Oct. 12, 2014

#2. What I learned while writing Candyman's War

Structure helps readers stay oriented

Structure matters.I discovered my own reasons as a reader while writing Candyman.

Shortly after finishing a late draft of Candyman’s War, I read Francisco Goldman’s, The Night of Long White Chickens. Now, I like this book because of the depth of character exploration. I gave it a positive review and a high rating.

I learned a lot, it is set in the Guatemalan Civil War and Francisco knows the place and the time.  But it was not an easy read.  The frail plot was an excuse on which to hang character stories with many digressions. My takeaway was, I want my readers to have a sense that this story is going somewhere—while they are reading it.  

The engineering metaphors for structure appeal to me more than others. I can see your wheels turning, Engineering? He’s one of those “outline before he writes” types, you’re thinking. I kind of am, but only from about halfway through when I can begin to see the end.

Candyman was too easy. The plot fell into a tent pole structure naturally. (And naturally, I thought I was a genius). At rewrite time, when I looked seriously at the flow of the story and things like suspense, rising action and disasters must be checked for, I was pretty happy with the plot. But I learned from reading Goldman that structure and plot add a lot to readability too.

A story has a trajectory that can be detected early on. I don’t mean the arc of the story can be foretold, but that there is an arc. Even when that trajectory is seismically contorted and another one started, I believe the reader can sense progress. She can do this even through the slow parts that seem to dog character-focused writers.

The reader doesn’t know what is going to happen but she knows something is and she’s going get to find out what.

The world is brimming with writerly advice. Honestly, most of it seems reasonable. I’ve learned a lot. The ones that don’t seem so are those appearing to lay down unbreakable rules.  So, here is my current truth, just waiting to be re-jiggled:

  • If you write something, it’s going to have structure. You may as well be intentional so as to help your story along. Find one you like and use it until your stories need something else.
  • Structure not only enhances the tension in the story, it provides orientation for the reader. Some readers drift to formulaic plots simply because of that very thing. I’m not that kind of reader and I don’t think my stories are written for them, but it’s not an either-or thing. Structure is a factor to be conscious of in story telling.
  • Outlining first. Some people seem to be able to do the creative work before writing the first paragraph. God love’em, but I’m not one of those. I have to have my character, who has this personality, and who starts doing things, then he meets another character, and they like/hate each other, and then something else happens….
  • But about halfway through, I have a sense of where I’m headed and outlining is really useful for keeping me oriented in the second half. It helps me make tradeoffs in the ending. At rewrite I can double check foreshadowing and dead ends, and all that other stuff. And I can check my structure.

Does intentional structure keep the reflective reader from “inventing” the story with the author?I don’t think so, and it can keep them reading/guessing/reading without feeling lost.