05 Apr 2017

On Form vs. Formula

Below is a Facebook post that sparked a lot of conversation: 

I’m going to get at this inelegantly. I’m running out the door. But here: novelists — emerging ones — are the most resistant to structure from all the various kinds of writers I’ve worked with. Talk to them about acts and beats and sequences and they often immediately balk with an accusation that they’re being asked to be formulaic. There’s an enormous difference between formula and form. Screenwriters usually get form. Their roots are in theater. I recently had a student frustrated that he was being taught a paint-by-numbers approach to screenwriting. Shakespeare was paint-by-numbers not just in acts but line to line. He regulated down to the syllable, those are some very rigid numbers for painting. Poets, of course, understand that forms are usually liberating, not stifling at all.

But the novelist has stepped out of these traditions. I’ve wondered if it’s because the formulaic novel exists in such successful ways. Nope, soap operas exist, greeting cards exist, and serious writers for TV and poetry don’t seem to push away from form — or at least not out of this fear.

The balking novelist is a tough breed. I think some of the blame falls on teachers not teaching structure in upper level courses. And it’s tougher to teach in a novel — there aren’t act breaks on the page, there aren’t line breaks to examine. We have chapters and sections, but they aren’t looked at the same way. The novelist’s most demanding structures — both external and internal structures — exist invisibly. They have to be pointed out, which isn’t easy. Often when an emerging novelist says that a book has failed, they don’t know that the failure is architectural. They usually pin it on the sentences, not know that these are load-bearing walls — or the characters, not really knowing that character equals plot.

And, look, structure is often something novelists do have to create by hand — and often it’s a brutal process of the story pushing its form into view. We have to chop through the jungle with machetes. But paths exist. They just do. We’re in the same jungle that other novelists have been through long before us. If you can start off as a writer on a path — in a structure that already exists — all the better. You can keep your eye on other things, like your sentences.

I use this metaphor — the structure is a bottle — you hold it in your hands, it doesn’t have to be bottle-shaped, it’s see-through (or I prefer it when it’s see-through), but it holds what’s important: the boat that doesn’t have to be a boat at all.

My comments to various responses:

I don’t distinguish between traditional and non traditional structures but that each bears the weight of the house.

Look, what’s inside that boat can be a cocoon or web or rain or dangling nests or the wasp itself but it’s made, considered, formed if by spit or vast knowledge of physics.

…if you look at my descriptions of structure listed throughout this thread — smashed window, wasp, rain…¬†internal images, underpinnings of metaphor (as well as, this one time, five parts with five chapters each — discovered in part four — and then just weirdly eyed by me…) — we’re not even talking about the same thing. one extreme side of the spectrum is a beat sheet, the other side being: swallows nests made from swallow regurgitation.