Friday, February 23, 2018

Caution: story narratives under construction here

How many times have I blogged about ways to structure a narrative? Way too many! So I was at first hesitant about the topic of this week’s meeting at the Writers Guild of Texas: Structure. I ended by being glad to have braved a cold, rainy winter night to hear speculative fiction writer Monalisa Foster  talk about narrative structure the easy way. And in a way that translates more easily to short fiction than the classic three-act structure.

Foster’s way: as easy as 1-2-3. And then, 4-5-6-7. 

The 1-2-3 part stands for beginning, middle, and end. The beginning gets is own 1-2-3, the middle a round of 4-5-6, the end a 7. Do three plus seven equal a perfect 10? Score!
The beginning’s #1: a character in #2 a setting with #3 a problem. 
OK, so how do we let readers know who the main character is? “Giving a name is not enough,” Foster told her audience. We have to worm our way inside that character’s head. “Show us who she is and what she cares about. Otherwise, you’re just typing.”
And although she analyzed movie plots to illustrate her points, she was careful to note that “books aren’t movies.” Don’t forget the details, because, unlike scriptwriters, writers of fiction won’t have actors, location hunters, decorators, or music to fill in their characters and worlds.  And “it’s a character and details that pull readers in.”
image: pixabay
One character only? What about ensemble casts? “Even if the story is about a group, there is always one central character who everybody else revolves around,” was Foster’s take. 
And give that character a setting, not an empty stage, to stand on while we’re getting to know her. 
And about that problem – the one that opens the story “doesn’t necessarily have to be the main story problem.” Find a dilemma that will intrigue the reader, and build on it as necessary. 
Because that’s what the middle’s #4-6 are for. 
Which, by the way, can be expanded as needed, but the fairy tale rule of 3’s is a time-tested favorite narrative device.
Why not simply start in the middle, in media res, in the first place? The term means starting in the midst of an action, which is fine with Foster. Except that starting in the middle of things doesn’t mean the beginning can be neglected. All three of the beginning’s elements must still be included, because as the story’s true middle unfolds, the character’s problems are only going to get worse.
The elements unique to the middle are #4 the character’s attempt to solve the initial problem, #5 her failure (or her success, which only leads to a greater problem), with #6 everything now on the line as she makes a final effort -- the climax of the story. 
How the character solves, or tries to solve, her problems matters as well. Her attempts at solutions must be done in an intelligent way, Foster said, or at least, “the solution must make sense to the character.” 
“Whether or not she succeeds, things must only get worse!” Foster said. “Spray paint it on the wall!” because it’s through these repeated attempts, whether successes or failures, that the story’s character development and world building occur, and that it reaches climactic moment after which nothing will be the same, either physically or emotionally.
And that’s the end, right?
Wrong. “The climax is not the ending of the story,” Foster said. 
The ending is #7 validation. Or at least resolution.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Foster said. “The ending is what sells your next story.” It can include tying up or at least acknowledging any threads left dangling from the beginning or middle, a “medal pinning” celebration/ceremony/party, and a “happily ever after” or “happily ever after for now” notice – the last two particularly important for any romantic elements involved in the plot. 
And now we’re really finished, right? Maybe. Or maybe not.
“Sometimes you need an epilogue,” Foster said, an after note that is either separated by time or space from the main narrative, given in a point of view different from the main narrative, or includes events outside that narrative. 
Yes, really, but check out Foster’s list of reference materials for more, more, and still more. And check the Writers Guild of Texas for more programs, including its spring workshop, April 28.

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