My writing tips organized by topic.
Read about me
My Freelance Editing Services
Read what others have said about me and my blog.
Connect with me on social media.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Story Shape that Permeates Just About Everything




I've been working on a scene this last week for my next book, and it's been giving me some grief, so last Thursday I decided to sit down and focus on figuring out why I was having such a difficult time getting it on the page. (The starting of the scene came fine, but then I got to a section that was not coming together.) Some of the reasons I knew right away. The magic system in and of itself is innately difficult to write about, because of the subject matter I chose it to be about (and the lack of vocabulary we have about said subject within the English language doesn't help). I had certain plot restrictions and subtext I needed to get on the page with a careful hand, which can be really tricky if I don't want it to be annoying or blatant. And finally, I realized this section, of perhaps a half-dozen paragraphs, needed a Freytag Pyramid to work right.

You see, we often talk about the Freytag Pyramid as an overall story structure. Sure, we can talk about plot point, midpoints, and more advanced forms of story structure, but at the bare bones, a story needs to follow Freytag's Pyramid (you've heard me talk about this before). Rising action, climax, falling action. Don't underestimate the basics people! I run into writers once in a while that mock Freytag's Pyramid today, because of its simplicity. But just about every successful story structure today fits within that bare bone structure.

The longer I work in this industry, the more I realize that this structure doesn't just fit overall story structure. It fits just about everywhere in smaller sizes. As I wrote about in another post, it fits into almost every single scene. Right now I'm watching Stranger Things, and guess what? Basically every scene follows that same shape in some way: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. It's just shorter.

What's crazy is that this isn't limited to writing. Freytag's Pyramid is all over the place. You can find it in dance performances: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. You can find it in music: setup rising action, climax, falling action. You can find it . . . elsewhere ;) (hey, if I didn't acknowledge it, I knew someone would be stuck thinking it). You can find it within relationships. You can find it in storms. You can find it when you are getting groceries in the grocery store. It seems to permeate just about everything in the universe, even our sun's life cycle.


I know what you are thinking: AGAIN?! But just hang with me and read the article.


In writing, it happens over and over again. Sometimes even within paragraphs, which was exactly what my scene needed. Heck, it can even happen within sentences. Freytag's Pyramid has motion. And sometimes when I feel a scene or a part of a scene starting to go stagnant, it's because it doesn't have that shape.

Now, does Freytag's Pyramid literally need to be in everything? Of course not. There are always exceptions.

But it can happen on a very small scale.

It can happen within dialogue of a scene:

Setup

SHERLOCK: Molly, please, without asking why, just say these words.

MOLLY: What words?

SHERLOCK: I love you.

MOLLY: Leave me alone.

Rising Action

SHERLOCK: Molly, no, please, no, don’t hang up! Do not hang up!

MOLLY: Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making fun of me?

SHERLOCK: Please, I swear, you just have to listen to me.

SHERLOCK: Molly, this is for a case. It’s ... it’s a sort of experiment.

MOLLY: I’m not an experiment, Sherlock.

SHERLOCK: No, I know you’re not an experiment. You’re my friend. We’re friends. But ... please. Just ... say those words for me.

MOLLY: Please don’t do this. Just ... just ... don’t do it.

SHERLOCK: It’s very important. I can’t say why, but I promise you it is.

MOLLY: I can’t say that. I can’t ... I can’t say that to you.

SHERLOCK: Of course you can. Why can’t you?

MOLLY: You know why.

SHERLOCK: No, I don’t know why.

MOLLY: Of course you do.

SHERLOCK: Please, just say it.

MOLLY: I can’t. Not to you.

SHERLOCK: Why?

MOLLY: Because ... because it’s true.

MOLLY: Because ... it’s ... true, Sherlock.

MOLLY: It’s always been true.

SHERLOCK: Well, if it’s true, just say it anyway.

MOLLY: You b------

SHERLOCK: Say it anyway.

MOLLY: You say it. Go on. You say it first.

SHERLOCK: What?

MOLLY: Say it. Say it like you mean it.

SHERLOCK: I-I ...

SHERLOCK: I love you.

SHERLOCK: I love you.

SHERLOCK: Molly?

SHERLOCK: Molly, please.

Climax

MOLLY: I love you.

Falling Action

(Both John and Mycroft heave out noisy sighs of relief. Sherlock also sighs and buries his head in both hands. In her kitchen, Molly closes her eyes. She puts the phone down and raises both hands to her mouth.)



It can happen within an action:

(I'm using a poem for this one. Brackets mine. Also, FYI, you aren't actually supposed to pause at the end of each line when reading poetry, unless it has a natural pause there.)

Kissing a Horse [Also, in a lot of poems, the setup happens in the title.]
By Robert Wrigley

Of the two spoiled, barn-sour geldings
we owned that year, it was Red—
skittish and prone to explode
even at fourteen years—who’d let me
hold to my face his own [<--setup][rising action-->]: the massive labyrinthine
caverns of the nostrils, the broad plain
up the head to the eyes. He’d let me stroke
his coarse chin whiskers and take
his soft meaty underlip
in my hands, [<--the description, the detail, leads up to the moment] press my man’s carnivorous
kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one [<-- climax] [falling action -->], just
so that I could smell
the long way his breath had come from the rain
and the sun, the lungs and the heart,
from a world that meant no harm.

I consider that section the falling action, because it shows the consequences and changes from the climax.

It can happen with a single brief subject in a paragraph:

(This is a prose poem I wrote for my poetry class in college years ago. Poems are easy to grab as small-scale examples.)


Considering the Pointe Shoes
By September C. Fawkes

Whoever called them slippers, never put them on. Those boxes of cloth and glue, cage your toes and stink of fabric scraps and string bits. The ribbons snake around your ankles. The shanks jab into your soles as you, with duck feet, waddle to the wings, a hollow clunk, clunk, clunk. I once smiled when I jammed my feet inside—it was something revered, wearing Pointe shoes; something I have done more than once, more than twice, more than three years. I pressed my silk sneakers into the floor, held my breath as my insides fluttered, and, tensing my muscles, elevated to my toes, lifted one foot, and balanced in passé while my palm hovered over the ballet barre. One time at a theatre I watched a ballerina glide across the stage and leap into the air. The Pointe shoes curved in crescents, molding to her feet like leather. For a moment we all soared with her: the audience, the usher, the technician in the control box; our chins lifted, our eyes shining, our lips slightly parted. Everything silent and serene, like the flight of a falcon bathed in sunlight.


I feel kind of weird talking about my own work to you guys, but hopefully this illustrates the point. The title sets us up for the subject matter of the paragraph. The paragraph starts with sort of "first experiences" or "beginning" experiences with Pointe shoes. It then rises from walking around in Pointe shoes to actually practicing them at a ballet barre, then the climax happens when we see a professional ballerina in them on stage.

When talking about processes or working within descriptions a nice trick to use is an extended metaphor that is introduced, then rises, then climaxes. In here, I tried to use bird and bird-like terms that way:

cage your toes
you, with duck feet, waddle
held my breath as my insides fluttered
my palm hovered
I watched a ballerina glide
For a moment, we all soared
like the flight of a falcon

So we move from being caged, to walking around with duck feet, to fluttering, to hovering, to gliding, to soaring, to flying like a falcon.

But on a smaller scale, there are other rising actions. Notice the progression within a single sentence.


I once smiled when I jammed my feet inside—it was something revered, wearing Pointe shoes; something I have done more than once, more than twice, more than three years.




When working on the small scale, you can also create Freytag's Pyramid within beats and rhythm.

Here is another poem I wrote for that same class that is essentially nothing more than a description of a candy shop. (Remember you don't pause at the end of the lines, unless it naturally happens. If you do, it will change the rhythm and may not illustrate my point.)


Sweets
By September C. Fawkes

Where the door jingles open
with a greeting and shuts with a creaking,
an assortment of jelly beans—
yellow, blue, green, red, purple,
striped, swirled, speckled,
very cherry, French vanilla, tutti fruitti,
lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper
—burst from jars,

suckers, Congo squares, saltwater
taffy spill out of baskets,
and the heavy scent of cocoa
hangs in the air.

Where saliva thickens and greedy
customers grasp handfuls
of licorice and lollipops,

wrappers wrinkle, crinkle and twist,
glisten like linoleum, and are peeled
away like wax.

Where English toffees crunch, cementing
teeth shut, and truffles melt
across the tongue like dark velvet—
so rich it make your mouth tingle,

where bags and boxes are bunched together,
where the tinkling of glass containers permeate the room,

where sticky fingers dig
into pockets, seek change for chews,
chocolates, brownies, bon-bons, butter
cups, caramels, candied apples, coated nuts,
and haystacks,

sits a man. With white hair, creases in his face,
bifocals on the bridge of his nose, and donning
a sugar-stained apron.


This is a little trickier to talk about (especially since I'm not musical), because its the beats. Hopefully (if college me did a good enough job), you can hear a kind of crescendo. Particularly at the climax:

where sticky fingers dig
into pockets, seek change for chews,
chocolates, brownies, bon-bons, butter
cups, caramels, candied apples, coated nuts,
and haystacks,

sits a man.


And then the falling action sounds much calmer (calmer than any other stanza):

sits a man. With white hair, creases in his face,
bifocals on the bridge of his nose, and donning
a sugar-stained apron.


But still, you could break this process down further and look at smaller pieces, like within just the first stanza, which is actually not even a full sentence:

Where the door jingles open
with a greeting and shuts with a creaking,
an assortment of jelly beans—
yellow, blue, green, red, purple,
striped, swirled, speckled,
very cherry, French vanilla, tutti fruitti,
lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper
—burst from jars,

Notice the rhythm before the first comma seems rather calm. When we get to describing the actual jelly beans, it becomes more intense; this is in part because of the names, but it's also in part because it's such a long list. We aren't used to lists going on that long in creative writing, so it carries a kind of tension (when is it going to end?). It also moves from general to specific: yellow, blue --> tutti fruitti, lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper. General words often carry less . . . weight? (Not sure on the word.) Than specific words. General words are more . . . invisible, than specific words, so they pack less punch.

When writing a book, you can create similar effects, increasing the intensity in beat and rhythm as a sort of "rising action" before you hit the musical climax.



Anyway, needless to say, once I realized my paragraphs weren't working in part because they needed Freytag's Pyramid shaped within them (in my case, these paragraphs are describing an important, significant process so I couldn't skimp out on it), things got better from there. I mostly have that figured out now.

Do you really need to be this detailed and intense? Not necessarily. I just sat back and wrote down what wasn't working in order to figure out how to make it better. And in that situation, that was one of the things I needed. But I certainly think it's helpful to be aware of how Freytag's Pyramid works on the small scale and can be something we can utilize.

Unfortunately, neither of my poems that I shared today were ever picked up by any magazines when I sent them out years ago, but I'm still happy with how they turned out (even if I do see some potential flaws in them), so it was nice to finally share them with someone outside my college's English department.


P.S. Another way to look at this might be tension --> release, tension --> release, if that works for your brain more. But for me, that's too linear and not specific enough. Tension and release isn't enough to make the story work. You need to build up the tension. And often you need to set the stage. So I like setup, rising action, climax, falling action. Although in some cases, the falling action may be cut off.

0 comments:

Post a Comment

I love comments :)