Building Strong Stories: Lessons from Architecture
The conventional metaphor is that a good story has to be built upon a solid foundation. While it may be true that a strong buildings requires solid foundations, in truth good buildings begin with good design. The process of architecture is a better metaphor for writing a novel.
Most building projects begin with a few givens: the site, the client or user group, and a budget. These translate to your genre and book length, which are often tied together by market expectations. You’ve probably already created these constraints for yourself when you begin to think about a story. This is a good thing. It’s difficult to create anything well without the clarity that focus brings.
The first step is Conceptual Design, when we contemplate the givens, and wait for the muse to speak. This can be very intuitive.
Concept Design is, and should be, a loosey-goosey right-brain thing, so as not to lock anything down too soon. Even in this day of computer-aided design, architects still doodle on flimsy (tracing paper), or napkins. In this way, you the writer should free yourself to envision the whole story, or any piece of it that presents to your mind, such as character, setting, plot or snippets of dialogue. Record this in notes, sketches, or a collage of images. You can refer back to this moment later when you lose your way, to recall that spark of inspiration.
Design Development is the stage where you put your training to use. You already know what it takes to make a story, because you’ve experienced many as a ‘user’ and you have training and experience above the norm that allow you to understand its makeup– not only the materials, but the systems of organization that make it work. In architecture, we might consider structure, function, systems, navigation, human perception, and something more abstract as well, such as symbol, metaphor, even theme. How will the building be used, but also how will it be experienced by the user? This is both an art and a science.
Structural constraints are predetermined by gravity, geology and the traits of the materials at our disposal. You can be creative, but if you veer too far from what works, your building will fall down. Likewise, with your story, your readers share the same human, cultural and literary history. Each story you write is built upon the long tradition of human storytelling. Even when unspoken, there are certain expectations you must meet to avoid frustrating your readers. Also, some would argue, to tap into a collective unconscious that runs even deeper than cultural history, perhaps right into our DNA and the way our brains evolved.
To carry the architectural metaphor further, once you have your concept and have developed the story outline in keeping with the requirements of its structural underpinnings, as well as your inherent ability as a storyteller, then you are free to embellish the design according to your own creative imagination. This must be in the service of that brilliant concept that impelled you to create in the first place. Now might be a good time to sit and ponder that doodle on a napkin.
Having made my case in favour of “designing” your next book in logical stages, from concept through structural outline to detailed development, I encourage you to give it a try. You’re welcome to grab a pile of 2 x 4s and a hammer and head out into the field, but I guarantee a little forethought makes the process more efficient, and allows you to consider more possibilities before you commit.
This article first appeared in The Spotlight, member newsletter of the Romance Writer’s of America Greater Vancouver Chapter in October 2015.