Story is Structure, Part 3: The Structure Stands
In Part 1–Story is Structure and Part 2–The Inhabitants of Story I shared some of what I’ve learned over the years working with Scott Nehring, film critic and story guru. In this final installment, I’ll give you a glimpse of how I used those valuable structure guides to manhandle mountains of information into a narrative nonfiction work that captured the essence of those true events, maintained their veracity, and produced a story both gripping and entertaining (currently #16 on Amazon’s Best Seller list of Law > … > Litigation).
There is a well-known mansion in northern California under continuous construction for 38 years. Sarah Winchester, widow of the manufacturer of the Winchester rifle, insisted on and supervised daily, around the clock construction on the mansion, without interruption, from 1884 until her death in September 1922. The cost in 2010 figures would have been 71 million USD.
“The Queen Anne Style Victorian mansion is renowned for its size and utter lack of any master building plan.” (Wikipedia).
But Mrs. Winchester was unhinged, forgive the pun. She used no plan because she needed none, and now her work is a public spectacle.
But we have also toured a home, significantly smaller, whose interior had been done by someone who thought all you needed to know about construction was how to buy a hammer, nails, and sheetrock. You literally had to straddle the toilet to stand in front of the bathroom sink.
Even free form jazz has structure, as does free-form poetry if anyone is to make sense of it. You want people to understand and appreciate your message, whether trivial or eternal. Why else would you do the work required to produce a story for reading outside your own, intimate circle of family or friends?
May 2007 I received an e-mail via the Editorial Freelancer’s Association from a gentleman wanting to connect with a local author. He wanted a story written about a very difficult period of his brother’s life.
I met the Brothers, Jack and Norm, at a local coffee shop. They presented newspaper clippings from an event encompassing the previous three decades. Local media had dubbed it the Orchid Murder, and the articles had titles like,
- Is Insurance the Key in Murder of Florist?
- Slaying: Widow Sues over Insurance Paid
- Rival Florist Takes Fifth Amendment
- ’73 Murder of Florist Haunts Widow, Accused Killer
- SLAYING: Accused Man Sues His Lawyer
A quick peruse of the articles and I decided the story looked not only interesting enough to delve into but also had enough meat to produce a story. A few months for fact checking and filling in background details and, I figured, an interesting short story could be constructed.
Six hundred hours of research, five years, and four unique versions later, I finally had a storyline the three of us could agree on. Those two hours in a coffee shop changed the course of my writing career.
I had been given a story which contained
- two murders—the later assumedly to hide the former;
- adultery between a recent widow and the detective investigating her husband’s shooting (the first murder), police incompetence, and fleeing fugitives whom the police never attempted to locate;
- families in crisis—one torn apart by greed, the other drug through twenty years of hell by the greedy;
- big-name celebs: the psychic Peter Hurkos (of Boston Strangler fame) and renown defense attorney F. Lee Bailey;
- a national-calibre attorney who got state law changed so he could pursue his case;
- possible mob involvement, and the drug scene of the late 1960s, early ’70s;
- and a good-ol’-boys network alive and well within the legal and judicial system.
Lies, more lies, and conflicting alibis. And Norm, the brother around whom these events swirled, did little other than resolutely remain a good husband and father and doggedly maintain his innocence. Great candidate for All-Pro Dad but not for a story’s hero.
A string of even the most exciting events do not a story make. And the Brothers had no clue what type story they wanted. Here, write it.
Version One. After Round One with county court documents I was up to my shins in information and decided that a “based on” story using a fictional hero would keep Norm and his family out of public scrutiny—something they insisted upon at the time.
Storyline: A journalist investigates the murder of a friend’s father and finds ties to the murders of his own parents twenty years before. The Orchid Murder details would be woven in as an additional murder by the same assailant and detail unearthed during litigation could help our journalist run the bad guys to ground.
I loved it. The Brothers hated it. I hung onto the draft for future use and forged on.
Version Two. Most people dream of seeing themselves as the hero of a tale, so I studied the accumulated information for a nonfiction retelling, similar to an extended news article or biography. Too dry. It did not capture the real-life drama. This was juicy stuff and needed narrative storytelling.
So, who were the pro- and antagonists? That was not easy to answer. At first it looked promising to chose Norm and his former attorney, Phil Gainsley, as protagonists, with the widow, her family and attorney as antagonists in the early part of the story, then show Gainsley switching to the role of antagonist for the later—malpractice suit—portion. The hero being turned on by a trusted friend can make an interesting, suspenseful story.
But too many pieces wouldn’t fit, and revision after revision had no flow.
Interviews of Norm’s attorneys—Friedberg and Snider—provided more pieces for a fuller picture.
Version Three. Norm was still the primary protagonist but now Gainsley was an antagonist throughout as Friedberg and Snider took vanguard against those who for so long refused Norm the justice he was due.
This version was a definite improvement — stronger, energized, definite flow. The main difficulty was that Norm’s every-man character could not propel a vigorous story forward. He was undoubtedly the emotional vortex — enslaved by someone’s greed, his life destroyed — but not enough happened to create a full, well-structured story. I kept digging.
Norm had an accident with a city bus on his way to work; I used that as a crisis point in Act 3. Norm’s wife had a humiliating experience at a dry cleaner’s; into Act 3 it went, too.
But the first draft for Version Three still didn’t sit well with me, nor with my husband or the other people whose opinions I value as early readers.
Through all those rewrites, my husband responded to my grumbles with, “You know, Snider’s the real hero, here,” or “And it probably won’t work until you let Friedberg and Snider be the heroes.”
Moving Friedberg and Snider to primary protagonists would take a significant amount of additional research and interviews of a wider group of attorneys. I’d been working on this, gratis, for over three years. Could I put in the additional two to three years needed to make Friedberg and Snider the heroes of the story?
If they would agree to participate with me, you bet I would.
Version Four. Round Two with attorneys’ files was far more intense. I was more familiar with the case so knew, better, what I was looking at, and with Snider and Friedberg as protagonists it was essential I find real events to accurately fill specific plot points in the story structure—and this is the point at which familiarity with Nehring’s structure enabled me to not only identify the types of occurrences I was looking for but to also recognize what I could pass over with only a glance, then know basically how to fit them together to form an actual story.
That was a huge time-saver because the amount of material was almost overwhelming, but piece by piece I began filling in the plot points in Nehring’s four-act structure—
- show Old World – Norm and family struggling under $3 million judgment
- death of the Herald – Snider realizes the extent of Gainsley’s negligence
- pose Central Question – Snider states “The justice of a fair and speedy trial with competent representation—that’s what we’re after, what Norm didn’t get,” thereby posing the question: Will Snider get fair and speedy justice for Norm this time (by removal of the judgment against him)?
- hero crosses the threshold — Snider accepts the attorney malpractice case Norm needs to file against Gainsley (Yes, I actually have him entering his office as he makes the announcement.)
- build up of successes for Act 2 — Snider and team gradually discover who most likely committed the original murder to prove Norm did not
- major Reversal at story’s midpoint — ethical judge recuses (indications are it was due to behind-the-scenes pressure)
- Act 3’s fall – new judge blocks all Snider and Friedberg’s attempts to go to trial
- death of the hero – judge insists Norm settle for one-fifth of the amount needed to satisfy the judgment; in essence nullifying the entire litigation
- resurrection of the hero and story’s climax – Well, you’ll have to read the book.
Next came a decision about who, specifically would be the antagonist. Studying Nehring’s traits of the villain it became obvious it was not one individual or even a group. With the requirement that the villain be unable to change, the System proved the obvious primary antagonist; the judge who insisted upon settlement was the Secondary.
With major (and many minor) plot points set, I used Nehring’s profile of the hero to outline the required character arc, made more complex with two heroes to work with who both needed to arc, one in a different way than the other so readers would not be confused in their emotional connection to the characters.
I transferred everything to note cards, color-coded to identify important aspects of the structure. Then I began at the beginning and worked my way, card by card, scene by scene, through all the details. I ended up with over a thousand pages in that manuscript—it was four inches thick, but the structure had distilled mountains of information, events, and characters into a manageable plot line.
The next eighteen months were the fine-tuning — editing, restructuring, massaging, and tweaking down to 350 pages, creating empathy and allowing the reader both to feel honest emotion and to be entertained.
Sound formulaic? I’ll bet if I hadn’t pointed it out you never would have noticed.
And I’ll let you in on another secret: this post, Story is Structure, Part 3 is built on the same, well, story structure, showing it works for non-narrative, too.
And it was great, thank you so much for all your time, Christine. NaNoWriMo finishes tomorrow but it’s never too late to work on the structure.
Christine Hunt is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and author of the book The Orchid Murder: Untangling a Web of Unsolved Murders and Legal Malpractice (RightLine. 2013. http://theOrchidMurder.com).
She has over 35 years of creative and commercial writing, editing, and layout design experience across a variety of fields and disciplines.
Christine taught English and creative writing for over ten years. Right Line Editing & Design was launched April 2005 (www.RightLineEditing.com).
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