How’s Your Form?

Last thing a creative writer wants to think about is form and structure and dull, logical things like that, huh?  I know.  You just want to  c. r .e. a . t. e. and get it all out onto the page and be marvellous, darling. This is good news. I’m all for getting your creative gig on. Let that flow happen. Let it gush forth!  But once all the gushing’s done, it’s time to put your logic hat on. oh boy.

I might have mentioned this, but I’m going to mention it again because it’s really important; pay attention to the form of your writing. What do I mean by form? Do I mean genre, as in whether it’s a comedy or a mystery or a tragic drama? No, I don’t.  Do I mean plot, like what happens to whom?  Nope.  Do I mean structure of the story, like how the story unfolds in what order of events? Not really, no.

Form is the way in which you tell a story.
Form is about the conventions you set up inside the telling of a story, the rules if you like, of how that story will be told.

Glaring examples of form include:

first person, present tense— one person telling a whole story as if it is only just happening as you’re reading/seeing/hearing it.
varied and unreliable narration—several narrators telling contradictory versions of the same events.
fractured narrative, delivered in flashbacks—a non-linear story told through nonconsecutive events.

oh look, there are about one hundred bazillion forms of story! The point is, pick one—stick with it. oh but why? why must we be boring and stick with it throughout the entire course of a story?

I can tell you it’s about audience/reader/listener expectation. And the success of your story rests with the audience/reader/listener having their expectations satisfyingly met.  It’s about conventions that you set up at the beginning of the story.

Ok, so – My play Bag O’ Marbles was originally a two-act play in which the first half featured a woman dreaming of her childhood memories as she travels on a bus to her mother’s 70th birthday party, and second half dealt with the realities of the woman actually reaching her childhood home and confronting her family about her childhood memories. Sounds really logical and do-able, doesn’t it, when I write it like that?

Big problemo. I broke form.

See, the audience sat down in their seats at the beginning of Act 1 and they, like all audiences, were immediately searching for the logic of the world I was presenting. By about the tenth minute, they had it sorted-

‘ah, this woman is travelling on a bus but she is dreaming, and the convention is that at any moment this woman can conjure up a childhood memory involving a number of her family members. She can participate in the memory or jump out of it and narrate or interject and orchestrate the memory as she pleases.’

I’d set up the rules of how to understand the story and all its story-telling devices. Cool. So far so good.

So the audience went out at interval for their drinks feeling confident about how this story is put together. They were comfortable with the rules and how to intepret them. More than comfortable, they had secretly and silently signed up to a contract I had drawn up about the form of the story they had paid good money to see. Don’t even get me started on the secret and silent contracts that writers set up with their audiences/reader/listeners. That’s a subject for another post.  But this contract was solid by end of Act 1.

So they come back from the lobby for Act 2, and what the hell happened? I changed the rules! The woman was no longer moving through dreamscapes, orchestraing memories, interjecting as a narrator. She was suddenly just this woman visiting her family home, no dreams, no narration. All Act 1 rules were disgarded. I tore up the contract. And the audience hated it. They spent the first twenty minutes of Act 2 feeling cheesed off, confused, betrayed and struggling to adjust to the new set of rules.

Once I realised the error (actually a dramaturg pointed it out to me) and made Act 2 run on the same conventions as Act 1, the play soared.

A cautionary tale. Set a form. Make it stick throughout the play. Deviate from this at your peril.

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