Every time I write a story my process is a little different.
Part of the reason for this is that I like experimenting, trying new things. But I think another, deeper, reason is that, since every story is unique, so is the process of writing it. Which is my way of saying that if my musings on story structure click with you, great! If not, please take them with a very small grain of salt.
A Biological Metaphor For Story Structure: Plant Growth
We've all heard a story's structure--the underlying ebb and flow of action, events, plot and character which unite to form a story--compared to a skeleton. And that fits. I've used that metaphor myself more than once.
But, lately, another way of looking at story structure has slowly been taking root in my thoughts.
A couple of weeks ago I planted nine pumpkin sees in cute little terra cotta pots and set them on a sunny windowsill in my kitchen. I made sure they got enough water and waited.
And waited. And waited some more.
Although nothing was happening above the surface, a lot was going on inside the seed as it germinated and put down its first, tenuous, roots.
That process, between the seed germinating and the time I saw a little pale green head poke through the soil, took at least a week.
What was it doing? It was putting down roots, establishing itself. In those few days it laid the foundation for the explosive growth to come.
Using a plant metaphor to help organize a novel.
You might be wondering whether this has anything at all to do with writing or whether I've gone plant crazy. It does!
Yesterday I laid out the index cards for my WIP. I had been using the Index Card app, which I love, but I'd come to a point where I had just about all my scenes and sequels, but I wanted to shuffle a few cards around and weave in a subplot. For that I like being able to see all the cards at once and I can't do that with my app.
It took 120 index cards, two large packs of magnets, and four boards, but I did it. And, afterward, as I gazed at my four magnetic boards covered with index cards, I felt a little strange. The boards gave the room a vaguely Se7en-ish feel. But I digress.
Since yesterday I've spent quite a bit of time starring at those boards, thinking about the cards, the bits/elements of the story, then taking in the gestalt again, the arrangement of all the cards and how they flow into each other. Then I made changes here and there and repeated the process.
As I did this an idea came to me: a story's structure isn't like a skeleton. Rather, it's like a seed germinating and growing beneath the ground, establishing itself, waiting to burst forth in all its greenish splendour at the beginning of Act Two.
For example, in a four act structure the first act takes place in the Ordinary World. At the end of Act One the hero has not only accepted his Call to Adventure but is locked into it.
And that's fine. That's a great way of looking at it. But this is another way I've begun to think about it:
Act One is where the seed germinates, where it slowly unfurls and takes root, where it establishes itself.
Taking this analogy further, the first act is the story's anchor. That is, as the roots of a huge redwood anchor the tree so that it can withstand even the greatest storms so the first act anchors a story.
Let's dig into this metaphor.
Thinking of my first act, I realized that what I'm doing is introducing an event--often called the Inciting Incident--that begins the process of germination.
After the seed germinates (after the story world has been disturbed/changed/violated/radically altered) it begins slowly growing and putting down roots.
The soil/setting is crucial for this. If the soil is rich in nutrients, (interesting setting, characters 'hooked into the setting') and the temperature (a good plot) and humidity (well developed characters) are right, the new sprout will establish a healthy root system (the story will be rich, textured) and will have a the best growth rate (the story will have narrative drive/dramatic tension).
Why Act One is so important.
Children need nourishing food and a healthy physical and social environment to grow up to be the very best version of themselves they could possibly be.
It's the same for plants. And stories.
Which may help explain something I've puzzled over in my own writing. It seems that most of my effort is spent writing the first third of the story.
After I've gotten that down the rest of the story seems--I was going to say, 'to write itself' but that's not true. There's still a lot of blood, sweat and tears. BUT if that first part isn't right, if the roots of the story aren't well-laid, well-formed; if they're not healthy and strong; the rest isn't going to be either.
Without strong roots, the plant won't flourish.
That's enough for now. I was going to talk more about what sort of things need to take root in the first act, but perhaps I'll leave that for another time.
Today I've talked about how I think of a story's structure. How do you think of it?
Photo credit: "Cucumber seedling" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Based on "its first true leaf" by Sakura under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.