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So I have tried and tried and tried to explain to people what I perceive as "story-shape," which is central to my experience of writing and understanding fiction. I once discussed the concept with msagara for something like three hours straight and still, I think, confused her with my poor attempt to put it into words. The closest I've come is a list: story-shape is visual (intensely so, at times), and it's also a sense, and a sensation of movement or of stillness, and a feeling of density, and an intuiting of direction, and like touching an object in the dark. Sometimes all at once. And also rather like none of those things, because it's itself and those are only analogies.

To tell the truth, I sort of shut up about the whole thing and continued on with my life, never mentioning it until I end up telling someone in a critique that their ending is coiled too tightly, while the middle is lopsided and sort of swampy, while I love the rolling-wave movement of scene three (or something to that effect).

And then, in the middle of a normal LJ-reading thing, I come across this line in an interesting post by matociquala regarding "broken" books:

When you hold the book in your head, give it a spin on a fingertip, and you can see it wobble because the center of gravity is off somehow.

And that's it. dolphin__girl, how many times have you heard me complaining about spinning a story and having it wobble?

Does anyone else experience this?

And maybe matociquala's experience and mine diverge at that point, but it made me wonder: what if my story-shape thing isn't so odd after all? Or maybe my experience is only mildly odd in comparison to the great weirdness contained in other authors' brains.

How do you experience story structure?

Comments

( 44 comments — Leave a comment )
mrissa
May. 11th, 2006 02:35 am (UTC)
Spin. Wobble. Yes.

But I have already said that books are rocks in my head, so you are maybe not surprised here.
ksumnersmith
May. 11th, 2006 12:08 pm (UTC)
Not surprised, no. :)

I've always been fascinated your books are always *rocks*, never anything else. Do you ever have anything less ... substantial? Less dense? ... A porous rock, maybe?
mrissa
May. 11th, 2006 04:16 pm (UTC)
Rocks have different density, but I've never gotten a really porous one.

Other things in my head are not books. Some of them are short stories. But if it doesn't feel like a rock in my head, it's not solid enough to make a book with.
matociquala
May. 11th, 2006 03:16 am (UTC)
Books totally have a shape. And I can even tell you what shape a particular one is while I'm working on it. Some of them are very simple, geometric. The "battleship diagram"--a kind of squat lens shape--is one, and I've also had them come in nautilus, sphere, and--in one notable and incredibly difficult case--spiderweb.
matociquala
May. 11th, 2006 03:20 am (UTC)
I should say, for me, it's a tactile shape. I feel it.

But I am kinesthetic rather than visual.
leahbobet
May. 11th, 2006 04:08 am (UTC)
I feel books too, but...not in that complex a way, or maybe in a differently complex way. For me it's like sticking your hands into a covered box and feeling the edges of an object, trying to figure out what it is by touch. You might have noticed that usually when I'm trying to describe a book's structure I start making weird crazy swoops in the air with my hands, defining the limits of it in the air.

But...books have texture and materials for me too. Some books are hot, or prickly, or...yeah, I can't describe this right.

I'm gonna retreat and think about it.
ksumnersmith
May. 11th, 2006 01:53 pm (UTC)
Dreadfully hard to put into words, isn't it? Sounds like your experience is similar, though; "differently complex" sounds about right.

I think I know exactly what you mean when you refer to the texture of a book, and materials, too. Texture, moreso. mrissa fascinates me with her book-as-rock experience, mainly because while I percieve my fiction as being made of something, it's rarely one thing, or exactly one thing. (Though I did have that story that appeared as two metal spiraling staircases ...)

... Does your experience of shape hold true for your short fiction as well?
leahbobet
May. 11th, 2006 04:32 pm (UTC)
...huh, good question. My instinct is to say no: books are bigger. Books need you to use both hands to hang onto them, and they need more exploration, examination. Stories...are more like little marbles: what you see is what you get.

Or maybe I just don't write very complex short fiction. *g*
ksumnersmith
May. 12th, 2006 11:38 am (UTC)
Or maybe I just don't write very complex short fiction.

::snort:: As if!

But it is interesting, because I do this with *everything*. Can't not. Sort of drives me crazy ... but to join the Belated Epiphany Club, maybe that's why it takes me so bloody long to write short stories.

Huh.
ksumnersmith
May. 11th, 2006 02:12 pm (UTC)
I wonder if anyone has an auditory sense of story? Or perhaps the strong auditory types aren't as often drawn to write.

Thanks, this is great food for thought.
matociquala
May. 11th, 2006 02:25 pm (UTC)
I suspect they're the ones with the fantastic funny voices and the great line of patter. *g*
leahbobet
May. 11th, 2006 04:32 pm (UTC)
I bet someone out there is structuring fiction in terms of theme and variation, fugue, and movements...

Actually, that would be kind of fun to play with.
matociquala
May. 11th, 2006 04:33 pm (UTC)
...actually, shit, truepenny is.

And she's a piano player.

I think I shall run go fetch her. BRB.
truepenny
May. 11th, 2006 04:49 pm (UTC)
Well, but I can't talk about structure at all.

... I wonder if that is because I can't visualize it and all the ways I've learned for discussing structure are visual, like flowcharts. Or abstract, like outlines. Which are also sort of visual. And I'm only problematically a visual writer.

Huh.

(misia talks about novels in terms of operatic structure brilliantly.)
matociquala
May. 11th, 2006 04:52 pm (UTC)
But I've heard you talk about the structure of the Melusine books quite coherently in terms of a fugue. *g*
truepenny
May. 11th, 2006 05:02 pm (UTC)
Dude. You have?

*g*

Clearly I can only talk about structure if I'm not paying attention to myself.

However, comma, this does reinforce the idea that my problem is partly being hung up on the visual metaphors I've been taught, rather than following the auditory metaphors that actually, you know, work.

Which--to loop back and not utterly hijack ksumnersmith's post--suggests that a lot of the problem of terminology and nomenclature and general failure-to-articulate is because of the hegemony of the visually-oriented metaphor in Western abstract thought.

(Sorry, my Ph.D. is showing.)

But if your core metaphor set isn't visual, you're left throwing ropes across the chasm and hoping somebody on the other side will catch one. And the odds are against you.

Although sometimes it does happen.
ksumnersmith
May. 11th, 2006 05:10 pm (UTC)
Auditory story structure. I think I'm in love.

And please, hijack away -- this is fascinating. (Though, damn, I'm so not supposed to be reading this at work.)
truepenny
May. 11th, 2006 05:21 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Bear is making me realize that I do think in terms of melody and counterpoint, leitmotif and fugue. And movements. And that I decide when to switch viewpoints between my first-person narrators "by ear."

... a little belated epiphany here. Don't mind us.
swan_tower
May. 12th, 2006 05:00 am (UTC)
... a little belated epiphany here.

Join the club. :-)
matociquala
May. 11th, 2006 05:12 pm (UTC)
I think it confirms my suspicion that it's helpful to artists to develop a practical vocabulary to complement the critical one that's sometimes not so useful to us.
truepenny
May. 11th, 2006 05:23 pm (UTC)
Well, critical vocabulary, by its nature, is developed and used by people who are trying to reverse engineer the artifact (i.e., in this case, the story). Sometimes it's very helpful to those of us who are trying to build the thing ground-up. Sometimes not so much. And, yeah, you have to develop a feel for when to just kiss it goodbye.
timprov
May. 11th, 2006 06:16 pm (UTC)
There's definitely an auditory component for me, though it's not much like truepenny's. It mixes with the math brain too much.

I guess if I were to describe my metaphor it would be audio-mathematical + tactico-mathematical; but if I can find a place to grip the damn thing I can still spin it and see if it wobbles. So it's a very mixed-up metaphor.
truepenny
May. 11th, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)
My math brain burned out my first year of college. (I used to be able to do multi-variable calculus, but these days I can barely handle basic algebra.) So I'm fascinated by the idea of being able to think about structure in terms of mathematics, but could never in a million years do it myself.

Mine is a very laymannish understanding of music.
ksumnersmith
May. 12th, 2006 02:55 pm (UTC)
Wow, auditory/kinesthetic/mathematical story structure. timprov, you've been holding out on me! How did I not know this before?

I've been pondering, and while I think I can conceptually grasp the idea of a mathematical story structure, I'm curious as to how this integrates with the auditory component. The auditory-story as song is a fairly understandable metaphor, but once we stray from there it becomes much ... twistier. How do you hear a story?
timprov
May. 13th, 2006 05:06 pm (UTC)
Let's see what I can get in the ten minutes or so before I have to run off. If I can come up with something that makes more sense, I'll have some time tomorrow.

The thing is, I don't really understand it in a way that works to put it into words well. It's very much a gestalt thing, and as writers go, I'm quite bad at the concept-word transition anyway.

Auditory: I hesitate to call it "musical" as it really don't bear any resemblance to the story-as-song or -as-symphony metaphors. It's more like one really big chord. The best metaphor I can come up with is based on orchestral tuning, rather than actual music; a story starts off in my head as utter cacaphony, then gradually I can start to pick out sections that are working together, and eventually it builds itself into something that's clearly the entirety working the same way, but not actually working at anything. Getting all that and then figuring out where and how to point it is where the tactical component comes in.

And I've never had any luck explaining how I experience mathematics to anybody. Even mathematicians look at me funny. People who aren't mathematicians, and who are used to dealing with a sort of math that's basically like sticking building blocks together, are talking about something utterly different. I wonder if a physics metaphor might work, but maybe that's just cause I'm reading Ash and thinking about extradimensionality. Kinesthesia in n-space might be a decent metaphor, but I'm not sure that's any more penetrable.

I've probably raised more questions than I've cleared up at this point. Ah well. More later maybe.
ksumnersmith
May. 11th, 2006 02:12 pm (UTC)
I can only imagine what dealing with a spiderweb-shaped story would be. The thought is both frightening and appealing... (To be honest, I don't think I yet have the skill to tackle something like that -- especially if the story had the *texture* of a spiderweb!)

matociquala
May. 11th, 2006 04:36 pm (UTC)
I wound up writing it in omniscient, because otherwise I couldn't show enough of it for the pattern to come through.

arcaedia described the same book as a rose--an ever tightening spiral of petals that at first seem unconnected. Which I think works too.
ksumnersmith
May. 12th, 2006 03:34 pm (UTC)
Which of your books is this? I'd love to see/read/experience this spiderweb/rose book for myself. :)
matociquala
May. 12th, 2006 03:35 pm (UTC)
Whiskey & Water. 2007. *g*
swan_tower
May. 11th, 2006 04:31 am (UTC)
I don't necessarily perceive an overall shape, but I have a very vivid sense of where there's space in a story (or isn't) for me to slip something in. Sometimes I just know that it's too tightly woven at a particular point for me to insert a scene/pov shift/plotline/what-have-you, however much I might like (or need) to have it there. This has led to something I call angulation. In fencing, angulation is when you get in close enough with your opponent that you have to break line (i.e. cock your wrist, i.e. come in at an angle, hence angulation) in order to score a point arrival. In other words, maneuvering in limited space. A lunge would pretty much be the polar opposite of this. I've had stories where lunging would have meant warping a bunch of other things out of shape, so I had to angulate my way to some solution that fixed the problem by coming in at an odd angle, in a limited amount of space.

. . . we writer-types are crazy, aren't we?
ksumnersmith
May. 11th, 2006 04:55 pm (UTC)
Do you have that same sense of space or the tightness of the weave when you're in the process of writing, or is this something that you only feel once you're dealing with the book as a whole and revisions? (And this isn't the first time I've seen/heard you compare your work to weaving, I realize...)

I love your description of angulation, by the way. I've never thought to formalize my solution to writing-related problems with an actual technique! (Thought maybe I should pay attention to that; just because I haven't noticed it, doesn't mean that there's not a pattern.)

. . . we writer-types are crazy, aren't we?

The more I read of this, the more I think that "crazy" doesn't cover the half. Fun, isn't it? ::grin::
swan_tower
May. 11th, 2006 05:47 pm (UTC)
Sometimes I feel it while I'm writing -- I can tell that threads are drawing together to a particular point, and that the thing I was planning on having happen needs to wait until after that other thing because there isn't enough space for it before the thing that's about to happen.

Hello, incoherence.

I guess I feel it in terms of tension, but not in the usual writing-advice kind of way. I'm holding onto the threads, and I can tell that if I take up the slack in that one, then it will pull the things around it into a better shape.

Which is why the current revision -- putting in new pov scenes for a character -- is being so hard. I'm yanking at threads, trying to make enough space for it, when everything's been sitting where it is for long enough that it's kind of gotten fixed that way.
swan_tower
May. 11th, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC)
And huh -- I didn't realize the frequency of weaving metaphors in the way I speak of writing until you pointed it out. Funny ol' world, innit?
ksumnersmith
May. 12th, 2006 02:59 pm (UTC)
Yep, but if it works ...

Weaving makes for a very clear metaphor, both in terms of story narrative (plot threads, character threads, etc., all weaving over and under and around each other to create the fabric that is a story) as well as writing experience, as you do above. It also seems to fit your writing specifically -- at least what I've read. Though that's not my personal sense of your work's shape, I could easily shift my brain to use the weaving metaphor to fit Doppelganger.
swan_tower
May. 12th, 2006 03:05 pm (UTC)
I think the book I'm about to embark on will be even more weaving-like, as it's going to be more complex from a plot standpoint. Not quite in the full-on sub-plot way, but the main characters are going to face social, familial, legal, romantic, ethical, and magical problems that will all impinge on each other at various points -- family troubles will make the legal stuff go downhill, for example. So I'll need to make sure that each thread is at the right tension to make a good tight weave with the others.
nicky78
May. 11th, 2006 05:21 am (UTC)
I don't visualize a shape so much as feel it.
Might be the empath in me. I get what you are trying to describe, but it's not exactly how I experience things when writing.

I get lost in the emotion.

I have no idea if that will make any sense to you either.

*HUGS*
ksumnersmith
May. 11th, 2006 07:58 pm (UTC)
No, I understand what you're saying. Is your experience the same when you're revising your work, or reading another's work to critique, as it is when you're writing?
nicky78
May. 11th, 2006 08:02 pm (UTC)
I want it to work both ways, but I also understand that not everyone will write in a similar style to me. For the most part the experience is the same when working on my own work or someone else's. Sometimes there isn't emough to get me there and I feel off kilter or as you noted, there is a wobble.

:)
(Anonymous)
May. 11th, 2006 04:07 pm (UTC)
I experience story structure as a fully realized 3D, colour model of a battery operated sex aid.

Ok, I said that just to play to my stereo-type.

Really I experience story structure as a lack or purity of continuity of form. From one scene to the next, or from one story element (whether that's a chapter or story element or character arc) to the next the changes must occur seemlessly and upon analysis, rational and hopefully revelatory.

For me it's all in the strength of the interstitial moments.
brashley46
May. 12th, 2006 01:26 am (UTC)
Most fascinating thread, here, speaking as a reader.

Most Story, for me, experiences as a temporal flow ... a beginning (implicit or explicit), a series of events, and an ending, whether it's really an End or just a cutoff in the narrative. Some writing, on the other hand, is not built that way, but more like a whirligig or a flower or a fugue ... most of that is not Story, but poetry. I can't spin it in my head; I can only watch it spin.

Political exposition I can spin 'til the cows come home. Why Ross Doesn't Write (fiction, anyway.)
ksumnersmith
May. 12th, 2006 03:11 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I think that you're talking about narrative, Ross -- which is a good thing, as you're coming from a reader's perspective. You are experiencing the story, becoming involved in the plot and characters, etc.; while underneath all of that is the story structure, all the things large and small that are happening behind the scenes to make your experience as a reader as involving and emotional (etc.) as possible.

As for how we talk about all this ... haven't you noticed that writers are crazy? ;)
brashley46
May. 12th, 2006 03:20 pm (UTC)
Yup. Which is why I enjoy hanging with writers!
ellen_fremedon
May. 12th, 2006 03:54 am (UTC)
I sense a story not as an object I can touch but as a space I can move through, and in which I play a game of billiards, or curling, or croquet-- characters and macguffins have weight and heft, and I can send one hurtling into another to knock them into the right final configuration.
lenora_rose
May. 22nd, 2006 06:41 pm (UTC)
(Very late to the party, that's what happens when you're on the wrong continent)

Just as a suggestion, I think I tend to observe my work in something more like proprioception than like visual sense, or even like the touch and heft of something you can pick up and spin. I feel the shape of it, and I can certainly tell when the balance is off, I can certainly spin it and see if it holds true -- but I'm percieving it from the inside, aware of where its edges lie because they are rather like the edges of me. And then i try to translate that to visual or touch when i try to figure out what's wrong, which is why it's so hard to percieve - the awareness of one's own shape and space is very different from the awareness of another object's shape and space, and we don't value it the same, so we don't have the words for it.
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