Month: June 2009

The String – How Story Structure Works

It’s not the pearls but the string that makes the necklace. ~ unknown

Alex Moore did a post over at Adventures In Writing at the beginning of June, titled Got Armature? That’s where I stole the quote above. Alex’s post talks about armature, which in sculpture, is a framework providing a core for modeling materials such as wax, clay, and plaster. It is such a fascinating concept, the premise being, in Alex’s words:

An armature provides structure and it is invisible to the naked eye. It is an essential piece of the overall product, but the viewer should never see so much as a wire poking through.

As a writer, a novelist, why do you care? Well, Brian McDonald, screenwriter extraordinaire, explained it all like this: Your masterpiece must have a point that you’re trying to prove. Every decision you make is based on that point. So, the armature is the message that your story proves. [Note: the message must go somewhere. You can’t have a message like “love” — but you can have one that states “love sucks.”]

So, in essence, I like to think of all this in layers, once again. A pearl necklace is the simplest structure I can use as an example. The meat of your story can’t float in a beautiful line without structure. Those pearls need a string, and according to the premise above, that string – the message of your book – must be invisible. AND it must support your entire book, and tie together at the end. Otherwise – no necklace. Examples work the best for me. Let’s see how good I am at this!

Wizard Of Oz – family is your home

Pride and Prejudice – love transcends selfishness

Lord of the Rings – limitless power always corrupts

Those are my best guesses. If you’ve got anything different, let me know. I hope that gives you a small idea of where I’m going with this. It makes me think of theme. I know that’s a scary word for a lot of you. In most cases, nobody should pre-plan their theme, in my opinion. It should just happen. This is why I think that the string must be invisible. If it’s “showing” it’s probably because the writer was trying too hard to push something on the reader, or too excited to show their clever theme, or some other reason. But when you set to work on those second draft revisions (where I believe the real writing happens), you should be aware of this string/armature/theme, and you should strengthen it, not necessarily make it visible. Alex also states:

. . . every scene must prove this point- anything else just dilutes the message. Sub-themes may emerge, but they will always complement your point. Don’t muddy the work.

I might have hit on sub-themes up there in my examples. Perhaps I’m not seeing the bigger structure, but it’s a start. Sometimes it’s hard to see the structure that’s invisible all the way through!

I think knowing what the structure is in our work is absolutely essential. It provides focus, continuity, and builds to a dynamic, satisfactory end. Without it, your story might be a pretty pile of pearls, and quite possibly a mess. I know I’ve felt this way about my work. I wanted a divorce from my novel at one point because of it. Now that I’ve figured out what this invisible structure should be in the novel, I can’t tell you how much of a difference it’s made. Everything has direction, support, a goal! And it’s all sliding onto the string, one pearl at a time.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle in Writing Process, 56 comments