Thursday, April 30, 2015

Building stories on unconventional structures -- breaking the rules for fun and profit!

This week we're going to talk about story structure. When do you stick to the rules of conventional structure, and when do you break them?

Editor's Note: For more information about unconventional story structures, click here.

When you create a story, how do you approach story structure? How often do you alter that structure with minor changes like a framing sequence, flashbacks, etc. and how do you know when one is appropriate for a story?

Mark Bousquet: I find that when I get unconventional, it tends to be mood driven rather than story driven. That is, I decide I need a break from straight-ahead, linear style and jump into writing something that pushes me to get out of the linear comfort zone, and look for a story I can tell in that style. I wrote a Victorian horror novel in the form of a journal (The Haunting of Kraken Moor). I've written a superhero novel called USED TO BE (not out yet) which jumps narrative tense with nearly every chapter. When my main character, Kid Rapscallion (Jason Kitmore), is in the present, I write in first person, present tense, but when I flashback to the story of his life, I use third person, present tense. The book is divided into sections, with each section taking a different year of Jason's life (at the start of the novel, it's a decade since he stopped being Kid), and there's all kinds of news clips and video transcripts cut in to round out the story. It's meant to be unconventional because I wanted to write something that jumped around and shifted perspective because that's how we tend to remember our lives, I think - in bits and scattered pieces, where something we do at 28 might be because of something that happened when we were 18, even though there were lots and lots of things in between. It was a blast to write.

Robert Krog: I approach structure instinctively most of the time, which means I usually tell stories with a pretty conventional or natural feeling structure; that is, what feels natural to me. I rarely make a conscious decision about it. I’ve written several stories that match up with items on the list at litreactor, and, of these, two were consciously planned as being unusual types and one was just a moment of inspiration. The first one of this type is “Guirsu’s Story” from the unfinished, collaborative effort that is forever stuck with the working title The Eden Charm. In it, the title character is magically entrapped in a state of sensory deprivation and subject to subtle, psychic attack for years. His story is told in random bursts, out of sequence, and with an unreliable narrator. So I get a twofer for unconventional on that one. The demands of the story seemed to require both, and my collaborator and I, a pox on him for not finishing his part, decided on that before I wrote a word of it. I wrote a story in second person for a specific story call. “The Guy that the Other Guy Fell on, or Vice Versa” was published in You Don’t Say: Stories in the Second Person. I approached it that way because the guidelines said to do so and the editor asked me so nicely to contribute. The last one that is clearly unconventional is a story titled “Other Songs.” It told from the point of view of a piece of rock, because I was inspired that way. You may find it here.

Percival Constantine:I start with a collection of ideas jotted down in a notebook, then I form these into a coherent story by writing up a synopsis. But I don't think of things like framing sequences and flashbacks as something to alter a structure, rather they're part of the structure.

R.J. Sullivan: It's all about what best serves the story. I can think of two instances where I ignored convention and in both cases it worked better for the story and as far as I can tell, it hasn't confused anyone yet. The majority of my first novel Haunting Blue is a first person tale from the POV of the teenage protagonist. There is a flashback incident that takes place before she was born, but vital to the tale. I inserted three lengthy third person "interludes" between chapters that go back and tell that story. So there's three chapters in the present, an interlude 15 years earlier, three more chapters in the present, a second interlude (picking up from the previous interlude) then repeat one more time. By the end of the third interlude the reader knows where the money is hidden and how it got there, just as the protag is planning to go out and find it.

Another time I broke tradition was in the short story "Robot Vampire," which starts out telling the story in deep third from the point of view of the inventor, At a key point, the robot gained sentience, and I broke the narrative and began again first person from the robot's perspective, taking the reader through the 'awakening" and going forward to the end of the story.

Lance Stahlberg: Would in media res be considered "unconventional"? I also tend to weave in a lot of flashbacks, which seems a lot more common in TV scripts.

With the success of unconventional structures as in movies like Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive, and Memento, and books like They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Gone Girl, and S., do you find your work more or less open to embracing an out of the box approach to the narrative structure?


Mark Bousquet: Even going back to my fanfic days, I really enjoyed writing narratives that jumped around. I think there's something powerful about the meaning we can derive from a non-linear look at a person's life. It's always taken me aback, a little, how a genre like New Pulp can be open to a social enlightening (going back to an earlier time and focusing on issues that were not popular in the pulps of the day) but that it often seems so completely closed to doing this aesthetically. There's a resistance in some quarters to telling non-linear stories.

Robert Krog: Eh, I hadn’t thought about it. I’m actually not inspired to write by most movies I see and haven’t read the books that are cited. It seems that Slaughter House Five had what qualifies as an unconventional structure. I read that long time ago. It may have unconsciously influenced me on some occasion, I suppose. It begins with the main character being unstuck in time or some such phrase. The situation of the character in my, alas, unfinished, collaborative work is similar. Generally, I tend not to follow trends, so seeing a movie or reading a book that is unusual in its structure isn’t likely to alter my habits, at least not immediately. Things do sink into the subconscious mind.

Percival Constantine: I taught a class recently on story structure, specifically focusing on the three-act structure and how common it is, and one of the students asked me about things like flashbacks or telling a story in a jumbled chronological order. And what I said is that structure doesn't have to follow a linear timeline. If you look at something like Memento or Mulholland Drive, even though the story isn't presented in a linear fashion, the elements of structure are still there, and they still hit the basic points in the format. But as for me, I don't really see the need for a lot of unconventional storytelling in the type of stories I write.

When and why would you use an unconventional narrative in your work?

Mark Bousquet: When the work will be better for it and when I feel like stretching my typewriter.

Robert Krog: I use unconventional narrative structure when the narrative calls for it, and, until now, I never called it unconventional narrative structure. I did think that writing a story from the perspective of a rock was pretty unique, it’s true. If the guidelines of a story call for it, of course, then that’s how it has to be if one submits. Otherwise, it’s a moment of inspiration thing or a what is called for thing. As I mentioned above, a character in an unhinged situation or mental state might well call for an unhinged structure to his narrative. I may, at some point set out on purpose to write something according to the suggestions at litreactor just for the challenge. That’s as good a reason as any.

Percival Constantine: When the story calls for it. Always when the story calls for it.

R.J. Sullivan: While I typically try to stick to the rules, I found that playing around in instances like this have paid off.

Which do you prefer to read, a regular narrative or something more outside the box? Why?


Mark Bousquet: I like the variety of jumping back and forth, the same way I like reading Faulkner next to Hemingway, or Twain next to Eco, or a horror novel next to an espionage thriller. I think reading, say, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn next to The Island of the Day Before helps me to see beyond the surface of the texts in a more vibrant way. It helps bring out the depth of Huck and Jim and helps to focus the memories of Roberto della Griva into something more understandable.

Robert Krog: I have a preference for good stories. The narrative style either works or it doesn’t. I don’t recall having ever thought upon closing the last page of book, “Wow, that story had really good narrative structure!” My response is usually more on the lines of, “Wow, what a good story!” I’m not unaware of structure, mind you, nor am I disdainful of it. It is merely that it is not usually at the forefront of my thoughts. My thoughts on structure come up when a story is bad and the badness stands out because of structural defects or much later upon reflection. It is not what I think about when choosing a book to read nor is it my first thought on finishing a book. When I do reflect on a book, after finishing it, I will sometimes include its structure in my reflections, if that structure was unconventional or just particularly well constructed.

Percival Constantine: I don't really have a preference one way or the other. Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite movies. But then again, so is The Avengers.

R.J. Sullivan: As for what I prefer, again, it comes back to the story. If the reason the writer did it is clear, and it helps me follow along, I'll go with them anywhere (Christopher Nolan's Momento comes to mind -- which worked surprisingly well) If it's just the writer goofing off, I get frustrated and quit.