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Structure: against Euclid - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Structure: against Euclid [Jul. 2nd, 2010|03:55 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I am allowed to natter on about theory because I have been virtuous: eaten, napped, and prologued. Hurrah for me. Now. Theory.

If you hang around me long enough, you will probably see me smite something with my fist and hear me thunder (inasmuch as altos of my size can thunder), "Parallel structure: it's a privilege, not a right!" Most recently there were a few Wonderfalls episodes that provoked this response. (Wonderfalls: not my show. Really not.) But it comes up a lot. And it's not that I hate parallel structure. Some lovely things can be done with parallel structure--see, for example, The Wire. But I think it gets overused, and I think it's the first thing people pull out when they want to do a trick with structure, and let's think about it and maybe put some more structure tricks in the bag, okay, kids? Yes. Okay. Here we go.

Counterpoint/perpendicular. Okay, where parallel structure is having the same thematic thing happen to more than one person, this one is illuminating theme by having the opposite thing happen around the same idea. The central arc is doing this. This subplot/sub-arc is going the other way instead. While your main character is falling in love, their best friend is falling out of it. While your protagonist is finding their life path, their mentor is filled with doubt about theirs and genuinely leaves it. (A doubting mentor? Will you do that for me, please? How many mentors actually say, "Um, you know what, kid? This heroing business: not so great actually. Let's go off and open a tea shop in the Boulevard Saint Jacques. Splendid. You make the pastries and I will buy the teas and talk to the customers about them. Good. What, what do you mean there is a giant magical beastie crashing against the door? Damn. All right, magical beastie first, tea shop second.")

Spiral. Do the thing in very brief form. Do it again a little larger. And then again a little larger still. And then larger than that. How many times this happens depends on how large your end product is; Greer Gilman wound up with a whole novel that way. (Are you Greer Gilman? The odds are against it rather overwhelmingly--several billion to one, is I believe the current count. But that doesn't mean spiral structure is beyond you; most of what makes Greer difficult for the people who do find her work difficult is that they don't have the background to find her language and reference clear, not that her structure is difficult. I think you could borrow Greer's ideas on structure and be a great deal more commercial than her work is, if you want to. Or, y'know, not; certainly not everybody has to be aiming for commercial.) The other example close to the top of my head that is not Greer is that a lot of symphonic work uses spiral structure: introduce the theme in very brief, develop it, develop it at greater length, come thundering back to it to develop at yet greater length, and like that.

Cascade. Is like parallel, but at radically different points in the arc. Hard to pull off without lapsing into parallel, though.

Aspect/list. Divide the work into sections. Does not have to be a classical number of sections with classical labels--probably should not be, for maximum interest. Go for the weird divisions. The stranger aspects the better. skzbrust did the laundry list and the meal. Those are good, but he did them; if you do them, it'll be "oh, cheap attempt at Dragaera homage."

Trick riding. If I can come up with these as general categories, you can look at your actual work and see something I can't see because I'm not looking at your actual work. Right? Maybe? It's worth a shot, anyway. And if not, maybe a structure trick is not what your work needs.

(I think they're particularly common in TV because TV has a set time length, so if you have a plot that doesn't quite fill that, you want to do something with the secondary characters, and you want it to look not quite random and tacked on, so...structure trick! Often sitcoms do not even bother with this. This becomes particularly transparent when you read their summaries. "Vanessa likes a boy. Meanwhile, Theo gets a bad grade." Really? This was the best we could do, America? Really? Sigh.)

Any other structure ideas for things that don't have to go in parallel?
LinkReply

Comments:
From: swan_tower
2010-07-02 09:14 pm (UTC)
The cascade thing can work well in a series, I think; three or four books in, the heroine finds herself dealing with a secondary character who's Just Like She Was back at the beginning of the series, and gets to find out how much she's changed/advise the secondary not to commit the same dumb mistakes she did/etc.

Your meal comment reminds me of a thought I had the other day, while in the kitchen: I would be amused to see a Plot Coupon Epic Fantasy built around the explicit notion of a recipe. Rather than needing to assemble the Sword of Truth and the Armor of Light and the Helm of Hope and the Shoes of A Good Night's Sleep because, well, that's how we get enough plot for a whole book, you have to hunt the Jabberwock and gather the Peaches of Immortality and fetch water from the Fountain of Youth so you can make some delicious Jabberwock steaks with peach chutney to save the world.

Hey, if you're going to have a grocery list of things to gather, it might as well be an actual grocery list.

Edited at 2010-07-02 09:14 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-07-03 12:06 pm (UTC)
Oh yes. Things that work well structurally on series level don't always work well on short story level, and vice versa.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-07-02 10:06 pm (UTC)
I have nothing useful to add, except that I would gladly give you thundering lessons if you needed them, which you don't. Even if you did, you have a +1 Walking Stick of Authority!

Anyway. If anyone wishes to write the tea-shop book, I promise to buy two.

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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2010-07-03 05:28 pm (UTC)
Debra Doyle and James Macdonald's The Long Hunt had a pair of retired dispensers of mayhem who were running a tea shop.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2010-07-03 01:40 am (UTC)
One that I've wanted to use for a while is based on the following badly rendered shape: ---/ \---

The key is the gap. Everything leads up to the gap, and then everything refers back to the gap, but the events that happen in the gap are never explicitly described, although at the end you have a very good idea of them. And the gap happens in the middle of the book, not before the beginning. The classic examples of this kind of thing have 'Book I' and 'Book II' in blackletter pages at a specified interval and ten years have passed between Books I and II, but the thing is if you do this really well it can be extremely effective, especially if the different character arcs mean that somebody not the protagonist did something major, unexpected, or nasty in the gap. I don't mean just a time-jump, either; the real trick is having the absence be more present because it isn't shown.

Currently I am writing a spiral. The protagonist has literally been dumped back at the beginning of the novel four times now and is starting to develop a very black sense of humor about it.
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[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2010-07-03 05:54 pm (UTC)
Have you read Use of Weapons yet ?
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2010-07-06 08:05 am (UTC)
I like that. I think it's related (at least in the shape of the ASCII diagram) to what I think of as the Into the Woods structure. In that case, everything dovetails on a eucatastrophe in the middle, rather than a negative space gap.
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From: zeborahnz
2010-07-03 02:46 am (UTC)
I've long had the ambition -- and have a few times warily attempted -- to use a mandelbrot structure. So you've got the overarching plot. And it's made up of sub-plots or events which each reflect that greater plot. And people refer to histories/legends/gossip/rumours which reflect the same kind of thing in miniature. Likewise the metaphors used in descriptive passages; and the extra-story allusions; and the very vocabulary.

At this latter end of things I think it's inevitably more thematic than plot. Eg in a novel about lies and other deceptions, I had a throwaway moment where the snow seems to have frozen over until they step on it and the crust gives way. (Huh, and that also echoes a more important event where the lake seems to have frozen over until they're walking across it and you guessed it.) And in the one I'm revising now, which is all about the consequences of an artefact breaking (which consequences include: family breaks apart, war breaks out, main character breaks down, etc), I want to make sure there's some variation on "break/broken" in every scene, whether it's someone breaking open a walnut or the dawn breaking or a speaker suddenly breaking off or whatever.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-07-03 05:18 am (UTC)
Hrm. I think what I wrote down as escalating structure is a bit like what you put down as Spiral, if not the same thing seen through a different lens. Basically keep bringing back the same idea, but kick it up a few notches or so each time, either in magnitude, refinement, or emotional impact.

Then there's cyclical structure, where you set up a repetitive pattern, either explicitly or by inference. This is really easy to do badly, viz the openings of the Wheel of Time books after the first couple, and much harder to get right - it generally seems more effective when the repetition is inferred or implied rather than shoved in the reader's face, though extreme explicitness (i.e. Groundhog Day) can work well too.

Mandelbrot/fractal structure is another repeat.

Kaleidoscope structure - e.g. Rashomon. Show the same events or parallel events from differing points of view that produce incompatible or progressively more complex interpretations of the facts in evidence.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-07-03 12:10 pm (UTC)
Kaleidoscope, yes! I knew I was missing a solid one, thanks. Well--shifty, not so much solid. But yes.

And cyclical structure, you're right--I'm not sure why we keep circling back to talking about David Eddings the last few weeks*, but I think that's one of the things he claimed he was doing, and...yah. I think it can be done better than that, is what I want to say about that one.

*I blame you.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-07-03 06:34 pm (UTC)
Blame away!

To return to cyclical structure, works that use that structure in ways better than Eddings did tend to be rather depressing. Groundhog Day and the variations on that particular trick generally have escaping the (literal) cycle as their objective. I'm sure it's possible to inject grace and redemption into that sort of cycle as well, it's just that so many people think 'cycle' and come back with 'cycle of violence/abuse/other bad thing', so even when they use it well, the implied continuation of the cycle in question is heartbreaking.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-07-03 06:54 pm (UTC)
Hmm.

I suspect this is very like the "all unhappy families are unhappy differently" thing, where it's not actually more true than all happy families being happy differently, but people feel like it's more true and write like it's more true.

I am clearly a sunshiny happy optimistic sort of person--at least as Scandosotan fabulists go, which is perhaps not the highest bar a person has ever cleared--but I might be willing to believe that there are also cycles of redemption that work just as well.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-07-04 07:16 am (UTC)
I suspect you are correct about that, though taking the low road does seem to produce a stronger positive feedback loop than taking the high road does.

I'm trying to think about cycles of redemption in literature and culture that aren't explicitly religious (e.g. "And then Hengest heard the good word of Odin, and passed it on to Thunir and Thorkell and Grim, and then they went out a-viking and smote the heathen monks and brought home much gold and treasure!") and I'm not coming up with much. And what little I am coming up with has less to do with the good word of Odin than with other good words.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-07-04 11:05 am (UTC)
"Smite" is a good word.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-07-04 02:33 pm (UTC)
Alas, it rarely comes up in stories of the type I've described.
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2010-07-03 05:09 pm (UTC)
How many mentors actually say, "Um, you know what, kid? This heroing business: not so great actually. Let's go off and open a tea shop in the Boulevard Saint Jacques."
Uncle Iroh? *g*

Thanks for this post. It made, and continues to make, my brain do all sorts of interesting things. I think I tend to use bits and pieces of all different ones to approximate things (although that might be what alecaustin meant by kaleidoscope), but having a categorization to start from helps me to identify what exactly the bits and pieces are and what they are doing.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-07-03 06:36 pm (UTC)
Iroh, right! Forgot about that bit in season 2.

Have you not seen Kurosawa's Rashomon? I recommend it highly if you're interested in classic examples of structural tricks. (I still like Seven Samurai more, but y'know. It's Seven Samurai, and I've been lucky enough to see it on the big screen several times.)
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2010-07-03 08:04 pm (UTC)
One of the many reasons I loved Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I have not! (Nor have I seen Seven Samurai, for I am Young and Woefully Ignorant of classic examples of many things.) I will look into that.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-07-04 07:21 am (UTC)
For real. Uncle Iroh was great.

I do hope you can find and enjoy the Kurosawa films in question. The best thing about ignorance is that it can be remedied.
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2010-07-04 10:49 pm (UTC)
I have looked into Kurosawa films, and they seem possible to acquire. Yay!

Ignorance can certainly be remedied! And I like hearing about new awesome things, and have a whole summer in which I am only writing a novel and editing another one, so it all works out very well indeed.
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[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2010-07-03 05:53 pm (UTC)
A doubting mentor? Will you do that for me, please? How many mentors actually say, "Um, you know what, kid? This heroing business: not so great actually. Let's go off and open a tea shop in the Boulevard Saint Jacques.

If you want to count "mentor picked wrong Destined Hero, started fulfilling prophecies, buggered up things irreparably for actual Destined Hero, was run out of town on a rail when actual Destined Hero showed up, and is now running a bar in a neutral city on the other side of the world while the kid in question goes to college" as an example of a mentor who came to doubt the hard way, then what I'm doing with The Book Formerly Known As Nine Children of the Dragon Before The Dragon's Nine Sons Won The Sidewise Award might count. If I could figure out where to actually go with it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-07-03 06:55 pm (UTC)
I would say, "Forward. Go forward," except that you are already going forward on enough other things that one would fear the risk of "forward in all directions."
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-07-04 01:59 pm (UTC)
Quite possibly! But I trust your judgment on FP panels.
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[User Picture]From: scottjames
2010-07-07 10:03 pm (UTC)
What about all the disparate threads which only come together at the last minute? Knot-tying, if you will.

(I'm lookin' at you, William Gibson, but not in a bad way, just to be clear)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-07-08 03:33 pm (UTC)
That's one that works well when it works, but I think the reason we don't see more of it is that the thread metaphor is a good one: it unravels when it doesn't work. So in the larger mass media (i.e. TV) you mostly see it in a later episode of a very well established show or else from a very well established director, when people are willing to (oh my fiber metaphors) give them enough rope to hang themselves.

William Gibson also is a case in point for being established here.
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