Structure of any kind can make a strange bedfellow with Autism.
On the one hand, a majority of Autistic people thrive on structure. Forcing them to break with their own structure can result in meltdowns for some, and mere irritation in others. Though the Autistic significance of structure is an unfortunate source of derision and stereotyping against those on the Spectrum, fondness for structure and routine are about as close to a universal for Autistics as one can find.
Yet the same individuals that crave or even require a high degree of structure often balk at having too many rules. Some will want a full explanation of any rule presented to them. Others will be unable to comprehend a rule’s application to themselves. Still others will bristle at the very notion of rules existing. To them, rules of the road, if you will, are confining—a deprivation of their freedom.
Feelings of being without control, or forced conformity can also, (and I know it sounds contradictory) lead to meltdowns, irritation, or isolation for the Autistic person, depending on their needs.
To an Autistic author such as myself structure can once again present as a double-edged sword.
Outside of experimental works, randomness doesn’t work in fiction. If I just throw sentences and scenes, words and plots onto a page as they come to me naturally, I have a poor outline, not a narrative. The swirling, at times intrusive nature of thoughts for many Autistics don’t come about in a neat pattern for outside consumption. They require a story structure.
Now it could be any number of structures. Three act, five act, epistolary, and so on. Choices abound. But those cats must be herded.
However, structure for an Autistic writer can also frustrate us. As I mentioned in my previous post about finding a story’s climax, blind following of a writing formula can stifle me to such a degree I can actually feel muscle tension in my neck as I write it.
“I don’t want that to happen in Act 3. I don’t see the need for rising action if I’m telling a good story. And what if my murder mystery requires the body to not show up until chapter 8? Am I not worthy of writing it?”
I am never 100% pro or con tight structure in my stories.
Not do you have to be.
I have found though that to err on the side of structure brings more benefits than punishments for an author that wants to share a story with the world.
There are norms that apply to so-called “genre fiction” that at times literary fiction ignores. Literary fiction being more about language and deeper human character experiences, and genre fiction being…well…most of everything else. Mystery, suspense, romance, fantasy. You get the idea. Genres.
One such virtual-must for genre work is the climax.
Without veering too much into 9th grade English class territory, the climax of a story is defined variously as:
-the moment the conflict of the story is resolved
-the most exciting part of the story
-the point at which the protagonist is changed forever
-the scene in which the protagonist defeats, or is defeated by the antagonist
-the scene of greatest drama, action, and decision making (usually by the protagonist)
-the moment of the highest, most palpable tension in the entire story
And, to be most accurate:
-some combination of all of the above.
I struggled early on with identifying the precise “English teacher” climax of a story. True, it is somewhat open to interpretation, at least outside of a classroom. Variance exists. Yet those who look for the climax of a story generally locate the same moments.
I believe that even before I realized I was Autistic, my Autism blurred the concept of the narrative climax during my younger years.
A common example in schoolbooks even through high school was the first Star Wars movie.
The conventional wisdom is that the climax of that movie is the destruction of the Death Star.
One could take the broad view of climax, and state that the entire final battle qualified. Others could take a much narrower approach and contend the true climax was the moment Luke fired the fatal blast into the center of the space station. Regardless, the destruction of that weapon is the indisputable climax of the movie.
Indisputable, except to me.
The climax is usually near the end of the story. In this case, the Death Star exploding matches. But I asked myself some questions. (I eventually stopped asking teachers and other students because they never took my views seriously.)
-Was the battle of the Death Star objectively the most exciting part of the movie?
Action packed for sure, but so were many other scenes. That is kind of the point.
-Why couldn’t the death of Ben Kenobi be the climax?
If the climax is when the protagonist is changed forever, surely this qualifies. Luke lost any semblance of viewing the whole thing as a game at that point. He was forever changed, even if not fully developed yet. When it was explained to a younger me that this was too early in the movie to be the climax, I pointed out how we said, “usually” the climax is near the end, but not always.
“Just, trust me,” is the gist of the answer I got to the question. He didn’t change enough and that was that.
–The Empire still exists after the Rebels blow up the Death Star. They knew that even in the first movie. How is it a climax if the main antagonist has not been defeated by the protagonist within that first film?
Some version of “the Death Star isthe Antagonist in this case,” usually followed. But it isn’t. It just isn’t. Even today, that doesn’t fly with me.
A few friends tried to convince me that Vader was the antagonist. But he escaped. And even if Luke and the others thought Vader was dead, the climax isn’t for them, it’s for us, the viewer, and we know the antagonist in that case survived.
Nor was the protagonist defeated by the antagonist, whoever you choose as the antagonist.
I have plenty of other questions like these from when I first was taught about narrative climax via Star Wars. But you get the idea. In my Autistic mind, I could point to several places where the true definition of climax applied.
Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t see why I had to identify the correct scene anyway. Who cares when the climax of Star Wars happens, I asked myself. Or any story for that matter. If a story is being told that people enjoy, do we need to point to a climax? (or inciting incident, or falling action, and so on.)
These days I can accept why any given stated climax is the textbook climax. And in my writing, sometimes a climax naturally shows up as the story unfolds. But I am still not locked in with the concept, because as an Autistic person I see through, around, over, under and deeper into the “obvious” climax of a day a year, a life. I live and perceive the world in moments that lead to moments, with no real climax. And though fiction supposedly “has” to have a climax, I run the risk of a climax feeling forced if I label “ABC as the climax of a story as I outline it.
I tend to climb a plot until I find the peak. Then I go down the other side.
I guess to many, that approach seems, well, anticlimactic.
In last week’s post, I asserted characters were the most significant aspect of good fiction, despite solid counter—arguments that conflict holds that distinction.
I stand by my position. Still, the impact of conflict on fiction cannot be overstated.
Nor can the influence of an Autistic writer’s brain on same.
Conflict is usually defined as a battle between two opposing forces—the desires of one or more entities at odds with one another. For example:
Short, peaceful creatures must get to a mountain to destroy a magical item, as evil powers try to stop them and take the item for themselves.
In other words, forces not merely different from one another, but in direct opposition.
The conflict isn’t always as clear as this. And in the special case of literary fiction, it may not be there at all. But within proper genre fiction it’s there if one looks for it.
As someone on The Spectrum, I want and sometimes need my goals and by extension my conflicts well defined and quickly resolved. I prefer to tackle them head on as they arrive.
This isn’t to say I expect the work to be done for me. I’m willing to take on challenges. I would never expect someone to carry me to the top of the mountain in front of me.
That isn’t easy to achieve. Yet “climb the mountain,” strenuous and arduous as it may be, is a straightforward goal.
“Become a wiser, more patient man that masters herbal medicine and karate while coming to gradual terms with the feelings you have and have always had for your problematic travel companion during every step you take to the summit,” isn’t a straightforward goal to me. It isn’t even a list of goals. It’s chaos. Intentional chaos at that.
My brain wants to get on with it! Find the target, keep shooting. The sooner I hit that target the quicker I’m free to tackle the next obstacle.
But not before then. I want to keep tension low and responses deliberate.
This approach, at times necessary in my life, deadens fiction.
Conflict, conflict, conflict! There wouldn’t be enough of it. True, some fiction sinks itself in its own complexity. Too much conflict in too little time. But my laser-focused-almost-myopic-at-times Autistic mind contends with the opposite issue when I write; “enough” must occur.
My Autistic brain neutralizes conflict in one of two ways. The first is to solve/win it. The second is dismiss/abandon it.
If I choose to solve it, it needs to be solved as soon as possible. At times this happens at the expense of other things. It doesn’t always matter how I move that boulder, so long as I move it.
That can work in fiction. For certain genres and styles perhaps. In general, to be unconcerned with the “how,” and to avoid caring about the journey is the death of standard storytelling.
The journey is the story. So, if left to my total default brain mode of first drafts, I risk “getting to the point” too quickly. It becomes more report than story.
So I must remind myself to layer detail into the journey itself. Not just the overarching journey of the novel, but into anything a fully fleshed out character wants to achieve.
In other words, conflict.
Even in a completely interior struggle inside the heart of a character, I mustn’t rid the work of touchstones. Unlike my real-life tendency to eliminate friction ASAP, as an author I must guide the reader through the conflict and resolution by way of tension.
If I were to write conflict the way I often deal with it, it could be a short, pointless read to others, even if I know mentally there was great conflict involved in what happened in a character’s mind.
That mistake could lead to the worst tension of all in the world of the author: conflict with one’s readers.
Characters are the backbone of all fiction. Some argue it’s conflict. They have a case to make. Still, much can be forgiven in a fiction if we enjoy the characters we spend our time with.
I succeed as an author if readers enjoy my characters as far as I’m concerned.
Reading and relating to people is a common struggle for those on the Autism Spectrum. I’m not an exception. True, I happen to read other people well enough to get along in the world on daily basis. In most cases, that is.
Yet it isn’t automatic. Neither is my character-focused approach to fiction.
First, let’s talk about my real-life approach.
I have to concentrate only on the essence of what people say, do, or want at any given moment of an encounter. I filter and delete the majority of nuance, small talk, and digression I receive from others. This “real time editing” can be brutal, depending on the situation; I may give sustained thought to as little as 25% of what is said to me.
Now the longer and better I know someone the less likely I am to resort to such cold social efficiency. But for strangers or colleagues for which I have no emotional connection, I do my best to distill what they’re about in the moment and respond accordingly, if any response is warranted.
The deeper, probing dives into the nature of other people from moment one is an exhausting prospect for me, and I daresay for most on the Spectrum. Being an introvert as I am enhances this effect. So while some people or situations may be giving me a bad vibe, (as can be the case with anyone sometimes), my emotional distance is usually not a judgement call. It’s an energy-saving tactic. It protects my focus, though it could be seen as superficial.
This regrettable but necessary form of superficiality will carry into first drafts of my fiction. Subsequent drafts too, unless I remain aware of it.
Any given character or story may call for this type of clinical distance, if you will. On the whole, however, if characters in fiction are to be enjoyable and memorable, their internal world should be revealed early and often. That means the level to which I am willing to explore, and allow readers to know a significant character in my fiction must be higher than my real life default.
This doesn’t mean pages of word for word stream of consciousness thought from every character I write. I despise reading, let alone writing such things. Still, if I were to opt not to challenge my brain to dig more in later drafts, most of my fiction would to the outside world read something like primitive AI. I myself would see the depth, but readers wouldn’t.
It’s my job to make sure readers can too.
I won’t assume there is zero trace of this tendency in my collected works. That would be arrogant. If I may say so myself though, it has become more difficult to detect the more I write.
And even if someone notices some aspect of an Autistic perspective creeping into one of my characters that they otherwise find intriguing and unforgettable, I am more than willing to live with that.
I’m an Autistic writer.
I only sometimes use the term, however–in short bios and such. That’s because while both “Autistic” and “writer” are considerable components of who I am, the term doesn’t define me. Not all of me, at least.
Further, while I do write about being on the Autism Spectrum, it’s not my only topic. It’s not even a topic for the majority of my work.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to conclude that being on The Spectrum had zero influence on my writing. There are times the impact is minimal, and times when, at least to me, it’s quite clear. This is true of my fiction, my essays, my freelance articles, and yes, my blog posts.
This year I want to post weekly on just how I feel being Autistic has shaped much of my writing. Rules, trends, word choices and topic selection and much more in my work have been and continue to be touched by my neurodivergence. It was so even before I knew I was in fact neurodivergent.
To be sure, some of what I will explore in this weekly piece is present in those not on the Spectrum. And of course some of it may be a result of who I am, and who I have become over my years of writing and living, apart from ASD.
Still, the experiences I’ll be sharing in this column are those I have determined over time are in fact tied into my particular manifestation of Autism. Like oil paints, divergent colors mixed in varying amounts will yield different results. I am but an artist with both the pigments I have been given from birth, and those I have mixed together over a lifetime. (Some intentionally, and some quite by chance.)
Autism Spectrum Disorder is one of those pigments.
Whether you be on the Spectrum yourself, neurodivergent in some other fashion, or are neurotypical but curious, I hope you will enjoy these weekly illuminations.
Please feel free to post respectful questions or comments, as always.
Next week, I’ll start by discussing my relationship to my fictional characters. See you then.