Apologies to Marjorie Doughty!
Her book, I, THE SPARROW, was inadvertently left off the "went to press" list last Friday.
Question from the e-mail: Arline, I got a return letter that commented "lacks structure," from a publisher this week? I remember you had comments about structure, when I was your student, and had even sent me a handout sheet from one of your workshops. I no longer have it, but if you do, would you send me one?
Answer: Congratulations Rhona, for remembering to call it a "return" letter. Very professional! I will post the handout below and also send you a copy via private e-mail. Hope it helps!
and Use of Narration
In the beginning all writing teachers say three things. “Show don’t tell. Write what you know,” and “Write in Scenes.” That is good advice as far as it goes. What it doesn’t say clearly enough is that your story, or article should unfold in an organized fashion, letting the reader in on facts as they become important for the reader to know. Some people call this giving the work “structure.” This concept is usually easy to identify in non-fiction, but harder in fiction. In non-fiction you state a premise, give additional facts that help to show it's worth, and then, in the final paragraph, sum up the concepts that support your premise. We all learned that doing essays in school.
Just like the “lead” in an article, a fiction transition is the most important sentence you can write. A transition is the first line when you move the reader from one place to another, or one scene to another, or from their chair into your story. A good transition, like the lead in a newspaper or magazine article, should answer the questions, Who? Where? and When? Otherwise it leaves the reader aware that something is missing and causes editors to write in their refusal letters, "This story needs to be better grounded in time and space!" I know. I have the letters to prove it!
Dramatic structure is a little more involved, though not as involved as one might think. Every scene has the same structure. Here it is:
1. Transition, preferably with hook. (Who, when, where, and end with an unanswered question)
2. Rising action and dialogue
3. Turning point of the scene (the place where something important changes forever)
(if there's no point, the scene goes, no matter how well written)
4. End/resolution of the scene, preferably with another hook. When we come to the end of a scene,
* * *
we indicate it with the double line break, and at least two extra lines of "white space" and most people use the three stars, a wavy line, or some other typed indication.This is important to so as many programs used by publishers to set type, will take out all blank lines, leaving them with a single uninterrupted block of copy unless you type a signal of some kind at the end of a scene.
Once the turning point is reached, then a final hook for that scene is set, and the scene ends. The Scene Ends Right There! Yes, as soon as the point is made, regardless of what else might have really happened later. Do not stay with the character for pointless paragraphs while he goes to the grocery store and the library. ONLY write scenes about important action.
Say for instance a medical examiner is called to the scene of a murder. He looks at the corpse and at the uniformed cop on standby, then says, "He's done it again. This is the same as the last one."
That's the final point of the scene, because we have let the reader know a serial killer is on the loose. Now, the criminalists will descend, take photographs and fingerprints, pick up blood samples, and eventually the body will be removed leaving the inevitable tape outline on the floor, but to show the reader all that after the medical examiner speaks would be anticlimactic. UNLESS we move the scene's action to before the "same as the last one" comment. Because letting the serial killer loose is the whole point of the scene. Once your serial killer is on the loose, end the scene, and get on to the next scene where your detective is hot on the trail instead of wasting your and the readers time on pointless action, however well written. Most short stories have three major turning points and coincidentally three major scenes.
Often there are things that happened in the past that affect the present. Sometimes this requires a flashback scene, but not usually. Flashbacks tend to distance the reader from the action. Therefore, I believe it's good policy not to put anything in flashback, unless you have information that can't be told any other way, or action that can't be shown sequentially. Instead, use mini-flashbacks to relate action that happens before the beginning of the story, and is too previous to be moved to a later time frame. Just in case I need to explain the difference: A real flashback, is a whole scene from the past shown out of time sequence, and a mini-flashback is having a character remember something that happened before for a line or two, then going on with the present scene’s action.
This can be the time for good use of narrative. They always tell us "show don't tell" and narration is "telling." But you can't show everything in the space allowed. So my advice is to narrate the mundane, or the action in pointless scenes if the reader has to know about it. Basically your story scenes should be like shining jewels and the narration like the silver wire that strings them together. Most writing texts don't get into how to do narration and it was years before I figured it out.
Look at the following sequential plot idea synopsis for a trite romance as an example:
After meeting her fiancé, Don, for lunch, Melanie buys an antique statue that strikes her eye in a small shop. After taking it home, she becomes conscious of an aura about it. It begins to affect her dreams. Over the next two weeks, as she goes to her job at a local library, at home, and even on dates with her fiancé, Melanie cannot get the little statue out of her mind. Don is disturbed by her lack of attention and his assumption that Melanie’s life should revolve around him is established when he presents her with airline tickets for their honeymoon set for a date she has already told him she can’t possibly get leave from work.
He suggests she quit her job and devote herself to keeping him happy in the future. Melanie does some research and finds the statue was once the symbol of an African River god. She writes to the embassy asking more about the history of the river god and is referred to the Museum of Humanities. She calls the museum and makes an appointment to speak with the curator, an expert in African culture. He tells her the statue was stolen and that the three tribal factions of that area each blame the other two for the theft. War among them is imminent.
Maybe she should give the statue back. Melanie thinks about quitting her job, but the little statue looks angry and her dreams are filled with visions of air crashes of their planned flight for weeks. Her nerves are on edge when Don comes by unannounced and berates her for spending so much time on the stupid statue. They break up. Don goes on their planned honeymoon alone and his plane crashes. Though he survives, Melanie has no desire to resume their relationship. Melanie learns from the museum curator that the statue is authentic and makes arrangements to ship it back to Africa.
Looking at the above, almost anyone would assume they’d start the story at lunch with the fiancé. Or at least with the purchase of the statue. But look at the three scene outlines below:
Scene one: Melanie’s apartment. Quarrelsome phone call from Don. Initial Problem: Melanie’s relationship with fiancé Don is not going well. He wants more attention and to have his way in every decision. Melanie hangs up on him and eyes the statue that looks like a humpbacked waterdrop with a head. The face keeps changing, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes faceless, depending on the angle of view. Mini-flashback: She remembers where she bought it for next-to-nothing and the mixed feelings she’s been having ever since. An angry Don arrives and they continue their quarrel after she learns about his making honeymoon plans without consulting her schedule. Don leaves, angry. End hook: Melanie wonders if marriage to him is a mistake.
Scene two: Museum. Melanie meets the youthful, good-looking, museum curator. Definite interest on his part. Mini-flashback to the dreams of air crashes. He’s nice and attentive. Gives her background on the statue and agrees to come and look to see if it’s the original. Curator makes a mild pass. Melanie mentions her fiancé. Curator suggests she return the stolen statue. Hook: Melanie is not sure whether she wants to let it go. She is becoming fond of it, despite its aura of anger.
Scene Three: Melanie’s apartment. Curator telephones. Statue is the original. Melanie asks him to make arrangements to ship it to Africa. Melanie warns him not to book it on Flight 801, as in her dreams it always crashes. Don drops by and they quarrel again. He gives her an ultimatum, tells her to quit her job or else! Melanie dumps him. Don announces he plans to go on the trip on Flight 801 whether she goes or NOT! Melanie tells him she dreamed it would crash, but Don laughs at her fears. Melanie tells him they are through. Don leaves, still angry. The statue then definitely looks female and smiling. As Melanie packs the statue, for return, she feels at peace for the first time in weeks.