The “. . .” in the title refers to an outdoor accommodation that those of us of a certain age have memories of that are probably not so fond, especially when this facility was used on a freezing cold day. Usually these were simple wooden structures that anyone with basic carpentry skills could hobble together in a few hours. But occasionally some industrious soul would dazzle his neighbors by constructing his “necessary” of brick. Overkill? Yes. But impressive nonetheless.
So it may not be surprising that back in the days when this facility was still in common usage, a woman with a knockout figure, Mae West for example, was referred to as being built like a brick . . . Well, you get the idea. In other words, she was constructed exceptionally well.
The same analogy can be used with storytelling. Or should be. But seldom do you hear or read a discussion about story construction. Yet to me it is the most important element of good storytelling. It’s the skeleton that holds everything else together. No matter how muscular the characters or plotting, the story falls apart when it is poorly constructed.
Before I get labeled as sexist, lets shift the analogy away from female pulchritude to a well constructed home. From an outside perspective it must be aesthetically appealing with all the elements balanced. In it’s simplest form, a home is four flat walls and a roof with doors and functional windows. You can exist in a home like this but who would want to live there? Yet how many books have you read that are constructed as simple functional boxes to hold the characters and plot?
Conversely a house built of contrasting angles and rooflines with decorative windows and doors designed to enhance the overall balance is referred to as inviting, homey. It is constructed to compliment the surrounding landscape and often add to it with shrubs and flowers and flagstone walkways. The interior of the house reflects the same symmetry of design. There is a planned logic in moving from one room to another that makes us instantly comfortable. We’d like to spend time there.
Take this same home and clutter its driveway with automotive clunkers, leave the yard unattended and unkempt with discarded toys scattered everywhere, fill up the front porch with packing boxes and rusting tools, let the paint peel and substitute broken window panes with pieces of cardboard and it becomes anything but homey and inviting.
The same is true inside. If the only way to get from one room to another is by tripping over excessive furniture or décor, all the aesthetics of the original design are lost.
Isn’t the same true of good story construction?
How many times have you thrown a book against the wall in disgust because the story was fraught with useless and unnecessary plot devices? How often do you find yourself tripping over totally inconsequential events or characters simply because the author was trying to fill pages? Worst of all (for me anyway) how many times has a story led you down a wandering path to the point you wonder where the hell you are? That’s when a story becomes akin to a nightmare.
Many storytellers believe that story construction and plot construction are the same thing. They’re not. Plot is about a main character who wants to accomplish a certain objective but is impeded by a conflict he or she must overcome. Basically simple and hasn’t changed much in the past three thousand years or so. Story construction is the house you build for your plot to unfold in logically and unimpeded.
That’s what I think anyway. I would very much like to hear what you think. I believe this is a discussion very much worth sharing among professional storytellers. Won’t you please join in?