Story Structure

This past weekend, Northwestern hosted an Arts Fest at which my literary magazine had a booth. The Fest was targeted towards children of the Evanston community, so each booth had activities for kids. Our activities were making bookmarks and adding a sentence to a story. You might think that the stories could spin out of control very quickly, but it turned out that kids have a pretty firm grasp on story structure.

1. Opening/Establishing the Scene

Once upon a time, the zebra was walking down the road, singing. It was a very sunny day.

2. Inciting Incident

And then he met a lion.

3. Rising Action

“I wanna eat ya!” said the lion. “Oh ya? I know Kung Fu! Haya!” said the zebra. And then, the lion went to Lou Malnatti’s for dinner.

4. Further complications

“Sorry, we only have vegetarian pizzas,” said Loud. “Drat” said the lion (his name is Leo). Leo then went to California Pizza Kitchen. And their Leo found balloon pizza. “Gross” said Leo and went to Domino’s.

Admittedly, there are problems in this story. The main conflict changes from being between the zebra and the lion to being between the lion and the pizza companies. The character of the zebra disappears after the beginning. And there is no climax and resolution (but let’s blame that on the fact that the fair ended before the kids could end the story).

Still, I think this mini-story has something many writers forget about: problems for the characters. As my fiction professor says, we need something to worry about. When a writer gets a new world or character in their head, often they spend pages just describing things or showing every day life because they want to get to know the characters like they would get to know people. But in stories, the readers need to be worried about something. In this example, we’re first concerned about what will happen to the zebra after he meets the lion. Then we’re concerned about whether the lion is going to get the pizza he wants. At every moment in the story, we’re concerned about what will happen next, and that is what keeps us reading, whether it is a story about lions going to pizza parlors or the Great American Novel.

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Chapters and Freedom

I’m in the middle of a really good book, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. You might have heard of it. It made a big splash this summer when it came out, mostly because he refused to allow his debut novel to be in Oprah’s book club (he changed his tune this year). I was skeptical that it would be all that it is hyped up to be, but so far it is hitting the mark.

All except in one aspect, however; the chapters are unbearably long. I have a lot of required reading to do in my life, so when I squeeze in some personal reading, I like to set short, attainable goals for myself. For most books, it’s a chapter or two. But in Freedom, the shortest chapters are forty or fifty pages (big pages with small print), meaning it takes an hour or two just to do that. If I only have half an hour to read, I won’t even be able to finish one chapter. I don’t like leaving in the middle, so that means I won’t read. I’ll probably go to YouTube for entertainment.

I understand the reasons behind long chapters. In my personal writing, I hate deciding where chapter breaks should be. In Freedom, there is a pattern of changing perspectives and media, but within each section there are no further breaks. Even though I understand it, it drives me crazy.

The lesson I take from this, then, is that chapter breaks are important to readers. Some people take it to an extreme, of course (Dan Brown), but chapters give a book a predictable rhythm that allows readers to measure their progress and take breathers. It’s important to give the reader space to put down the book, cook dinner, and come back without worrying about remembering which paragraph they left off on. So Mr. Franzen, please, please, next time put in shorter chapters so I can enjoy the novel completely!

Adult Literacy Programs

Every winter quarter, the seniors and writing faculty give readings of their most recent opuses* to the general public at Northwestern. This past Tuesday was the inaugural event, and, along with several wonderful student readings, Brian Bouldrey was the faculty reader. In the past, faculty members have read excerpts from published novels, essays, and poetry collections. Professor Bouldrey was no different, standing up there with his bound and published book. Except his book was smaller than a chapter book, and just about as thin, too. And, in what I surmise is a typical Bouldrey move, he read the end of the novella to us instead of the beginning.

What was most remarkable about the reading, however, was his explanation of the book. The Sorrow of the Elves is a part of the Open Door Series, an adult literacy program that was started in Ireland and is now migrating to North America. According to Wikipedia, each book of this series has to follow editorial guidelines such as a standard plot, well-developed characters, simple language, and short chapters. Each book is also capped at 10,000 words.

I was astounded to hear about this series. First of all, I’m not sure what they mean by adult literacy. Does that mean there is a substantial population of adults who can’t read? According to the CIA World Factbook, the USA and Ireland both have literacy rates of 99%. The problem must then be that adults aren’t taking the time to read. Professor Bouldrey said he wrote his to make people fall in love with reading again.

This is a great cause, but it does give me pause. I always want my writing to make people fall in love with reading. For me, there is nothing better than staying up past my bedtime to finish – or try to finish – a book, and that’s the experience I want every one of my readers to have. And I think a lot of writers have the same goal. So when did we need to start a whole series dedicated to this?

I think part of it goes back to the question of literary fiction versus genre fiction. Literary fiction often tries to push boundaries, experiment with form, and imbue itself with layers and layers of meanings for the intelligent reader to tease out through long discussions, while genre fiction is more concerned with the story and entertaining people (but, as I’ve said in previous posts, that doesn’t mean genre fiction has any less meaning). I will admit, however, that even I, an avid reader and an undeclared English major, don’t really enjoy the act of reading literary fiction. I enjoy discussing it in class afterwards. But if the story is slowing and the characters are falling to the side so that the writer can play with words and form, I get bored. I put it aside. Maybe I even watch television instead.

Perhaps the problem of adult literacy is a cry to all writers who write for themselves or other writers or the elite few who actually sit around in coffee shops doing close readings of passages. Perhaps the true test of being a good writer is not throwing away all the elements of fiction that readers love in order to experiment, but fitting those experiments and games and meanings into the outline of a novel that readers will enjoy.

*The English plural of opus is opuses. The Latin plural is opera.