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Guest post: Story is Structure, Part 3: The Structure Stands by Christine Hunt

Tonight’s guest blog post concludes the topic of story structure brought to you of the recent weeks by Christine Hunt. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

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).

My husband and I toured the house – and you must have a guide or you become hopelessly lost or could fall from a third-floor doorway that opens into thin air.

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).

***

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with memoirist and novelist Jim Wygant – the five hundred and sixty-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

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You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books (including my debut novel!) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog you can now donate and receive a free eBook.

Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

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Posted by on November 29, 2012 in articles, blog, ebooks, ideas, non-fiction, novels, tips, writing

 

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Guest post: Story is Structure by Christine Hunt

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of story structure, is brought to you by Christine Hunt.

Story is Structure

Story is structure. From Gilgamesh to Harry Potter, stories follow the same path. Each begins with a Central Question, the hero struggles through various trials on his way to learning the moral of the tale, and in that ending we see the answer to the beginning question. We inherently recognize this structure. As naturally as we expect food to taste good and sleep to revitalize us, we expect stories to be delivered in this systematic, fulfilling way. When that structure is broken, we lose interest

Great minds have spent decades attempting to define this structure. Joseph Campbell, Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Christopher Vogler produced volumes of dry, academic, but fascinating conclusions showing that, like a house, story has a framework that keeps it stable (Nehring. You Are What You See. Right Line. 2010. 104-7).

For the last five years I have worked with film critic, author, and story-structure guru Scott Nehring on the specifics of story structure and have developed a unique understanding of how to use this structure in the development of storylines taken from complex series of events.

Stories often bog down in the middle. The first fifteen pages may be concise and captivating, but they are too often followed by a jumbled mess of disjointed (often preachy) episodes—they may contain lots of action but do not move the story forward. Readers are relieved to finally enter the antagonist’s lair, face the final conflict, and find a semblance of resolution.

In these stories, the writers did not understand the important facets, characters, and occurrences which belong in a well-told story.

Houses can be ranch style, split-level, or Cape Cod bungalow. Trained architects and builders use identical principles and techniques to build each.

Whether a writer first plots out every detail or writes ‘by the seat of the pants,’ recognizing story structure and understanding how to rightly use it is a valuable tool to help build a smooth, entertaining, satisfying storyline, regardless of genre. It even works for non-fiction.

In Part 1, below, I introduce these basic structure components. Later, I’ll introduce their inhabitants and show you how I used Nehring’s structure to weave a jumbled and complex series of true events into an entertaining story.

Life is messy.  The alarm fails to wake us, the baby spits up on our new shirt, the car won’t start, road construction has traffic backed up two miles sooner than normal, and we don’t notice the gas gauge is bumping the big, red E until we’re stuck in the middle of honking horns and heat waves.  But that’s not a story, that’s life.

What we want to be entertained by, to lose ourselves in, is how those events effect a heroic character as she journeys to conquer an overwhelming opponent, and along the way we want to learn a little more about how we can be heroic, too.

That is what story is all about: the transmission of wisdom from one generation to the next. As human beings, we are hard-wired to receive this vast storehouse of understanding. We instinctively grasp the moral of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but we would miss that valuable nugget if the tale did not follow the prescribed path.

Traditional understanding of story structure is of a beginning (Act 1), a middle (Act 2), and an end (Act 3). In Act 1 we are introduced to the hero and her current dilemma. In the final act we usually like to find problems resolved, with everyone comfortable in their new, improved normal, or at least having learned their lesson; the question asked at story’s beginning has been satisfactorily answered.

It is the middle section that gives many writers indigestion: How do I get there from here? Okay, so my hero is stuck in traffic with a nagging boss on the cell phone and at story’s end I want her to have shown upper management what an incompetent jerk that boss is and have my hero be well on her way to promotion into the boss’s chair. But how do I get her from the traffic jam to the corner office?

Scott Nehring and others (Michael Hauge and P. D. James, to name two) have broken down that middle section into bites of delectable details which not only bridge beginning to ending but add depth to the story’s meaning and intrigue to its plot. We should learn to see this “how” of the story in two progressive steps.

Rather than three acts, Nehring breaks story structure into four acts and has named the story’s middle The Rise of and The Fall of the Hero.

  • Act One – we learn the world of the story, meet the hero and her friends, the villain and her cohorts, and learn the question being posed by the problem the hero faces. At first, the hero does not want to upset her status quo to take this impending journey and must (by circumstances) be forced to weigh options until she finally realizes the new path is the only right way to proceed. At that point she Crosses the Threshold into
  • Act Two – The Rise of the Hero. She enters a new world and begins her journey, usually instructed along the way by a Mentor from whom she receives a special gift, instruction, or wisdom. She collects allies, skills, and knowledge which will be used to win in the end. She experiences her first direct confrontation with the villain and is established as a viable threat. But before she can win her ultimate goal, everything falls apart in
  • The Reversal. This occurs in almost the exact middle of the story and is one reason why Nehring has broken story’s middle section into two parts. In a two-hour film, the reversal occurs at the 60 minute mark. This reversal establishes a defined point from which, going forward, nothing can or will ever again be the same for the hero. She now tumbles into
  • The Fall of the Hero. No matter what she does, she fails. Her second big conflict with the villain ends dismally. She becomes exhausted, and it seems all hope is gone. In fact, this is often the point when the cherished Mentor is lost. Often the hero does something distinctly not heroic (breaks a promise, tells a lie, turns her back on someone who needs her). Then in one form or another
  • The Hero Dies. Whether it’s financial, social, or physical, this always happens. She’s fired from her last hope of a job, her car explodes, or she runs away and everyone is left with no means to contact her. The other characters believe she is really and truly gone. Then, beyond reason (and sometimes explanation), she
  • Is Reborn. The hero reappears, better, stronger, more confident, more determined, and somehow more heroic. She rallies her allies and abilities and plunges toward
  • Act Four—the final conflict and conclusion. The hero enters her enemy’s dark domain, gets rid of the villain’s forces, and uses what was received in Act 2 to win the ultimate victory. Now the hero or someone close to her makes a clear statement of fact—the story’s moral, the answer to the question asked at story’s beginning. [It is important to note that if the hero cannot overcome the villain and win, alone and without gimmickry, then she is not really the hero of the story and you have some major rewriting to do.]
  • All that is left is the Denouement—seeing the results of the hero’s journey upon the world. It is important that we see the benefit of the hero’s sacrifices. Her world has changed, and the people in that world are significantly better because of what she has done.

Obviously, the hero does not go through this journey alone; nor are her qualities, characteristics, and background chosen arbitrarily. Part 2 will offer an overview of those character distinctives before we put the pieces together in Part 3.

For additional information see http://www.youarewhatyousee.com/blog/free-booklet-morality-points or http://www.dramatica.com/theory/articles/hauge-plot.html.

That was great, thank you, Christine, and perfect timing; I finished final edits to one of my novels today!

Christine will return with part 2 on Tuesday 23rd October and then part 3 on Thursday 29th November.

Christine Hunt is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and author of the non-fiction 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).

***

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with multi-genre author Ken La Salle – the five hundred and seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything… and follow me on Twitter where each new posting is automatically announced. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at SmashwordsSony Reader StoreBarnes & NobleiTunes BookstoreKobo and Amazon, with more to follow. I have a new forum, friend me on Facebook, like me on Facebook, connect with me on LinkedIn, find me on Tumblr, complete my website’s Contact me page or plain and simple, email me. I also now have a new blog creation service especially for, but not limited to, writers.

Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2012 in ebooks, novels, recommendations, short stories, tips, writing

 

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