One of the things that is most important for me when writing is that I should understand the structure of what I am trying to write. I might not always know what the structure is when I start, but it is essential that I figure it out along the way. Often when I write I start with something very loose and unfinished, often just a scene or a few sentences that seem like they go together, but along the way if it doesn’t start to take shape I’ll probably just abandon it. My computer is littered with stuff like this. Interesting little ideas, quirky scenes and phrases, but not necessarily stories. A story has to be story shaped.
Recently I started working on a new piece. At first all I had was one sentence, which I scribbled down and then expanded into a scene. Then I wrote another, separate, unrelated scene. What’s it going to become? It might turn into something, but it might just fizzle out. A lot of them do. For it to become something it has to stop being a few strands that feel like they belong to something else and become a complete whole. Something that when you read it leaves you feeling like you have the totality of the thing. And that doesn’t necessarily mean following the usual route of a story. It doesn’t have to mean disruption of the status quo, rising action, resolution. It doesn’t necessarily mean beginning-middle-end. It might do, but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to feel complete.
In a recent essay on the Glimmer Train bulletin, writer David Ebenbach wrote an interesting point on a difference between a novel and a short story.
“What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything”
This is an interesting idea, and a useful way of thinking about form. Novels are about movement, change, impact, cause and effect, consequence. His definition of a short story, the detail the contains the whole, is fantastic I think and really captures something of the magic of a good short story. And thinking about these different narrative forms in this way, as being essentially different in both what they are trying to do as well as how they are trying to do it, means that thinking about how to structure them becomes a little more apparent. I remember when I was young and showing short stories to my mum she used to tell me that they felt like unfinished novels. That was probably because I hadn’t learned the shape of a short story. The condensed, rounded little thing that lets you hold the entirety of it in your hand. It’s very different from a novel, that needs to move and sweep and before it lands.
The structure of a story doesn’t have to feel obvious to the reader, but if it is there they will feel it. Like how you can’t appreciate all the architectural complexity of a building just by walking through it, but you can get a sense of the wholeness of the thing. Structure delivers the reader through the story, and lets them know where the edges are. And for the writer it is the boundary that you are going to work within.
One of the best moments, for me anyway, when writing, is when the structure emerges and I can see the whole of the thing. Suddenly it is manageable, even if there is still a lot of work to do. I know where I am starting from, where I am trying to get to, what to fit in, what to leave out. Learning what to leave out was a big step for me. The first novel I ever wrote didn’t leave very much out at all and I think the first hundred pages or so were chronologically continuous and so the structure, such as it was, was like a slow walk down a long corridor. I am trying to develop a better sense of the motion of a story and the planks that let you walk along it. The way the ending connects to the beginning, the way it all flows together, so that it feels complete and satisfying and whole.