Getting Into a Pattern

Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”

She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.

But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.

An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.

The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.

Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.

So, basically, I like the big writing patterns. Like chronological order for a novel. Or the pattern of emotional development that I outline in my book.

But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.

What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.

This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.

What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.

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