I’ve been thinking a lot about story structure lately.
The awesome Debbie Ohi (seriously, check out her art), who I met last summer at SCBWI-LA, reported back from the SCBWI-NY conference this month with words of wisdom for children’s writers:
1) concentrate on story/characters
2) just get it written.
I’ve been doing a lot of both since the first of the year and have had several revelations along the way.
1) I’m not a bad storyteller.
I’m not great by any stretch, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that my intuitive story-telling skills don’t completely suck so badly that I need to give up writing and pursue some other vocation, possibly horticulture (note: I have a black thumb).
2) Form in fiction is like haiku.
Haiku has very simple, but unbendable rules. However, within that stark structure, amazing beauty can come forth. (I won’t subject you to my haiku. I may not be a bad storyteller, but I AM a bad poet. See my blogger-friend Tricia O’Brien for some lovely haiku.) Just like the rules of haiku, a well-structured story form can make the story SO MUCH BETTER. Intuition can only take you so far, and after that, it really helps to understand the form of storytelling.
3) Study the masters.
I knew this one already, but I experienced a perfect storm of masters recently, when I used two different Master Guides (Save the Cat! via Laura Pauling and Story) to analyze a masterfully told story (Hunger Games). It was like using the Rosetta Stone to decode an ancient Egyptian version of the Illiad. Actually, it was easier than that, but felt just as profound. The things that made Hunger Games have such a strong appeal became clearer to me, in a way that I could use as an author for my own writing. And holding my own story up for comparison was a humbling experience. I had to keep reminding myself about Number One above. This is the hazard of studying the masters, but I was ready for it.
4) It is a lot easier to fix a story than write it in the first place, but there are limits to what can be fixed.
Whenever I learn something new about writing, I immediately want to start over from scratch, with a new story, one that will have NONE of the flaws of my previous stories. This is, of course, crazy. I will continue to learn and intentionally want each story to be an improvement in craft. And many, many things can be fixed by small changes (a sub-plot slipped in), a one-room remodel (rewriting a chapter or two), or perhaps replacing the roof (that character? He needs to go). But some things require tearing down the walls to brass tacks, and at that point, it may be easier to write another story.
Which I most certainly will do, but not until I’ve remodeled the one I’m working on, turning those new writer’s wrenches until they’re shiny from use and warmed up for the next WiP.
What writer tools have you added to your toolbox lately?