Learning What You Already Know
Writers, especially beginning writers, are often keen to explore the mysterious keys to story creation. One of the most obvious questions they ask is: How are stories put together? It has always felt weird for me to talk or write about story structure in literary fiction. An uneasiness flows over me—a weakness on my part, I’m sure, but there are reasons for my reluctance to do so. Genre fiction is (quite literally) a different story.
I don’t write romance novels, but if I did, I would make myself aware that 82% of my readers will be women and they want a tweaked version of boy meets girl, boy loses girl and after a time boy and girl become one. Crime novels should open with a serious crime (usually a murder), an array of clues pointing to a variety of possible conclusions, some kind of incompetent or compromised enforcement officer, a brilliant detective mind and an ending that is startling or satisfying in terms of justice. Genre fiction is not less creative, but its many forms each have their own expected story structure and variation from the formula is often fatal.
You hear edicts like: every great story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Then someone might say, it’s true, but never begin at the beginning—always start in the middle. No! comes a third opinion. Start at the end, then offer a story to explain why. Some pundits insist a story will only be of interest if it begins with something nasty or controversial: something to unsettle the reader’s peace of mind. For me, these and dozens more I could list can be right, but it depends. It depends on the essence of the story being told.
How can this be of help? you ask. A story has structure, but you don’t commit to it before you begin? Disappointing for writers who sometimes believe (want to believe) that a structure is out there that applies to all short stories and novels and, if they can learn the formula, they are on their way to fame and fortune. For me, it doesn’t work that way and I’ll explain why.
Notions of how stories can be structured are important in the same way a rudimentary knowledge of grammar or punctuation is necessary. Taking notes in advance is not mandatory, but can be useful. As my mind plays around with a story idea, I will often jot down notes on a few key scenes I envision and what attributes belong to the main characters of the story as conceived from the outset. A list of potential names, perhaps. This process is important for me because what I am doing is finding my way inside the creative impulse of the story. I’m examining the details of what attracted me to the story in the first place.
This is not much different from planning a vacation. You plan to explore the Maritimes by car but fly to get there. You have your dates. It’s a long flight, so you book your first stop in Montreal where you will stay (politely) with Uncle Cecil and Aunt Mildred and their slobbering and flatulent bloodhound. Three days later, you will fly to Halifax and rent a car (prearranged) and hit the road. But you get to Montreal and learn that the house belonging to Uncle Cecil and Aunt Mildred has suffered serious fire damage and they’re living in a motel. They have arranged for you to stay with the young couple across the street until your next flight arrives and so you move in with Annie and Chelsea, mid-twenties and cousins, and their three indoor pot belly pigs. You say to yourself: Where have Annie and Chelsea been all my life? Uncle Cecil and Aunt Mildred take your place and teach their bloodhound how to share a house with three pot belly pigs and you travel with Annie and Chelsea to the Maritimes, and your life is never the same. And so on.
The point is, once this journey is complete, it will be possible to examine the events and report on a structure, one that, for better or worse, felt right at the time. This comes about because the creator (vacationer, writer, landscape artist) engaged with the inspirational force of the (vacation, story, backyard) and stopped only once the job was done.
My wife and I had a place down in Arizona for several years and relatives from home often came down to visit for a week or two. One evening our daughter-in-law spoke up and said: Our mother was never good at naming animals.
After everyone had gone to bed, I sat with my computer and wrote: My mother sucks at naming animals, and everyone in the family knows it. Then I kept writing for two or three hours. The result was the short story “Dick and Jane” that found its way into my latest book. What my relative said that night wasn’t the source of the story, only the trigger. The source of the story came from years of living and thousands of books read. I believe most literary writers operate the same way. An awareness of elements like story structure is there, but is much less important than knowing the story from the inside out.
Knowing possible structures of storytelling is useful, but there is danger in being caught in one. Rather than fixate on how to generate a story within a given structure, I recommend writers engage with what interests them, the stories that line your intestinal wall and refuse to leave.
Write every day. One line. A short story. Three chapters of your novel. It doesn’t matter. Read every day. A favourite poem. A short story. Seventeen chapters of a novel. It doesn’t matter. This is how a writer truly learns the elements of writing literary fiction: trusting in what they know now and will know more of in the future.
Stenson won the Great BC Novel contest with his compelling novel, Ordinary Strangers (Mother Tongue
). His books of fiction include Translating Women, Svoboda and Hanne and Her Brother (Thistledown). He was also a finalist for the Prism International Fiction Contest and the Prairie Fire Short Fiction Contest.
He was born in Nelson, B.C., went to a one-room schoolhouse on Thetis Island and grew up on a small farm in Duncan. He became a teacher because he loved literature and taught English and Creative Writing at various high schools, the Victoria School of Writing and the University of Victoria. Many of his stories have been published in Canada and the US in Grain, The Malahat Review, Event, The Antigonish Review, filling Station, Blood and Aphorisms, Wascana Review, Prairie Fire, Toronto Star, The New Quarterly, Prism International, Scarlet Leaf Review, Darkhouse Books and the Nashwaak Review.
Stenson and Terence Young founded the Claremont Review, an international literary magazine for young adult writers. Bill Stenson lives with his wife poet Susan Stenson in the Cowichan Valley and writes every day.