Thursday, August 12, 2010

Psychological Structure

One of my true 'Wow' moments in senior English class was when my teacher Reg Allen broke down the psychological structure of one of the books we were reading for the semester. It was like a light just went on. It opened the door to my ability to see the structure in story. Nothing was the same again. I still remember him pacing back and forward in front of the class, running his hands down his wiry black beard as he lectured. That guy was so intense. I was terrified of him, and yet loved him at the same time. His passion inspired me.

Lately I have been observing this kind of structure in books that I have been reading. If anyone has read my posts for a while, you would have gathered I am a huge David Gemmell fan. I have read all of his thirty odd books numerous times - all except White Knight, Black Swan, a contemporary thriller he wrote under the name of Ross Harding. It only had a limited print run, and without the Gemmell name behind it, did not take off. That book is kind of like the white stag to the hunter - the Holy Grail for David Gemmell fans. One of these days I am going to get my hands on a copy. Because I loved him so much, and because he died tragically so young (57), I almost don't want to find it. So there is always one more book coming from him.

Anyway - back to structure. One of Gemmell's favourite tricks is to 'nest' backstory. His work has great pace and clarity. One of his characters will be moving along, then all of sudden we are one 'layer' back. With Gemmell the backstory is never lame though - the second 'layer' is also great action. The thing is he has the ability to get you lost in it. When you come back to the 'present' its like you are the character waking up from a reverie. I have been re-reading White Wolf, one of the Skilgannon books. Remembrances continue throughout the book, gradually revealing key history and making sense of the main mystery. In this case the remembrances are linear - as they appear they are also going forward in time, or nearer to the 'current' timeline.

But for that classic example that my teacher Reg Allen expounded on, the reminiscences of the poor guy trapped in the jail cell started in the recent past, then went deeper into his past and his heart - revealing more of his character and bringing a real poignancy to the tale.

What is your favourite psychological structure for characters in your work? Do you use this consciously in your storytelling?


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Anonymous said...

I tend to not see structure. And of my writing problems, it's pretty far down the list of things I need to learn to do consciously.

It sounds like your teacher found some good examples, where the structure was not just done right, but done for good reasons.


Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. He was a good teacher, mainly because he was passionate. Probably better at inspiring you, than really working with you at an individual level.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I like to bury meanings in character's passing remarks. For instance, Athena has all these passing remarks about being in reformatories, etc. while acting completely normal. UNTIL you get what the problem is.

But my character development structure is to have the character chase something until he/she has a mirror-moment and realizes what he/she has been chasing is not ACTUALLY what she wants.

Like Thena "chases" getting back to Earth until she almost manages it, and then realizes what she really wants is "home" and her home is no longer on Earth.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

BTW, I THINK the first guy is robot.

Stephen Simmons said...

All your blog-comments are belong to us ...

Stephen Simmons said...

This isn't really something I can say a have a "way of doing" yet, since I'm only elbow-deep in my second novel-length attempt. I'm still blundering along, trying to figure out what works for these characters.