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Invisible Structure: What The Princess Bride Teaches Us about the UnConference

[1]Please welcome back WU community member and author Carol Newman Cronin [2] to Writer Unboxed today! When Carol asked if she might contribute a post on both the WU UnConference, which she attended this past November, and The Princess Bride, we couldn’t resist — two of our favorite things, after all!

Carol, an award-winning author, editor, and Olympian, will publish her fourth novel, Ferry to Cooperation Island, [3]in the spring of 2020. She publishes a weekly blog called Where Books Meet Boats [4].

Learn more on her website [2], and by following her on Facebook, [5] BookBub [6], and Goodreads [7].

Invisible Structure: What The Princess Bride Teaches Us about the UnConference

I’ve seen The Princess Bride so many times that I’ve memorized several of its best lines. Like many of you, I have my own personal favorite (which, unlike many of you, has nothing to do with killing fathers, or preparing to die). For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, here’s the basic story line: a boy is sick in bed, so his grandfather comes over and offers to read to him. Despite initial doubts that a book could possibly be as interesting as a video game, the boy quickly becomes lost in the grandfather’s favorite fairy tale: following the quest of Wesley to win back (the way too passive) Princess Buttercup.

No matter how often I watch that movie, I always get lost in the fairy tale right along with the young boy. It isn’t until the action is so rudely interrupted—to discuss kissing, ick—that I remember the “real” story taking place within a nondescript kid’s bedroom.

What I’d never once considered (until Keith Cronin’s session on The Jenga of Story, at the 2019 UnConference) was how this extra “frame” of grandfather-bonding-with-grandson deepens the movie’s impact. In fact, I’d never thought about the damn structure at all, because I was always too busy getting lost in the story itself. Now, it’s so obvious: without that exterior layer, all we’d be left with is a sappy love story interrupted by sword fights. Hardly something I’d be inspired to watch, over and over and over again.

What does a fairy tale have to do with the UnCon?

Like The Princess Bride, the 2019 UnCon’s invisible structure was a huge part of what made it so memorable. First let’s discuss the structure itself, which was meticulously plotted out in advance by UnCon’s “author,” Therese Walsh. We were greeted with a well-organized welcome packet that spelled out the schedule and introduced our fellow writers—as well as name tags that spared us inevitable embarrassment (and also provided clues to each writer’s genre). Over four days, 120 of us were given a choice between simultaneous sessions, each one offering a deep dive into different aspects of craft. The conference timeline minimized potential conflicts, while leaving plenty of time afterward for lingering discussions. Most sessions started and ended on time, no matter how often presenters had their pre-planned thoughts derailed by audience enthusiasm. Lost in the conference “story,” we never had to think about what would happen next, or when.

Now, here’s the “invisible” part:

That same welcome packet began with encouragement to “break free from the schedule.” There was no judgment if we decided to skip a session to write, or visit a museum, or just take a walk or a nap to recover from the brain-filling brain-dump of ideas. Freed to wander within an unseen framework, we were able to embrace inspiration wherever we each found it, no matter how unlikely. (Really? My favorite movie provides an example of story structure?).

It wasn’t until I was driving home that I stopped to consider how many hours of planning must’ve gone into creating those four days of joyous happenstance. I was too busy revelling in the luxury of trusting that invisible structure—without ever feeling like I had to march in lockstep with everyone else. Just as you undoubtedly have a different favorite line from The Princess Bride, each of us took away a different experience from the UnCon. The best stories reach each of us where we are—and so do the best conferences.

Story structure does its job best when it remains out of sight, because it allows us to lose ourselves in the tale itself. I learned that at UnCon—while simultaneously losing myself in the “now” of that week’s invisible structure. Which brings me, at last, back to your burning question: what is my favorite line from The Princess Bride? Even though it has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to this post, I’ll share it: “Are they using the same wind we are?” (What can I say, I’m a sailor!)

Feel free to share your favorite line from The Princess Bride in the comments below. I’d also like to hear about other examples of invisible structure that deepen rather than distract, or your own struggles with writing invisible structure. Or do you just plain disagree with this post? Join the conversation!