Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Readercon panel: "My Secret (or Not-So-Secret) Story Structure"


Michael A. Burstein (M), John Crowley, Thomas M. Disch, Greer Gilman, Pamela Zoline

There's a small group of novels with overt organizing structures, like Thomas M. Disch's 334, John Brunner's The Squares of the City, John Crowley's Ægypt, and (most famously outside the genre) Ulysses. We suspect that this is the tip of the iceberg and that authors routinely invent covert structures as a natural part of the creative process. (Of course, one reader's covert structure is another's overt, and vice versa, so that all such structures are worth talking about together.) It's time to 'fess up and trade notes.

This was the third and chronologically-last panel for which I took notes. I'm posting it out of order because I need to think more about the first panel.

Nb.: spoilers for a novel-in-progress by Greer Gilman and the books cited in the panel description.

Notes on "My Secret (or Not-So-Secret) Story Structure"

Burstein's first question to the panel was, what organizing structures have you used in your own work? He went down the panel in order.


(I must confess that I didn't really understand this, because I haven't read any of her works, and I couldn't fully transcribe at that pace. So I hope this makes sense to those who have read her writing.)

She started writing Moonwise in 1982, and one of the things that got her started was a passage in Geography of the Imagination which asked, why is Ulysses 18 chapters? The answer given was that it was using a very old Irish alphabet, based on (?) names of trees with magic properties, which gave Joyce a "sustained transparency of symbols." Her reaction: "Wow! I want to do something like that!"

It didn't happen in Moonwise, but in the other works written in that world, there is an entire myth cycle written in the stars—she's mapped it out, and showed the audience star maps. That world has our stars but their own history, and starting at the end of Milky Way: Gemini are the "Silly Sisters" (murmurs from the audience); Orion is a sacrificial figure; and so forth. The rising and settings of constellations are worked into the myth as well, though she's not going to do the whole thing.

Burstein asked, is this a covert or overt structure? "Well, I just outed myself!" But does she expect the readers to see it? Answer: "No, they won't know it until this third book that I'm writing, when one of the characters becomes the Galileo of this world and essentially destroys the system."


He was specifically asked about Ægypt.

Prefatory comment: he believed Gilman about her experience, but is not certain that Joyce intentionally organized Ulysses as said in that essay; he suggested that Joyce made it up after the fact in a co-written "key" to Ulysses (with Stuart Gilbert, if I heard right?).

Ægypt is overtly organized by the houses of the zodiac (not the signs) where the planets reside. These are apparently wedges of a wheel that start at the horizon before you at the time of your birth and then go up, behind, and around you. Where the planets are in these wedges is significant astrologically.

In the past, he'd insisted that he knew the arrangement at the start of the book, and how it proceeded, that is, that there's an actual individual horoscope present in the book: that's bullshit.

Each of the four books is divided into three houses, which is an ancient medieval arrangement. The structure is an indication to readers that they should try to understand the book according to the house: the first house is life; the fourth, childhood and sex; it works out in a very general way. All four books tend to revolve around an element & a season. All this was in a certain sense imposed, in terms of the divisions etc., but the actual correspondence was an accident (I think—his voice dropped down at the end of the sentence).


She wanted to respond to a different question. She was thinking about why she or others might be particularly inclined to use overt structures. For her, the story she's best known for ("The Heat Death of the Universe", online at Sci Fiction), is numerically ordered (numbered paragraphs), because one of the undersubjects of the story is entropy and so numbering made sense to her. (I don't get the connection here, I have to say. My first guess was that the story counted down, but it doesn't.)

She tends to use overt structures, partly because she feels (maybe mistakenly) that one of the main lessons of modernism is that the naive memetic form is no longer appropriate or available. Given the degree to which writing a story is a game, she decided to put the rules of the game on the outside of the structure. She wanted to avoid naturalism, the "sense that I was the puppetmaster," by making an exoskeleton of the form plus the problem she was trying to solve.


He was specifically asked about 334, or what he thought about structures in others' works.

As for others: he always believed, stories have a beginning, middle, and end. What if they were written in the inverse order? It would be confusing to many people except for the middle, because the middle would still be in the middle where it belongs! "That's as far as I can take that particular concept." (I think it was mostly a joke, from his tone and from the fact that the middle would not necessarily make sense.)

There is a play using that device (which was turned into a musical by Sondheim, and was not named by the panel [edit: per comments, it's Merrily We Roll Along]); it makes you realize that sometimes putting the beginning last is saddening, because of the bright hopes you know are dashed. He contrasted this with Greek tragedy. Burstein also cited Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

As for his notion of alternate structures, doing things with structure? *sigh* Writers talk about the structure of novels, it's almost always bullshit. Because they're just telling the story. They don't think about having the structure, they think about the story; it's a natural thing, a sequence of events with a certain natural logic. This is why in a formal aesthetic sense, fiction has been almost unconsidered. When he thinks of structure in literature, he thinks of a sonnet, which is unnatural and makes the author do something the author wouldn't; sonnets don't happen in conversation! (Which is why the bit in Cyrano, when it does, is so cool.)

Interjection from Zoline: she thought he was telling the truth from his perspective, because he's one of the very gifted natural storytellers. But some writers are not, and struggle with the whole notion of story. She's more natural as a painter and librettist, so she knows what it's like to have art unfold with a lack of effort. She thinks abandoning story down the path of Modernism is a mistake (as is abandoning image and melody), but externalizing rules of the games and the problem one's set one self are pieces of Modernism that for her remain interesting and useful.

Disch: librettos are a part of storytelling have a form, of beginning-middle-beginning. The logic of it is a different psychology. The reason for artificial structures is because they create different psychological effects that one couldn't have supposed before the arbitrary structure required one to do something that one wouldn't naturally think of. In 334, the structure constantly made him invent things to fill length or requirements of what he was doing, things he wouldn't have if he was just telling the story. The world of the story can be so much larger, that never gets talked about; structure gives a writer a lateral move to other parts, forcing exploration. For instance, Ulysses has one chapter that recaps the whole history of English literature: it stops the narrative in tracks, but it puts the reader's mind in a different place: "you know about Shakespeare and all that, let's have some fun with it."

(From about this point general discussion broke out, instead of going to one author at a time with a question from the moderator.)

Crowley: one of the effects of a highly structured story on writers is the pleasure of figuring out as you go along; you get clues and say "Oh, I see" as to how things work. My notes claim this is a comment about the writing process, but the next item suggests it wasn't, because he then asked Gilman whether she was counting on readers to discern her structure, or whether it was meant to stay secret?

Gilman: "Dang. I've outed myself . . . " As a reader, there is something wonderful about having the reaction, "is he really doing that? Oh that's wonderful." She wishes she could write a novel that was a fugue; if you're Bach, structure frees you to greater invention. It's not that wonderful "oh, that's what Joyce is doing", but "how on earth is he going to get to a cadence from that." She also cited Italo Calvino's deck of tarot cards: they are a limited series of things that can be shuffled; humans can make patterns out of anything: first the cards themselves, and then using them to make new patterns.

Crowley: Gerald Ambrino (not sure I heard the name right [edit: Giordano Bruno, see comments]) figured out that stars are at varying distances to Earth, not just painted pictures; so what does this mean for the constellations? His answer: the principles of the organization of the cosmos are inside of us, we just project them on the sky. "That's the whole plot of my novel."

Burstein asked, is this a theme, that structure is liberating?

An audience member cited "the most psychotically confining structure in sf," that of 253 (the ground rules). The speaker didn't know that the effect is liberation, but it does have the incredible benefit of aggregation.

Crowley: interesting; E.M. Forster wrote of the distinction between pattern and rhythm as governing structures. Pattern is the overall structure, while rhythm is a matter of internal repetition of elements. To Crowley, structure is a static thing, like of building; but fiction moves in time, so rhythm, which is organized by movement, is a much more natural way of organizing. The thing about 253 is: nobody cares about any of the people in that book!

Disch: he disagreed with the idea that structure is liberating: it's precisely not liberating. The grace with which one meets the requirements of a constraining formula is the mark of the art in performing to the specifications. This is easiest to see in dance (like the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance").

Crowley asked, so beauty is in the appearance of improvision with . . . (something I didn't hear) . . . conformity to structure?

Disch: it's part of the bravura element of art, like illusion: taking people in, the artist having fun by pretending "yes, I do this before practice!" (And when they get better, they can.)

Zoline: yes and no. Certainly constraint, discipline, and craft, makes for excitement for artists. Whether those are always the aim of artists, or result in the best art, she's not sure. Certain kinds of art is glad to show off how hard it is and how skilled the artist is.

Zoline wanted to suggest another reason for emphasis on structure. She talked about her WIP, which is set 100 years in the future; she had a lot of "unruly material" from extrapolating the future, and a structure was useful in getting the material to behave itself.

An audience member offered their favorite structural anecdote, an interview with a composer who wrote according to extremely complicated structures: and then when done, would edit out the parts he didn't like.

Disch: Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle has an alienatory (? I think that was the word [edit: probably "aleatory," see comments]) structure, with its rules imposed without the artist's possible pre-knowledge (since chance might kill off the characters). Howard's End actually gives the impression that it was written with a pair of dice, because characters die just like that. He thought Dick was pretty canny to use the I Ching, and recommended it to any writer who is feeling humdrum. [Ed: or see the Evil Overlord Plot Generator.]

Zoline: of course there are dangers there too. John Cage took his ideas about stochastic composition so far that the works are unlistenable.

Gilman: she's waiting for the stochastic fantastic anthology!

Burstein ended the panel with a question to take home, that he didn't have time to get to: is it possible to compose a completely unstructured work of fiction? Would anyone want to read it?

My thoughts

Unfortunately, I've read precisely zero of the specific works cited (yes, I know, I'm a cretin), which is too bad because what I mostly interested in what effect a particular structure has for a particular novel. (This is one of the reasons I like the Sarantine Mosaic so much, and why I was so interested in Le Guin's essay on LotR.) So what I mostly got out of this is what structure does for writers in the process of writing—and also that even though I studied Modernism in college, I'd completely forgotten the aspects that Zoline cited.

As for Burstein's question: I think if you have a narrative, you have structure, unless you throw your sentences into a randomizer. (This is getting a bit into the final panel I'm writing up, about beginnings and endings, which is another reason to put this one first.)

Anyone want to talk about structures that really worked for them and why? If it involves spoilers, I suggest either posting it in your own LJ and putting a link here, or using ROT-13 to obscure the comment text.

Tags: cons, readercon, readercon 2006

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  • T=0

    I've been meaning to write a pregnancy update, and since I left work early today for a routine doctor's checkup, here on my nominal due date, now…

  • A quick life update

    Look! Bookshelves! With books on them! (The bottom two shelves will have doors to turn them into cabinets, eventually tomorrow!)…

  • Weekend in review

    We were in Williamstown this weekend for Chad's college reunion. The cult-like nature of Williams alums can be a little awkward for those outside…