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    Fiona Avery on Story Structure

    Top Cow’s top writer enlightened Comic Foundry with a lesson in story structure. From rules, to classic models to advice, Fiona explains it all.

    I bet my answer won’t be what you were expecting to hear. I don’t outline. I hate them I think they make a story horribly stale. Tell a story once, and you lose inertia when it comes time to tell it again. That said, I do have some tricks constantly in use. The first way I learned about structure was not through plot. Plot is actually a consequence of character. There are very few writers who write from character anymore, but it goes something like this: What does character A want, and how far are they willing to go for it? What does Character B want to do in order to stop Character A, and how far will they go? This equation gives you plot. That is all the structure you need if your characters stay the course and you don’t chicken out while writing them.

    Story structure is generally taught to be the defined antagonism that grows throughout a work resulting in a climax that proceeds to a denouement. It’s important because without conflict producing a climax, you end up with nothing but talking heads and what we now like to call reality TV programming.

    No one’s ever come by and laid down the rules for me as a comic book writer. Generally they like you to have an action set piece in each issue, or something that represents tension and conflict if not action — a chase scene, a horror scene, something that gives a thrill. If you’re writing a serialized story that never ends, you need to pace out your issues and overall story arcs so that the readers like coming back for more. Generally something new is revealed in every issue until all has been revealed, and then you move on to your next storyline.

    If you start the story by looking at a three-act structure, and if you follow it to the letter, it will make your writing stale. This is because you’re writing backwards from plot instead of forward into plot. You can however set up a very basic three-act structure with 1) introduction to the characters, 2) the problem is revealed and the plot thickens, 3) the resolution occurs and place scenes within these three categories to help you get a big picture of where you’re going. If you go too far into details, you run the risk of knowing everything ahead of time. So for you as a writer, there’s no thrill in following the story. The next logical step in any storyline will almost always be the most predictable step and if you can predict it, I guarantee so can the readers. Writing from character will lead you to a loose three-act storyline with interesting deviations. It’s a much better way to approach story and it will keep you guessing. This will keep the readers guessing too.

    I have never had a story that didn’t know its own structure. My stories find their own gait after about five pages without me helping them. In the editing stage, it may occur to me that the story has a recognizable structure, and sometimes it will remind me of the structure of a movie or a book I’ve seen or read.

    That said, I work with structure most during the editing stage. Once I see what the story had in mind, I prune it or shape it to further meet those goals. I leave only the necessary tangents in place and tighten up any deviations from the main storyline that weren’t necessary, so the reader isn’t confused.

    Try not to tell stories that are only talking heads. Too much time spent doing nothing but gabbing gets incredibly boring. The real heart of any structure is conflict. For example, my biggest problem with the new Star Wars movies is that there’s no conflict throughout the entire first movie. Even when the Jedi are “arguing” with one another, they had no real conflict. It was chess pieces moved across the board because the plot mandated that’s where they needed to be. But real plot is controlled by genuine character conflict; plot should never control the characters.

    A good example of conflict pushing a story forward is the charming movie “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman. I chose it because it’s a very simple movie that most people have seen and it shows a progression of conflicts leading to resolution. The young couple fall in love, but he must make money, but he presumably dies while seeking his fortune, but she’s taken by the bad prince, but he’s planned to murder her, but the lover returns to save her, but he has to go through a swordsman, a giant and a genius to reach her. … It is very clear at every step that, though tongue-in-cheek, there is conflict pushing this story forward. William Goldman is a master writer too, and it shows in his storytelling. Find your conflict and you’ll find your story.

    — by Fiona Avery

    Posted by Tim Leong on April 29th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |

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