Story Structure

I was having an email discussion with a few friends during the week about how writers try to second-guess themselves and how this can lead to  writers’ block, andKaren Miller gave me permission to quote her. She said don’t try and second-guess your readers …

‘ ‘… write the book, the way it wants to be written. And some people will love it, and some people will hate it, and some people will dismiss it for being girly (or genre, or not serious enough), and some people will embrace it because it speaks to them in a way no one else ever has, or ever can. It might succeed wildly, or it might sink without a trace. You can’t control that. All you can do is tell this story as searingly as you can.’

And everybody cheered Karen. Because we writers have little control over what happens to our books once they are sent out. All we can do is concentrate on writing the best book we can, the one that speaks to us and hope that it connects with readers.

But say you have a project/story in mind and you’re having trouble getting started. Maybe what you are looking for is structure to hang the story on. Then Tansy Rayner Robertsrecommended this post ‘Linear Vs Patterned: A brief Discussion of Structure by Jennifer Cruise, writer of many bestsellers. It is an interesting post because she compares what we take to be the standard story telling structure, linear – starts at the beginning, has a goal in mind, comes to a climax and then it ends (male) – with patterned story telling – the repetition of events with details that change so that the changes become significant and are a revelation (female) .

She also says: ‘it implies that men tell stories one way and women another and that’s clearly wrong. Scott Frank (writer) and Steven Soderburg (director) did a masterful job of telling a patterned story (‘Out of Sight’ movie), and women writers have been telling razor-sharp linear stories.’

Since we are all familiar with the linear story, it’s the one drummed into us from primary school onwards, remember – a story has a beginning a middle and an end, class – I’m going to look at patterned stories. Cruises uses a wonderful analogy and I couldn’t have said it better so I’m going to quote her.  She says:

‘… (is constructed of) scene sequences that form complete stories, and then juxtapose them with other pieces to make a pattern so that at the end, the pattern is the meaning of the story. Think of the scene sequences as quilt blocks, beautiful on their own, and the story as the finished quilt in which the blocks disappear when it’s finished to form a patterned whole. The blocks are beautiful, but it’s the quilt as a whole that’s the finished design.’  (Hence the beautiful abstract patterned quilt!).

I’m a big Firefly fan. If you’ve watched all of the Firefly episodes half a dozen times you’ll see that each one tells a linear story. Even in ‘Out of Gas’ which is told through flashback, the story is linear as we are led back to the beginning through a series of connecting flashbacks. But there is an over-arcing patterned story evolving in this series. Unfortunately for us, the networks cancelled the series and we will never see the whole pattern. Joss Whedon has said he thinks about the characters from Firefly every day and you’ll noticed that even in the follow up movie, Serenity, he added more pieces of the pattern. (Let’s hope that one day he will get the chance to make another series).

I’ve just handed in the first three books of my new seriesThe Outcast Chronicles and there was something bugging me about the trilogy. Even though I have created an up-beat ending for this trilogy (don’t get me started on the number of emails I’ve had from readers wanting a book four of King Rolen’s Kin), I felt that something wasn’t quite right about the trilogy story arc. It’s exciting, the characters are interesting and they each face challenges that extend them. But now that I’ve read Jennifer Cruise’s post on Linear Vs Patterned story telling I realise I’m telling a patterned story, while trying to impose a linear structure on it.  With this in mind, I can review the trilogy and see if there are ways I can make the overall pattern of ‘the quilt’ easier to see.

So there you are, linear story telling Vs patterned story telling. Take a look at your books and the books and movie you love. Which are linear and which use patterned story telling?

(Just like to add here a big thank you to all the wonderful writers I’ve come across who’ve shared their knowledge and helped me grow as a writer over the years).


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