Thursday, August 7, 2008

A New Story Structure?

If you’re the kind of writer that likes to be on the cutting-edge of publishing trends, slant your ears on this:

Today’s story openings, for authors of fiction, might not be what they once were, or should be. You know, short and sweet with no backstory, because today’s readers want stories that get right to the point. Apparently because attention spans are not what they used to be a decade ago, or anything like in the days of Aristotle, when there was nothing else to do and the public indulged in long, tedious stage plays as entertainment.

As for literature, today we can still enjoy long, tedious novels like McCarthy’s fantastic Border Trilogy. You know—like that.

Some folks, me included, still enjoy that sort of stuff, while the majority of today’s readers, like their stories condensed, and fast-paced. Therefore, a contemporary story structure, as follows:

According to today's so-called publishing standards, and according to published novelists and screenwriters, who’ve already been tried by fire, the evolution of story structure in the past decade has recently been: that proper story beginnings, are the key to publication, for first-time authors, that is.

Consider the antithesis to today’s story beginning in the recently published and highly acclaimed “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”, by David Wroblewski.
If you haven't read it by now, check it out, and you’all come back, hear.

Hmm…WTF. As you can see from its opening paragraphs, there’s a very mild hint as far as an inciting incident goes. I suppose that the flashback of, ‘20 tons of rolling maple that buried a man’, counts as the inciting incident. Edgar, the protagonist, is revealed by the end of the chapter, when he is born.

Not a bad opening, (...right) although I had to read it several times to understand it. (I don’t get enough sleep folks. Let’s face it, it’s either that or all the smoke from the 60’s is still affecting my brain cells.) BTW, the excerpt they use on Wroblewski's website is not the beginning chapter. They chose a more interesting, more engaging section about the dog. Good choice.

So where is all the highly touted openings, in medias res deal, and the all-important first sentence that must grab the reader by the collar, and then the follow-up with a clever, and pertinent inciting incident that supposed to address story questions, arouse curiosity, and catapult the book into the annals of literary treasure-dom?

Good question. When you find the answer, make sure I’m the first to know because I’ve been fiddling with the opening to my first novel for the passed year and have yet to nail it down just the way I want it. (I’ll let you know what my editor thinks of my most recent revision. I suspect she might roll on the floor with belly-aching guffaws, again.) Beats me. I’d rather time-travel back to the Mesozoic era, wither away under a cretaceous rock until the next millennium, and reincarnate as Cormac McCarthy. That would be much easier than re-writing my first chapter. Trust me.

I’m telling you, I’m brain dead (as you’ve probably noticed by now). But, I’m trying to pin down that glorious opening, at least according to all the great books I’ve read regarding story beginnings, such as: Les Edgerton’s Hooked, (my Bible on openings) or Robert Mckee’s Story, which is geared more towards screenwriting, but nevertheless, makes very valid points regarding the all-important opening of your story, among other things.

Check out this great opening, cited in Edgerton's Hooked, from Dominica Radulescu’s, Train to Trieste, that probably earned her MS publication, but was drastically altered upon publication.

‘I am returning from the Black Sea wild and disheveled, my skin golden and salty and my hair entangled and blonder from the sun. A girl I used to know has just died on a hiking accident in the mountains: she was hit in the head by a rock on a trip with her boyfriend. He had accidently sent down that rock, as he was walking behind her, on the steep path.’
(Middle portion of excerpt omitted for the sake of brevity.)

‘But this summer when I am seventeen and returning from the Black Sea, I am bursting into being a woman and I don’t care about empty stores and sugar and flour rations. All I care about is that this man grieving for his dead lover turn his eyes on me.’

You can get the gist of her this wonderful opening by reading just these few paragraphs, especially the way it ends. Because of copyright infringement and since the chapter is way too long to post here, take a look at how the new opening to her book was recently published:

Uh…you have to click on the link above first. You did? Okay, as you can see, it’s a huge difference and in my opinion, the original MS is far more intriguing and it fits within the “writing model” according to the great story beginnings with no backstory, that readers in today’s marketplace love so much, since they’re allegedly so hyper, and must get right to it.

Why did the editors and/or publisher decide to change the opening? Well, I wish I had a solid answer to that in the publisher’s own words, however, I imagine that they changed or amplified the opening according to current story trends within the genre, therefore accommodating the most important people in the story chain: the readers. Give ’em what they want, sort of thing. But what does that have to do with ruining a perfectly good beginning? Enlighten me…please.

It’s anyone’s guess. Although, I suspect that it sure pays to know a good agent or an editor who has the inside scoop as far as what’s most likely to sell and who’s buying what at any given time. They do know what publishers are looking for, but who’s to say what readers will like, after all? Then again, it could be her "Platform". She is a literary hot-shot after all.

It’s like that old saying in Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything,” when it comes to stories, regardless of how they’re structured. What one person considers junk, another might fall in love with.

Just like so many different opinions/book reviews on can attest to.

“Good Night and Good luck”.

Spontaneous Olympics Rant: If I see one more Chinese Panda chomping on bamboo chutes, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown!