NaNoWriMo and Looking at Story Types

Saturday, November 02, 2013
It seems as if every time I start a new novel, I also need to take a writing class or read a writing craft book. It's like reviewing for a final exam; I know what goes into a novel, but I need a refresher before plunging in. This past spring I took a class when I was trying to finish the draft of the second in my Community of Faith mystery series. I blogged a little about my frustration with that class here.

As I got serious about planning for this year's NaNoWriMo novel, for which I had a premise and an ending, but not much else, I decided to pull a book off my writing bookshelf to reread. Because I was woefully short on characters, especially suspects, in this murder mystery, I chose Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This is an old book, published in 1988 as one of Writers Digest Elements of Fiction Writing Series. But I remembered being impressed with it the first time I read it and that it covered a lot more than character.

Three days before the start of NaNo, I got to Chapter 5, which is titled "What Kind of Story Are You Telling?" (I told you this book covers a lot more than character.) It was here that I found the vindication--and much better explanation than I was able to come up with--for what I tried to tell the instructor of last spring's story class:

There are different types of stories.

Non-writers reading this are probably scratching their heads and thinking, Well, duh, of course there are! so let me explain. Over the past thirty years or so, there has arisen a conventional wisdom kind of thing about the structure of a story. In fact, there have been multiple books written as to what that structure is, including The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, which says that the only story structure is based on Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias, the three act structure, the four act structure, Robert McKee's Story,  and on and on and on.

What all of these books and classes assume is that a story is about character change. The character has to go through a number of trials to learn a lesson and become a better person as a result. They have to go through what romance writers call The Black Moment where all is lost before learning that lesson and becoming victorious. This has become so ingrained that anyone who dares to posit a different kind of story is seen as someone who hasn't quite understood what it is to be a writer and is doomed to failure.

Fortunately, Characters & Viewpoint was written twenty-five years ago and Orson Scott Card has written enough novels not to have this ridiculous bias as to what a story is. He describes four different  kinds of stories, one of which is the Character story that everyone seems to think is the only kind now.

The first is what he calls the Milieu story. This is because it focuses primarily on exploring a world and revealing all its wonders. According to Card, Lord of the Rings is a Milieu story. Yes, there is a plot and it does have characters, but the characters are not developed deeply. As Card points out, we only have one member of most races in the story because what distinguishes them is not their personality or inner flaws, but their type. If there were three elves as part of the Fellowship of the Ring, we probably wouldn't be able to tell them apart. Readers of Milieu stories don't care whether Frodo learns that Love Conquers All or anything like that. They love all the descriptions of the lands and cultures the characters encounter on their journey.

The second is the Idea story. A problem is posed at the beginning and the story ends when the problem is solved. Simple. Series murder mysteries fall into this category. The characters are relatively static and readers like them that way. As I tried to point out to that instructor, Jack Reacher and Spenser don't change. Stephanie Plum doesn't change. What changes is the mystery they have to solve. Science fiction also has its share of Idea stories.

The third type is the Character story. Since this is what every book and class is teaching writers how to write, I won't devote space to this one.

The fourth type Card calls the Event story. In this kind of story, something happens to put the world out of joint and the story ends either when things are put right again or it's clear that there will be no putting right in the end. I have a hard time differentiating this from an Idea story, since I think of mysteries as having this kind of structure.

The point is that, of the four types of stories, only one requires in-depth character development. Now, even in 1988, Card had to admit that because of the expectations of readers due to the shift to more Character stories, it had become necessary to do more character work in the other types than it had been in the past. Not always. Dan Brown has been taken to task for his cardboard characters, but they don't seem to bother most readers. That's because Dan Brown writes Event stories.

Reading this chapter lifted a weight off my shoulders. I have struggled mightily in crafting mysteries because I've always been stuck on the question of What does my character have to learn? That gets harder the more books in a series you write. If in every book your main character becomes more and more perfect, you run out of stuff they need to learn. If they conquer their major flaw, that changes who they are. Do you have to come up with a new flaw in each book? And will that flaw be something fans of the books can't identify with or hate so much they'll stop reading? Realizing that there are other types of stories to tell than Character stories lets writers write the story they have in them--not the one the books and classes tell you you should be writing.


Teresa Slack said...

Well said. I am shopping around a mystery novel I truly believe in, but my character doesn't really evolve or change a lot. Her motivation like every Mary Higgins Clark heroine is to stay alive while revealing the killer's identity. Yes, she will realize her role in the killer's determination to end her life. But not much else. Thanks for verifying what I sorta already knew. Great post.

Elise M Stone said...

Thanks for reading and commenting. I think Character and Viewpoint should be mandatory reading for all writers. It's that good.

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