Questionable: Story Form and Function

Mary (Egads) Wrote:

I’d like your thoughts on how form affects story.
I’m reading Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction Writing by David Jauss. Jauss gives an example of student writing that failed to flow, not because of syntax, but because of form. The short story had six scenes, each scene was about the same length and structured the same. Despite the good writing, the story was dissatisfying because “the sameness of length made the story’s rhythm seem choppy, almost staccato, and worse, it implied that each scene was somehow of ‘equal’ importance, when some were clearly more dramatic and life-altering than others.” He speaks to the similar scene structure saying, “the effect of six consecutive sections of similar structure and length was oppressive… This student’s story failed to flow because it was, structurally, repetition without variation.”
This probably comes up as part of revision, but what do you think about when you consider how form shapes story? How do you use form to give weight or emphasis? How can form reflect what is happening in the story?

Oh, boy, that’s a book in itself.

The shape of the container becomes the shape of the thing itself; transfer something to another container and it will reform to fit that shape. So the shape you pour your story into becomes part of that story.

If you tell your story in a first/second/third/fourth chronological structure, the most important thing about that story will be the effect of cause and effect on the forward movement of the plot.

If you break your story into pieces and arrange them in a pattern that is not cause and effect, the most important thing in the story will be how those pieces relate to each other, the patterns they form in the reader/viewer’s mind.

Change the structure, change the story.

In the example given with six parts to the story, each the same, there’s no movement, no sense of rising tension, because each piece feels roughly the same. If the pieces are part of a pattern, that’s fine. If the pieces are part of a chronological, rising action, then you have a problem because there’s nothing about that structure that escalates. If you want escalation, make each subsequent piece shorter so that the turning point/endings of each piece come closer together. That picks up the pacing and increases tension.

But there are other ways that structure can inform story. If you’re writing a story set in farm country about someone who is reaping the outcome of an action, you can set the first part of the story in the spring when she sows the action, set the rising action in the summer when she copes with the fallout, and put the climax in August when she reaps what she’s sown. You can structure a story on the sections of a boat race, instructions for assembling a stereo, recipes, song structure, the seasons, the progression of a storm . . . anything can be a structure as long as it reflects and enhances the story you’re telling.

Most of my fiction is cause and effect; that is, the story begins when my protagonist does something, that causes the antagonist to do something, that forces the protagonist to do something, etc. Because I’m interested in the protagonist’s character arc caused by outside pressure, the classic, linear structure appeals to me because it pushes my protagonist to the breaking point.

However, that’s not the only kind of structure I’ve used. When I wrote short stories, I played a lot with structure.

“Just Wanted You To Know” was an epistolary story, a letter with four post scripts, so the story was in five parts that tracked how the writer worked through her grief and pain at being deserted by her husband. It’s chronological, but there’s no antagonist pushing against her so it’s five separate episodes about different people pushing her and where she ends up with each one, with a pattern in how she reacts differently to them each time. So even though it’s chronological, it’s much more of a patterned structure. I’d never try that form in a novel, it’d be awful, but for the short story, it worked the way I wanted it to.

I did another longer story called “I Am At My Sister’s Wedding” that was a first person narrative about a woman at three of her sister’s weddings and at one of the husband’s funerals (written so long ago it was before Four Weddings and a Funeral). It was patterned again because I wanted a story about this woman at four family functions, coping four times with trying to understand her sister and trying to deal with her father; she’s fifteen at the first wedding and in her late thirties by the last one. I went for patterned structure again because I wanted the reader seeing the parallels among the events but not necessarily seeing a progression. She changes each time because she’s older and experienced each time, not because of an event in the story. It’s not a step by step process, but more of an observation of the way she changes between the events which gives her a different outlook on the same things. Again, I wouldn’t do an entire novel like that, but for that story, that structure fit the best.

Every time you tell a story, you look at the best way to tell that story, to give it the shape it needs. Example: Watch Soderburgh’s Out of Sight paying close attention to the scenes. When it’s over, replay the movie in your head, putting the scenes in chronological instead of patterned order. The exact same scenes in a different order tell a different story, with a completely different emphasis, a story I would argue is much less. If you want an even shorter example, go find the love scene on You Tube and watch it, then re-imagine it so that first you see all the scenes in the bar and then you see all the scenes in the bedroom. Vastly different and vastly inferior even though it’s the exact same scenes. That’s the power of structure to give meaning.

Ninety percent of structure in today’s storytelling is classic, linear, cause and effect, so that’s what we talk about the most. But the only rule for structure in storytelling is that you have to have one, preferably one that informs the story you’re telling.

24 thoughts on “Questionable: Story Form and Function

  1. This is gold. Pure gold. I wish I’d been taught structure in literature in my MFA work; they thought that they were above teaching that, because dahling, they were teaching literature, and I think we were supposed to just get it by osmosis.


  2. I loved what you said about telling the story through the seasons of time.
    But there are other ways that structure can inform story. If you’re writing a story set in farm country about someone who is reaping the outcome of an action, you can set the first part of the story in the spring when she sows the action, set the rising action in the summer when she copes with the fallout, and put the climax in August when she reaps what she’s sown. You can structure a story on the sections of a boat race, instructions for assembling a stereo, recipes, song structure, the seasons, the progression of a storm . . . anything can be a structure as long as it reflects and enhances the story you’re telling.
    Awesome advice, thank you Jenny 🙂


  3. There’s a new movie called “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” that was first presented as two separate stories. “Him” featuring James Macavoy, and “Her” with Jessica Chastain. They’re now blended in TDoER. That may be a good example of form, or at least I hope so. The trailer looks interesting.


      1. Absolutely. If I remember what I read correctly, that’s what the studios did for the festivals. We have a great theatre here in Atlanta that participates in a lot of the ‘indie’ scene movies and will sometimes do festival days so we can pretend we’re a mini-Sundance. Only unfortunately without the presence of Mr. Redford 🙁


  4. Thank you, Jenny!

    nothing about that structure that escalates You make me wonder what other ways structure might escalate besides shortening. Repetition of an element, maybe? (Something evoking a countdown feel.)

    Reading your answer, I’m just now appreciating how Lani used the excerpts (from letter, interviews, etc.) at the end of each chapter in A Little Ray of Sunshine to bring the character of the mother into the story as antagonist way before she’s in a scene. What a terrific structure, because it showed the antagonist in her own words without the protagonist complaining about her. When we meet the mother later, we are emotionally with the main character rather than everyone else in the scene. This has given me ideas–thank you, too, Lani.

    Crunchy stuff.


  5. “Watch Soderburgh’s Out of Sight paying close attention to the scenes. When it’s over, replay the movie in your head, putting the scenes in chronological instead of patterned order.”

    That’s a great example! (And now that you’ve mentioned it, I want to watch that movie again.)

    Things will self-conscious structure–i.e. where the story doesn’t follow the usual linear path that most contemporary storytelling does–are great to read and watch, in that they really make you think about structure, which in turns teaches you about structure. And about what works and what doesn’t.

    There’s a Seinfeld episode called “The Betrayal” that Seinfeld structured completely in reverse order. The story opens with the closing scene, then proceeds to the next-to-last scene, and the final scene in the episode is the first thing that happened in the story, setting off the chain of events we’ve just watched in reverse. And what makes this episode structurally brilliant, rather than a gimmick, is that it works. And figuring out why and how it works makes this episode a great teacher. (Also fun, since it’s comedy and only 22 minutes.)

    But one of the things about clever, self-conscious, non-linear storytelling structure is that it DOESN’T always work. And comparing instances where it doesn’t work with instances where it does (as it does in the above two examples) is also a good learning process.

    Stories where non-linear or complex structure does not work, IMO, are stories where the structure mostly just confuses or frustrates you, and/or where it negatively affects focus and pace–seems to slow down the story, or keeps juggling so much that your interest in the main story is constantly interrupted by “clever” structural gimmicks, etc.

    An example of where non-linear structure doesn’t work and mostly just confuses and frustrates, IMO, is a film called HAVEN, made about 10 years go. Excellent cast, interesting setting, compelling story IMO… but I just kept wanting to throw a brick at the screen the whole time I was watching it! The story was told in a non-linear structure of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and late-in-the-story reveals, and the result was confusion, frustration, and a distinct weakening of the emotional impact of the tale (caused, in part, by the constant distraction of the -way- the story is told). Another example is a film called PLAYING BY HEART, a romantic comedy/drama with a very strong cast… that just doesn’t work. The structure is linear but with a very scattered focus, following 4-5 different stories which are only pulled together into one narrative in the final minutes of the film. I sat through the whole thing, but felt less and less engaged, because the constant switching from story to another, none of them connected or related to each other, meant I felt like I kept stating the story over from zero every few minutes… until i just got tired of the whole exercise. And I think story structure fails when it comes across to the reader or viewer as an exercise or an experiment, rather than as just a great way to tell this story.


    1. After Pulp Fiction, a lot of filmmakers went the patterned structure route because it was cool, except they forgot to pattern. So they just had a sloppy pile of scenes, and it was annoying as hell. Patterned structure is a real bitch to get right, but when it works, it makes the story more clear than a linear structure would because it shows you the stuff underneath the linear structure. Which means it’s like abstract art: you have to know how to paint realism before you can really under how to abstract it. I don’t think you can master patterned structure until you know linear structure in all its complexity.


      1. Patterned structure also needs to apply the “why do I care?” test to every scene. In the film HAVEN that I mentioned above, one character (played by a fine actor) spends the whole film sitting a bar talking. We don’t know who he is, who he’s talking to, or whether what he’s saying has any bearing on the story. By the time we get this information late in the story, after we’ve seen about EIGHT SCENES of this guy doing this, =it doesn’t matter= who he is or what that was about, because we no longer CARE, we’re so sick of sitting through scenes that mean nothing to us. (That’s the royal “we” that I’m using, obviously.) I needed to care about this guy/scene/bar/monologue for it to work, and the script/story never gave me any reason to care.

        TV series that do episodes in flashback or non-linear format have an advantage, in that if you’re watching the episode, you’re probably a regular viewer and invested in the characters, so the “why do I care?” bar is pretty low for any particular episode. It’s much BETTER if they set the bar high and write something that will engage even a first time viewer, but not a -lot- of the audience will be first-time viewers in a mid-season episode in year 3 of a show.

        A good example is a terrific Chinese thriller trilogy, Infernal Affairs 1, 2, & 3. It’s a true trilogy, rather than a movie and 2 sequels. Movie #2 can stand alone, but it makes much more sense if you’ve seen movie #1. And movie #3 is incomprehensible if you haven’t seen #1 and #2. As the trilogy proceeds, the story structure gets more and more complex. Movie #1 takes place in 2003. Movie #2 takes place among the same characters, but is set about 10 years earlier, in the 1990s. Move #3 is set in 2004, but about 40% of the story occurs in flashbacks to 2003, in scenes which are concurrent with the events of movie #1. What works about all this is that the filmmakers always keep the “why do I care?” factor in mind. Mostly by getting you invested in the characters–which is a central tenet of commercial fiction. I may not -like- a character, but I’ve got to be interested in them in order to keep turning the page.


  6. The non-linear structure is very hard to do, I think. as much as I like Margaret Atwood, I was confused by “The Handmaid’s Tale” because it’s supposedly a collection of diary excerpts and other notes which were gathered afterwards so that nobody knows in which order they must be put together. Plus, it takes place in a future society. It still is a great read, but you need a lot of patience to deal with it.


    1. I remember feeling a bit lost and uncertain while reading The Handmaid’s Tale. The effect echoes the main character’s emotions well.


  7. I just finished reading *Lord of Light* by Roger Zelazny, and I was mildly annoyed by several things in the book. I almost decided to be pissed off by the structure as well, but upon reflection, I think it’s a good structure. The book touches upon themes of reincarnation, and the “segment of a spiral” nature of the book works well with those themes — oh, look. We’re in the same place again, but we’ve made some progress.

    What’s less justifiable is the omniscient POV (I think it’s omniscient) combined with a mostly high-epic fairy-tale-like language. It’s just too distancing. Although, when Zelazny slips (quite deliberately) into a more familiar, casual language, it’s quite a striking effect. But what with that, and the turny-turny-twistiness of the structure, I felt like I was swimming through jello, in the dark, and I was a little bit worried about the sharks swimming beside me.

    Lots of people have declared this an SF classic, though. Maybe it is. I think I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure if I’m going to read it again.

    (Some books with complicated structures are much better on the re-read, though. You did *Down With Love* on the Popcorn Dialogues, and even though I hated that movie on the first go-around, it made a whole lot more sense the second time around and with buddies to discuss it. The problem is: how many people these days are willing to give a book or movie a second chance? We’ve got all of Kindle and Gutenberg and stories both old and new to choose from. Unless we’re prodded into reading a book or seeing a movie a second time, we often won’t if the first time was a dismal experience.)


    1. I think it’s other people who make us give stories a second chance. I read The Awakening when I was in my early twenties as an assignment for something, and it left me cold. I read it again as research in my late thirties, and it was amazing. That’s not a book I would have gone back to on my own. We did Down With Love because we wanted to see the art direction again and because we’d just watched Pillow Talk. In the context of Pillow Talk, it’s brilliant. Then Krissie and I watched it again last week because she’d never seen it, and this time all the things that had still annoyed me the second time didn’t annoy me as much because this time I wasn’t analyzing it for PopD. It was just fun. So I think it’s the context that makes you rematch or reread that makes the change, not just the second chance.


      1. Pillow Talk is my favorite Day/Hudson movie. “You are my inspiration…Jen Crusie. A perfect combination, Jen Crusie. Your eyes. Your hair. Are beyond compare, so is it any wonder? I’m captured and under your spell…Jennnny.”
        Lol. Good times.


  8. 🙂 Well, then your poodle is inspired.
    My neighbor’s basset hound is presently baying a moonlight serenade for me outside my bedroom window. I’m wondering how I may smuggle him into my apartment without my sweet neighbor noticing. Or, you know, missing him. Sigh.


  9. Superb post! I’ve read or seen hundreds of books and movies but it was not until after reading Story by Robert McKee did I appreciate the relevance of how form affects the story. The foreign market in books and movies are great at nonlinear story telling. They often leaves me with a stupid grin on my face. George R.R. Martin is brilliant with his structure of interconnections of characters that are a direct cause and effect as was stated above. This is a true reflection of life. How often in life the causality of whatever result in a divorce, relocation, death, fortune, etc. Story whether it is linear or not has to have a reason. I believe reason is the core that makes us continue to read, watch, or listen to stories. If the reason come in the beginning of a story as compared to the end, it changes the story dramatically.


  10. I think Love Actually did a wonderful job of doing a non-linear form telling its variety of stories. I got caught up in nearly all the stories and I loved every time they overlapped/connected. Although, having grown up in Wisconsin and having been in a bar in Wisconsin, what the movie showed, would never happen. More German heritage than Swedish. And less shapely women as we tend to eat more German food – sausages, beer, cheese – all fat filled and highly caloric. (Stereotyping here, I’m sure there are a few exceptions)


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