Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Structure

Ernest Hemingway is credited with pointing out that "Prose is architecture, not interior decoration."

Good prose does require structure and good stories have to have a solid frame to hold up all the lovely words. Good stories are built. The basic framing of a good story is three acts: beginning, middle, and end. Within that three-act structure you can play a bit with the plot. You can introduce subplots; you can introduce secondary characters; you can hit on secondary themes.

The beginning is where you introduce your characters and ends when the catalyzing crisis occurs for the protagonist, sending them on their way into the story. The middle is the back and forth struggle for the protaganist to overcome her obstacles and meet her goals and ends right before the final crisis. The end is where there is an all or nothing effort to overcome the obstacles and meet the goal, but it often starts when it looks like neither of these will occur for the protagonist. After this low point comes the final climax and the resolution.

These three acts are constructed using "scenes." Scenes are defined sections of time/action in the story and the two main types of scenes are action and reaction. An example of a solid action scene would describe your protagonist going to their high school reunion and running into their Senior crush. The reaction scene would be the protagonist sobbing in the restroom, realising that they should never had broken up with them.

Action scenes also have a beginning, middle, and an end that mirror the larger three-act structure. Like the overall arc of the story, scenes should also have a catalyzing crisis, an obstacle to overcome or a goal to meet, a climax point and a resolution. Reactions scenes can also use this structure, particular when a protagonist is facing an inner obstacle, has an internal goal to meet, a crisis of conscious, a climactic moment of revelation and a resolution where they turn to meet the world with new perspective and determination.

Acts, scenes, catalyzing crises, climax, resolution; these structures work. They not only help the writer organize the events of the story on paper, they also help the reader organize the events of the story in their mind. The use of these structures may seem predictable from a distance, but vivid narrative, strong characters and powerful voice require a solid foundation to hold them up.

Besides, who's going to argue with Hemingway?

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