genres creative writers
So far, we’ve looked at the key habits writers cultivate in order to create their work—practicing daily, reading widely, and focusing on the image. We’ve examined the genres creative writers work with: poetry, fiction, flash fiction, plays, prose poems, and graphic narrative. Through imitation, you used the scaffolding, or support, provided by an existing piece in order to structure your own creations. Up until now, we have been working with whole pieces. Here, we’re going to look at structure: the arrangement of the parts of creative writing that add up to a whole.
Dreaming is a form of planning. — GLORIA STEINEM
Each finished piece of writing is made up of parts—words, sentences, lines, scenes, and stanzas. These building blocks can be combined in many different ways to create different effects. How the writer chooses to arrange the building blocks is called the structure. Think about what you enjoy reading the most, and you’ll find you likely prefer some structures over others. Do you love long, dense, formless rants? Spoken word? Short snappy character-driven plots? Poetry that rhymes? Paying attention to the parts of a piece—the building blocks—allows you to expand your technique as a creative writer. Learning a little bit about each of the parts helps you create inventive, workable structures for your own readers. The more you know about the building blocks of creative writing, the more you can create.
Structure in creative writing, as in building, does its work mostly invisibly—behind the scenes. Structure is in walls, in the ceiling, underneath the floors. It’s the framework that holds the building together, and then when we enter the grand hall, or your poem or story, our attention as readers is carried by the details, the feelings, the emotions of the experience. Structure doesn’t constrain your writing; rather, it lets you create an experience for the readers so they can move around in your piece easily. In fact, if the writer has done a good job putting the building blocks together, many times readers will not even notice the structure.
Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash. —VLADIMIR NABOKOV
The chart below provides a general overview of structure in both narrative (which includes stories—both fiction and nonfiction—plays, and graphic works) and poetry. Note that many pieces you read or write don’t use all the building blocks. But good writers consider them all as they work, deciding what they need and what they don’t. And creative writers sometimes mix and match the parts, as Dinty W. Moore does in his essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans” (p. 305) or Carolyn Forché does in her prose poem “The Colonel” (p. 185).
|Parts of Narratives (Fiction, Memoir, Creative Nonfiction, Graphic Narratives, Plays, Screenplays)||Parts of Poems|
PARTS OF NARRATIVE
Narratives are composed of three parts: sentences, conflicts, and scenes. You will need a beginning piece and an end piece of course, and a middle and stuff to happen along the way, but all the components of your narrative are built using sentences, conflicts, and scenes. Just as a house is built from boards, nails, and windows, you can arrange the parts in endless combinations. You can experiment, and not use some parts at all—there are windowless dwellings and scene-free narratives. But be aware that when you experiment (a house with no roof, no windows, no walls) some people might choose not to hang out in your creation for very long.
It’s not how life works, I know, but I think that it is the writer’s most basic job to pick specific things out of the chaos of real life and structure them in a meaningful way for the reader. —DEBRA WIERENGA
We’ll start our discussion with a straightforward, traditional structure, one that isn’t unusual or intimidating. The short story “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (p. 119) is a brilliant example of a well-constructed narrative effectively using the three basic narrative building blocks.
Read Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” (p. 119). What are the building blocks of this story? What parts make up the story? Then read Sebastian Matthews’s poem “Buying Wine” (p. 70). What are the parts of this poem?
Sentences are the basic building block of narrative (and often of poetry, too). They are the cells of the body of your piece. Each sentence matters; each sentence needs a reason to be in your story. When you tell a story, you use sentences. When you tell about your horrible day, you use sentences to show what you have gone through. Sentences are the vehicles for the images: They show us who the people in your piece are and what they are doing. Because we are trying to help readers experience our story visually, using the five senses, creative writers rely on action-oriented sentences; action sentences are the lifeblood of narrative, the tiny pieces of mosaic that contribute to the whole.
You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That’s the goal. —JAMES BALDWIN
You can use four basic kinds of sentences to reveal a narrative:
|Character Sentence||Shows, through behavior, the character of a person|
|Relationship Sentence||Shows, through actions and reactions, who people are by how they interact with each other|
|Plot Sentence||Presents an action step that is going to have some consequences|
|Backstory Sentence||Provides information from the character’s past actions and previous hopes that sheds light on the present situation|
The opening sentence might reveal something about a character (how she orders a drink, plays pinball). The next sentence might exist in order to establish relationships (a mother needles her daughter about gaining weight; a young boy is kicked out of the playground by his buddies). Another sentence might move the plot forward (your character loads boxes into her car and drives off with her best friend’s child; a teenager is wrongly arrested) so that the reader has to keep reading in order to find out what happens next. Lastly, backstory sentences are carefully chosen images from the past that give your story depth and context.
These four kinds of sentences are your most basic narrative building blocks. They are active, and they almost always make a single point. However, in a good story, the sentences may have one main focus (plot) and also be, secondarily, revelatory of character. Just as in a well-built home, the stair-rail is both beautiful and functional.
Here is an example of each of the four types of narrative sentences, taken from Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral”:
|CHARACTER SENTENCE:||She was at the draining board doing scalloped potatoes.|
|RELATIONSHIP SENTENCE:||I reached to draw her robe back over her, and it was then that I glanced at the blind man. What the hell! I flipped the robe open again.|
|PLOT SENTENCE:||“Get us a pen and some heavy paper. Go on, bub, get the stuff,” he said.|
|BACKSTORY SENTENCE:||She’d seen something in the paper: HELP WANTED—Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number. She phoned and went over, was hired on the spot.|
Find examples of each of the four types of sentences in Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral” (p. 119). Then revisit the excerpt from Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate (p.76). Find an example of each type of sentence in this excerpt from her memoir.
Without conflict, there’s no story. If, for instance, you tell me about your day, and it was a pleasant sunny day and things went well, and food tasted so super good, and Joey was friendly as he always is, and you got your homework done a bit early, and you found a parking place right in front of your apartment; then you got to bed early and slept quite well … Why are you even telling me this? There is absolutely no story. You have created an account. It’s like reading a diary entry. It’s lovely. Really, really lovely. But it’s not a story.
I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on the mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten: happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead after another. —BRENDA UELAND
Why? No conflict. Narrative is a container for conflict. Conflicts are the essential “what happens” moments, the blow-by-blow account of the complicated active emotional track of the story. You must have problems to have a story. And the problems must matter, somehow, very much. In “Cathedral,” a man who is limited in his ability to be comfortable around others is forced to confront his fears when the blind man, a good friend of his wife’s, visits his home overnight. There’s going to be a story that arises from a highly charged encounter like that. Or when a pregnant teenager decides to take the decisions about her baby’s future into her own hands—you’ve got a story. In Pamela Painter’s “The New Year” (p. 69), an adulterous affair has serious consequences (especially for the ham). There’s a story there because there’s inherent conflict.
Learning to use that intuitive, emotional thing is important. But to understand dramatic structure, to learn what literature really is; those things are valuable, too.
— JIMMY SMITS
Conversely, imagine your four-year-old niece, reporting her dream. The dragons were chasing her and she fed them. And then they were chasing her. And they turned purple. And then she was hungry and she was chasing them. And she turned green! And they went to the store and there were dragons there, too. And she got chased … Conflicts? Well, sort of. But they don’t matter because there are no implications. One event just rolls right into the next. There is no cause and effect. There is no shape. Things go on and on and on!
Conflicts are cause-and-effect situations, rendered in image, with implications for the character who, because of this situation, now has to deal. So, in a conflict, the direction of the story changes. There’s a “so what.”
In all forms of creative writing that are story based, you want to create a narrative made up of moments that give the reader/viewer a dramatic story experience, focused on forward motion.
The building block writers use in order to give a meaningful shape to any conflict is called scene. The four-year-old’s story has no scenes—it’s one long dream. Scene is the building block you use to:
· render conflict in image
· link cause and effect
· reveal the implications of these events (the “so what”)
· keep the reader engaged
· contain the drama and shape the impact
Conflicts combine to make up scenes. A scene is essentially a moment in time when people are in conflict with each other. To write a scene, you have to have three essential ingredients: time (a clock ticking), place (an intriguing, interesting setting), and action (two or more characters involved with troubles).
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
— EDGAR DEGAS
We know a scene by its shape: It’s a box containing a series of dramatic conflicts, delimited by time. A scene starts at a certain point in time—2:00 p.m. at Sally’s Boutique—and it presents multiple points of conflict:
a. Sally is ticked off because she dyed Bob’s hair green, which is what he asked for, but he doesn’t like it;
b. Bob’s wife is flirting with Sally’s fifteen-year-old son;
c. Sally refuses to refund Bob. The scene stops at, say, 2:20, when Bob and his adorable wife …
d. … storm out of the salon yelling, “We will ruin your business!”
When you change your location—the parking lot in front of Sally’s—you start a new scene, and that new scene will need its own conflicts. When you change time—picking up the story the next day, for example—you change scenes, and that scene needs its own conflict. Prose writers work exactly as film-makers and playwrights do: envisioning their work as a series of scenes. Time change? New scene. Location change? New scene.
A scene, then, is a dramatic unit. A scene is confined to a sequence of little conflicts that build to a larger issue. The scene starts at a specific time of day and moves through time, ending at or just after the moment of greatest intensity. The scene usually doesn’t change locations—it plays out, just like in a movie, in a specific place and time.
Let’s look closely at the structure of Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral,” beginning on page 119. The first two pages of the story are made up of backstory sentences. As the narrator waits for the blind man’s arrival, he reflects on his wife’s relationship with this man, their shared history. There is a conflict in the backstory—the narrator almost hears what the blind man really thinks of him, but the tape cuts off! The first two pages are not in scene—we aren’t told when this reflecting begins exactly—it’s just generally before the arrival of the blind man. And we aren’t given a stage set. Without time and place specified, we know we aren’t in a scene yet.
To find the first scene in “Cathedral,” look for the place and time that holds the opening conflict. It occurs when the husband says, cruelly, that he could take the blind man bowling. The scene establishes the ordinary world of their relationship—about to be radically changed forever by Robert. Notice the conflict: This man is not connected to his wife, or himself He is pretending to be funny, and really, he is scared to death—of alive things, of blindness, of closeness. But he doesn’t know any of this. That’s a powerful conflict. A lot is at stake. Is this guy, the narrator, going to ruin the visit? Is the blind man seriously going to have to interact with this rude dude? Is this guy going to live the rest of his life blind to the feelings of others?
That we are reading a new scene, scene two, is signaled by the words on page 122: “So when the time rolled around, my wife went to the depot to pick him up.” There is a time change. The narrator watches his wife assist the blind man. And then they enter, and already the scene is saturated with conflict: The narrator criticizes, internally, Robert’s beard. He hasn’t even met him yet, but he already dislikes him. The wife is laughing and happy out there in the driveway. So when the door opens, there is a lot at stake. The wife is happier than the narrator imagined she would be. This is going to be much, much worse than he thought. We see he is jealous. As readers, maybe we feel something like pity or empathy for “Bub.” Again, there are implications. There are things that could really go wrong here. Good authors always move us closer to unstable moments, moments of conflict, pain, or intensity. Track time and place to see where this scene ends. It’s on page 123, when the blind man fills the ashtray, and his wife empties it. The narrator is realizing he knows nothing about blind people.
The new scene, scene three, begins on page 123, with the words “When we sat down at the table for dinner …” New time. New place. The scene runs until the space break on page 125. The climax of the scene is when the narrator turns on the television. His wife is “heading toward a boil.” The blind man is very comfortable.
Label each of the scenes in Carver’s story by listing the conflicts in each scene: for example, “husband confronts blind man,” “tense dinner with the three of them.” How many scenes are there in the story? Note the start time and stop time, the setting, and the main conflict in each remaining scene.
A sketch can really help you see your scene. A sketch is your visual outline for what you want to accomplish on the page, and it can save you a lot of wasted time. Examine student writer Meghan Wilson’s sketch of a scene on page 364. Notice how she blocks out the main action, labels the main character, and clarifies her setting before she begins writing the scene. Much as an actor prepares to perform a scene, a writer “gets into character” before setting pencil to paper.
There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening. — DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
If you choose not to write the bulk of your story in scenes, you risk losing your reader. Scenes break your narrative into manageable chunks. Like periods in a basketball game, or innings in baseball, scenes give the piece structure so your reader knows where he is and where things stand. And, just as in a game, where many points or only a few are scored in a given period, a scene may contain one conflict or a series of conflicts. You will want to practice writing simple one-conflict scenes, as well as more complex multi-conflict scenes.
Read Brenda Miller’s “Swerve” (p. 118), Pamela Painter’s “The New Year” (p. 69), and Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” (p. 114). Try turning each piece into a four-panel comic. You can use just stick figures since this isn’t a drawing class. Divide a sheet of paper into four squares; then divide the story or poem into four key scenes. For each of the four key scenes in the piece, show the central conflict in that scene. Now try doing a four-panel sketch for a story or poem you might write.
Building Narratives Using Conflict-Crisis-Resolution
To build a series of scenes into a successful narrative, many writers turn to the classical three-part conflict-crisis-resolution structure.
Reread Pamela Painter’s short prose piece “The New Year” (p. 69). Notice the classic story beats of conflict, crisis, resolution. Painter keeps the reader engaged with her narrative by holding tightly to the time-tested conflict model.
Here are some tips for using conflict-crisis-resolution:
1. Start with conflict right away. Don’t start with a character alone with her thoughts. Don’t warm up, wander around, or muse. Start with a battle: one character’s strong unmet desire set against, and directly opposing, another equally viable character’s strong unmet desire. A battle takes place when two characters have conflicting agendas. The characters must each want something, and the wants must conflict, which means something in one person’s action blocks the desire of the other. Notice how Painter starts the story immediately with problem, after problem, after problem. Readers aren’t interested in the buildup—how the family came to be, what it was like to wake up that morning. Don’t preface, set up, or introduce. Plunge into problems. Throw us into the midst! Readers are interested in how the conflict plays out, and beginnings always contain the first stage of the high-stakes conflict.
Conflict Diagram for “The New Year,” by Pamela Painter
2. Build to crisis. Start with conflict, and then show conflicts that keep increasing in intensity. The most significant conflict in your narrative is called the crisis.
A crisis is when the battle is at its very, very worst. When the loser loses, things can’t get any worse in the narrative. In some large, significant, or subtle and moving way, the world as these characters know it seems to have come to an end. In “The New Year,” the opening conflict is clearly between a husband and wife. The husband is the speaker in the piece, and the news of his affair with Fiona, the boss’s wife, has gotten back to his wife. His wife is no wallflower. She wears shiny gold stockings—maybe she’s a dancer. We know she’s not a slouch. And she’s pissed: Even though it’s Christmas Eve, she’s put all his stuff on the stoop.
Note how the crisis occurs in the second paragraph. In a longer story, like “Cathedral,” the crisis comes later, when the blind man helps the narrator come to realize some important blindnesses of his own. In flash fiction and micropieces, the crisis comes early. The rest of “The New Year” is devoted to the list of all his belongings, which tells us what kind of person he is, and the backstory on how the affair with Fiona was a one-night stand, and the development of loading the car, and driving west with the ham. He tries to call Gilda. She doesn’t take his calls. He sends her photos. He loses the ham. It’s bad. All of it. But none of this is as drastic as his stuff on the stoop—the most drastic moment in your story is the crisis.
The more restrictions you have, the easier anything is to write.
— STEPHEN SONDHEIM
3. End with resolution. Do you have to have a resolution? Well, yes. The story has to stop somewhere. Art is not life. Art demands that you deliver significance to the reader. In her classic textbook Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway suggests thinking about resolution in this way. She lays out six choices for writers looking for ways to resolve the crises in their works:
· The two fighting forces call a truce.
· The two fighters call a truce and agree to fight again later.
· Declaring victory, the hero lives happily ever after, and the loser suffers.
· Losing, the main character offers insight into life with loss.
· The two fighters both realize no one will ever win.
· Each side thinks it has won.
Essential with any of these six choices for resolution is your ability to show the newly changed life of your main character (or in a poem, the speaker). Usually, in contemporary creative writing, the change is small, interior, subtle, psychological, well-observed. Also remember that you don’t have to resolve the conflict itself (stating a clear winner and loser—usually that isn’t how life works). You just have to resolve the story line.
With these concepts in mind, how do you see Painter’s ending? Does the conflict have a resolution? How does the story resolve? Some readers see the husband as defeated. And certainly the last line can be read as a loser’s insight into the nature of his loss: “In this picture, you can’t tell which of us is missing.” The ham washed away. Maybe this marriage’s love washed away. Certainly the husband has disappeared from his partner’s life. At the end, perhaps he realizes he wasn’t present, in some pretty significant ways, to his wife’s life. The resolution isn’t overtly presented in a scene or an image but is implied. We imagine a plucky, righteous Gilda: I sent that asshole packing. And other readers see Gilda as the loser. She needs to forgive: People make terrible mistakes. Answer the phone, at least. Don’t let your husband wash out to sea. Your personal feelings about the resolution may change as you read and reread.
Good artists make their resolutions complex, but not murky. It’s good for your ending to provoke discussion, which is different from confusion. When in doubt, look back to your opening, be sure it links clearly and logically to your crisis, and let your resolution reverse something already established in the piece. Focus on the point of the change. Focus on the psychology of your characters, watching the impact of the battle, the conflict, in their lives. That’s the key to writing resolution.
Mystery, yes. Confusion, no.
Reread Vincent Scarpa’s “I Go Back to Berryman’s” (p. 65) and “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham (p. 335). Locate the conflict, crisis, and resolution. Now do the same for a narrative poem of your choosing, such as “Buying Wine” by Sebastian Matthews (p. 70) or Adam Scheffler’s “Woman and Dogs” (p. 67).
Plan out three narratives, using conflict-crisis-resolution. Always start in the middle of the trouble, bring it to its highest point (crisis), and for each of your three stories, choose a different resolution. You don’t need to write the narratives; just practice building. You can plan narrative structures using words, diagrams, or three-panel comics.
Get in the habit of paying attention to conflict-crisis-resolution by creating a “beat sheet.” Watch any television show or movie in a format that lets you rewind and review. Create a “beat sheet”—a list of the emotional turning points. Simply make a list of the point or purpose of each scene. For example:
1. Joey leaves with hot chick; Ross jealous.
2. Chandler lies to Monica; she doesn’t realize.
3. Cake flops; Phoebe distraught.
Film and television writing is highly structured, and you can learn a lot about narrative structure watching television with pen and paper in hand.
Pulling It All Together: Writing Scenes for Narratives
To write a scene, it helps to prepare. House building requires blueprints, the ordering of materials, and staging. Just as an actor prepares before she goes onstage, a writer can plan and save writing time.
Before you write, you will want to make some notes on each of the following aspects of scene. Here’s a recipe you can use throughout this class:
1. Draw the problem. Conflict drives scenes and gives them shape and dramatic interest. (The four-year-old’s dream story lacks conflict—things happen freely, randomly, with no opposing force.) As you already know, weak characters without strong agendas (desires, needs) will not generate much conflict—or much reader interest. Your main character needs a clear problem, and he or she must be opposed by a worthy opponent. As in football, a blowout is not much fun for the audience; readers want a fair fight between equally matched characters. So do a little sketch on notebook paper. What, visually, will your readers watch on the movie screen in their minds when they are reading this scene? Artistic talent does not matter. But it does matter that you can see people, in action, and that the action is intriguing. For some examples of scene sketches, see pages 364, 371, and 373 in Chapter Nine.
2. Consider polarity. Polarity is the direction the fight goes, the impact of the solution to the problem, the energy of the scene. Every scene has to move from one point to another point (or else it is static and not effective). To find out the polarity of a scene (think of a battery, with the + and the − on either end), ask yourself how it starts, up or down. And then where does it go? Do things get better, or worse?
As you sketch your scene, consider the effects you can create. Will your scene be more creative and interesting if it has a POSITIVE polarity? Or will it be more surprising and original if it has a NEGATIVE polarity? You don’t want neutral scenes. You want juice. You want scenes that spark. “The New Year” moves from something very positive, the gift of a ham, to something superbly negative: That ham washes away to sea, leaving its owner the loneliest of men.
3. Tighten up the time. You must be clear on when the scene starts—right down to the minute. Note that time, and the day, and the season, on your sketch. You want to know when the scene ends, too. Jot down that time. Scenes in which there is time pressure—the boss is coming, the rent is due, you’re late getting home and the fairy godmother is going to freak out—are stronger than scenes where time is not a factor. Dark is falling, the clock is ticking, capture is imminent: Consider ways to tighten the time around your scenes. Every scene starts at a certain precise time, but there should be a kind of time pressure, too. If your characters are blithely wandering through their lives, you’re going to lose your reader’s interest. Imagine, in each scene, there is a scoreboard at the end of the field, and the clock is ticking. Before you start writing, add a clock to your sketch: What’s the time pressure going to be? “The New Year” and “Cathedral” both take place in very short time frames.
Structure is more important than content in the transmission of information. — ABBIE HOFFMAN
4. Pick a place. Scenes take place in specific, boundaried settings: a kitchen, a park, a car, a living room, a cliff. The writer must be able to see, in her or his mind’s eye, every detail of the setting before she or he writes the scene. Good scenes take place in tight spaces. Your trip down Route 1 to Key West—that’s not a scene, it’s a saga, and sagas are often boring. The tighter the “walls” of your scene, the more interesting the scene is. The hallway, the rooftop garden, the bathroom, the walk-in freezer—as you practice, you will develop an eye for what makes an exciting scene location. To tell the story of your Key West trip, what are the three most interesting scenes you could use? Make a list of potentials, and choose the most vibrant three. You are looking for space limitations, and also keeping in mind conflict: At what point are the problems between people most interesting? That’s how you find the scenes you need to write. The rest? You don’t need it.
I think that as a director you have to at the very least shape the script; structure it. Otherwise you’re not really doing your job. —JOHN BOORMAN
Read the opening scene in the story “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham (p. 341). Notice where the first scene starts—when the author writes “Here is Carlton,” locating the characters in space, starting the movie. Now we see the boys in action. What’s the polarity? The scene starts with “cold” and “shocks” and drugs and terror; it ends, right before the space break on page 343, with “how real everything is” and Carlton as a source of deep comfort and security. It goes from negative (death) to positive (life and heightened sensory experience).
Plan out four different scenes. Using the four-pronged recipe above, do a sketch, determine polarity, anchor time and space, and list out the small conflicts that will build to the larger conflict that ends the scene. Choose your favorite and write it as a play, graphic, story, or memoir.