because he thought it would be more valuable to just wing it says he has an amazing new kind of engine to unveil, get behind some cover quick. It’s gonna blow.
If you don’t want to offend your delicate artistic sensibilities with “textbooks” about creative writing structure, you should at least pay special attention when you read to notice that underlying order: why things happen when they do, how they build tension and create a cohesive whole for the reading experience. Take notes, make outlines. The structure works.