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Thursday, November 21, 2019

 

Building Structure with Changes of Significance by Jeanne Cavelos

Jeanne Cavelos

Stories often start too soon or too late. They get mired in the middle. When they finally emerge, the climax can seem forced or random. Even if they avoid all those problems, the plot often carries little emotional impact.

In my 32 years working with writers, as a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell and then as director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, it's become very clear that writers struggle most with plot and structure.

One reason for this titanic struggle is that creating a strong structure requires a writer step back from the story and see it as a reader sees it. What does the reader care about? What is the reader worried about? What does the reader hope happens? If you can't answer these questions with some certainty, it's hard to overcome those problems.

To build a strong structure, you can start with the smallest unit, a scene, and expand the story one unit at a time, stepping back periodically to assess and strengthen the overall structure that is being revealed (known as writing from the seat of your pants, or pantsing). Or you can start with the overall plan, an outline, and build units to fulfill the plan, stepping back periodically to compare the actual structure being revealed to the plan and make any necessary changes (known as plotting). In either case, that smallest unit, the scene, is key. If your scenes are weak, your structure will be weak.

A STORY IS ABOUT CHANGE

A story, with few exceptions, is about change. That means your structure is the physical expression of that change. That smallest unit of structure, then, the scene, must show change. Just showing any change, though, is not enough. The scene must show change that moves the story forward in a significant way.

What does that mean, exactly? Two things:
  1. Each scene must show a change in a value of significance to the main character of that scene
  2. The change must have an impact on the rest of the story

When something important to the character changes, and that change has an impact on the rest of the story, the scene pays a critical role in the story and moves the story forward in a significant way.

Let's look more closely at those two requirements. In the first one, what exactly is meant by "a value of significance to the main character"? Well, what does your character value? The love of her husband? Trust in her friends? Her health? Her freedom? Ethical procedures at the hospital where she works? Helping others? Being recognized for her achievements?

In that case, here are some ways a scene might show a change in a value of significance to this character:
  • she catches her best friend in a lie and goes from trusting her friend to distrusting her friend
  • she discovers falsified records at the hospital and goes from believing her colleagues at the hospital are ethical to realizing some of them are unethical
  • when the head of security detains her, she goes from freedom to captivity
  • when a colleague pushes her down the stairs, she goes from health to serious injury

You can see that I am describing these changes as reversals, from one quality to its opposite. Aristotle, in fact, called the change each scene should have a reversal. That's a very useful way to think about it. Robert McKee discusses this concept further in his excellent book Story.

Values of significance are often tied to a character's goal. If a character forms a particular goal, that should mean the goal is important to her. The fact that it's important to her likely means the goal is intertwined with her core values. For example, let's say our character's goal is to clear herself from false charges of negligence at the hospital. What values might be involved? Success in her career, recognition for her achievements, competence, the ability to do what she loves (her job), the respect and love of her husband, her freedom—all these are at stake. For values of significance to change, they must be at stake. They can be gained or lost. This creates emotion in the character and hopefully emotion in the reader also.


"For values of significance to change, they must be at stake. They can be gained or lost. This creates emotion in the character and hopefully emotion in the reader also."


You might ask why values need to be involved. Can't a scene just show a change of significance? Weakening requirement #1 can lead to weak scenes, as writers try to convince themselves that any minor change is a "change of significance." I once wrote a scene in which the antagonist searched for a parking place on a busy city street so he could go execute his evil plan. At the end of the scene, he found a parking space! Ah, the change of significance! The scene was about as interesting as it sounds. If I had considered a "change in a value of significance," I would have found that there is no major value at stake in finding or not finding a parking space. So this would not fulfill the requirement or make a strong scene. That search for a parking space could instead be downgraded to a sentence at the start of the scene in which he attempts to execute his evil plan, or skipped over entirely.

More commonly, the author isn't just missing a value change; the author is missing a change of any sort. A character wakes up and thinks about his life, or walks around and thinks about his life, or two characters exchange information, but nothing much changes at all. This is a common problem in opening scenes (and in many other scenes as well). Often the author is preoccupied with establishing certain background information, setting up character relationships, or describing the world. While those are important tasks to accomplish, they should be accomplished while the plot is simultaneously moving ahead, not while the plot is stuck at a standstill. A scene in which no change in a value of significance occurs is a scene that is not moving the story ahead. It should be cut or revised so that it does create such a change.

Fulfilling requirement #1 rigorously and consistently will help to ensure that each scene shows significant change that will have an emotional impact on the character. That could make an involving scene. But for that scene to form an effective piece of the larger structure, it needs to connect to the rest. That leads us to the second requirement.

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A CHAIN OF CHANGES

The second requirement reveals that the "change in a value of significance" can't be one that matters only in that individual scene. It must matter beyond that scene, having an impact on the rest of the story. For example, if our protagonist catches her friend in a minor lie and goes from trusting her friend to distrusting her, but that change has no impact on the rest of the story, the scene will feel unnecessary, an unimportant sidetrack. Indeed, that scene would not belong in the story. If, later on, the protagonist discovers that the minor lie actually reveals her friend's role in the unethical practices at the hospital, the initial change will have a big impact on the rest of the story.

The impact of a scene's change on the rest of the story isn't limited to the plot, though. Often (and I'd really like to say always), part of the impact is expressed through the character. A character who believes she can trust her best friend and then discovers she can't is no longer the same person. In future scenes, as she faces her husband, or her boss, she will wonder if her trust in them is as misguided as her trust in her friend. She'll be more wary, more emotionally reserved. And this will have further effects on the story.


"A character who believes she can trust her best friend and then discovers she can't is no longer the same person. In future scenes, as she faces her husband, or her boss, she will wonder if her trust in them is as misguided as her trust in her friend."


A scene with a strong change in a value of significance to the character is a scene that alters the character, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. And as the chain of changes develops, the character will evolve, for good or ill.

A writer struggling to revise a story that readers call "slow" or "uninteresting" may be failing to fulfill requirement #2. The writer might try to make her story more interesting by revising a scene to create a bigger change in a value of significance--she could add explosions and characters dying. But if that value change doesn't have an impact on the rest of the story, the scene doesn't belong, and readers still won't be happy.

When each scene's change has an impact on the rest of the story, then your overall structure is made up of an interconnected chain of changes. This helps you to create a unified structure, in which each piece is important and all the pieces work together.



AN EMOTIONAL JOURNEY OF CHANGE

When each scene fulfills the two requirements, your story will have significant values at stake for the character, will show major changes in which those values are gained or lost, and will thus move the story ahead in a significant way, generating emotion and having an impact on the character and the rest of the story.

That sounds like a story I'd enjoy reading.

Creating scenes in this way can also help you avoid some of the most common problems writers have with structure and plot.

  • If you start your story too soon, the opening scene (or scenes) will most likely either lack a change in a value of significance, or the value change it has will not make an impact on the rest of the story. If you start your story too late, that opening scene may well be overstuffed with multiple changes to values of significance, making it murky, with a confused mix of emotion, and the rest of the story may feel the impact of multiple value changes that occurred before the story began.
  • If you get mired in the middle, you are most likely failing to fulfill one or both requirements, so scenes don't move the story ahead in a significant way and/or don't have an impact on the rest of the story.
  • If your climaxes seem forced or random, that means they are not the culmination of all the value changes that have gone before. Events may seem to be impacted by something outside the previous scenes, or the character may behave in a way that doesn't reflect the evolution we have seen.
  • If your plot elicits little emotion, then you may be writing the equivalent of the antagonist-looking-for-a-parking-spot scene. Remember that you need to do more than just show any change in the scene. You must show a change in a value of significance to the main character of that scene.

As you write scenes that fulfill the two requirements, you'll need to step back periodically to assess the overall structure you are building and try to see it the way a reader sees it. Whether you are pantsing or plotting, you'll want to consider what impacts each value change might have on future events and on the character, and what impacts the reader expects, hopes for, and fears. As you move forward in your story, you'll also want to look back on past scenes and consider whether their value changes are the most important ones for the story and whether the particular ways you create those value changes are the best ways for the story.

At some point in your story creation process, either early (if you're a planner) or later (if you're a pantser), you'll want to consider the best shape for this chain of changes, the overall structure. That will depend on the impact you want to create through the evolution of the character and the development of the plot. "Shape" is a product of several things, but most prominently, the number of acts. An act is another unit of structure, a much larger one. Is this a twisty story? That probably means three acts. One that builds in an almost unbearable way? One act. Is it the epic story of a character's life? Most likely five acts. Understanding the nature of your story and the impact you want to have on the reader will help guide you in making those larger-scale structural decisions. But that's a discussion for another day.

In the meantime, focus on making each small unit of structure the best it can be for your story. Challenge your character by putting the things she values most at stake. Relate events in which she gains or loses those things, creating powerful emotions. And tie each scene to the rest of the story so we can feel the impact of those events resonating through the plot and the character.

That's the way to build a strong structure with changes of significance.

***

Jeanne's online workshop with Odyssey

Jeanne Cavelos is a bestselling author, an award-winning editor, and the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization devoted to helping writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror improve their work.

She'll be teaching the Odyssey Online class Three-Act Structure in Fantastic Fiction this winter.

Jeanne began her professional life as an astrophysicist working at NASA. After earning her MFA in creative writing, she moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she edited award-winning science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels and won the World Fantasy Award. Jeanne left New York to pursue her own writing career and find a more in-depth way of working with writers. She has had seven books published; her last novel was Invoking Darkness, the third volume in her bestselling trilogy The Passing of the Techno-Mages. Her writing has twice been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. Jeanne is currently working on a near-future science thriller, Fatal Spiral.

Since Jeanne loves working with developing writers, she created the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 1996, which quickly became one of the most respected programs in the world for writers of the fantastic. In 2010, she launched Odyssey Online Classes; live, intensive, interactive courses that use the techniques that have proven so effective at the workshop. Three online classes are announced each fall with an application deadline of December 7. Jeanne is also an English lecturer at Saint Anselm College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing.

Connect with Jeanne and the Odyssey Writing Workshops on Odyssey’s website and blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. For more information about Odyssey, check out this YouTube video.

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