Friday, January 9, 2009

Paragraph - Scene - Chapter

I can never tell whether something I've just discovered that may be obvious to everyone else -- hey, tomatoes taste better in the summer! -- but as I was driving home today an idea struck with so much force I almost pulled over to write it down in case I forgot it.

I'm listing to the book-on-CD version of Mark Helprin's A Solider of the Great War, which, in addition to a superb story, is a textbook I find myself studying intently. Here is what I discovered:

Each conversation between characters should have a beginning, middle, and end. Each scene should have a beginning, middle, and end. Each chapter should have a beginning, middle, and end. And there's some unit that's bigger than a sentence, maybe bigger than a paragraph, that makes up a scene. Beginning, middle, and end there, too.

In short, each of these units should be composed like a story, with conflict, tension, and resolution. Not a resolution in that the conflict is necessarily fixed, but rather that the tension is acknowledged and released.

This was so surprising that I held my hand in the air as I listened. With each paragraph and scene-component and larger scene, my hand jigged upward as tension rose, through mystery or conflict or just a disagreement between characters. It peaked, often in just a sentence or half a sentence, and then sloped down, only to rise again.

If you could draw this it would not be a staircase leading up to the climax of the book and then back down. It would be, I imagined while listening furiously, like the doodles I used to make in Algebra: a series of small half-circles, like frowning mouths or a child's drawing of foothills. Or the trail of a bouncing ball. Up, over, and down. Quick-quick-quick. Those are the sentences.

Above that are the paragraphs: larger arcs that bridge two or three of the smaller arcs. And above those are the sub-scenes, again swooping across two or three paragraphs ... all the way up to chapters and the whole book.

And while I may have been writing like this occasionally already, it was through accident or instinct rather than deliberate purpose. So many of my scenes just exist to convey information to the reader. How did the characters get to the top of the hill? I'd better show them walking. Etc.

But if each component is a mini-drama, or a mini-story, it make it much more interesting to read. The small ones feed the medium-sized ones, which combine into the momentum of the largest, and so on.

Can a story inhabit a sentence? Sometimes. A conversation? Yes, it must. A scene? Very much so.

It's not just the whole book that has to be interesting, it has to be the component chapters, and scenes, and paragraphs. And "interesting" is just code for: structured with a beginning, middle and an end; with conflict, drama, tension, resolution, transition to the next, and so on.

Now. Like all rules I suspect there are -- and should be -- exceptions. Certainly there are other ways. But rules are easier to break when you know what they are, and I'm going to try this in writing this weekend.

1 comment:

Babs said...

So how does this theory of writing structure correlate with what we're taught in school in terms of story structure?--or does it? Can thoughts, ideas and/or images just be presented as such or must they fall into the structure with beginning, middle and end? Notably, a story must have a beginning, middle and end with appropriate tension, characters, and conclusions in order for us as readers not to feel like we're flailing in the water and getting nowhere. I'll admit that on more than one occasion I've tossed a book or story aside because the writer seemed to be flailing with no direction. Is it direction or structure that builds a good story then and/or are they the same?