RectorWriter

Adventures in storytelling by Bob Rector

A STORY BUILT LIKE A BRICK . . .

20 Comments

Brick-Outhouse

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.
MaeWestFull

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?
Home-Ideal

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.

DirtyGarageSmall

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.

home-building

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?

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Author: rectorwriter

Bob Rector has been a professional storyteller for forty years, but his background is primarily in film, video, and stage work as a writer and director. Bob was one of the pioneers of music videos, first for The Now Explosion and then for Music Connection, which were highly popular nationally syndicated shows that preceded MTV by ten years. He created over 100 films for the top musical artists of the times. Bob wrote and directed an outdoor-adventure feature film, Don't Change My World, and has won countless awards for nature and sports documentaries. His original three-act play, Letters From the Front, entertained America's troops around the world for fifteen years and was the first theatrical production to be performed at the Pentagon. This beloved show, written and directed by Rector, became known as the World's Most Decorated Play. After decades on the road (and in the air!) Bob finally settled down long enough to write his first novel, Unthinkable Consequences.

20 thoughts on “A STORY BUILT LIKE A BRICK . . .

  1. First of all, LOVED your literary reference to the word origin of how Mae West was built! LOL! I grew up in a family that called this little necessity ‘the Privy’. (I guess they were trying to sound British)…
    Anyway, I agree with your story/plot analysis. But I’ll go one step further, if I may be so bold. To me, if the characters are not appealing, it wont matter what goes into the plot or construction. I’ve read books that had great plots/construction but I just didn’t care for the characters and visa versa.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting Bob, very interesting. Loved the building analogy.

    For me a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. with a few missed turns, red herrings, and mistaken identities thrown in for good measure. Oh, by the way, I write crime thrillers.

    The worst thing for me is to read (or write) a story where the plot is transparent, the characters are thin, and the story meanders along in confusing manner.

    Cheers,
    KJD.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kerry. In trying to tell a good story, we storytellers have a bagful of building materials to accomplish the task. The trick is to use the right ones for the right job – something I have to constantly remind myself.

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  3. Hi Bob,

    Yes you and I, both being playwrights and prose writers, know the differences. I agree with you about the response from an audience, though it is balanced by the fact that when the play is not having a season it is not reaching anyone further.

    As for cluttered stories – I totally agree. When I read others’ novels I have a mental red pencil and cross out lots as I go. I think there’s some idea with writers that longer is better. I know some who brag that their books are around 100,000 words. I think to myself, that’s because you didn’t have the skill to make it shorter.

    But then, maybe that’s not the modern attitude. I’m old enough to remember the dunny down the garden path!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, theater is one of the greatest magic acts ever. Once the curtains close and the lights go down, all the emotional energy, the living, breathing characters, and especially the audience involvement, disappears like a wisp of smoke. It is particularly poignant on those nights when the show is hitting on all eight cylinders and there is electricity in the air, not just on stage but in the auditorium. Then the applause dies and it’s gone. All that remains is a wonderful memory and the satisfaction of a job well done. Thank you Flaxroots

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Great advice. I hate it when I write myself into a ditch and have to get back on track despite enjoying my own ramblings. Oh, and then is the time lost filling the ditch, only to have to fetch a shovel.
    And, sending the reader off the filler cliff is a very, very bad thing. I do not throw my Kindle against the wall, but I quit reading the book (and the author) and send very bad thoughts the writer’s way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh I’m definitely a book thrower. They seem to survive all right. So does the wall. Don’t think the Kindle would so I’ve had to restrain myself. Or I could just grow up but I tried that too and it didn’t work.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Terrific article, love the house analogy. I’m always finding myself in the pantry when I’m supposed to be in the bathroom or vice versa. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great analogy, Bob. If the window dressing is appropriate and clear, you can see the plot. If it’s velvet drapes with satin danglers and a gaudy valance, you can’t see the story for the drapes! This is fun… 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Good article, Bob. I hate to read these posts when I’m in my last edits because I always want to go back and start my book over. I hope I write stories that make the reader keep turning the pages without getting bored. But I agree with Sarah about characters who bring the story alive. Without them, why would anyone turn the page?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great analogy Bob, I agree with everyone here except on one point: I don’t think it’s necessary that characters be likeable but they should certainly be interesting. And I’d carry your analogy one step further:

    How about the importance of the style the house is built in?

    We’re all talking about a writer’s “voice” these days but when I started to write (hum, that was over 40 years ago!!) one used to talk about something else and it was called writing “style”.

    And, even after all those 40 years and the onrush (and success!) of genre literature, I still think that makes sense: a good writer should be capable of having both “voice” AND “style”. Just to clarify what I mean: a writer’s “voice” should not be so overpowering that all the dialogues in the book sound like they are said by the same person when in fact dialogue should give space to each character.

    Each character shouldn’t ever have the author’s voice but their own voice!

    I guess what I’m saying is that authors should strive for a “realistic” style capable of expressing the multiplicity and diversity of life. Otherwise, characters won’t come to life! And style is something you can learn, it’s a technique and it’s a talent for observation and remembering how other people are (and not just oneself). On the other hand, voice you can’t learn: you’ve got it or you don’t – or so literary agents and critics say…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great observation, Claude. Extensive traveling both stateside and abroad has been a major part of my career and because of the nature of my work I usually spend days, sometimes weeks, at one location which means lots of restaurant time. I’ve always maintained that the best school for learning how to write convincing dialogue is sitting in a restaurant and listening to the people around you converse. Different regional dialects, different ethnicity, different walks of life, all expressing different emotions candidly. It’s how real people talk. If your dialogue doesn’t sound like something you overheard in a restaurant, start over.

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