Just watched Inception on DVD. It's about someone who influences dreams as his business. An interesting concept and the dreams work out beautifully visually but ultimately everything would make more sense written as a book, I think. This is because the filmmaker missed out on one crucial fact: that none of us actually sees things in our mind the same way. It is illogical therefore for people to be seeing the dreamworld precisely the same. Someone who has never been to, say, a Japanese palace would only have a vague idea of what it would look like if told to dream about one, and this would show. Hazy edges, slightly varied conceptions of where something is placed and how it looks should then be expected. Some people should be able to see things that others don't. This is much the experience we have when we read.
But the movie did explain how everyone in the dream is able to conceive generally the same world and travel through it together. An architect is involved to plan out the structure of the dream.
This is interesting to me as a fiction writer. When I began writing, I paid little attention to structure. I began with an interesting idea or character and just rambled on. But I did always have an underlying structure in mind. I know, because I always had a sense of when I had got to a good stopping place.
It is enjoyable to read about interesting things. But ultimately, we want some indication that there is purpose to what we are reading and ultimatley we can stop reading and feel satisfied with what we have read. And that is the role of structure.
A novel I have just read set in Renaissance Italy is full of beautiful descriptions and fascinating characters. But I got to the end of the book not knowing what the purpose of what I had read was. It was beautifully written or I couldn't have got through it. I have no patience with anything badly written or flagrantly illogical. But despite the great length and being told what happened to all the key characters, I felt dissatisfied. And many times during the reading I felt lost. Story paths that I thought would lead to something important turned out to be dead ends. It was like being lost while traveling in a foreign city. At first you enjoy seeing new things so much you don't mind that you don't know where you are going. But eventually you feel anxious at not having a clear idea where to go or what you will see on your ramble. Why turn onto a road if you don't know what's there, unless there are hints of something enticing?
In fiction writing structure provides the paths and foreshadowing gives the hints of what you will find will traveling.
The ultimate story structure is the Campbellian hero's journey advocated by my teacher J. Neil Garcia. It's the typical fairy tale and folk tale structure. Other winning structures are somewhat based on this. The domestic tale may seem far removed from the hero's journey, but it is essentially the same as can be seen in the classic Little Women. The first part of the book, which was written as a stand-alone novel hints at its structure by referring to Pilgrim's Progress, a story based on the hero's journey. And so the book shows that the hero's journey can be performed allegorically in the home, without leaving home (though Meg and Amy do go off on visits). Actually this could be called holding the fort to complement the hero's journey, showing the traditional woman's equivalent role in the home.
Actually, you could forget everything else about structure as long as there is that quest. Everythign else will fall naturally into place, I think, for as long as someone is on a quest there will be challenges (if what the hero yearned for were easy to get, it wouldn't be worth writing a story about). And hardly does anyone ever get through challenges entirely alone, hence the need for a mentor.
This, I think is the problem with the historical novel I mentioned earlier. There was no sense that the main characters had any kind of a quest. They were working to survive and keep on surviving. But for what? Isn't that what we are all doing, every day? An interesting setting and characters make it more enticing to read about, but don't exactly get you emotionally involved.
We are all working to get through life. But the people whose lives I take more interest in are those who have some purpose beyond personal survival. Even just having kids to raise is significant enough. Or some kind of advocacy. No matter how charming and entertaining, you can't really get into the experience of a person who doesn't care much about anything other than him or herself. The empty lives of people who don't aspire for anything are dissatisyfing, even if they improve in the course of the story. No matter how beautiful the setting, emptiness within makes you ache, and their complete unawareness of this emptiness grates.
I think one can forget everything else in writing a story, only remember to make the main character yearn for something worthwhile. And then everything will follow.
I was learning about the hero's journey at the time I was writing the first draft of my own historical novel, Woman in a Frame. Ironically, I never consciously applied it. Looking back now, though, when revising and editing I introduced elements of the hero's journey: making the heroes leave home and turning a woman revolutionary into a mentor and finally making the nineteenth century main character indirectly a mentor for the twenty-first century one.
Why didn't I have the story structure in mind from the beginning? I think it's a problem for those focused on building the world of their story. It is essential in historical fiction and speculative fiction set in other worlds to spend a great deal of time giving the details of the worlds. And this can happen at the expense of focusing on a plot.
In the end I only used the historical details that I could conceivably link together in a coherent plot. I naturally seek out plot, which is why it is not difficult for me to focus on it, however immersed I am in another world. Life is already rambling, full of events whose purpose is uncertain. And that is why in fiction the situation must be nearly opposite.
I say nearly. There must be a degree of randomness for versimilitude and so that one doesn't feel what will happen is too obvious or that the story is too pointed and even manipulative. That is why the adjective underlying so often accompanies structure. It should lie under the enjoyable details and not be the main feature of the story. But we should always feel it's there.