Back after a summer break.
I’ve been reviewing story-construction advice from writers, editors, and agents: Steven Pressfield, Shawn Coyne, Scott Meredith, and others. For my benefit, and hopefully for yours as well, I am processing and blending their advice into my own lists I hope to unpack in future entries.
As Aristotle reminds us, stories have plot, character, setting, and point of view. Many theorists since Aristotle’s time have argued how these elements come together to build the narrative worlds we experience whenever we surrender to the reading/listening/viewing process. Whenever an author makes choices about plot, character, atmosphere, and tone, he/she is crafting the beginning rules of the encounter: shaping beliefs about the nature of time, morality, the material world, and the very language we use to describe and understand our worlds. The finished work (novel, short story, poem, etc.) has integrity of its own apart from the author, grounded in the book’s language and social context, and the final reception of the story also depends upon the insights, limitations, and eccentricities of each reader. So author, text, and reader all play a part in story building.
Certain rules govern the shaping, marketing, and reception of stories, though; we do none of this in a vacuum. The most common rules are grouped under the literary term “genre” (perhaps no more effectively argued than by E. D. Hirsch). Much discussion, from the esoterically academic to the crassly capitalistic, surrounds this word, but the concept fundamentally addresses the expectations we have as writers and readers of stories. What do we expect going into a story? And as writers, how do we expect our readers to receive our stories? And as publishers, how do we expect to attract new readers to the stories we market? Genre choices are global, affecting all the narrative elements.
When you walk into a bookstore or library, or browse an online one, where do you begin? Genre signs surround you. Biography. History. Religion. Romance. Mystery. Fantasy. Science Fiction. Poetry. What do these terms mean to you? What expectations do you carry with you as you browse the shelves and covers? How do you select what you will read? And when you finally have made your choice, how do you read and judge the story? These judgments are always made in conversation with other stories you’ve experienced.
If you read a novel that the bookstore identified as a “mystery,” but it turns out to be a quest narrative with dragons and unicorns, then you’ll probably get upset, judging that the book was “no mystery” and questioning whether you’ll trust the labels on the books in your favorite store.
These categories are the most obvious examples of genre specifications. Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint describes the differences among stories that emphasize milieu, ideas, characters, or events. His list resembles Aristotle’s, but Card interestingly asserts stories must emphasize one of these elements over the others and savvy authors tip their hands to readers from the first page of their books–letting the reader know whether the story will be more about world-building, exploration of an idea, the development/growth of its central characters, or a twisty plot.
Fundamentally, as Wayne Booth observes in The Company We Keep, stories create patterns of expectation in readers. Booth argues for evaluating stories according to these patterns. Whether or not we want to follow Booth down the path of ethical evaluation, we must acknowledge as writers that stories do create expectations, and readers will judge our creations on whether they deliver (or not) on the patterns we have fashioned consciously or unconsciously from the start.
Writers often wish to follow the art of story building “wherever it may lead,” but writers risk much when they completely ignore these genre rules–they certainly are heavier than “guidelines.” Readers have expectations, and crafty writers learn how to invert or expand them, but few ever advance by flippantly discarding them.
For my own reflection as a writer, I will be emphasizing the choices that go into the shaping of stories. My own reading and writing experience has emphasized fantasy and science fiction, but I have also studied widely and hope to make observations that will be generally useful to any fiction authors. The next entries will emphasize the Cs of writing a compelling plot: context, conflict, complication, crisis, climax, and cathartic conclusion. Everything adding up to “change.”
May your stories challenge and inspire you!
For Further Reflection:
Shawn Coyne shapes his discussion of genre around the image of a five-leaf clover. It’s definitely worth your attention!
Coyne’s Five-leaf Clover