Sunday, August 16, 2009
The Shape of Story
A big 'thank you' to all who posted comments to Andy Meisenheimer's post on Friday, and a huge 'welcome' to folks who stopped by for the first time. Did you know that we will choose one lucky person to win a copy of Latayne Scott's Mormon Mirage? Every time you post a comment, your chances multiply.
I just finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What a great story and what a creative way to have it unfold! This story about the German occupation of the Channel Islands is told exclusively through letters exchanged between the characters after the war is over. It handles a weighty and horrific topic in an approachable style by using the distance created by the use of letters and by interjecting subplots which lightened the tone, at times cutting away to a budding romance and points of humor. If it had been written any other way, I don't think I would have finished it, but I'm a lightweight. The right- or the wrong - book can leave me with bad dreams. (Like The Historian - shiver! I stopped reading a third of the way through.)
This unusual story structure led me to consider the art involved in the shaping of stories, and how it can both enhance and hamper a reader's enjoyment. Take, for example, The Time Traveler's Wife. The main character travels through time unexpectedly and against his will. As an adult, he travels back and meets his future wife when she is only a child. Later, when she meets him as an adult, he doesn't know her. At times it was a mental workout to keep up, but it was worth it. (I offer a word of caution about the sometimes gritty content.) If I put the book aside for too long, I had trouble picking it up again, like dropping a string in Cat's Cradle. But I was invested in the story enough to see it to the end, and the structure was intriguing. The flashbacks weren't there to provide backstory - they were the story.
By contrast, Isabel Allende's Zorro is largely narrative with limited dialogue. She had an interesting and very human perception of the man behind the legend, but I kept wishing she would show me instead of telling me. Hmmm...
Story structure should take into consideration the nature of the story and should be complementary. For example, Gilead is written in the form of a long, rambling letter full of wisdom (along with regrets) from an elderly father to his young son. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is told in the first-person viewpoint of an autistic teenager, using the charts, maps and diagrams he uses to break down his world into comprehensible chunks, along with prime numbers for chapter headings. Some stories are more suitable as allegory (The Screwtape Letters) and some are best recorded as diary or journal entries (The Princess Diaries). Structure should never get in the way of or detract from story.
While having a great story is, of course, the most important part of the equation, having an interesting or unique structure can greatly enhance it. How important do you think story structure is, and what are some interesting treatments that you have read? How much of story structure is art?