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  1. #16
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by goldhawk View Post
    In that case, I would say you are a character-oriented writer. What's more important, what your characters do or how they feel about it? As for your friend, she would be a plot-oriented writer.
    Well, yes, by one definition of those terms. But I've seen people use them in a variety of ways. Your definitions as stated above, do not match my definitions. (See below)

    For me, what's important is both what the characters do and how they feel about it, because how they feel is what drives them to do what they do. They are, to me, living entities and to separate action from emotion would deny them their existence. That makes me a character writer. It also makes my friend a character writer.

    My friend's process is far more complicated that plot-oriented would imply. She draws the plot from the characters and outlines their story/emotional arcs ahead of the writing. The difference between her and me is that she works out all the character stuff upfront and consciously and I work it out as I write, subconsciously. But our approach at the start is the same: Characters and setting, with perhaps a basic premise or starting point, then work out in our own way what happens next, based on the characters, their feelings, backgrounds, training, experience, situation, etc.

    So, for me, character-oriented and plot-oriented are mostly meaningless because people seem to use the terms differently. They need to be defined in order for a meaningful discussion to exist.

    Thus, the best I could say is that for character writers, the characters drive the plot. For plot writers, the characters serve the plot.

    The pitfalls for that sort of character writer -- me! -- includes the characters meandering about and not moving forward. Solving that problem caused me to finally admit the characters were wrong.

    The pitfalls for that sort of plot writer includes the characters becoming flat and dull because the writer is more focused on plot and the characters are secondary. Anyone could fill those roles.

    My friend and I are mostly the same. We're both character writers. We just use different writing processes to get to the same place. The characters for each of us drive the story.

    What I am saying is know your strengths and weakness. Go with your strengths but shore up your weakness. If your stories don't seem to have a strong plot, then ask yourself if you should put more emphases on character.
    The problem is that many writers don't know what those are. And in trying to discover them, people, like what happened to me in the mid-'80s to mid-'90s, is that we become desperate to figure it out and are willing to listen to any advice, especially if it comes from an "authority" (writers of pro writing books, writers teaching workshops, both of which screwed me up for 10 years) who pushes one method over others. The novice doesn't typically know how to differentiate, how to "take what you can use and ignore the rest" which was finally, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got re: writing advice and critique. Another valuable thing I learned, finally, was to trust myself.

    There is nothing wrong with being either type of writer. Just do feel you are a failure if you don't write the same way as others.
    True (and I think you meant, just don't feel, etc), but why limit your advice? There's no either or type of writer. There are 9 and 60 ways. There are mixtures and permutations. My advice is to find your best way to write each story, understand that way might vary from story to story, and stop worrying about how someone else might do it.

    The value of advice and discussions like this is to discover new ways to try in order to find one's own "right way."

  2. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by goldhawk View Post

    Not all stories follow the conventional plot. Consider George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It has no protagonist or antagonist. Although it may eventually have a resolution, it may not have a climax. The best way to describe it is a series of inter-tangled subplots.

    An example of a character-oriented story is Hamlet. The plot is simple: should he kill the king or forgive him? But it takes him the entire play to decide (and in the end, he botches it).

    I would say the study of plot is more important if you like writing plot-oriented stories. If you like character-oriented ones, don't worry about the plot so much; concentrate on character.
    This is true, but it is important to remember that while any one of us is capable of finding successful exceptions to the rule of basic story structure, those writers who have successfully flouted the "rules" of story structure generally do so only after having a thorough understanding of those rules and thus knowing why they are deviating from a particular point in the traditional structure. In other words, once they have mastered the traditional structure, they have a better understanding of why and where they wish to do it differently in order to get a desired effect.

    The traditional structure is traditional for a reason, it usually works. Writers such as J.K. Rowling, Terry Brooks, Roger Zelazny and J.R.R. Tolkien are all good examples of writers who unabashedly followed the basic rules of plot right down the line. They introduce the protagonist, they introduce a conflict and they introduce a resolution. It is important however to remember that conflict can take many forms. Conflict can be man vs man, man vs nature or man vs himself.

    Now that I have said all of this, we should all keep in mind that writing is an art and like all art, it is subjective. There is no one "right" way to do it. There is only the way that is "right" for the artist. At the end of the day, we write for our own enjoyment. Having a large fan base is nice but if that is not your ultimate reason for writing then I firmly believe each writer should write in the manner that gives them the most enjoyment. If fame and fortune is your ultimate goal however, then I think it behooves one to master the traditional methodologies of fiction writing as these are tried and proven techniques that stand the best chance of reaching the widest readership.

  3. #18
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Inkstain View Post
    This is true, but it is important to remember that while any one of us is capable of finding successful exceptions to the rule of basic story structure, those writers who have successfully flouted the "rules" of story structure generally do so only after having a thorough understanding of those rules and thus knowing why they are deviating from a particular point in the traditional structure. In other words, once they have mastered the traditional structure, they have a better understanding of why and where they wish to do it differently in order to get a desired effect.
    Patricia Wrede repeatedly said on other message boards that there is only one rule of writing: That at some point, one must write something.

    After that, all anything else is, really, is suggestions, perhaps best practices.

    And while people who break the so-called rules might be in the minority, who knows upfront if they are or not in that minority. And there are still people who don't learn all the so-called rules and still manage to write fine books, while others take all the so-called rules to heart and write crap, some of which gets published and some of that, that I've had the misfortune to read or try to read. (Just because someone's an expert in some field of science and has learned basic story structure does not mean he or she can write an entertaining/engaging work of fiction.)

    Rules. Feh.
    Last edited by ShellyS; January 9th, 2010 at 10:48 PM.

  4. #19
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Quote Originally Posted by ShellyS View Post
    Rules. Feh.
    Perhaps we're getting hung up on semantics, on just what the word "rule" means. Creative people hate to be "ruled" or straitjacketed. We want to feel free to break expected patterns when that will make a story better.

    That applies to even the lowest levels, such as how to spell a word or form a sentence or paragraph. It applies to the very highest, such as how to write a trilogy or manage our writing careers with the proper mix of short stories and novels.

    We may call them rules, guidelines, theories, hints, suggestions, or other terms. But whatever we label them, from the instant of birth or even before we learn hundreds of thousands of them. We use them almost wholly subconsciously, especially when we create utterances. We can do this because our brains are massively parallel computers orders of magnitude more sophisticated than our mechanical computers.

    When I write a story I am "in it" and feel I am a reporter. I am intent on getting down the most important parts in just enough (and only enough) detail. Later, when I can slow down a bit, I can back up and fill in what I had no time to put down earlier. That slower and reflective time is when rules/suggestions/hints come in handy.

    Even later, when essentially done with the story (or a good chunk of it if a novel) is when rules/guidelines are most useful to me. That's when I critique what I wrote, then shift back into creative mode and fix what I wrote.
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; January 10th, 2010 at 05:48 PM.

  5. #20
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    Perhaps we're getting hung up on semantics, on just what the word "rule" means. Creative people hate to be "ruled" or straitjacketed. We want to feel free to break expected patterns when that will make a story better.
    That might be how you feel about rules, but not me. See, I wanted those darn rules. I thought I needed them, that they'd make me a better writer. That they were the "one true answer" and when people who were published told me the rules, I tried to follow them, never mind that Expert A's rules contradicted Expert B's rules and Expert C's rules made no sense. I tried them all. And I got completely discouraged when I just couldn't make them work for me.

    Instinctive writers such as myself might not like rules, but for me, it's because they're irrelevant. I need to write, and to write a story, I need to finish the writing. That's it. Creativity really isn't about following a formula, though you can create by doing so. The rules are just methods that work for some people and not others. And rules can be anything, from "I need music to write" to "I need to outline." Rules are personal.

    Of course, if you want people to be able to understand what you write, then spelling, punctuation, and grammar play a part, but even then, you can fudge a bit depending on the effect you want and how well you can get it over. You don't need to "master" anything to do that. Some people can do it without any prior experience. It's just in them to do so. How it got there can vary, too.

    Here's the definitions from Merriam-Webster Online:
    1 a : a prescribed guide for conduct or action b : the laws or regulations prescribed by the founder of a religious order for observance by its members c : an accepted procedure, custom, or habit d (1) : a usually written order or direction made by a court regulating court practice or the action of parties (2) : a legal precept or doctrine e : a regulation or bylaw governing procedure or controlling conduct

    2 a (1) : a usually valid generalization (2) : a generally prevailing quality, state, or mode <fair weather was the rule yesterday — New York Times> b : a standard of judgment : criterion c : a regulating principle d : a determinate method for performing a mathematical operation and obtaining a certain result

    I can see that perhaps 2a might be workable as a definition I wouldn't immediate discount for this, but I also think it's fairly useless when applied to writing as it feels after the fact to me, not something to guide someone.

    The whole rule as guideline doesn't work for me. I much prefer suggestions and ideas and perhaps "things that work in general and might work for you" sort of things. But rules, by connotation even more than denotation seem to be things more set in stone and when it comes to writing, too many people take them to heart, my younger self included. I'll never get back those 10 years of missed chances and experience, but at least I've gotten past that paralysis and self-doubt.

    That applies to even the lowest levels, such as how to spell a word or form a sentence or paragraph. It applies to the very highest, such as how to write a trilogy or manage our writing careers with the proper mix of short stories and novels.
    I can't recall the author, but basically her "trilogy" was the editor splitting her large novel into 3 parts which were published as separate volumes in different years. As far as the author was concerned, she wrote a novel.

    Oh, and plenty of novelists have never written a short story in their life, or if they have, have never gotten any published or had success with that form. Because some people are natural novelists and some are natural writers of the short form.

    Statements like yours above is what drives me nuts about a lot of writing advice.

    We may call them rules, guidelines, theories, hints, suggestions, or other terms. But whatever we label them, from the instant of birth or even before we learn hundreds of thousands of them. We use them almost wholly subconsciously, especially when we create utterances. We can do this because our brains are massively parallel computers orders of magnitude more sophisticated than our mechanical computers.
    I call them interesting ideas that work for some people and not for others. And please don't include me in that "we." Some people spend a whole lot of time thinking hard about what they say or write. Others not so much. Some should spend more time thinking before uttering. But this isn't about the human brain so much as about how each of us finds our process. Statements about brain function don't help writer A figure out why s/he can't write the same way writer B does.

    When I write a story I am "in it" and feel I am a reporter. I am intent on getting down the most important parts in just enough (and only enough) detail. Later, when I can slow down a bit, I can back up and fill in what I had no time to put down earlier. That slower and reflective time is when rules/suggestions/hints come in handy.
    Interesting. I'm not in my story. At all. I'm being told a story by the characters. I am watching it sometimes on a mental screen, but that's more likely at night, in dreams. When I'm writing, it's more like being dictated to. I'm the typist and at times, I have to work out some details, but I'm never in the story. It really doesn't feel like that. Although I do feel intimately involved with my characters. Just not as I'm writing.

    Sometimes, my first drafts are as you describe. Other times, each sentence is perfected before the next. Other other times, I get everything at once and just need to tweak. Or I toss the whole thing as crap and redo it next session. Every scene I write has its own way of being written.

    Even later, when essentially done with the story (or a good chunk of it if a novel) is when rules/guidelines are most useful to me. That's when I critique what I wrote, then shift back into creative mode and fix what I wrote.
    Nice. For me, I just reread as I go, and after the thing is finished and fiddle til it feels right.
    Last edited by ShellyS; January 10th, 2010 at 06:21 PM.

  6. #21
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Each writer works differently. If it helps you to think you are totally free of rules, fine. But no one is. We learn patterns of action even before birth, and our subconscious uses them to satisfy our biological and psychological needs.

    The people who are most free of rules are those who understand at least dimly what they are and how they can be used, and when to ignore them.

  7. #22
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    Each writer works differently. If it helps you to think you are totally free of rules, fine. But no one is. We learn patterns of action even before birth, and our subconscious uses them to satisfy our biological and psychological needs.

    The people who are most free of rules are those who understand at least dimly what they are and how they can be used, and when to ignore them.
    I never said that. I said trying to teach people that they must follow writing rules or master them before they can break them is for many people an non-starter. It causes writing block. It causes frustration.

    You seem to like to play with words, and when I've tried to reread your posts carefully, I've come to the conclusion they really aren't saying much, as in you seem to be hedging your bets.

    Some people, like it or not, don't ignore the rules. They just don't even think about rules. They simply write. I wouldn't have thought that was such a confusing concept.

    And to say they master the rules subconsciously really isn't helpful, either, which it seems you've also said or implied (and if I'm wrong, mea culpa, because your posts are a bit confusing at times). We've mastered breathing and eating, too. What does that have to do with improving one's writing?

    Trying to improve one's writing has a lot to do with first identifying what needs improving, then looking at the person's process to help tailor advice. Or advice can be tossed out willy nilly until something clicks with the person seeking help. Either is a valid way to do it.

    I train people as part of my job and have for the past 20 years. Everyone learns is his or her own way, from rote learners to the ones needing explanations for everything, from extrapolaters to the people who need to learn every task from scratch. Discussing "rules" would do no good for some of these people while being helpful to others.

  8. #23
    In regard to what I posted earlier, when I speak of "rules", I'm really speaking about the basic building blocks that comprise a story. 1).The setup, which gives the reader an introduction of the protagonist and the conflict; 2). a period of rising action which generally is used to heighten tension and reveal greater depth regarding the characters of the story; 3). a climax and/or resolution to provide the pivotal moment to which the piece has been building as well as to tie up loose ends in regards to the plot.

    Most writers go by this old blue-print. In fact, even when we are standing around the water-cooler at work relating an event from the past weekend, we tend to follow this structure, and we don't even think about it. Now what I mention above is admittedly very broad. One could drill down deeper into each section and find further patterns writers share in. And admittedly, some experimental writers have successfully tried patterns that were somehow different then the one I mention, but most of those who were successful at doing this were successful due to (and not in spite of) a knowledge of traditional structure.

    This basic structure works because most people are expecting to find these elements in any story they read. If a writer does not provide a beginning that introduces the main characters, many readers will be left wondering who they are meant to follow. If the middle lacks any rising conflict, readers may feel that there is no real depth to the plot (or no plot at all). And of course, if there is no resolution, some readers may be left feeling like they just wasted both time and money on a book with no real ending. Thus understanding how these various parts of the story work, can help one in knowing how best to deviate from their use and not incur one of the undesired effects I mention.

    In any event, that was my meaning by "rules". Outlines, having to write every day (twice on Tuesdays) and 9 drafts written while wearing purple socks are the kind of rules I think it best to leave entirely up to the writer to decide for themselves what works best.
    Last edited by Inkstain; January 10th, 2010 at 11:48 PM.

  9. #24
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Quote Originally Posted by Inkstain View Post
    ... even when we are standing around the water-cooler at work relating an event from the past weekend, we tend to follow this [three-part] structure, and we don't even think about it. This basic structure works because most people are expecting to find these elements in any story they read.
    Right. The basic structure of a story has been around since humans have, and for the reasons you've given.

    I suspect that when we create a story it is wise not to think about structure and just plunge in. Our subconscious, educated by years of reading books and watching plays and films, will guide us. Otherwise we may end up like the caterpillar that became paralyzed with indecision when it tried to consciously guide its walking.

    It is when we finish a story (or a big chunk of it) and critique it that ideas about story structure are most useful. Even then, though, we have to be careful to use those ideas to help us but not straitjacket us. It can be very useful to break expectations occasionally. But like spice, too much surprise can be as bad as too little.
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; January 12th, 2010 at 05:35 PM.

  10. #25
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    It is when we finish a story (or a big chunk of it) and critique it that ideas about story structure are most useful.
    Agreed. A structural map-in-hand during the first critique helps me answer:

    1) Did I begin the story too early to be gripping? If so, I've used too much intro & back story that can easily be filled in later ... if necessary. If unnecessary, it can often be winnowed or simply cut outright.
    2) Did I make it achingly clear what my protagonist wants, and did I make the reader want my protagonist to get it?
    3) Have I set up a true battle? It doesn't matter if it's the protagonist against himself, society, a villain, God, a force of nature, or whatever ... the reader needs to be choosing sides.
    4) Does the middle prove to be a muddle, or does each action, description and conversation move the story forward? Even Tolkien's famed digressions, such as the Bombadil episode, had a way of increasing tension and awareness.
    5) Have I given the reader at least one red-herring hope--the almost-climax where the protagonist almost succeeds, only to be pulled deeper into the story?
    6) Does my ending defy easy prediction? If not, I have bored the reader.
    7) Have I allowed my protagonist to change and grow through the process? If not, the ending will be unsatisfying.

    I'm not saying these aren't good questions to ask as I move along the path, but they are imperative questions to ask when I begin revisions. They serve as a standard against which comparisons can be made.

  11. #26
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Window Bar View Post
    Agreed. A structural map-in-hand during the first critique helps me answer:

    1) Did I begin the story too early to be gripping? If so, I've used too much intro & back story that can easily be filled in later ... if necessary. If unnecessary, it can often be winnowed or simply cut outright.
    2) Did I make it achingly clear what my protagonist wants, and did I make the reader want my protagonist to get it?
    3) Have I set up a true battle? It doesn't matter if it's the protagonist against himself, society, a villain, God, a force of nature, or whatever ... the reader needs to be choosing sides.
    4) Does the middle prove to be a muddle, or does each action, description and conversation move the story forward? Even Tolkien's famed digressions, such as the Bombadil episode, had a way of increasing tension and awareness.
    5) Have I given the reader at least one red-herring hope--the almost-climax where the protagonist almost succeeds, only to be pulled deeper into the story?
    6) Does my ending defy easy prediction? If not, I have bored the reader.
    7) Have I allowed my protagonist to change and grow through the process? If not, the ending will be unsatisfying.

    I'm not saying these aren't good questions to ask as I move along the path, but they are imperative questions to ask when I begin revisions. They serve as a standard against which comparisons can be made.
    Here's how I handle the above questions, which might come to me as I read the whole ms once the draft is finished or might be brought up by beta readers, or both.

    If more than one of us thinks something is a problem of some sort, then I consider it. If only one person thinks it and that person isn't me, I'll likely ignore it, unless it nags at me, in which case, I might take a look.

    1. People don't think the beginning is gripping enough. Might have nothing to do with starting too early. Might mean I didn't write it well enough. First choice is to write it better, because by the time I finish, I'll have picked that opening apart so many times, I know it starts in the right place. And I know this because in my WIR, I tried to start it sooner, with more action, but it didn't work. It had to start slowly. The problem wasn't where it started, but what happened next. So I added more intrigue to the opening third and took out some of the talking heads scenes.

    As I see it, the problem isn't always what it seems to be at first or even second glance and it's important to fix the right thing for the right reason.

    2. Not relevant if the beta readers enjoyed the story. They sometimes think my protag wants something different than I planned. Cool. If it works for them, it hopefully will work for an editor. If I try to fiddle with things like this, I tend to overwrite to the point of setting out a road map for the reader, and as a reader, I know I hate having things explained too much.

    3. True battle? Do you mean central conflict? Tension? It's there or it isn't. People have to tell me if it's not there, then I'll look for places to beef that up. Otherwise, I don't see it.

    When I read, I don't need to see it, either, though I'm sure it's there. But some books I've loved have been so simple, so laid back, the conflict isn't all that obvious to me.

    4. Middle is iffy to me as to where it starts or ends because it can really be the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end. So, not relevant. The story either works as a whole or it doesn't and where the fix goes depends on what I conclude is needed to fix it. In my WIR, I reached an impasse in the middle, twice, but I had to back up to the end of the first third and rewrite from there. It was a matter of finding the point where things went off track, which could come at any point in a story.

    5. Red herrings might be useful, depending on the story. I think I have a couple, mainly characters who aren't what they appear to be. But a mystery is at the heart of my story. If that weren't the case, I wouldn't care about red herrings.

    As a reader, this -- "the almost-climax where the protagonist almost succeeds, only to be pulled deeper into the story" -- usually ticks me off if it's in any way obvious, which is usually the case when I can see there's more than 5 pages left in a book. I have the same problems with tv shows, and with movies when I know their running length.

    In my WIR, there's no resolution or hopes for one til the end. There are only obstacles along the way.

    6. Did my ending defy easy prediction? Beats me, but I didn't care about that. I cared about something earlier and it took most of the beta readers by surprise. A second surprise came in the last draft, so only a couple of people saw that, but they said it surprised them, so that's cool.

    7. Did my protagonist change or grow? Well, he accepted something he'd been trying to avoid the entire book, so I guess I can say yes on that count. He learned that he couldn't deny his true self.

    What all this says about structure eludes me, and it also doesn't bother me that it eludes me. I wrote a good story, people enjoyed it, and I got ideas from their comments that I think will make it better, provided I do a good job on the revisions.

    Ultimately, writers probably each have their own questions that need answers. Mine are less about story than about the writing:

    1. Did I overuse words or phrases?
    2. Did I start too many scenes in the same way?
    3. Can I combine things to tighten the prose?
    4. Did I use a lot of words where fewer would suffice?
    Was I too info-dump-y?
    5. Did all the characters remain in character and maintain their speech patterns? (This is the one I really have to watch out for because when I get into a groove, I tend to write characters sounding too alike.)

    That sort of thing.

  12. #27
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    Quote Originally Posted by ShellyS View Post
    1. Did I overuse words or phrases?
    2. Did I start too many scenes in the same way?
    3. Can I combine things to tighten the prose?
    4. Did I use a lot of words where fewer would suffice?
    Was I too info-dump-y?
    5. Did all the characters remain in character and maintain their speech patterns? (This is the one I really have to watch out for because when I get into a groove, I tend to write characters sounding too alike.)
    Shelly, I couldn't agree more: These belong on every writer's list, whether formally written or instinctive. My list--don't you just love lists?--was structural only.

  13. #28
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    Quote Originally Posted by Window Bar View Post
    Shelly, I couldn't agree more: These belong on every writer's list, whether formally written or instinctive. My list--don't you just love lists?--was structural only.
    Thanks. I realize the other list was structural, but I can't fix something I don't notice or consciously work with. But I've found that most of my problems, that some might consider structural issues, could simply be a matter of poor writing, and if I tighten the prose or fix some of the things on my list here, the structure will seem a lot better. A slow beginning could mean a poor structure, but it could simply mean I did a sucky job writing the beginning scenes.

  14. #29
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    Finally figured out what was bothering me about this:

    Originally Posted by Inkstain
    ... even when we are standing around the water-cooler at work relating an event from the past weekend, we tend to follow this [three-part] structure, and we don't even think about it. This basic structure works because most people are expecting to find these elements in any story they read.
    Sure, stories typically have a beginning, middle, and end. In a way, that's a definition of story. However, books might not be actual stories, just a series of vignettes or some such, but even those probably have all 3, but maybe not.

    However, when I tell a story, a la the water cooler situation, what I'm really doing is relating something chronologically, so by definition, there are the 3 structural parts. I start with when the event I'm telling started, I explain what happened (the middle!) and then I finish when the event ended (the end!). So, yeah, there's structure. There's also oxygen and hydrogen in water, but without the chemical reaction to turn the elements into the compound, knowing the structure isn't helpful. It's the chemical reaction that matters, to me, at least.

    So, why not go into detail about how those of you who consciously work with structure do that, rather than simply say the structure is there or that writers should work with them? I would think that would be more useful to folks than simply being told what exists.

  15. #30
    Quote Originally Posted by ShellyS View Post
    Finally figured out what was bothering me about this:...

    Sure, stories typically have a beginning, middle, and end. In a way, that's a definition of story... So, why not go into detail about how those of you who consciously work with structure do that, rather than simply say the structure is there or that writers should work with them? I would think that would be more useful to folks than simply being told what exists.
    Yep, you would think it an obvious fact, unfortunately many of the stories I read and critiqued when getting my literature degree as well as now when I critique stories as part of the writing groups I belong too, will lack one or more of these basic components. Stories will lack strong characters. They may meander aimlessly, with no clearly defined plot. Or the ending is vague as though the writer never had a clear ending in mind. Therefore, when I'm writing my own stuff or talking about books I have read with my friends, this basic structure is something often mentioned.

    It should go without saying. But apparently it still needs to be said.
    Last edited by Inkstain; January 14th, 2010 at 09:58 AM.

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