Sometimes you structure your own instruction

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Here in Austin there’s a good Writer’s League, its HQ here with operations across Texas. But down at the HQ this month a novelist (with three published, one on the way) showed off one of the big elements of writing that came up missing in her MFA program. Despite all the other fundamentals of craft taught, structure was missing.

Her MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana taught her all about dialogue, point of view, and character, she explains, but nothing about structure.

It’s not that surprising that structure would fall out of the syllabus of a state college’s fine arts masters writing program. Structure is the hardest — no, most complex and challenging part of writing a novel. I recommend books to the students in The Writer’s Workshop on the topic, many written by screenplay savants. Robert McKee’s Story is among the most thorough, but my, it is thick with terms an MFA storyteller might find brand new. I keep coming back to it like studying a historic text. There’s a terrific audio version of the book narrated by the author himself, who gives blistering weekend seminars on screenwriting. (For a brilliant and funny take on the advice from the movie Adapation, a story about a fledgling screenwriter writing a movie, have a look at this NSFW version.)

There’s also John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. Truby is a story consultant in Hollywood whose students, we’re told in the book’s back-cover blurb, wrote Sleepless in Seattle, Shrek and Scream. Here’s a takeaway: A story can be condensed into a theme line, like this from Citizen Kane: A man who tries to force everyone to love him ends up alone. Then you split this theme into oppositions, because in drama you would like conflict and something for the heroine to pursue and win. Much later in the process you are deciding on plot points to support that dramatic journey, the arc as they like to call it.

Index cards are superior tools once you can decide your scenes, or snapshots of the big story. I like Scrivener, (from a software tool for both the Mac and now Windows, to give me computer-based cards I can arrange and then flesh out, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Perhaps the biggest point to take away is that an MFA will not give you a complete education on creating fiction. We teach in workshops to people who are already well-educated in fine arts, but need practical guidance on essentials — skills the college left them to structure for themselves.

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