Thursday, March 23, 2006

Analyzing Structure


I'm becoming more and more intrigued by the ways short stories are structured. "Structure" can mean different things, but I'm talking about how a story is broken into integral units, primarily scenes and blocks of summary. How many scenes does a story contain? How long are they? Which scenes are longest, and which are shortest? What's the balance between scene and summary, and in what pattern are they presented?

I've been working on a computer program that analyzes stories along these lines. Now don't get too excited; the program doesn't parse a story and decide on its own what is scene and what is summary. The user has to tag the story sections, in code similar to html.

I'm going to write more about this later, but here's a teaser I can't resist posting. The chart above is a structural analysis of Lorrie Moore's story "Debarking," from The New Yorker. The red bars are scenes; the green bars are summary. Ms. Moore is a genius at dialogue, and her stories are very scene-oriented. Note the predominance of red bars. Note the predominance of short scenes, and how the longer sections are spread throughout the story.

More about this story, and this device, later.