Scenes, Pattern Languages,and Nested Systems

August 22, 2022 • #

Last week I picked up Scene and Structure on a recommendation I saw from Nat Eliason. I’ve seen him mention experimenting with writing fiction, which this book is about — the process of narrative structure, staging scenes, the balance between scenes and “sequels” to maintain coherence and tension through writing novels, which is the author’s background. I’ve thought about testing the waters with fiction writing, even if I never publish it anywhere. I think the NaNoWriMo happens in November, so maybe I’ll make a plan to give it a shot during that and see what happens.

Anyway, I’m not necessarily interested in the structure of fiction for myself in learning how to write it. For one I just find it interesting how “formulaic” in a way that all narrative fiction is, from novels, to TV, to films. Once you read Scene and Structure, it’s hard not to notice the mechanical elements playing out. You can watch a TV show and almost narrate yourself the structural elements as they happen. The point of Bickham’s guidance is not to distill every writer into following the same exact formula for everything they write, but rather to see the elemental components of storytelling with clarity, allowing you to see the skeletal framework of fiction. Think about cooking. Yes, it’s about recipes and ingredients, just like stories are plot elements and sentences. But becoming a great cook is more than about knowing lots of recipes and ingredients; great cooks know why particular ingredients show up in recipes together, what each is contributing to a dish, and they can assemble subgroups of ingredients in repeatable, predictable ways. Compelling writing — just like compelling cooking — requires knowledge of a structural hierarchy. A mirepoix of celery, carrot, and onion is a known, functioning collection of aromatics that works well in many many dishes. It’s a building block of building blocks. In narrative, if all you have is action-packed scenes connected one after the other, without a sequel in between for characters to digest what happened and mull over decisions, you leave readers confused and overwhelmed. And there are parallels with systems of all sorts, not just cooking.

One of the things I’m most curious to consider with this book is how well the principles could translate to nonfiction writing. Certainly if you read well written narrative nonfiction — Barbara Tuchman, John McPhee, David McCullough — they’re using many of these similar tactics to establish PoV “characters”, create tension in the narrative, and to find meaning in events, versus just “this happened, then this, then this”, which you could fall into easily writing something like history, which is literally a retelling of events.

I’d also started reading Christopher Alexander’s famous work A Pattern Language, something I’ve had on the shelf a long time and have been looking forward to picking up. I’m probably 50 pages into it so far.

What’s interesting are the similarities between these two books. I hadn’t bought either for the same reasons, but the common threads are certainly there. A Pattern Language is Alexander’s guidebook to cities, neighborhoods, architecture, construction. The idea is that composing these places that people live is an exercise in thinking in building blocks. He lays out dozens of reusable components or themes in architecture, from empirical study of what works and why. Well lit rooms, places to sit, greenery in the right places, putting benches next to gardens. Each on its own seems like an obvious thing, since these are components we see constantly around us. Though I’m not far in yet, and haven’t read any Alexander before, I see the purpose isn’t to tell you that well-lit rooms are a good idea, but to see these components as LEGO blocks for design. If you develop a language of patterns for your own work — even something like software — when faced with what to put where in a new design, you can refer back to your book of patterns and find subcomponents that’ll work well in that situation, based on the goal you have for a particular feature.

Thinking about these systems as “languages” is interesting. A language is hierarchical just like the systems these two books present for fiction writing and architecture. You start with letters, build those into words, then phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. You can’t simply insert new elements into a language from the top without considering how your elements nest together and interact with the surrounding existing elements. This is why top-down “designed” languages have never worked. Even attempts to guide, restrict, or control natural languages have largely failed. The French famously have a government body responsible for maintaining what “real” French looks like. Has that worked? Do French people refer back to a government website to determine to some new vernacular or not?

The similarities between systems like these is fascinating to me. In both cases, fiction and architecture, the systems of patterns are developed over time based on empirical evidence of what works. Writers didn’t invent Bickham’s structure from whole cloth centuries back; the concepts he presents have evolved gradually over time. The way writers wrote even 200 years ago bears little resemblance structurally to what a novel looks like today. Writers over time learned what readers wanted, and innovated around the edges while conforming to norms of structure that were mostly predictable.

In the same way, Alexander refers to “the timeless way of building”. Most of the individual building patterns he presents he did not invent. They’re components for comfortable living that humans developed, in some cases, millennia ago. His mission isn’t to tell you new things, but to present a framework for ordering and assembling the things we know work into a cohesive hierarchy.