Review of “Story Structure Architect” as it applies to IF

A certain odd and kind of spooky thing happens sometimes, where you go looking for something in a place where it has no business being, and find it.  Sometimes when I’m reading Shakespeare, I’ll think, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if he …”  And then I go looking for it, and not only did he do that, but he did it cooler than I had in mind.

I’m reading through a few books on story design, for the purpose of extracting ideas for Interactive Fiction.  Today I got around to a little library book called Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D. 

The Ph.D. is in psychology, the blurb says, and her previous work is a book called Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, which I haven’t read, but which sounds Jungian.  Carl Jung is pretty cool, but modern psychologists mostly don’t want much to do with him.  A quick net search finds her web page, with a section on her “Personal Growth Series” (which is blank); but I’m not able to find where she did her doctoral work.  All of which makes me wonder.

However, the book is remarkably thorough.  It talks about fiction from several different dimensions of analysis.  The most space is devoted to dramatic situations, of which she lists 55:  54 pairs and a blank template.  The pairs are sometimes clearly complimentary — 9 & 10:  Flight and Pursuit — and sometimes the connection is asserted — 49 & 50:  Remorse and Empathy.  Empathy there being a kind of sympathetic regret.

A significant amount of space is given to the 11 master structures (plot types), and she has a chapter for the 5 dramatic throughlines (ending types), one for the 6 conflicts (man v. whatever), and one for the 21 genres.  If you know Polti and Tobias, you’ll see their influences quite clearly; but this is a thorough and broad reworking, and Schmidt goes beyond her original sources.  There’s nothing new in kind; it’s all the stuff that you remember from your college English classes and Wikipedia; but it is very thoroughly and broadly reworked, and worth a look if you’re looking to expand your thinking about story mechanics.

And then there’s the chapter on IF.

I was surprised to see it.  It seems out of place, just as a single chapter on narrative poetry would be.  And if you’re thinking Schmidt can’t possibly cover IF in a single chapter, that nobody could — well, you’re right.

But what’s unfortunate about the chapter is that, unlike her other chapters, Schmidt doesn’t really have a handle on her topic.  She has done her research, but it’s all been academic research.  So while the rest of the book is pretty applied, her treatment of IF becomes fuzzy.

She writes:

Interactive stories are mutidimensional, infinite, inclusive, and un-tamed, which is a more open-ended and matriarchal type of storytelling, completely beyond Aristotle’s time of pure patriarchal storytelling.  There is never just one way of creating a work of art (83).

The three examples she cites of Interactive Fiction are Myst, Composition No. 1 (by Mark Saporta) and Finnegans Wake (by James Joyce).  Schmidt’s book was printed in ’05, but overall her treatment seems tilted toward the early discussions of the possibilities of hypertext, back in the early 90’s.

And, regrettably, she does very little in the way of directing the reader to IF writing resources.  She mentions Storyspace, and a couple books that I suspect are pretty academic.

So, all together, r.a.if folks are not going to learn anything about IF from Schmidt’s treatment of it (other than that it is matriarchal), and people who have never heard of IF, regrettably, will not come away from the chapter with a practical mindset or actionable leads to pursue.  To be fair, she does try; she closes the chapter with questions like, “Will you use Branching?  How many branches leading to alternate stories or situations will you have?” (86); but it just doesn’t gel.

However, it is pretty cool that Schmidt considered it important to include a treatment of IF in what is otherwise a classical manual on storytelling, and if nothing else it introduces her readership to the broad idea and the search term.

And while people in the IF community are not liable to learn much from her chapter on IF, the rest of the book is a very cool overview, quite thoroughly considered, of classical storytelling as it applies to modern, salable fiction.  The primary purpose of the book is to provide you with something to have on your shelf or in your bookbag so that when you find yourself telling a story about revolution, or arbitration, and don’t know how to tackle it, you have a resource that will give you a general idea of how such topics have traditionally been treated.

For that purpose, and for surfing through looking for new angles, I recommend it.

Published in: on June 28, 2009 at 10:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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