Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Boxing-In Your Muse

Sigh. Tonight I planned to write an erudite post on the topic of literary structure but my son’s homework catastrophe ate it instead, and now … well, in short, I’m old, and after 9pm my brain shuts for business. So I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to make do with the condensed version.

(I can hear those sighs of relief from here, you know.)

Basically, what’s been on my mind of late is how best to structure my story, how best to tell my tale. Specifically, how to avoid writing a story in a form that’s already been used a million times before.

In a nutshell, my story is of a nineteenth century French nobleman who is also a serial killer, and his dark plot to entrap a young, female physician. He does not want her for his next victim, however; what he wants is for her to break her oath to do no harm and become his accomplice.

This is the start of my worries. See, serial killer stories are a dime a dozen. Sure, the fact that mine is an historical sets it apart from contemporary police procedurals, but even still, I really want to avoid the “been there, read that” syndrome that the genre can breed – opening with a grisly murder, followed by the protagonist hunting down clues, then the killer and the protagonist becoming involved in a game of cat and mouse in which the protagonist becomes the main suspect, and then, finally, the killer and the protagonist going head to head in a final, gory, show down …


But then, yesterday, I was flipping through McKee’s STORY (sorry to harp on about that book, but it’s really working for me right now. It didn’t, not when I first bought it a couple of years back – in fact, I think I got through chapter one, then put it back on the shelf, my brain aching – but it’s making a ton of sense now, and I’m not going to jinx myself and start asking why!)…anyway, some of my worry about being boring and predictable in my structure evaporated when I read this:-

Talent is like a muscle: without something to push against, it atrophies.

The “something to push against” he refers to is literary convention – of genre, of structure (three acts, four acts), of archetypal stories of universal human experience. Conventions that we, as audiences and readers, immediately recognize and understand, that work to set up our expectations of the type of story about to be presented to us.

McKee argues that rather than these conventions limiting our creativity as writers, they push us to new levels of inspiration and imagination. That they should drive us to go deeper, further, to flex that talent muscle so we create new and fresh and unexpected ways to tell our stories within existing conventions.

Basically, that if you use these limits to push against, your imagination will rise to the occasion.

I like that way of thinking. And it makes me want to limber up my talent muscle and get down and give my story twenty.

What’s your take on McKee’s idea? Do literary conventions stifle your imagination, or do you use them as McKee suggests, as tools to make you go deeper into your well of creativity?


  1. What is interesting to me about this is thinking on film censorship during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Writers were pinned down by stringent censorship rules so they had to be creative. The result being wonderfully witty and subtly sexy dialogue. So yes, limitations can absolutely force the writer to new creative heights. :)

  2. I talk about this in an earlier blog of mine:
    I love love love writing with a structure in mind. Structure doesn't write a story for you, so the risk of it taking away creativity is pretty nill. On the contrary, I find it extremely useful while looking for weak points in my arch. It also helps me understand what scenes are going to be significant and need more attention. For me, structure is an absolute inspiration--not to mention most people are writing an archetype and they don't even know it. Writing an archetype without being aware of its laws and form, is a lot like speaking English without ever studying it. You're doing it, sure, but not as well as you could be if it were *intentional.*

  3. Great post, Rach, and great point too, Kristen. I think the challenge of producing something unique while recognising that what works is often tried and true in structure is exciting. In many ways, it's good to have the stabilisation of those underlying genre requirements- it gives you a solid base to bounce off, and then you can turn as many somersaults as you like :)

  4. Why don't people just write what they want anymore? Yeesh, all these self-help books and conferences and yadda, yadda, yadda. Makes me sad people can't just take off and training wheels and write on their own.

  5. @ Kristen - ah, yes, I'd never thought of that as an example, but you're so right.

  6. @ Christine - great post of yours there. And I agree with all the points you make. Seems like I'm preaching to the converted! :-)

  7. @ Claire - Absolutely! And I do like me some somersaults. :-P

  8. @ Rogue Mutt - well, alls I can say is each to his or her own. Live and let live, you know? And if what you're doing is working for you, well, more power to you.

  9. Hey Rach, I'm just impressed that you can put your story into a nutshell!! You're already halfway there [g]
    I'm not sure how much help I can be at this stage. I *think* my MG (Austin's story) met most of the of the requirements for a story for that age group, but of course, the genre for that is rather fluid.
    I'm still not sure if Rosa's story properly follows the arc of a historical romance. I think I'm holding off deciding until it's edited to the point where I can offer it to betas. And, er, let them tell me if I've utterly failed.
    If your story flows for you, does it really need to follow the exact same pattern as other serial killer stories? Since, if it doesn't, you could just call it suspense, maybe?

  10. Rachel,
    You're making me reconsider buying STORY. I looked at it a few years ago and put it back on the bookstore shelf. Maybe I wasn't ready for it. ; )

  11. Rachel,

    Good stuff to consider! I think we SHOULD work within the bounds of our genre and know what the limits of our craft are. It's good discipline, it's good craft, and it gives one great freedom to bound around within the walls. But it takes some study and a lot of reading (in your genre especially) to really understand the conventions.

    And of course, once you know the rules and you're comfortable with them, you can bend them, maybe even break them.


  12. Sounds like what you really want is something which ISN'T police procedural at all, but more suspense. If you just follow the basic rules for suspense writing (which allow a great deal of freedom in how and when they're applied) you will be free to tell your story however you want, with as many twists as take your fancy.

    Reading a book like the Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (if you haven't come across it yet) shows the breadth of ways in which this sort of subject matter (ie the story of a serial killer) can be dealt with.

  13. @ Deniz and @ Adina - what I am writing is definitely suspense. My story fits many of the parameters of a typical serial killer story, including the involvement of the police, but with enough differences and twists and variations that what I've come up with something is a sufficiently fresh take on the convention. Or so I hope! :-)

    @ Adina - oh, thanks for the reminder about The Surgeon of Crowthorne! Excellent book, that. I will have to dig out my copy and refresh my memory.

  14. @ Zan Marie - oh yes, when I first opened up STORY I found it quite impenetrable. Now, I'm getting a lot from it. I think the difference is time, and the fact I'm in a different head space now than I was then - deconstructing and revising, as opposed to blissfully creating. Hope to get back to the latter state very soon, though!

  15. @ Susan - absolutely. Only when we know "the rules" inside out and back to front, and the reasons why they exist in the first place, can we proceed to crash on through them. Elegantly, of course. :-)