Tuesday, 9 April 2013

What happens? Mountains and Molehills - Anne Rooney

What makes a story? I've been thinking a lot about this lately as a story I've been writing isn't playing ball. It keeps slipping away into exciting incidents that are fine on their own but don't move things along quickly enough. Each incident has its own logic - but it must all build into the larger story. So I thought I'd take a more analytical, logical approach to it. I've been writing about the Enlightenment, Pascal and Utilitarianism* so I'm in the sort of frame of mind - it's not just perversity.

A story should have an excitement graph something like this:

Time goes along the bottom, excitement is on the y-axis.

How many peaks there are before the climax will depend on how long the book is. Even a picture book of 300 words benefits from at least one peak before the big one. A book of 500 pages will need a good many peaks, and probably have this pattern repeated within each peak. The general shape of the story is shown by the red line here:

Underneath that, it can fractalise as much as necessary to hold the reader's interest. Keeping excitement at a very high pitch for a long time, as some films do, is tiring for the reader and can exhaust their sympathy. There needs to be a breathing space now and then.

Essentially, a story can be reduced to any of these:

First...then...and - this is quite boring. If it gets progressively more miserable, it's a misery memoir. Or Black Beauty. It's really a re-phrasing of the And then... and then... and then... structure that children themselves use in  their very first attempts at narrative.

First... then... so - this at least has causation. Progress.

First... then... but... so...- ah, conflict!

As soon as we start getting some 'but's there is conflict/challenge and excitement. Each incident has this shape, and the 'so' should lead naturally to the next incident.

First... then... but... so... then... but... so... then... but... so 

It's the 'so's I'm having trouble with.I have all the little mountain shapes but they aren't sticking together. It could almost be Black Beauty. No, quite that unconnected - the incidents are held together with more than string. But they need to grow out of each other in an order that looks inevitable and then looks set in stone - like mountains growing from their foothillls.

 -- * --

* The Utilitarianism and so on is for The Story of Philosophy, published in August/September this year.
** With thanks to Descartes for use of the X/Y axes, appropriated for this non-mathematical use

Anne Rooney - new website!
Stroppy Author - new address!


Joan Lennon said...

Well put! And I'm looking forward to The Story of Philosophy - I've only ever dipped my toes, got confused, and retreated.

catdownunder said...

Serious question - I can see how that's a book but what about the graph for a short story for older readers?

Nick Green said...

An image I like is that of the four-stroke combustion engine, where each revolution of the wheel kicks off the next cycle.

Each event is a mini-story in itself, and the climax of each mini-story is like the Ignition phase of the cycle, causing an explosion that forces the wheel round one more time, and so initiation the next Induction (intake of fuel) to start the whole thing off again.

In plain English, each event *inevitably* gives rise to the next. So they're not isolated, they are one long chain reaction that drives the novel forward.

I'm really not a petrol-head.

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, if you read it back, you know it's working when it feels inevitable, unforced.

Stroppy Author said...

Nick, that makes a lot of sense. What a good analogy! I'd tried thinking of it in terms of a chain reaction, but as in nuclear weapons, but that doesn't really work quite as well since the expansion is exponential. Yours is better.

Catdownunder - there can be lots of shapes for a short story. It can be /\ or /\/\ or even a V shape, or a ___/ or... you have more freedom. As long as it's not ----. though ---! works

Lynne Garner said...

Great post and one I'll direct my creative writing students to.

Andrew Strong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Strong said...

Fascinating post, Anne. There's a tiny lecture by Kurt Vonnegut with a similar approach.


Stroppy Author said...

That's brillian, Andrew! I hadn't seen that one before. Everyone go and look at that - it's way better than my post :-)