Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

Structure, and navigating your way through your story

August 31, 2012

The more that I write, the less I feel I know about how to put together a story. It’s funny – the aesthetics of storytelling can be mega-fun to study. From Aristotle, to the Dramatic Unities, the theories of playwrights and novelists over the years, to your favourite screenwriting guru, everyone’s got their reason and method for how to construct a well-told story.

Yet, for some reason, the more that I read that stuff, the less I feel like writing, and the more that I write, the less any of that stuff makes sense. Part of it, I think, is this: all the theory in the world is nice, but won’t (necessarily) help you with solving your specific problem – how to solve the problem of your specific, unique, individual story.

I’m now firmly of the opinion that the best way to learn to tell a better story is to do the hard work of trying to tell the story you care about. It’s difficult, really damn difficult, and it’d be nice to think you could turn to the blank page, outline in hand, and know what you’re getting yourself in for. But part of the fun is in the not knowing. In letting your ideas play out, and to see where they go. The novel you write will be the one you write, it won’t be the plan, and no great plans will make up for a lousy novel.

I’m not advocating for a rambling mess of a novel, and the defense of ‘but it’s my true expression, man!’ Rather, I’m suggesting that instead of thinking of the perfect structure of the perfect novel, we just focus on telling this idea, now, the one that excited us in the first place to sit down and write. Look at the idea, and let that idea tell you how best to write it. Start writing, see what comes out, rewrite. Learn who the characters are, what they want, where they’re going. Run with the story that feels fresh in your mind, and forget about what’s correct, go with what feels right.

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately, for two reasons: 1) I’m procrastinating the hell out of editing my novel, and 2) while procrastinating I’ve started a new project of drawing a web comic. I’m way-new to comics as a storytelling medium, and I’m only just beginning to think about how they work as a form. But one of the things that’s so liberating about that, is that I’m coming to it with no preconceived notions of how it should be done. I’m already noticing differences between different comics – a graphics novel that’s a collection of single issue comics seems to have a different flow and pacing to a book that’s been planned at the outset as a single story. The choice here, I suppose, for the graphic novelist is to tell the story as you go, or to write the whole thing, then plan out the individual pages. I have no idea how to do this the right way; I’m just trying to find the way that works for me.

Ultimately, that’s all any of us can do, and the longer we struggle with trying to write or make like other people do, the less fun it’s going to be. Ideally (for me at least), the idea is to sit down, confident with the medium you’re working in, let all that technical stuff slip away, and immerse yourself in your story.

Then, afterwards, we can sit around talking about how it should be done, and enjoy that for the pleasure it affords us, rather than pretending it makes our jobs any easier.

All that said, here are some books I really love that relate to this topic:

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman
Catching the Big Fish, by David Lynch
On Directing Film, by David Mamet
On Writing, by Stephen King
Three Uses of the Knife, by David Mamet
Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

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