Guest Post: Architecture or Art?

Next week we’ll be launching the deconstruction of “Bait and Switch.” 

Click on the links in the middle column to grab a copy on the cheap and join us for this peek into the hidden architecture of a story.

To tide us over for the weekend, here’s an interesting guest post by Lynn Dean.

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Architecture or Art? 

a guest post by Lynn Dean

(Click HERE to read a short, beautifully-written slice of narrative that sets the stage for this article.  Or not… feel free to dive right in if you prefer.)

What, you may ask, has a medieval cathedral to do with story structure? I majored in architecture and missed the connection until I read Story Engineering, but then it hit me like a ton of bricks (if you’ll forgive the pun).

While I would never dream of building so much as a tree house without at least scribbling a sketch on a napkin, when it came to writing I was a proud “pantser”–writing mostly by intuition. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it’s an invitation for disaster as scenes and subplots collapse.

Beauvais (and several other Gothic cathedrals that collapsed during construction) may not have been erected by structural engineers, but the builders were no amateurs. Master masons learned the traditions of building–what worked and what wouldn’t–through years of apprenticeship. They shared ideas with others in their guild. Their training was not so different from the way many of us learned to write. And it worked, if only because failure was a threat to survival. The mason who built the arch was the same man who stood beneath it to pull out the scaffolding.

As do we as architects of our stories, though he risked a bit more than a publisher’s rejection letter.

Because these medieval builders did not understand the principles of physics that explain stress vectors and such like (calculus had not yet been invented), their traditional forms were literally set in stone. In a sense, the lack of formulas made their buildings somewhat formulaic as each craftsman tried to achieve something unique and inspiring–soaring, light-filled art–without varying too much from the proven patterns. Lack of understanding causes timidity.

I had fallen into a similar error–thinking that a planned plot would make my writing mechanical, less artistic. But in writing, as in architecture, it is possible to marry formulas and art to the great benefit of both.

In fact, just as many cathedrals survived notwithstanding their builders’ naivety regarding the principles of physics, a solid story stands because the writer has intuitively hit upon the principles of plotting that work. When I applied Larry’s “structural forensics” to my manuscript, I was pleased to find plot points that support the structure of my story exactly where they should be. And within that structural web, there was art!

Physics indeed… our stories depend on them just as much as the product of the architect’s trade.

Please visit Lynn Dean’s website, A NOVEL WRITING SITE.COM.  She is also the author of a novel, “More Precious Than Gold,” available as an ebook on Amazon.com.

Also, check out the latest entry on the Peer Review Page, an excerpt from a YA Novel by B.J. Culver.  Your feedback on this project would be most appreciated.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to Guest Post: Architecture or Art?

  1. Trudy

    Lynn, your essay on architecture is so spot-on. You articulate exactly why it’s important to build anything with principles and calculations that work. And I have to say I have learned so much from Larry regarding story structure and it’s made such a difference. Thank yous! t

  2. Thank you for this! I majored in Art History with an emphasis in medieval art & architecture, and I have always been passionate about it. I loved that they believed that every element not only had a structural purpose, but sort of told a story, if you will… from the trinity of the trefoils, to the symbolic geometry of the columns, to the way the building was laid out. Every element had more than one meaning and purpose. Sort of like how every scene can (and should) do more than just one thing. They were buildings with subtext!

    This totally made my morning.

  3. Thanks! And Cathy, you mention the very thoughts I had when Larry’s concept of Story Engineering came alive in my head. Architecture, and especially medieval architecture, is all about theme carried through in multiple layers and dimensions so that the resulting structure “shows vs. tells” a powerful message. So glad to know someone else “got” that! I’m hoping to build on those thoughts.

  4. The unfortunate medieval craftsmen and architects literally had to reverse-engineer their structures. The architect (artist/creator) came up with “X”. If it wasn’t too off-the-wall and someone sponsored it, the contractor (masons) tried to build it. I guess if it fell down, they’d work with the architect to get something that did work. Stuff that worked and stood the test of time became part of their Craft. While the architect then might not know all the ins and outs of the mason’s Craft, he knew enough to create his desired effect.

    Modern engineering can now calculate stresses based on materials and all that neat stuff. Architects do tons of math even before getting down to the nitty-gritty drawings.

    Tastes have changed in literature and story-telling over the many years Man has been telling stories. Please, no Victor Hugo multi-page monologues on the sewers of Paris; doesn’t fit today’s style and Craft.

    We modern authors have a legacy of What Worked. That has become Story Engineering — it works. We art creators need to know the engineering (Craft) because we are now both the architect and the mason, the creator and the applier.

    We might not know the esoterics of print book making and binding and packaging and shipping and displaying and… but having a good idea of the desired output media is part of the Craft. If the output is digital, we don’t need to know the esoterics of the structure of the epub file, but do need to know that a 1,000-word paragraph isn’t going to work on the Kindle — or on any printed page either.

    We must know and apply the Story Engineering so we can communicate to the readers. We must have sufficient Craft to convey those powerful emotional experiences. Yes, keep studying and working on the Craft and write more and more. Only that way can our personal Art/Creativity show to its best.

    Now go write something that will make someone cry (with sorrow or with joy; it doesn’t matter).

  5. “Lack of understanding causes timidity.” I love that line because it’s so true! Until we really understand story structure, we can’t really know our full potential as writers. Great post, very illustrative. Thanks, Lynn!

  6. My pleasure! There’s so much to learn about writing, but the journey’s a pleasure with good company.

  7. A lot of preaching to the choir here. I started writing late in life and my first few attempts, like most, were dreck.

    Then my engineer-trained brain discovered (with the help of Mr. Brooks), story structure. The engineer-trained brain liked it very much.

    In the field I’ve worked in for the past couple of decades, we start with a High Level Design (all of the essential elements mapped out, the final structure defined, but none of the hard core details) that needs approval before we get to the Detailed Design – the nuts and bolts of the job.

    The story structure maps 100% to the High Level Design. It’s like the past twenty years of my ‘other’ job has been training for my new career in writing.

    It’s simply amazing how much faster a story comes together when you do the planning first. I can’t believe I used to do it ass-backwards.