Oct 16, 2011

The Nature of Structure

Here's the first Google result for structure. It kinda works: structure just might be the DNA of stories.

Eight months, and I think I finally "got it." Discovered a story strand I wished to follow, scribbled out some pages, and revved up the engine. Really, most of the time I spent writing a page here and there, trying to figure out the characters, the voice, the structure of the novel--what about you? Anyone else need that "experimenting" time?

But during that time, I figured out something else.

Structure, we can't forget about structure: I never paid it much mind, but even the simplest structure tweaks will alter a novel. Chapters, sections, parts; to use section breaks or just end a chapter; short paragraph then long paragraph, or three short paragraphs...every part of a work speaks, even the pages you choose to leave empty. Beyond a space: a new beginning, or an isolated emotion, or a sign to the reader to flip a few more pages in your tome, or those weird blank pages at the dead end of a book that you can use to scribble your grocery list (or a love letter.)

For me, a simple, short structure that adds up to complexity works best. I feel like readers can zoom ahead more if they're being forced out of the comfort of long chapters or scenes, which I don't necessarily have anything against but do not enjoy writing, although I just might be a little ADD. Or watch too many movies.

Not that I have bad company: two of my recent favorites, Moby-Dick and Les Miserables, both use extremely short chapters and scenes. In Moby-Dick's case, it's almost as if the book is set up into different tones and means of information: every new emotion needs a new chapter, and if Melville is going to give us mechanical information about whaling or the importance of a whale, it always is split off into its own chapter labeled something obvious like "What a Whale Means to the Tribes of Africa"--it's as if he expected some people probably wouldn't want to read those, so he was helpful enough to give them their own little place.

Many people talk about how speedily they zip through Les Miserables, usually to their own bemusement, and I think the structure is part of the reason why. As a gamer, I can almost associate finishing a chapter or scene with the same thrill of unlocking an achievement or finding a secret: reading is goal-progression in so basic a format that one almost doesn't notice it. So, in Victor Hugo's big epic the reader is greeted not with single scenes of fifty pages, but with parts split into books that each have chapters which then have scene breaks within them. Not only does that structure grant the reader accomplishment, but it quicken the pace and lends diversity.

So how do you structure? What do you find suits your needs for reading?


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