Samuel R. Delany on structure, part one
I’ve been slowly working my way through Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews. I’m enjoying it very much. It’s challenging, idiosyncratic, precise, erudite, useful stuff. I like that Delany doesn’t softpeddle. I think that he may exaggerate slightly the intensity and devotion it takes to be a writer. But better his brutally honest approach than the alternative.
Earlier this month I wrote a somewhat experimental science fiction work. It also happens to be one of the most emotionally impactful stories I have ever written — and by that, I mean impactful on me while writing it. I have no idea how readers will react. But there was also something slightly off about it. After reading the chapter “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” in Delany’s book, I figured out where I had gone wrong.
In particular, Delany deals with the idea of structure and the importance of the “complex models” that both build structure and have their own inherent structures. He writes:
For the writer, the model comes forward in the mind as a kind of vaguely (or, sometimes, very strongly) perceived “temporal shape” that takes the “material” — whatever it is the writer is writing about — and organizes it, organizes it rigorously. These models function on several “levels” at once. They are there to organize the words (the sounds and multiple meanings associated with the words) into sentences. They are there to organize the different kinds of sentences into scenes. They are there to organize the different kinds of scenes into subsections (chapters or parts). They are there to organize the chapters or parts into a novel. I say, “They are there …” But if they are not there, then the novel stalls at a certain point; and unless the writer can summon forth the proper model, the work will get clunky and awkward from that point on — if it progresses at all. (122)
After reading this, I mapped out the structure of my story (which is only 2,500 words, but has almost 20 scenes/sections) and discovered there was an imbalance near the beginning of the story. It was clear from the rest of the structure what that scene had to be instead. I changed the scene and now the story works. The structure is better.
I then thought back to another story I rewrote back in December and realized that it had had the same problem (the scenes were imbalanced and some of them were wrong) and had required the same fix. It’s encouraging that I can see that by myself. But now that I’ve read Delany, I intend to be much more intentional about it.
The way Delany discusses structure is much more complex (more on that next week) than mapping out scenes, but, as I have discovered, it’s still a good place to start.