Instructors' Craft Talk II

In the previous post Greg Michalson listed "shape and substance" as the main problem in the novel drafts he reads.  He explains further.

GREG MICHALSON: Structure is among the most frequent issues I find in manuscript drafts, in part because so many things beyond the skeleton, the actual bones of the novel, impinge on it. Some of those things include multiple points of view, multiple timelines, pace, dialogue, multiple locations. Not to mention the most obvious—the plot itself. Even issues of subject and dramatic tension—the novel driving engine—often drift into creating problems of shape. And in many ways, I think, shape is substance, or at least reveals substance.

It’s surprising to me how many otherwise good writers haven’t paid sufficient attention to structure. All that said, every book has its own private strengths, weaknesses and issues.

NANCY ZAFRIS: Your remark that "shape is substance"is so interesting and insightful. It reminds me of the "form follows function" principle in architecture, that the intended purpose of a building or structure or objects should reflect its form.

Let's eat, but let's eat pretty.

Let's eat, but let's eat pretty.

It can be quite a jolt to read a history of the world type book done in first person present tense. There's a cognitive dissonance in that for me.  The intended purpose -- a sort of omniscient globalness -- is belied by a very contemporary, self-reflective voice.  Of course there are exceptions to every rule and one could argue for innovative technique, but experience has taught me that this is usually because first person present tense feels easiest for the beginning writer to do. But first person isn't easy at all. And in the wrong hands it is particularly difficult to maintain the kind of gravitas necessary for a book attempting a large-scale view.  There's something about first person present tense that feels a little weightless, so the talented writer must always be attentive to adding weight. But I digress. Back to shape and substance. 

GAIL ADAMS: I've been thinking about Greg's ideas about structure and substance and Nancy's response to it.  My own experience in the classroom teaching Intro to Fiction always presented with usually novice writers who had done a lot of informal writing, usually in a journal. They have lots of bits and pieces of writing that they try to make into a story. Sometimes it just misses.

Then there are others who've taken workshops and know all the craft terms--the shapes discussed by Jerry Stern in Making Shapely Fiction. They know how to write a framed story, a tale within a tale, an extended flashback, etc. and so present a competent story. There's nothing at all wrong with it except there's nothing exactly right with it and no amount of revision will make it compelling.

 I always think this happens when the writer is thinking too hard about structure and not enough about substance: the story that needs to be told is not known by the writer.  My students often loved my visuals at the bottom of a page--think this is an idea from a book on the craft of writing.  What do we know at the end of each page? Is there a love triangle--then draw a little triangle, if there's more than one such complication start noting the connections in a very visual way.  A kind of continuing illustration of rising action made apparent on the page. 


Sometimes this crude outline or story map acts as a guide to the writer to think about structure. Like the note cards on the line, the page to page graphic begins to show what is important and the deeper theme/meaning of the story begins its reveal. 


One of my friends wrote recently that the more she teaches the more she learns about writing although the way that she writes is completely different from the craft she teaches.  Her method falls somewhere between memories of her reading and day-dreaming and once that impulse/idea/notion/dream/substance is on the page, then she begins to structure.   

NANCY ZAFRIS: "The story that needs to be told is not known by the writer." Wow, Gail.

MAN MARTIN: One of the great pleasures to me as a reader is coming to the end of a novel and realizing in retrospect how artfully the pieces have come together.  Stories do have a shape, obviously not something you see in space, but can only perceive with your mind.  There's a roundness to a well-crafted story that is very gratifying, when the side-road we thought was a detour back in chapter four turns out to have been essential to filling out the journey.

JANE MCCAFFERTY:  i will steal this--- drawing visuals at the bottom of the page. Yeah, there is no easy answer! You can have great structure and a story that somehow sags all the way through because it doesn't have enough heart and soul or insight or whatever, so we don't feel the driving force---- even though the structure invites it.  You can have heart and soul dripping off the page and a story that's a bust because the writer has no clue in the world what a story is.  

NANCY ZAFRIS: Janey, your remark reminds me of something Flannery O'Connor said:  "One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness."

GREG MICHALSON: Exactly. That’s why I like to think in terms of shape and substance—both things going together. Probably the term “shape” is a better one in some respects than “structure,” though I know I tend to use them interchangeably even though they aren’t really quite the same thing. 

Without some at least potential substance to it, no amount of shaping a novel manuscript will help much. I guess I look at story and substance as the necessary but not sufficient function without which there’s no point in worrying any further. But on the other hand, I’ve often seen times when an author finds his or her way through to that story, and its significance, by finding a structure that works. And without a workable structure to support it, there just is no novel.