Dispatches | February 11, 2011

I’ll confess that the nerd in me (which, admittedly, is nearly all of me) felt a little like Indiana Jones when I unearthed a user-friendly, online translation of Gustav Freytag’s 1863 book Technique of the Drama. I’d long known about the “Freytag Pyramid,” that famed bit of geometry used to explain the shape of much contemporary fiction. I’d known, too, that the original Pyramid as theorized by Freytag had nothing to do with short stories or novels, but rather with Shakespearean tragedies. So it was with Dr. Jones’s blend of inquisitiveness and trepidation that I began to read Freytag’s work. There were no snakes! No giant boulders! In fact, I found Freytag to be lucid and inviting, and his work did, as advertised, seem awfully relevant to the structure of fiction. No wonder we stole his Pyramid.

I’ve always been drawn to structure. This might be partly my own insecurity. The blank page—or computer screen—is daunting. Structure for me is like a life preserver, something to cling to. And while I certainly don’t think about all of the stories I write in terms of rising action, climax, and denouement, I do sometimes think about them in those terms. If a draft of a story feels flat, it’s worth asking myself if it has a climactic scene, for example. And if not, why not. Does it not need one? Am I doing something subversive or risky? Or am I simply avoiding writing the climax of my story because I know it will be hard?

I was heartened to hear, back when I was in graduate school, Michael Chabon talking about the creation of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I’d always thought of that novel as, among other things, a clever retelling of The Great Gatsby. Chabon explained to the group of us that he did look to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby while figuring out his characters and narrative approach, but also, importantly, its form. Both novels take place over the summer months of June, July, and August, and this three-month structure contributes to their narrative balance and elegance.

This shape just happens to resemble the traditional three-act structure of many, many films and is explained in great detail by screenplay instructor—and, to be fair, theorist—Syd Field in his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook and others. It’s worth noting that the “disaster” at the end of the second act of a screenplay feels nearly synonymous to the “crisis” in the adapted Freytag Pyramid, the one we talk about when discussing short stories.

All of which is to say that I like thinking about structure when I work on my fiction. I find that when I pay conscious attention to structure, my writing paradoxically becomes freer. Nothing is more structured than a sonnet; yet think of all the sonnets that have been written, how different they are from one another. That, to me, is what an elegant structure can do: provide a solid foundation to minimize the chance that the thing we work so hard on won’t come crumbling down on our heads with the gentlest breeze.

So here’s what I want to know: at what point in the writing process, if at all, do you consider structure? Are you a planner, or do you go primarily by feel, or something else? Also, do you have a favorite story or novel, structurally speaking?

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is michaelkardos.com.