If you’re a new writer, or if you’re working to find the key to success in your fiction-writing career, this article will help you understand your real task as a writer.
The Roman writer Horace, in 65 B.C., wrote in his Ars Poetica, “As in painting, so is poetry.” In Horace’s time the art of painting received intense scrutiny and analysis by both critics and society at large. Horace believed that good “poetry” – imaginative writing, or what we call fiction – deserved the same attention and contained the same essential elements of a good painting: compelling subject matter, emotion, and sound structure.
When we view a painting, we respond to it for many reasons. We may be drawn to the subject matter: a French ballerina in repose, a group of women bathing but sliced into shards and reassembled, water lilies, a Campbell’s soup can. The feelings summoned by the paintings grasp at our souls: the deep sorrow and pity summoned by paintings of the Crucifixion and its aftermath; the sense of peace and solidarity with nature called forth by a still life or a landscape; the joy we feel when we see an image of an innocent child; the gasp of exhilaration called out by a depiction of the painter’s wild imagination and dream images.
We can easily identify those reasons for our response to visual art. What’s not so apparent is that we’re responding to the balance in the painting, its composition, its structure. Our souls answer the artist most profoundly by embracing the structure the artist has included in the work. Take a painting you love. Turn it upside down. You’ll find that despite any disorientation you might experience by upending the subject, you’re still appreciating what we could call the music of the painting. This is the element that calls out most strongly to our response mechanisms. Even when an image contains elements of chaos, we find the music when the structure is sound. Without our consciously knowing that we’re responding to the painting’s structure, we are. And without sound structure, a painting will leave us cold.
And “as in painting, so is poetry.” We respond to works of fiction for the same reasons that call us to certain images. We connect to the subject matter. The location of the piece in history or geography appeals to us. We like the genre. Maybe we’ve read other works by the same author and have admired them, or this is a continuing series featuring a character we admire.
But without sound structure in place, a work of fiction will fail. Elements of structure include how well character powers the action and the plot, not the other way around. Overly-plotted stories leave us unsatisfied and wanting more without knowing why, but the reason is simple: the character has been herded along by plot elements which may or may not have anything to do with his/her development. They’ve been inserted to make things “exciting.” Who the characters are, what they want, and how they’re being prevented from getting it – these are the structural elements that must run the engine of your tale.
Additionally, the story needs to be driven by strong scenes. The ability to write a strong, clarified scene is the basic tool of a successful fiction writer, yet many writers don’t know how to do it. They put in some “action,” some conversation, and call it a scene. But a well-written scene is the brick that the successful writer uses to construct the story. That writer gives consideration to: who is in the scene; what does everyone in the scene want; what happens to prevent those desires from being fulfilled; and how is all this expressed? Dialogue? Exposition? A successful scene begins at a certain level of emotional reality but ends at a higher level of that reality for all parties. At the end of a good scene, the story has been moved forward, the characters in the scene have grown, the dialogue is believable and is not mere conversation, suspense has intensified, and the next scene has been set up. While each of these structural elements may be doled out with a teaspoon, and while the pacing may be deliberate or even slow, without well-built scenes, a story will falter.
Similarly, good structure demands that scenes be strung together into strong chapters that also begin at a lower level of intensity and end at a higher level. Entrances and exits of characters need to be plotted using the growth of those characters as guideposts. Tension and suspense must flow from character interaction, not interjected gratuitously. Even in historical novels, where outside events are changing the perceived world, the events in the story o
Image by grahamc99 via Flickr
f your characters are directed by the desires that set them into motion. Even in thrillers, it’s the “who” that drives the “whodunit.”
As a reader, you know the difference between a satisfying story and one that leaves you restless and annoyed. Thin soup leaves you hungry. A satisfying story has good bones, a structure that makes the story cohere, a structure that can be mapped. As a writer, you can learn sound structural techniques so that your own stories deliver on their promise. Your toolbox needs to be full and you must know how to use those tools. Readers may not hold your story upside down, but they will see clearly how well or poorly you’ve structured it.