Friday, October 22, 2010

Story and Nested Structures

Lately I have used a the idea of interrupting the dramatic action of a story with an explanation to give shape to my writing. I know, this sounds like a good way to ruin the flow and pacing of a story, but bear with me. This is a structure that I have found useful in everything from bits of dialogue to full scenes to entire story arcs across the length of a novel. It’s scalable and you can build nested story structures with it and It Works Really Well.

Here’s the basic idea, as applied to the act of writing a very short story. Imagine you've started writing something new, and you've got the initial action and image down on the page. Maybe it goes something like this:

The blood on my hands made the wheel slippery and the car slewed into the left-hand lane before I regained control. I’d put off replacing the old wiper blades and they were almost useless in the heavy rain; I was driving nearly blind through the night, driving much too fast. Christ, there was a lot of blood on me. It was serious now, and I had to get out there to the house as soon as I could. I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way this time. I was going to finish this, all of it, tonight.

You, as the writer, already know how the story will turn out, what’s going to happen at the house on the edge of town, and why. The main dramatic action of the story is What Happens This Night At The House Outside Of Town. But you have to explain it; you have to give meaning and context to that action. So you cut the story of the drive and confrontation in half, right in the middle, and you go backwards in time to give the events leading up to your protagonist getting behind the wheel of his car. So maybe we’ll take an intermediary step backwards, somewhere between the story-present and the backstory. Maybe it goes something like this:

Juliette had tried to stop this before I was even born. All of that crap with the Moon and all of that time in the asylum hadn’t changed anything. Juliette had been a good mother, but she couldn’t prevent this.

So I think that’s a fine transitional passage. The story-present has mentioned some mysterious “it” and this passage refers to that same “it” but gives more (though vague) information about whatever “it” is, invoking the Moon and an asylum. Maybe something to do with werewolves? I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along, but if this was your story, you’d already know. We've given a lot of information in nine sentences, and to me it doesn’t feel like an info-dump, even though almost all of it’s been exposition so far.

We have also pointed the narrative in a new direction at this point, at a new character: the protagonist’s mother. From this intermediary passage, which already steps us outside of the story-present’s timeline, we can go to the important bits of the protagonist’s backstory, if we want. Maybe something like this:

The first sign that something was wrong came when I was five years old. We were living in Chicago at the time, in a crappy one-bedroom apartment in one of those ugly tombstone-like tenements on the South Side. One morning I was sitting at the wobbly linoleum table in the kitchenette, eating my cereal. Juliette was in the bathroom, getting ready for work. I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned to look up at the kitchen counter. Right beside the sink was a greasy black rat, reared up on his back legs, his shining red eyes looking straight at me. I felt like I'd been hit in the chest, right in my heart, with a hammer.

I don’t know what happened next. Something scary, I’m sure. But at this point, we have established a nested structure of storylines:

1. The external dramatic story, of the House Outside Of Town.
2. The story of Juliette, which is also the larger historical story of whatever “it” is.
3. The personal history of the protagonist, who I have just named Dick Raley because I can.

Having established this overall nested structure, we can move between the three timelines at will. The thing to remember is that, if you want to do this right, you have to keep the action moving forward. Everything that happens in whatever level of narrative has to foreshadow and set up whatever happens next in whatever timeline. The story keeps moving forward, always. You do not stop the story. Ever.

My favorite place to insert these interruptions is right when the dramatic action has reached a fever pitch. That is to say, right before the climax and resolution of the action. For example, if a story of mine had this passage during the Final Confrontation between Protagonist and Antagonist: I pointed the gun at his head. He asked me not to, he begged me, told me there was no other woman. I didn't believe him. He started to run, and I pulled the trigger. I would be tempted to stop right there after the word "trigger" and loop backwards through time for a paragraph or two to give an image (always dramatized, not just internal monologue or whatever form of telling) that either shows how the woman with the gun is mistaken but doesn't realize it (Irony!) or how she and the cheating bastard were once happy (Pathos!) or something else depending on what's going on in the story.

It’s also possible to use these nested levels to discuss different things about the story. For example, you can use level 3, Dick Raley’s personal history, to tell the inner story, which is going to be Dick’s coming to terms with some truth about himself or the world that he doesn’t want to admit. Or whatever. You can use level 2, about Dick’s mother Juliette, to explore the theme(s) of the story, where this truth of Dick’s causes some kind of conflict between Dick’s personal reality and the rest of the world. Or whatever. And you can use level 1, the “gosh, but I’m covered with blood and driving too fast” story, to tell an action-packed suspense story. So you can have three stories all at the same time, linked together and nested like Matryoshka dolls. There is no limit to how many nested stories-within-stories or moments-within-moments you can have. There may be a limit to how much of this your reader can take, depending on how sudden the shifts are.

I actually wanted to talk about the subtle things you can do with this nesting of timelines, but I realized I should talk about this in a more general sense first. Maybe next time.

Also! Contest! Yes, a quick contest, if anyone wants to enter. Take my three paragraphs above and finish the "bloody hands" story I’ve begun! Keep it to about 1000 words or fewer! Winner gets a valuable prize! Likely a stinking Amazon gift card, because that seems to be what people give as prizes in the age of blogs. You have until, I don’t know, Tuesday, November 2nd to enter. I am sole and final judge, and I reserve the right not to award the prize. If you have an entry, email it to me at scott (at) scottgfbailey (dot) com. If you don’t have an entry, I still like you.


  1. Scott, I love that technique when properly executed. I use something like it pretty frequently myself, though to date I'm always afraid at how well received it will be by readers.

    And the contest is intriguing, but I think I might get piles of pancakes dropped on my head if I let myself get too much more distracted from my book.

  2. This sounds like a try-able idea for structure. I put your contest on my side bar.

  3. Nevets: I don't expect anyone to actually enter the contest. My fingers typed that paragraph against my will. Though I would like to see what happens in that story; I'm just not the guy to write it, I don't think.

    Summer: Thanks! I am moving away from formal structures like the three-act, and I begin to see stories as a chain of causality and foreshadowings that lead to the end. I don't know if these ideas of structure will be at all visible to the reader; I'm just trying out new ways to think about narrative. This is sort of like the post Domey did earlier this week (was it Monday?) about structure.

  4. Oh, Scott, you're giving away secrets. Okay, may they aren't secrets, but this is very, very cool and something I think I might have done before - but subconsciously. It's a great technique, and a wonderful way to insert backstory without a huge flashback scene. Too late for Monarch. Hah.

  5. Can me and Davin enter the contest??? That probably wouldn't be appropriate. Never mind.

  6. Michelle: Yeah, this is sort of a way to eliminate flashbacks while keeping flashbacks. Though I find myself simply being a lot more free with the space/time continuum these days. I think the real trick is crafting smooth transitional passages. Once you find a technique that seems comfortable and isn't jarring, the rest is easy.

    It would be cool if you and Davin had a go at finishing the story! Like I say, I just want to see how it turns out. I am also thinking that, as long as the basic facts and characters don't get changed, people could be free to just paraphrase what I wrote and not use the actual three paragraphs of mine. As long as what they write is cool. Either way, like I said to Nevets, I don't really expect anyone to play. But it would be cool. Maybe I'll try to write an ending, too. Maybe I'll post the best three, all anonymously, and people can vote for their favorite. Don't know.

  7. I'll be interested to hear, Scott, what you think as you shift your mindset away from a three-act structure.

    Honestly, I've never exactly understood the three act structure. I get the principles, but it's never clicked with me.

    Sublimation is, I believe, the first thing I've written that really has a three act structure, and that's not because of the literary form, but rather because of its intentional reflection of a Hegelian dialectic.

    But maybe that's another reason why I've felt like Sublimation is more work than it should be.

    Anyway, good luck with your own formal explorations.

  8. Scott: I probably won't have time to do your contest, sadly. I should be working on Thirds right now, nothing else. Of course, here I am procrastinating online.

    Nevets: I almost always use the three act structure, but it is always very loose and by the time I'm finished with the book it's not obvious (to me) where the acts are, anyway. I mostly use it to organize my thoughts into something coherent.

    Still, Scott's 5 rules he posted awhile ago carried me through Cinders and my revisions of Monarch, and they are now carrying me through Thirds. I like specific things I can use to make the writing feel more solid. I feel lost without them.

  9. Nevets: Well, every narrative must have a beginning, middle and ending. Ask Aristotle, he'll tell you. I found that the "set up/development/resolution" model of the three-act didn't work for me though if you're writing a screenplay it's a solid framework. What I do instead, even with the idea of nested structures, is consider that a drama can be seen as being made up of an inner story and an outer story. The outer story is the sort of physically-active conflict (in my example today, it's the "bloody hands" part) and the inner story is the mentally/emotionally-active conflict (in today's example it might be something to do with Dick and his relationship with Juliette). So my version of the three-act structure is to take the outer story and split it in half, and stick the inner story in as the second act. The inner conflict must be resolved before the outer conflict can be. This is very general, but that's the basic idea. I play fast-and-loose with it to some extent and while I'm writing the shape gets pushed in all sorts of directions and the narrative loops back upon itself.

  10. @Michelle - Ah, okay. I've always tried to see it from the end-product or more immediately what the reader experiences.

    I can see how that would be helpful for inductive folks to have building blocks like that to organize their pieces into the whole.

    That probably also explains why I don't get it, now that I think about it, since my inductive reasoning is terrible.

  11. But if you ask Zeno,before you can get to half of half, you have to get to half of half of half, and before you get there you have to go through half of half of half of half...

    Being glib, but but's the sort of trap my mind falls into when I start thinking this way.

    Maybe it means I stink with structure... hahaha

  12. Nevets: You know the story of Zeno debating someone (Aristarchus? I forget who it was) about the existence of motion? Zeno's opponent replied to the proposition that motion is an illusion by standing up and walking across the room.

    Anyway, you can't think too much about structure or you forget to think about story. But I have to be able to see story as--if not a structure--a long-term process, a relationship between parts and motions. You have to give up the idea that you can look at your own work primarily as a reader. Your relationship to it has to change, I think.

  13. @Scott -- haha Yeah, I know the story, and the point is quite valid. I think that's the way I typically approach structure. I just get up and walk across the room. As soon as I start thinking about it it messes me up.

    As for thinking about my writing primarily as a reader... I actually think of it primarily as writer, but I do often self-check from the reader's perspective, and I probably need to shoo that demon off my shoulder until very late in the process.

    That said, I can't help but have an end-product perspective, because as a primarily deductive thinker that's my starting point, and that inherently makes my approach a little to readerish for my own good sometimes.

    Where I think I create most of my self-generated stumbling blocks is when I begin writing deductively as is natural for me, and then try to self-check inductively, since that's not a natural or productive way for me to think.

    That probably accounts for a lot of my confusion.

    And probably is where some of my more confusing elements get introduced, too.


    But I'm not sure yet what an alternative form of review is since almost no readers will read deductively because that's just not how most people think.

  14. Since I'm the closest thing to a Dick Raley 'round here, I feel obliged to contribute ;-)

    Very cool post. I have a middle-grade novel that has a story within a story (within a story). Writing it (and slowly but steadily revising it, current status of WIP) has been a fun challenge. It's critical that the pacing between the layers is even, and even more critical that the timing of the climax and resolution for each story line makes sense.

    The element that makes Matryoshka dolls fun is that each is a full doll. It wouldn't be the same if one was just a head, the other just a torso, the other a hand, etc. Well, maybe it would be fun, assembling the pieces, but it's a very different kind of fun.

    I'll take a stab at the contest if I can find the time (that may or may not be foreshadowing the source of the blood).

  15. @Scott - Don't think I don't know that. I have an on-going analysis about my over-thinking, too...

  16. Rick: Thanks for posting, and remember to change your wiper blades. "The element that makes Matryoshka dolls fun is that each is a full doll." That's a very important observation. The inner and outer stories both must have complete dramatic arcs that must be resolved compellingly and the stories must depend on each other as well. A lot of stories, especially in the middle, are strewn with arms and legs that don't add up to a whole figure.

  17. @Scott - Thought in my own defense, this deductive/inductive divide has actually be a source of lifelong frustration for me, and it's only been in the past few years that I've begun to understand it.

    So that's an excuse for a fraction of the over-thinking. lol

  18. Nevets: I get that. Maybe you should just accept that how you read is how reading is done, and write to satisfy someone who reads like you and forget about the rest of the world and how they read. That's what I do. My personal experience is, in the end, the only thing I can trust because it's the only thing I can really measure.

    Which brings up another interesting observation I've made lately: the more comfortable and confident I become with the way I write, the less I seem to have in common with other writers. It's like after a certain point, when we begin to get good enough to really chase down our own writerly impulses, we are each finding our own way and "right" and "wrong" become "what works for me" and "what doesn't work for me." This is when you get past basic issues of craft and language, of course, but where I thought I'd be finding a greater amount of common ground with other writers, I am finding less. Weird.

  19. Scott- your last comment may be one of the best descriptions of a writer finding his/her own voice that I've seen to date.

  20. @Scott - Hmm.


    You know, within the past six months to a year I've really discovered what it means to just accept my "voice" and my content and embrace it and just go. That's made me more confident, and I think my writing has been a world of better because of it.

    I never really thought about allowing such an experience on the formal, craft-oriented side.


    That's just a little mind-blowing, actually.

    Scott, you may have earned your eggs benedict and coffee today.

  21. I agree, Scott. That's a great description. Davin and I have talked about this frequently and recently. It makes a lot of sense.

  22. Cool post, Scott. I understand this on a theoretical level, but it's hard for me to make the smooth transitions between time lines. It takes a lot of work on my part, and involves a lot of messing up. Thanks for putting up the examples, and the contest is exciting too!

  23. Scott, I'm not sure if you call your last comment "finding your voice", but that's how I think of it. I think you disagree (from past discussions of this), but I've come to think this discovery is really important because it means that we are writing what we actually want to write. And, it does make us all sound different which someone makes comparisons impossible, which is cool and nurturing too.

  24. Maybe this is my crippling fears trying to lash out at new wisdom. Maybe it's my hyper-literalism making a big deal out of semantics. Or maybe it's a legitimate thought. I'm not sure.

    But I think there's a difference what you write and how write, even though there's overlap.

    I think it's possible to write the story I want to write, but to write it in a way that may not ideally be how I want to write it. It seems much the same to me as how different arrangements can alter both the performers' and the listeners' experience of a musical piece -- but it's still the same music.

    At least to me, it seems that what Scott's talking about (at least in the comment thread) is how a story is told, not what the story is.

    Maybe it doesn't make a difference to his point or to its importance, but it seems like it's not quite the same thing.

    Forgive me if I'm veering too-far off-topic here or getting mired in over-thinking again.

  25. Although I can theoretically see these two things as different, I think in reality, they are very interwoven and dependent on one another.

  26. Nevets: Certainly I think there's a difference between what we write and how we write it. Hopefully we have stories to tell before we know how to tell them.

    I'll just admit that I am skeptical when people say that they "let the story tell them how it should be told," because I think that's just people working out what the story actually is but they don't know it. I'm not saying that there's one proper or best way to assemble a narrative, but I think that in general, writers move forward and gain confidence and ability in craft and with each new story they write they have a new and better awareness of craft and narrative possibilities. We try new things as we go along and it's a natural process that our storytelling evolves.

    Too much analysis of "this story to this type of narrative structure" is less than helpful, I think. My belief is that stories must contain causal chains and emotional truths to have any use or meaning to a reader. How you present the information to reveal those things is up to you. But I think that when someone says "I didn't write it in a way that may not ideally be how I want to write it," they really mean something like, "I don't know how enough about narrative craft" and not "I have not discovered the proper unique narrative form for this particular story."

    I have no idea if you and I are talking about the same thing at all at this point! It's my post-lunch slump and I need a nap.

  27. Yeah, Domey just said something else I wanted to say: that story and how you tell it are closely related. Not that the form of the narrative will make the story be "about" something different if you change the form, but that (in my opinion) story and storytelling are close to the same thing. Which is not, I don't think, what Big D means.

  28. @Scott - I think we are, just from different oblique angles.

    If I take sort of Karl Barth perspective on narrative, I think I see what you're saying about story and story-telling being almost the same thing. That might give me something more to mull over.

    I hope other blog-readers are benefiting from our exchange, because I feel a little bad about dominating the thread so much today. I posted another aspect of my thoughts on my blog, and I'll try to leave these here for now so that someone else has the chance to talk with you all.

  29. I like your totally unfounded confidence that I have any idea where my story is going or why.

  30. Tara: I have nothing but confidence in you!


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