Monday, March 30, 2009

The Shape of a Novel

Structure is such an underestimated aspect of writing that people don't even mean the same thing when they talk about it. Sometimes the word seems almost synonymous with plot, but there's a distinction. At its simplest, plot is what happens; structure is the order in which it happens, and the timing. Whether you're dealing with a thriller or a densely literary novel, structure is designed to make the story engrossing, convincing and unputdownable. "When you read a novel that isn't quite grabbing you," says James Scott Bell, author of Plot & Structure, "the reason is probably structure." There can be more than one structure in a story. In www.criticalreading.com, Dan Kurland talks about linear progression, with its building of suspense, unfolding of character, and resolution. But there is another structure: the patterns of actions and interrelationship of characters. You could also add the pattern of themes and imagery, and an aesthetic whole where everything clicks into place.
Jane Sullivan of The Age attends a fiction masterclass and ponders the structure of novels.

The three-act structure she mentions works extremely well for most fiction and for films as well. Those of us who were lucky enough to attend Jeremy Sheldon's workshop on plot when he unveiled his version of this, called "The Sheldon Curve" - honed from his experience of working with movie industry and with authors. If it seemed a bit formulaic and had the rebels inside us wanting to rip up the handouts, he more than adequately supported his theory with reference to numerous films and novels - even invoking Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. Just to play devil's advocate, we threw novels at him (no, not literally!) which we felt didn't fit the neat framework so obviously - my examples was Underworld by Don De Lillo, which I feel doesn't really have a plot as such.

But that doesn't mean of course that it lacks structure. As Sullivan says :
... structure is all about grabbing your readers: teasing and bamboozling them a little, perhaps, but luring them inwards and onwards.
and de Lillo does that very well indeed.

1 comment:

Yusuf Martin said...

And not just a novel either, but equally, or perhaps even more so, applies to short stories.