Thinking about Structure

I’ve started listening to a podcast called “Gilmore Guys”— two Millennials, one who grew up a fan of the show and one who is watching the episodes for the first time, discussing each episode. I’m mostly listening in order, but they did a standalone special feature with Jane Espenson, one of the writers for this and many other shows (and a particular favorite TV writer of a friend of mine), so I listened.

It was interesting— she talked some about the structure of episodes, particularly acts— she said “Gilmore Girls” was a four-act structure, but unlike other shows, they didn’t write to act-breaks. I’m still mentally working this out (and it’s been awhile since I watched an episode of my example), but the best example I can think of is another show I watch— one of the only reality shows I watch— “Chopped.” In the first part of the show, they do introductions of the four competitors and the judges, then they review the rules. They launch right into preparation of the appetizer course, followed by judging. When the judges are ready to announce the first elimination, you get a commercial break— end of act 1. The suspense is supposed to keep you watching through the commercial break. Then you get the announcement of results and are launched into the entree round. I think they’ve started to vary it such that you get the commercial break at the end of the entree course and before the presentation to the judges, but it’s still a suspense point. Then, you get the judging and results, second elimination— effectively end of act 2, and are launched into the dessert round. Presentation to judges, then commercial break again (end of act 3) just before they announce the winner. end of act 4. Act breaks are typically high-suspense points, like the eliminations at the ends of acts in “Chopped” and announcements of baskets of mystery ingredients to begin the next round, but “Gilmore Girls” didn’t structure that way, which Espenson said made the show feel more like life— verisimilitude.

Then she talked about how she’s currently writing in a six-act plus structure on “Once Upon a Time.” I’m inclined to resume watching those just to identify the act breaks. Are they writing to six climactic moments an hour? No wonder we’re all exhausted!

Anyway, for whatever reason, maybe because I wasn’t focused on fiction writing while I was simultaneously studying literature and writing in college and grad school, or maybe because they were applying another frame, I haven’t ever thought much about writing structured according to acts. It’s come up a few times lately—“The Lanky Guys,” another podcast I listen to pretty frequently (read: “with slavish devotion”), was talking about Aristotelian three-act structures just a couple of weeks ago in reference to the Catholic liturgy that week (I’m eclectic in my tastes, no argument), and it got me to thinking that my ignorance on this point could be standing in the way of my writing something bigger. Maybe you’ve heard that without the support of our skeletons, our internal organs would crush each other and we’d never survive? That’s what my writing feels like, when I think of writing something much larger than a very short poem or short story. I don’t suffer from that in nonfiction, because I have the five-paragraph essay structure and the academic research structure, that I fall back on. (Five-paragraph essay structure: Introduction ending in thesis statement, three evidence paragraphs each beginning with a topic sentence, conclusion paragraph that proves out, without restating, the thesis. Academic structure: Introduction, ending in research hypothesis, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion.)

We studied poetic structures ad nauseum, in creative writing (To quote Lorelai Gilmore, as a poet, “I’m agin ’em!”), but writing a novel has always boggled my mind, in much the same way as buildings do, when I think about them too much. (Okay, so now I’m eclectic and quirky, with a mild anarchic streak. My Friday is rapidly spinning out of control.) The idea of supporting all the weight of things and people and doing it with such precision— it’s hard for me to imagine. I tend to credit architects with a kind of magical power, for the sheer scope of what they achieve (though I know it boils down to math, it still boggles my mind. Perhaps because it does come down to math.) The idea that there has effectively always been a structure that people have followed but that I just didn’t get the memo about? Revelatory. And a little annoying.

Don’t get me wrong, we talked about rising action, denouement, conclusion, but it was certainly more of a “leap and the net will appear” kind of approach to structure. Not “here’s a skeletal structure that you, the beginning writer, should be looking for in what you’re reading and watching, and you can use it as an heuristic when you first start writing, even if you choose, once you’re comfortable, to abandon, elaborate, or adjust it.” And so when I leap and the net doesn’t appear, I think that I am somehow a person who doesn’t get a net. Not a good answer.

How, you ask, did I manage as an editor, without a more formal understanding of this? Good question. I read a lot, so I must have some subconscious understanding of the structure that I’ve never formalized. I haven’t edited a lot of long-form fiction. I think because I read a lot, I edit a lot based on ear— what am I expecting here, relative to what I’m getting, and is it a pleasant or unpleasant surprise for me, as a reader? How long has the author kept me in suspense on something I need to know to understand what they’re getting at, and does it serve the work? That kind of thing.

I remember writing reading reports, in college— maybe for creative writing— my major just wanted us reading beyond what we were reading for class. I was a Grisham fan at the time, and while reflecting on the latest novel I read, I discovered the formula he was using to write his fiction. Who his main character tended to be, what the central conflict tended to be, and how it tended to work out. And it ruined me for all his other novels (if he’s stopped writing that basic formula— lawyer with a contrarian streak being pursued by governmental/corporate forces of evil, facing them bravely through overcoming personal failing, romantic and climactic resolution, feel free to let me know. This was awhile ago.) It’s started to annoy me how good I am at decoding the formula without really trying— I’m on the author/moviemaker’s side! I want to be entertained, but if I can work out the surprise from my subconscious understanding of how you’re structuring your popular fiction/movie/TV show, I just spend my time distracted by your formula and disappointed with my experience.

So fess up, reader and writer friends— what do you know about structure that you’ve been holding out on me, about? Come clean— I’m researching it anyway, so you might as well just tell me.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking about Structure

  1. I’ve thought more on structure for TV, mostly, when I was thinking I wanted to be a TV writer. A real common techniques is to use an outline, with the “beats” mapped out, and then fill in the stuff to pull you along to those “must meet” parts. I’ve used this when I’ve had an overwhelming number of points or bits I want to remember to include (whether it’s a story or it’s an essay or some sort of argument I’m building, so that I don’t forget to mention the parts I know I want to include.

    This works less well if you don’t have a clear idea where the story is going, or how it’s going to get there. That is, there are times when I’ve no idea what I’m going to say, or where the story is going, it comes together as I type. Sometimes, this is a story where I have a specific scene or line I *KNOW* I want to get to, but, I know nothing else, so, I have to start building to that bit I know.

    Both work, both have cons to them — Trying to hit specific “beats” can make the story read like a race to get to the next marker, and you miss some of the happy accidents of a story built bit by bit. However, sometimes it means that you have lots of editing to do to the story that wanders far and wide and isn’t progressing things at all.

    I sometimes have learned much more about structure from things that are structured in unusual ways. The short film I wrote is moving backward in time, which was understood through a visual framing reference — the little bad luck charm, which moved hand to hand, and was framed by the young boy.

    The weirder thing is that I still feel like I know very little about structure, or at least that I fail at it more than I succeed. Sometimes, I know I’ve gotten it right, and sometimes I know it could be better, but, I don’t know how to fix it, and then there are times when I know it’s wrong, and I just go on anyway. Which means, at the very least there’s work to be done.

    I’ve also read a bunch on the structure of jokes, including Jane’s blog (because, gosh, that Jane Is awesome. http://janeespenson.com/) She did a series of posts on creating a spec scrip, which had some really useful advice that can be used on more than spec scripts, but, the ones I really enjoyed were her bits on humor. She took jokes and disected them and categorized them and talked about how to improve them. She’s not posted much recently, she’s gotten herself very busy, but, there’s lots of good advice on her blog.

  2. Pingback: Write What You Know | Adventures of Auntie M

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