Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.
These posts are recaps, with very little colour commentary on my part. Some are near word-for-word recaps, others are a summary. This is the former, as I pulled in my secretary skills to transcribe Friday night's 8pm "Story Structure" panel to the best of my abilities. Quotes are close to exact, but edited for flow, and errors are my own.
We began with panelist introductions, while answering the question: “What is Story?”
Leah Bobet: Editor, writer, bookseller. Story is the natural result of our tendency to pattern match.
Ranylt Richildis: Editor spec fiction, publish unusual pro styles or structures. “You had a great answer.” For her, story is momentum, a rollicking, rhythmic prose. Some need plot.
Sheila Williams: Editor Asimov’s, a huge range from traditional to innovative. Biggest thing is story takes her attention and holds it all the way through. “I feel satisfaction”, not necessarily happy but satisfaction.
Sam Morgan: Agent, which came from doing data entry for literary agency, talked with boss about story structure. “I hate going last on such a weird question, you’ve all said such wonderful things.” A story is an idea, with a start and an end.
Nina Munteanu, panel moderator, teaches writing at UofT and George Brown. Story is something her students constantly play around with, she gives them this in the first class. Story vs Something Else. It’s something with consequence, as opposed to an anecdote, which might take you somewhere but doesn’t have meaning.
This panel is about “narrative structure”. So what is THAT, and why does a story need or not need it?
Sam: From his perspective as an agent, he’s hoping for commercial stories he can take to a publisher and get paid for it. (Something that will appeal to a lot of people.) Lots of people have found patterns in previously successful stories, can apply such structure to your story to make it commercial.
Sheila: What’s the secret?
Nina (mod): You’re from all sorts of industries. What are we looking at? So much is involved there.
Leah: The way she looks at structure, if we’re going to go into something as broad as what is it, would be that every element of “story” is one of the tools in your toolset. The frame upon which you hang your building. Which may be a barn or the CN Tower, but it’s one of the things you use to achieve the effect you want to achieve.
Ranylt: It’s a skeleton that you hang the character on, the theme on, the metaphor on.
Sheila: A couple years ago, someone reviewing “Asimov’s”, one thing said was “everything’s in third person”. There’s so many things to consider when laying out an issue, and didn’t think about having “first person” to balance stories. Third person is the traditional narrative structure in stories. It is great to change things up (not in every story), but to bring things up that are different from the normal structure.
She recently published a story by someone which is a set of lists that tells a story. Also “Final Exam”, which is a multiple choice test, but you get this Lovecraftian story as you read. Sheila went through as an editor to make sure the key matched; a fun, different use of structure. A few years ago, one was impossible to read the way it was written: Some mediocre grad student split the universe, so two stories run simultaneously. The characters know what’s happening, but your brain can’t do that in parallel. So if someone died in one universe, you have to read StoryA before you get to it in StoryB. These things can be very rewarding, but cannot fill an entire issue with it.
Ranylt: You have to give the reader a break when you’re putting together a collection. Have chewy stories with more traditional ones.
Leah: Something different, with printed HyperFiction, managed to stage a live reading. Gave readers a voice, it was choral, it was beautiful. The interesting thing with non-traditional format and structure is, it’s hard to find work that’s up to the same narrative quality. Basically it’s hard to do both those things at the same time very well. Can lean on one as a bit of a crutch.
Audience Member: There’s need for structure underneath to tell the story. I’ll want first act, second act...
Sheila: Can have a really good story delivered differently from usual. Like going to play, but you’re walking through a play. In this room is a certain scene, in that room another one. It’s a different experience but can be the same story, might be Macbeth.
Nina: Structure and format. “That’s why I asked, what is story.” Comes back to a story being told.
Leah: At the end of the day, you still have to have a satisfying answer to “why did this happen”.
Ranylt: It’s good when going crazy with structure, to use it reinforce the theme of the story. As an example, if stuck in a house, questing, have narrative shaped as a house, as walls, it’s self-reinforcing.
Leah: Consider stuff that has that resonance, every single element of craft resonates with every other one. David Mitchell, he’s an obvious author for structure, and while his stuff doesn’t always work for her, “Cloud Atlas” does. It’s about iterative cycles, it’s not just a pretty hat you’re putting on, it’s integral to the story.
Nina: What about Theme and Metaphor, how do they inform structure, if they do.
Sam: College level essay questions!
Nina: Perhaps pick a weird structure, say why it works. We want different stuff.
Sheila: Back to that two universe story, by Will Macintosh. Doing a double slit experiment, you can have waves or particles. (You don’t know what’s going on until you kill the cat or whatever.) The metaphor is physics, using that to tell the story in this parallel tale. It’s confusing, you have to read one and then the other, yet the whole story is life and death and a tragic love story, while the entire structure is a metaphor for science. That’s one reason it works (aside from he’s a good writer).
Nina: Are we doing more of that now than ever before? Is “Hero’s Journey” a crutch for a lot of stuff that’s commercial?
Sam: The smartest media consumers have the Hero’s Journey ingrained, so we can play with it more now. Which is why you can have split stories or stories in reverse. Since everyone knows what’s going to happen, we can interrupt it.
Nina: Suggesting readers are more sophisticated.
Sheila: It’s that they’re in on the joke. Someone watching original “Star Trek” today might wonder about the lack of a continuing storyline, as in “Doctor Who”. They expect a narrative arc.
Ranylt: It’s short stories on TV instead of novels on TV.
Sheila: Which adjusts how one watches the episodes. It was not hard to unlearn the idea of storytelling on television to watch stand alones.
Ranylt: We can give early novelists more credit too. “Blank Page” in the middle of a book with doodles, a sophisticated novel for a rudimentary audience... it was a huge hit.
Sheila: Look at Alice in Wonderland.
Leah: In the 1500s, people were working on the revenge angle. When something gets ingrained, people start to pick at it and see what they can do with it. It’s a cycle.
Sam: The difference may be far smaller than the difference in what people are doing now. Especially in YouTube TV shows, which aren’t really the “standard shows” any more. Watching people play video games, or do character creations (or unboxings). What we’re experiencing has happened, but now to a far greater extent.
Leah: Wasn’t sure about bringing up Interactive Fiction. How many played Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest”? Not as a game per say, a clickable story. The reason it got so much press is, it’s a “Day in a Life” of a person dealing with depression. Some options are crossed out. See what she did there? Using that format (and you couldn’t tell the story in another format) she’s created an empathy machine. That visceral understanding. There’s things we can do with technology to tell stories that are so much more impactful.
Sheila: We’re learning how to use the “new media”, which is the best part. First games and interactive fiction was very basic, their storyline wasn’t compelling. Artists hadn’t figured out how to take advantage. What’s exhilarating now is being able to take styles and use art to it’s fullest, that level of sophistication had to take time.
Leah: There’s more giant’s shoulders to sit on now.
Sam: Author “Ryan North”, two recent books. “To Be or Not To Be”, choose your own adventure version of Hamlet, also Romeo & Juliet. We have those monsters of English Lit that everybody knows. Sometimes for “Romeo & Juliet” you get them as dinosaurs, and go “oh that makes sense.”
Leah: Not to stray too far, but changing the structure can change the relationship the reader has with the text.
Sam: Like the short story [of two universes] where you can interact differently.
Sheila: And you can choose to read either book first, but there’s moments where a different reader will say they have to go back.
Sam: Would you have taken it on if you’d read StoryB first?
Sheila: Oh yeah. It’s interesting. [Considers] As an internet site, websites were not sophisticated enough yet to run both down one page. And doing a podcast of every story, we can’t do simultaneous podcasts either.
Ranylt: Sometimes gets stories where she can format it with InDesign but not WordPress. “You literally have to reject stories because of the formatting.”
Leah: A poem running down the page.
Ranylt: Couldn’t publish that, WordPress would spit on it.
Sam: “And I couldn’t sell it.”
Sheila: There’s a story making use of modern technology and multimedia, reporting an avalanche and skiers killed. The story of the avalanche is visual, to the skier coming down the page. Could try to do that in print but it wouldn’t have the same impact. But it took a team to put that together, moving away from the individual author. So much more can be done with tech, we don’t even know yet what it is. That’s the fun and joys of being an editor.
Sheila: One funny story from Asimov’s. The day we opened to digital submissions, the 4th submission, the author was trying to do this story that had computer cards. He was philosophically opposed to a magazine that didn’t take digital, yet this work had to be published in a print magazine, because of the images.
Nina: We’re sort of halfway, so any questions for the panel?
Audience/Susan: Piggyback from earlier on people who, over lifetimes, learn structure. There’s cultural differences in structure. Kids who like anime, “Last Airbender” with a very North American sensibility versus “Princess Mononoke”.
Leah: Seen the Ghibli documentary? He’s pantsing later things as they’re animating the earlier stuff.
(Clarification offered, akin to vending machine.)
Leah: There’s definitely a cultural foundational idea of a story built into the back of our heads. Anime is a good visual example, trying to think of a good text example.
Sheila: “I should have my younger daughter here.”
Ranylt: You can tell Canadian from Norwegian for some reason.
(Audience: We use rising action, they have an equivalent but it’s fundamentally different. What makes good writing?)
(Audience: Some studies showing language and grammar can structure stories. English and Turkish.)
Sheila: We get used to our way as the inevitable way.
Leah: With international and diverse authors, one of the things that comes up is recognizing what they produce as story.
Audience: What of nonlinear time-wise structure? When customs officers suspect people are lying, they’ll ask about things in a different order. It feels more true if you can tell it in a different order versus you’ve memorized things a certain way.
Sheila: “When it works I love it.” The author knows the big picture, and eventually we’re going to know it, even if it’s in a roundabout way. Having a very different experience.
Nina: Something an author needs to do for that?
Sheila: Be really clever.
Sam: Structurally, you have to look at the subtext of what’s happening, and what you learn from each piece of information. If you do that, you’ll still have the same graph of rising and falling action. Where it fails, is if you’re jumbling timelines just to look cool. Be flashing back to get a piece you’ll need for what’s next, to follow an underlying arc.
Leah: Seed things well, but also consider Hal Duncan’s novel “Vellum”. It makes you swim your way out of confusion, after great prose at the start to get you in. Putting down this piece next (instead of another) means your picture changes now; it’s the process of all the pictures on the way to the big one. IF you can make that emotional arc integrate with the concerns of the novel, then you’re done like dinner. It’s fantastic. But it’s really hard.
Audience: Given our ingrained sense of “Hero’s Journey”, why is it so difficult to be sold in traditional, versus commercial?
Ranylt: Some editors would glom onto traditional, but now we have to define what traditional IS. For instance, 18th century literature, the frame of a story is tradition. We’ve moved away from it. Start-Middle-Ending, First Person POV, past tense... “I couldn’t read every single narrative in that way, I’d lose it”, but it’s comforting.
Sheila: It would be hard to sell to keep subscribers happy if every story was in Second Person, say. Or what’s refreshing is stories different from the other stories, contrasting them. It evolves.
Ranylt: It’s our pattern seeking.
Sam: And from a business perspective, the traditional stuff sells. Not everyone is going to come to a literary convention.
Ranylt: Lots won’t like other stuff.
Sheila: (Gives a parable about categories.) So it’s not that readers are adverse, but the most experimental pieces aren’t very long. Long short story? Short novelette? Makes it easier for the reader, as the author has to keep it up in the air, and sustain the reader all the way through. Experimental works don’t tend to be the ones that win readers. Readers like both, but enjoy the meat and potatoes of the traditional.
Leah: From a book sellers perspective, how many here are writers? (hands) There’s your answer. Something realized with knitting: yarn, fibre, colour, seams, there’s so much going on here, so much to know and to play with. But people outside look and see sticks and string. When you’re inside, you’re interested in the nuances of form. As a book seller, it’s important to know that, with convention conversations, the vast majority of readers are NOT SF or fantasy readers necessarily. The vast number who read for pleasure is very high. It is important when one is looking at valid pieces of art: Why is it difficult to move them commercially? Remember to whom they go, perspective and scale. Every approach to come to a story is valid, but as someone who loves this stuff, my values might be different.
Audience: Is structure primarily about movement? Is it a challenge for the non-linear to maintain pace of movement?
Sheila: Stories can be different. If the writing is good enough, you can stop and have writing be about electrical engineering. It can make you tense, as you want to know how this guy gets out of Hitler’s bunker, but it doesn’t always have to be movement forward. There is a lot that can be done, even in a traditional story. But yes, eventually the whole story has to keep moving.
Audience: I didn’t mean you always have to move forward.
Leah: I think there are different ways to do movement. The mystery of a nonlinear story is what’s happening. If you move forward on that axis, who is this person, then yes. But it is something to keep in mind.
Sheila: Cue the reader.
Ranylt: Put in little signposts.
Sheila: And keep the reader entertained. Even if it’s tragic, you’re still entertaining, don’t let it become dull.
Ranylt: Peril, peril, peril, peril, can also get boring.
Leah: One can also build up tension by doing the electrical engineering in the middle.
Audience: On Non-Traditional structures, how much weight to put on the mental burden of the reader? More of an appetite for somewhat complex?
Sam: Depends on what the author’s trying to do, and if they’re doing it well or not. First book he took on was non-linear across two different timelines, then there’s even a third one. “I didn’t think for a second about changing it.” But there is a book he took on from another author, where he didn’t think it needed that style, it was one of the bigger complaints about that book. On a maxi scale, at 330,000 words long, it’s too BIG.
Sheila: “Is anyone besides me going to relate to it?” She’ll watch, sometimes they’re successful, but now she talks herself out of it more often than not.
Ranylt: Or they’ll be successful in 70 years, when we’re all dead.
Sheila: If you feel you’re getting really bored, readers will be bored. Come up with things that work because readers are still really involved, and want to know what happens.
Ranylt: Are there changes, in the short fiction there are more experimental type stories.
Leah: If you’re going to buy one book on this, recommend “Illumnae” by Kristoff, told entirely in text message records. Space battles, where words are like contrails of ships. It’s rare.
Sheila: One of the saddest author stories is Neil Barack Jr.(sp?). Was nominated for nebula, they wanted more. He sent them a novel, same kind of story, was told “No, can’t publish this in book length.” (The ZZ Gang?)
Nina: I’m sorry, we’ve run out of time, but they’ll be here the rest of the Convention.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment if you have thoughts about various story structures, or anything else on your mind as it relates.