Constructing the story
Once upon a time there were three little pigs…
I’m sure you remember them – they built houses of straw, sticks and bricks. And the big bad wolf couldn’t blow the brick house down. That’s what structure’s all about. It’s about producing a work of fiction that the big bad wolf (who for the sake of argument we shall call the reader) can’t blow down. Or, in other words, can’t put down before it’s finished, not if he wants to know what happened.
A house made of straw is still a house, even if a few straws are out of place or missing; one made of sticks likewise. And you can stop once it’s got four walls and a roof and still call it a house, brushing aside the sticks or straw left over, or sticking them in here and there to tidy them up a bit.
But the stretchers and headers of brick walls must be placed just so, and they must be built with the number of bricks required for their completion. A brick house just isn’t a house, not until it’s finished. And when it’s finished, it is clearly and unequivocally a house. From a distance, the house of straw might be a haystack, the house of sticks a hedge. But the brick house is a house, and nothing else.
A well constructed story can’t be abandoned two thirds of the way through, not if the reader wants to understand it. A well constructed story has no element out of place, no unnecessary material left over at the end. And, viewed from any angle, at any distance, it is a story. Not an anecdote, not an account, not a series of loosely connected incidents, but a story.
Of course, not all novels or short stories have a conventional structure, and that’s fine. I must stress that there are no rules in this game, only conventions, and that what I have to say concerns conventionally structured fiction. The aim is to help you to construct your fiction like the wise little pig’s house, to show you how to get it from the beginning to the end, with those two elements securely where they belong.
That might very well not be what you want to do, either with one particular piece of work, or quite possibly with any of your work. The conventional structure may not suit the story you want to tell, or may simply be something you want to ignore. But breaking conventions deliberately is one thing. Breaking them because you don’t know them is quite another. It is best to have a reason.
The American poet e e cummings broke with convention by his refusal to use capital letters, even changing his name legally to lower case to make his point. His reason was, as far as I’m aware, that he didn’t see why he should use them, and that is reason enough. Don Marquis’s archie the cockroach didn’t use capital letters either. His reason was that he, being a cockroach, couldn’t reach the shift key. I’ll leave you to guess which of these reasons gladdens my philistine heart.
As well as providing a metaphor, the story of the three little pigs also helps illustrate conventional structure: it has a beginning, a middle – which is written in the optimum order for storytelling purposes – and an end.
The beginning introduces the characters, sets the scene, establishes the protagonist(s) and the obstacle to his, her or their intentions. It goes on to explain what those intentions are.
The middle tells most of the story. It gets us involved with the characters, introduces complications, and sets everything up for the denouement, the villain-protagonist showdown.
The end is the resolution of the story; it picks up the plot points hinted at in the beginning and elaborated on in the middle, and brings them to a satisfying conclusion.
But if the story had been told with the second little pig building his house of brick ... what then?
The third little pig and his house would be redundant. The wolf would have met his Waterloo two thirds of the way through, and all that would be happening at the end would be the stuffing of this loose end into any crack that would take it. Worse, it would be ignored altogether. Or worse still, there would be a lot of huffing and puffing and blowing down of a house for no reason at all, long after the story had been told.
I think you’ll agree that it wouldn’t have worked. But not a few novels – including published novels – have done more or less that. And I think that the movie Speed is a glaring example of the problem. It should end half an hour before it does, because the story – about a bus that mustn’t let its speed drop below 50mph or it will blow up – has been told. For the last twenty-five minutes we are no longer on the bus, and there should be no more to tell.
I have read a review of Speed that attempted to make sense of its structure by saying that it was written in three sections, with just the middle one – the longest one – being about the bus. But I don’t buy that, because it’s called Speed. It’s about the bus, and the last half-hour is like the wolf huffing and puffing for no good reason.
So if you think your structure might be wandering around a little, just remember the three little pigs and check that you have got the straw, sticks and bricks in the right order to reach your denouement with everything the reader needs to know and everything that has to happen in order to tie up loose ends already in place. If that means altering how you are telling the story, then alter it, because that way you can finish when the story does.
And everyone can live happily ever after.