Samuel R. Delany on structure, part two
In part one, I wrote about Samuel R. Delany’s comments about structure in About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews in relation to the units of structure: sentences, scenes, chapters. That’s the easy, diagrammable form of story structure. But there are other implications to the way structures build story.
First, there is play among units of structures. This play includes parallel structure, counterpoint and resonance. For example, at the sentence level alliteration is a parallel structure. A character foil would be counterpoint that exists on the character level and you would establish the foil by using parallel structure and counterpoint on the sentence and paragraph level. And if you structured it right, at the end one gesture or act or phrase between the character and their foil would have resonance that would echo back through the story (and on through the end).
Second, structure builds in coherance. This may seem obvious, but: every sentence, paragraph and chapter affect how the subesequent sentences, paragraphs and chapters build the story in the reader’s mind. As that coherenace builds so do the readerly expectations. As Delany notes, both writers and readers have built up a store of models — structural models — for story. The more models a writer has at their fingertips, the more likely they will be able to find the right structure for the story they are trying to tell. Actually not just more likely: it’s required.
The first move the more experienced creative writer can make toward absorbing these models is to realize that “plot” is an illusion. It’s an illusion the writer ought to disabuse her- or himself of pretty quickly, too, at least if she or he ever wants to write anything of substance, ambition, or literary richness. (There is no plot.) That is to say, plot is an effect that other written elemnts produce in concert. Outside those elements plot has no autonomous existence. (128-129, italics in original)
If that intrigues you, you really should read the book because he then goes on to prove it by taking the same plot (Joe gets out of bed) and spinning it out into a bunch of different types of stories.
Third, structure is a way of creating readerly expectation (because of the models that readers bring with them to the experience). This doesn’t mean that every reader will have in-depth knowledge and awareness of the exact model that your work uses. In fact, for some readers a variation of and/or a lesser-used model may be pleasurable. For others, they prefer to read the same few models over and over.
Fourth, structure requires some indication of the social structure/milieu. This is not something that I have encountered in other essays/books on writing, but it rings true to my academic (the late 19th/early 20th century novel was my major concentration at Berkeley) and reading experience.
One of the strongest structural expectations shared by both short story and novel is that, somewhere at the beginning of the text or comparatively near it, the writer will let us know what economic bracket the main character is currently in (what bracket that character has come from). This expectation has been put in place by three hundred years of novels and stories that have answered this question within the first few pages. Because this expectation is strong in fiction, the ways a writer can answer it have become very subtle. (142)
That doesn’t mean that you need a five page treatment at the beginning of your story on the exact social conditions of your protagonist. It does mean that you as a writer need to be clear on the social milieu/economic bracket of your characters.
This notion of models and structure and generating readerly expectations is just one way to think about writing. I think it’s a good one, however, because it responds to/describes both experimental and genre works and can deal with all of the various elements that go into creating story.