Saturday, June 08, 2013

Story Structure -- Beams

This week I'm talking about story structure. This is the second in a series. I'm using building element analogies in my discussions this month. I'm going to compare beams to chapters. I am also suggesting you that you go back to my previous story structure posts.  I hope that you find something here that resonates.

Beams are a structural element of housing that bear the load of the structure. Each chapter must also carry some of the load of your story. Unnecessary beams add weight to your structure and make it unsound. Unnecessary chapters add weight to story, these chapters must be cut or they drag it down. Each chapter needs to move the story forward. If you can't answer the question: Why is this chapter in this book?" Toss it. Next, you need to have enough beams to hold up the weight of your house. The same for stories. Missing chapters can be problem. An author, in a desire to get to the "good stuff" of the action, leaps ahead, missing sections in stories that make the work seem slight. Finding the right length and number of the chapters takes tons of practice.

Beams are connecting structural elements and so are chapters. Each chapter must truly fit with the one before it. It must be securely attached.  Each one leads to the next. How is this achieved? Beams are bolted together, so are good chapters. If your character is falling asleep at the end of a chapter, you leave yourself with with little to connect to the next chapter, other than to wake up. I caution, use "the sleeping character chapter transition" sparingly; it weakens your story. A good choice is to find the place something interesting happens for your character snoozes and end the chapter there. Start the next chapter when the an interesting thing happens not when the gal wakes up.

For example if your gal falls off a cliff and ends up on a ledge, end the chapter there, not when she falls asleep on the ledge. Don't start the next chapter when she wakes up, but when the surprise solution to that cliff problem shows up (perhaps the hot guy tries to help and they both fall into the river -- you know something unexpected), readers will want to turn the page. You have bolted your chapters together. Look at the beginning of chapters and think about bolting them to the previous chapter. Always connect chapters with high action or emotion.

Beams form corners in buildings. So major turns in stories happen at chapter ends that segue into chapter beginnings. If a beam is too long, the house collapses. If a chapter is too long, the story collapses. Perhaps the action goes on for twenty pages, the story really sags. Perhaps there are long descriptive passages for a dozen pages, the story sags. Cut to make it work. A good trick is go to the mid-point of the saggy chapter and cut the chapter in half. This often reveals what you need to cut or add. Do the work to make your story structure strong.

Here are my thoughts on short chapters. If a beam is too short you don't leave enough room under it for the rooms to be created.  This doesn't mean you can't have a short beam.  It's just, if all the beams are really short, it weakens the story. I am seeing stories these days with extra short chapters. These books tend to have hundreds of chapters. I find this weakening stories. It's a cinematic approach to writing. I'm not saying you can't be successful with it. I mean, straw huts don't have beams. It is viable form of building and it has been around forever. But stories can be so much more than huts. (Yes, I am saying that cinematic film offers a very limited story-telling structure). In the end, I'm asking you to consider if you can say more by varying chapter length.

OK!  You have some chapter stuff to think about.  Remember this is just an analogy and that they only go so far. I hope that you move forward with projects and create master works.

Here is another abstract piece: Transparent Olives

.Tuck this quote in your pocket:

Rexamine all that you have been told... dismiss that which insults your soul. Walt Whitman.


Vijaya said...

What an instructive post, esp. since I am revising. I too have noticed the increase in jump-cutting in books. I don't think it makes for stronger novel ...

MollyMom103 said...

Glad this was helpful! I so agree about current stylistic fad not improving novels. I do think following fad might help you market your novel. I call it the frisbee effect -- you know "for kids" -- from The Hudsucker Proxy...

MollyMom103 said...

That's a weird surreal movie I like, Vijaya.