Friday, September 6, 2013

Prepping for a Writers Conference: Story Structure

I'm teaching at the same writers conference as Latayne (we'll be roomies!)--the Breathe Conference in Grand Rapids, MI--but they aren't trusting me with the keynote (wise people). I'll be teaching two workshops. One on dialogue and the other on hooking your reader.

Dialogue is one of a gazillion subset skills a novelist needs in her trick bag to write stellar fiction. Dialogue that lacks tension or purpose is flat and boring. My dearest hope is that I can gather my wits about me to help the attendees at the Breathe Conference power up their dialogue.

As for hooking the reading, this is so much more than a snappy first line and explosive action, although a snappy first line and action are part of the picture. Hooking a reader is about story structure.
The essence of good fiction is tension, and an inflated balloon depends on tension (air pushing at the skin, trying to escape, trying to explode) for its shape and personality. The more air you put into it, the tighter the tension, and the more inevitable the forthcoming explosion.--Larry Brooks, Story Engineering
He's talking the first 50-100, although I lean more toward 50, pages of your manuscript that leads up to the first plot point.

I don't intend to explain the fine points of story structure here. That's a big job, too big for one blog post, but I am going to encourage you to prepare yourself for your next writers conference in a very specific way.

Most writers conferences focus on the subset skills of writing fiction and nonfiction. That's not a bad thing. Building suspense. Scene development. Finding your voice. Creating characters. These are all important.

If these are the subset skills, what brings it all together and makes your story work? Story structure. The only way to satisfy your reader is to know story structure inside and out. Basically, story structure is the integration of premise, character development, and the building of your story in an order that resonates with with your reader.

For me, learning about the hero's journey was revolutionary. Humans have a story template embossed on their souls that satisfies like a meatloaf dinner on the first cold night of the year. The hero's journey is a starting point, I'm learning. I've become a story structure explorer for the last couple of years. Screenwriters are especially adept at this, so I've read mostly their books. Writing a novel allows for a bit more freedom, but there are still expectations of the subconscious in the reader that must be satisfied.

I invite you to prepare for your next writers conference by going with a foundational understanding of story structure. As you're learning the subset skills, you'll see how they strengthen the structure. Here's a list of books I've read on the topic:

Story Engineering, Larry Brooks (novels)
Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell (novels)
Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge (screenplays)
"The Hero's 2 Journeys" (DVD), Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler (screenplays)
The Anatomy of Story, John Truby (screenplays)
The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams (screenplays and novels)

Story structure may sound like putting yourself in a creativity straight jacket, but far from it. Structure is quite freeing as it keeps you on the main trail to a great story, which means fewer drafts. I like that. Very freeing. Plus, no story can stand on great voice, good characters, or snappy dialogue alone. There has to be a story that works.

Are you attending a writers conference soon? If you're a seasoned attendee, how do you prepare beyond pressing your jeans? Have you read a book on story structure you can recommend? One of these listed?

PS--Ages ago, Lori Benton won our Audience-with-an-Agent contest. The agent signed her, and her debut novel is out. Besides pairing her up with an agent, we can't take any credit for the beautiful story she had published, Burning Sky. Congrats to Lori for a job very well done.


Nicole Amsler said...

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat is an essential read. And Don Maas's Writing 21st Century Fiction adds all sort of layers to a solid story.

I am attending the ACFW conference, here in Indianapolis later next week. James Scott Bell was my siren's call to that conference. I'm hoping for good instruction and classes.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Patti, this is gold. Thank you so much. I've learned about story structure the hard way. But I'm glad that I have. And that I'm still allowing for further learning.

I'm gearing up for my first trip to ACFW (shaking in my boots a little). Then Breathe (so excited for that one). Then, next April, The Festival of Faith and Writing here in Grand Rapids.

How do I get ready? I pray pray pray. Then I figure out my clothes. Then I practice an elevator pitch. Not just for what I want to sell, but for who I am as a writer. It's great to have a quick 30 second or less line for the novel you want to pitch. It's also important to know who you are as a writer and what you want to communicate to your readers. You never know what somebody might ask on that short ride on the elevator.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Patti, this is an excellent post, and definitely a keeper. I appreciate the list of books you've been using to strengthen story structure.

Nicole, I'm adding Save the Cat to the list, if for no other reason than it's such a great title! But I'm sure it's a great resource, and I look forward to reading it.

Susie, have a great time at the conferences you're going to.