Monday, June 16, 2014

The Writer's Filing Cabinet: Conventions of Structure

A writer's story pretty much explores his or her vicarious experiences – things they have done, or experienced, or dreamed of doing. In 1939, James Thurber penned the short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It was released in 1942 as a book titled, “My World and Welcome to It.” The story was made into a film in 1947 with Danny Kaye in the lead role and remade in 2013 staring Ben Stiller. It is about a mild-mannered man with a vivid fantasy life. Sitting down to write, we discover and experience Walter's world within us. The challenge is to get a grip on that imagination and channel it, either for our own enjoyment or to share and bring enjoyment to others. (Not all stories need publishing. I have some favorites that I keep for myself.)

The various kinds of stories have different formats based on length. Think of them as separate drawers in a filing cabinet labeled Flash Fiction, Short Story, Novella, and Novel. We are now going to put folders into those drawers which are the Conventions of Structure.

The first folder is labelled “Category.” Categories change over time, as you will see in a moment, but for now these are what publishers will use:
  1. Adult
  • This category supposedly covers post-adolescents to post-cemetery and can contain more graphic depictions of events.
  1. Young Adult (YA)
  • The American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Authors and readers of young adult (YA) novels often define the genre as literature traditionally written for ages ranging from sixteen years up to the age of twenty-five. That has changed over the pasts few years as more and more older readers enjoy reading this genre.
  • This category has been further divided by age. Teen or Juvenile Fiction covers the ages of ten and to fifteen.
  • YA stories often focus on the challenges of youth, sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels and are expected to use age-appropriate language.
  • These arbitrary boundaries had their doors blown off in recent years with the release of books like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Rick Riorden's series based on the gods of Ancient Greece and Rome. The intended age group is better educated and sophisticated to handle both language and themes. A better definition of a YA genre is a story in which the central character is a teenager at the beginning, who deals with teenage-type problems, and either grows into adulthood or is still a teenager when the story closes. Dummy-down language is inappropriate. In reality, more adults will probably read the story than teenagers, for instance, Samuel Clements, Huckleberry Finn.
  1. Children
  • Ages 10 and under.

Within each of these categories come sub-folders beginning with:

Genre is the wide range of areas that may be explored.

  • Action
  • Adventure
  • Comedy
  • Crime
  • Erotica
  • Faction
  • Fantasy
  • Historical
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Paranoid
  • Philosophical
  • Political
  • Realistic
  • Romance
  • Saga
  • Satire
  • Science fiction
  • Slice of Life
  • Speculative
  • Thriller
  • Urban

To narrow down the content there are more categories. Let's take CRIME for instance. In general, this would be a story about a crime that is being or was committed, or about a criminal's life. Subdivisions might be:
  • Detective story
  • Courtroom drama
  • Murder mystery
  • Hardboiled
  • Legal thriller
  • Gangster
Much of what I write is classified as Young Adult, Historical, Adventure. The central character's story begins as a child and follows him into adulthood, detailing his adventures as a pirate within an historically accurate backdrop.

The second sub-folder in a category file is “Theme.”
  • Theme is an idea or point central to the story, which can often be summed in a single word such as survival, love, death, betrayal, honor, etc.  A Novella and Novel have the room to accommodate more than one theme.
The third sub-folder is “Goal.”
  • This is the central, unifying end result that gives purpose to the events that take place. Before you start, you need to know where you will end.

The fourth sub-folder is “Plot.”
  • This entails the methods, means, or techniques used to solve problems while moving toward the goal.

The fifth sub-folder is “Outline,” or “Synopsis.”
  • A synopsis brings all of the above things into a short narrative and acts as a road map.

Mariann is a normal teenager who likes music and boys. She is awaken one night by a bad dream of something coming out of her closet. It's dark in her room even with a night light. Just when she convinces herself it was just a silly dream, she hears a soft scratching noise from the closet. Turning on the bedside light she sees a mouse come running out and across the floor. Her scream awakens the household and neighborhood. The family cat enters and chases the mouse while Mariann is jumping up and down on her bed, screaming. The mouse escapes with cat in pursuit and leaves the room. She doesn't get much sleep that night. The same dream awakes her the next night. She turns on the light, hears a rustling noise from the closet, expecting another mouse, but a rattle snake appears instead invoking even louder screams. The cat comes to the rescue, sees the snake, and takes refuge on the dresser Mariann was planning to use. Her father distracts the snake so she and cat can escape. While the family vacates, he stays outside her room to prevent the snake elsewhere in the house. The police arrive and thoroughly search her room, but the snake has disappeared.

  • An outline or synopsis is an important map to help keep your story on track by breaking it down into small parts, continually asking for the answers to: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
  • Here is an example:
    • Mariann is a normal teenage girl
    • Mariann has a bad dream and is awaken
    • Mariann sees a mouse in her room
    • Mouse is chased away by the family cat
    • Mariann has the same bad dream the next night of something bad coming out of her closet
    • Mariann awakens and sees a rattle snake come out of the closet
    • Her dad distracts snake to allow Mariann and cat to escape
    • Father stands guard so snake can not invade other parts of house
    • Police come to remove snake
  • By applying the 5-W's & 1-H to each part, the plot evolves and the story blossoms. In this case, 3,200 words.

Now that we have this loose guide (you can go into as much detail as you want), it's time to start writing – right? Wrong. I know, I know. You're fingers are itching to get going, but there are a few other things that need be done which could change your best laid plans. That involves setting and especially what character traits each player is endowed.

The fifth sub-folder is "Beginning" and "End." This folder can be the hardest to fill. The Beginning refers to the "hook" or very beginning of the story that draws the reader's interest into the story. The End refers to how you wrap up the story once the goal is achieved, sometimes referred to as the "clincher," or "snapper" or a memorable closing that leaves the reader satisfied. If a writer doesn't plan this part carefully, the whole adventure may be left a pointless exercise.  In the story of Mariann above, the police exit the house after coming to remove the snake--they can't find it.