By Nick Mamatas
Stories have a shape to them. Short stories in particular have obvious shapes—writers can conceptualize the whole of a story in a single thought, readers experience them in one reading. There are certain story shapes that one should take special care with, because their structures are not storylike, but rather come from other media. Here are three story shapes to beware. When I say “Beware,” I mean it in the sense one means it when one says, “Beware of the dog.” Dogs can bite, but they are also our best friends. They’re not all bad, but some are dangerous.
#1—The wineglass-shaped story
First there is generally a long sentence about the setting. A character can be introduced right away, that’s for sure. But the character is primarily there to think about the setting. So to better explain it to the audience, you see. All the senses are engaged, as is the writing-class rule. Then finally, dialogue.
Short elliptical sentences of dialogue.
A tiny bit of action.
Then it picks up a bit again.
The setting becomes important, something is discovered.
Then, there is a finger-wagging moral, or a piquant little turn of phrase. Thus, you know that the author has decided to stop writing. The story stops rather than ends.
I’ve always been bothered by the wineglass-shaped story, but I didn’t have a theory of it until the World Fantasy Convention last year, when I attended a group reading and all the stories save one were structured just like this. Most of them had been published in minor venues, or not at all. Only more recently have I tentatively determined the cause of the wineglass-shaped story, thanks to some teaching experiences. There are two dragons, each taking a bite out of one side of such stories.
The first dragon is Hollywood. The second is the workshop.
Hollywood’s fingerprints are all over the wineglass-shaped story. One starts with the “establishing shot” after all, then cuts to or zooms in on an individual who is the moral center of the story. That person encounters the realist center of the story. Their conflict leads to the moral evaluation at the end, which involves a bit more of a look at the setting, whether it’s a scattering of corpses on a battlefield or a sunset to sail away into.
The workshop also informs the creation of such stories. Actually, three words do: “I didn’t get . . .” So a lot of information is front-loaded. Plus, there is the ever-dubious advice about “hooking” the reader from the start. Also, workshop participants often pursue compliments about their “writing” (i.e., sentences) and as workshop participants may often struggle to both finish writing a story and to get through reading a poorly written one, both readerly and writerly concentration is focused near the top. So the “good” paragraphs end up at the beginning, before everything degrades.
Occasionally, Hollywood and the workshop team up to ruin people, as the language of workshop feedback can adopt Hollywood aesthetics: thus gibbering nonsense about characters having more or less “screen time” or POVs “zooming in” or complaints about something being “hard to visualize.”
The problem is the degradation. It’s fine to structure a story like a wineglass, if such eccentricity is purposeful and meaningful, but if it’s just an artifact of writing down the movie in one’s head, or operant conditioning, then there’s trouble. The setting falls away and the characters don’t interact with it; we shift from the movie in the writer’s head to the black-box theater in it. The tools of rhythm and pacing are ignored—a major reason why such stories are more common in slush piles and in the smallest of fiction venues than anywhere else—and the syntax often collapses. And oh Lord, the endings. The return of the repressing setting and the attendant moralism, regardless of what the moral is, just ruins the story as the implication that the events were staged just to provide a moral message destroys suspension of disbelief.
So beware the wineglass-shaped story. It can be done well—it’s a good structure for stories about certain grotesque inevitabilities, some naturalist themes, and game-playing. But please don’t do it by mistake, because people were nice to your early paragraphs, or because you watch ten movies for every story you read.
#2—The story of three hills
First there is a little hill, and it takes some effort to climb.
In the valley beyond the first hill is the second hill. It happens to be very similar to the first hill, except that it is significantly larger. Mysteriously, despite being right up against the first hill, this second hill was unknown, invisible, from the peak of the first. It takes significant effort to climb.
Beyond the second hill is the third hill. It is much larger than the second hill. One can only climb this third hill by climbing the first two. And yet, the only way to climb this hill is to set out one morning in order to climb this particular hill. The first two hills aren’t even part of the planned hike. They just happen to have appeared just as our hiker was putting on her shoes and filling her water bottle. Funny how that keeps happening. This hill is almost impossible to climb, except that the first two hills exist to provide cardiovascular exercise for hikers.
Stories are often described as triangles, with one of the rays ascending as it moves from left to right across the page. This is the “rising action” that comes along with increased jeopardy for the characters. The protagonist often makes decisions and experiences failures that only increase the stakes and drive her further toward some ultimate victory—even if just a moral victory—and the climax of the story.
Put three hills next to one another, and they do sort of resemble a triangle. One can imagine a line laid over the three peaks. But, oh, those valleys.
In a story of three hills, the obstacles a character faces are arbitrary. They are resolved, and the character learns nothing, changes not at all, and the stakes don’t increase. Then another obstacle materializes, and then a third. The action doesn’t rise steadily, but dips and rebounds.
Fairy tales often use elements of three—the three little pigs and their increasingly sturdy houses; goats of ever larger size; the golden mean of porridge that is eaten last—but there is a triangular shape to even these stories. Scholars call this tendency “the rule of three.” Sets of three elements or iterations are generally considered more effective, or interesting, or funny, than larger or smaller sets of elements. Three things work, but three hills do not, since there is little connection between one obstacle and the others.
The story of three hills doesn’t find its roots in fairy tales, but in video games. In video games one is taught how to play the game by simple encounters with not-very-powerful enemies. Once the basic controls are mastered, more powerful enemies show up, but the game change doesn’t necessarily play. Finally, at the end of the level is the boss. The boss may be tougher and have more weapons, but there’s little change in the game play. Mash the buttons faster, activate a greater number of buffs, use the stuff you’ve accumulated more liberally. And you win . . . nothing!
Video games are certainly entertaining, but they are much less entertaining when you’re watching someone else play. The limited narrative of the game is compelling when one is immersed in it as a player. Over the player’s shoulder, one can only be impressed by technique, and occasionally a graphic explosion or two.
Reading a story shaped like three hills is like watching somebody else play a video game. In stories, the rising action and increased complexity draw us into the plight and struggles of the protagonist. A series of disconnected set pieces, with nothing to change the protagonist, does not generally keep us interested.
So beware the story of three hills. A purposefully archaic fabulist tale of this shape could work, but generally, such stories are a whole lot of action without a whole lot of meaning. Play fewer video games. Read more fiction.
One piece of advice writers often receive is to go out into the world, and have experiences, and then write about them.
Another piece of advice writers often receive is to change one’s environment when writing. Home is full of distractions—children, spouses, the television, and even sinks full of dirty dishes. Why not go write in a café somewhere?
The spiral story is the unholy offspring of these two pieces of advice. This story invariably begins in the head of the protagonist, and then spirals outward. The protagonist then takes in her immediate surroundings, often commenting on the clothing of the people next to her in minute detail. Things she could not possibly make note of at a glance—the sheen of certain shirt buttons, the screen display of another character’s smartphone—are dutifully recorded. The spiral expands outward to describe other individuals, and moves deeper, to examine the thoughts of the characters the protagonist observes. Not that the protagonist is psychic; she’s simply guessing as to the thoughts and motivation of the other characters. Regardless, the first-person narrator is not to be seen as unreliable; she is a perfect student of human nature.
The spiral continues until it reaches the limit of the narrator’s sensorium. Then it winds back suddenly, into the narrator’s brain, where she says something to herself about life and the human condition. Something poignant, perhaps.
Many critics would point to the character type of the flâneur as central to the origin of modern literature. A flâneur was a stroller, a man who walked through the city streets, observing life in all its richness and variety. Their observations were central to understanding the class structure and social culture of the major cities of Europe, cities that themselves were expanding greatly as the Industrial Revolution took hold and changed how we live. Once the flâneur actually got involved in the lives of the people he encountered, he became the bohemian detective—think Poe’s Dupin, or Sherlock Holmes. Both literary and genre fiction owe a great debt to the flâneur.
Unfortunately, the character at the center of a spiral-shaped story is not a flâneur. The twenty-first century Starbucks is not the nineteenth-century cityscape. Where the flâneur strolls, hungry for experience, the spiral narrator sits, hungry to hand out judgments. For the flâneur, the excitement and dynamism of the city was a muse; for the spiral narrator, stasis is prized. The flâneur explored deeply, the spiral narrator is satisfied with surface appearances.
But the spiral narrator is not just a poorly written flâneur; the issue is again one of borrowing a structure that belongs to different media. The spiral-shaped story is most like the artist’s sketchbook. Sketching is a crucial exercise for both the fine artist and the writer—one should go out into the world and look for the telling details that can make a character come alive. But a sketchbook is not sufficient for an art exhibit (unless incredible) and the sketches of a spiral story are not sufficient for a decent piece of fiction.
Worse still is the Internet influence on this sort of story. The flâneur went out into the world; the Web surfer sees herself as the center of the world, and travels around it leaving comments and pressing buttons marked “Like” and “+1.” Instead of going out into the world and trying to understand it, the spiral narrator moves no further than the café window and passes spot judgments on whatever she comes across. It is no surprise that this sort of story shape seems have to gained prominence in an era of inexpensive laptops and free Wi-Fi in most coffee shops.