Monday, April 21, 2014

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words

Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula: The Third 1,500 Words



This is the third in a series of articles I'm writing on Lester Dent's Master Fiction Formula. Even though Dent wrote his formula down in, I believe, the 50s, it is still great advice for anyone wanting to write a fast paced action yarn. Here are the first few instalments:


Lester Dent writes:
1--Shovel the grief onto the hero.

2--Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:

3--A physical conflict.

4--A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
The MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

ACTION:
Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

ATMOSPHERE:
Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

DESCRIPTION:
Trees, wind, scenery and water.

THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
Lester Dent gives basically the same advice for the second and third quarters. It's the same, only different.

Here's the structure of the third 1,500 words:

1. Introduce a complication for the hero. Either the villain makes a move the hero wasn't expecting or something the hero was counting on falls through.

2. Despite the complication/setback the hero has a minor achievement and comes closer to attaining his goal. 
3. The hero's plan looks like it's succeeding. The important thing here is that the hero brings the fight to the villain and that the hero is active. He doesn't have to get into a fistfight with the villain--they don't even have to be in the same room--but there should be some kind of active confrontation.

4. Throw in another complication/plot twist. Either something happens that the hero had no way of either knowing about or preventing, or something he was counting on falls through. Perhaps someone he was relying on turned out to be a traitor or perhaps the villain has been luring the hero into a trap. 

As a result of the plot twist the hero seems done for. Finished. He'll never achieve his goal. Not only that, it turns out we were wrong about what would happen to him if he failed. It's much, much, worse than we thought.

So, there you have it. We end the third section of 1,500 words with the hero in so much trouble there's no possible way he'll ever win. He's doomed.

The Essence of A Pulp Story


Dent sets out the essential elements of a pulp story; those things he felt define the form:

a. Physical conflict.


I think the key here is including conflict one could see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Conflict so concrete and particular you could film it. One can't film an emotion, only the effect of an emotion.

b. 2 or 3 plot twists. 


In at least two or three places reverse the readers expectations. You, the storyteller, have set them up to think that a certain something is going to happen. For instance, the villain is playing video games in his parent's basement and the hero is creeping down the stairs to apprehend him. 

Writers need to subvert the readers expectations. In the case of my example I might have the thing the hero took to be the villain really be nothing but a lifelike simulacrum put there to trick the hero into entering the villains lair. As soon as he does the doors slam close and locks and a foul smelling gas fills the room. The hero tries not to breathe but, eventually, is forced to. He slumps, unconscious, to the ground.  

c. Suspense. 


Suspense begins with a question: Will the hero escape the machinations of the villain? If so, how? 

Readers know that the villain is setting the hero up for a big fall; the villain is able to anticipate the hero's every move, or at least he seems to be. Is the hero clever enough, resourceful enough, to spot the villain's evil trap before it's too late? 

Dramatic irony is only one way of generating suspense. Here are a few articles I've written on the subject:

d. Menace. 


A menace continues to build/intensify right up to the final confrontation between hero and villain. 

Although I'm not sure they're synonymous, the way Dent uses the word "menace" makes me think of stakes. The stakes, as well as the conflict between the hero and the villain, need to keep increasing right up until the end, right up until the hero defeats the villain (or vice versa).

Descriptions: Keep them simple.


In an action-packed, suspense filled, short story, descriptions need to be kept to a minimum. One needs to choose one's words carefully. In a book one can, perhaps, include a beautiful description that doesn't have anything to do with anything and get away with it. That's not the case in a short story.

That's it! If you're writing along with this then you've finished the third quarter of your short story. The end is in sight. How will the hero save himself and defeat the villain's dastardly plans? Stay tuned. 

Photo credit: "remember last holiday" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels

Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels


As Dwight V. Swain says in Techniques of the Selling Writer, sequels take the protagonist from the disaster of one scene to the goal of the next one. The protagonist reacts to the disaster, reviews the courses of action which are open to him and then picks one. This sets the goal for the next scene.

Here is the skeleton of a sequel:

a. Emotional reaction
b. Cognitive reaction
c. Anticipation
d. Choice/Decision

Those points more or less mirror Jim Butcher's categories:

a. Emotional reaction
b. Review, Logic & Reason
c. Anticipation
d. Choice

For good measure, here is how Dwight V. Swain saw the structure of sequels:

a. Reaction
b. Dilemma
c. Decision

As you can see, the basic structure is the same, Jim Butcher just makes explicit a stage--anticipation--that was implicit in Swain's list. 

Before we examine each of these points; each of the 'ribs' of the skeleton of a sequel; it will help to have an example. Let's create a character. I'll call her Sue Lynch. Sue is giving a talk at a computer security conference tomorrow. The talk will be about her research into developing a promising, though controversial, new encryption technology. Sue is on her way to the airport when she realizes she forgot to upload her powerpoint presentation. She would ask Tom, her husband, to bring the thumbdrive to her at the airport but he is out of town for the weekend on a business trip.

When Sue opens the door to the apartment she sees her husband lying on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood. One look tells her he's dead. The room is in shambles. Bookcases have been emptied, drawers pulled out, cushions slashed. 

a. Emotional reaction


The first thing Sue does is have an emotional reaction. She doesn't think anything, not right away. She just feels. But what does she feel?

Paul Ekman holds that the basic human emotions are excitement, tenderness, fear, anger, sadness and happiness. Depending on the kind of character Sue is, she might have any of these emotions. But keep in mind that the kind of reaction she has is going to tell readers a lot about her. 

Continuing my example: When Sue sees her husband's body she feels as though someone doused her with a bucket of cold water. She staggers and sits on the floor. A kind of static numbness drives her thoughts away. Then the grief hits and she's physically sick.

b. Cognitive reaction


At some point the emotional shock is going to begin to fade and the character is going to begin to think. Specifically, she is going to pick out what, to her, are the salient points of the situation and use logic and reason to figure out her options, look at different courses of action, and then reach a decision.

Let's unpack that.

i. Review what happened.


We've already discussed the character's emotional reaction. Now the character focuses on making sense of the disaster she suffered.  

The character starts to make sense of the disaster by reviewing what just happened. This shows the reader what sorts of things are important to her and, therefore, what kind of pseudo-person she is. It opens a window to her soul.

Let's unpack this. How does this work? Let's go back to my example. Let's say that the following are the salient features of the setting:

i.a) The bullet holes. There are two bullet holes in her late husband's chest but, otherwise, his body seems unmarked. 

i.b) Nearly all their valuables are accounted for. Sue does a quick search of the apartment. As far as she can tell, the only thing taken was her home laptop (she has her work one with her), her iPad and the thumb drives she kept in her desk.

i.c) Her husband wasn't supposed to be home, he was supposed to be in another city consulting on a case with a colleague. He is wearing his lucky tie and smells of his favorite cologne.

i.d) The murderer destroyed her late husband's collection of baseball cards. He ripped them from their plastic cases and tore them to bits.

i.e) A bottle of wine and what look like the remains of two glasses lie near an overturned table. 

First thing. What is going through Sue's mind?

As Sue searches the apartment she is reacting to her husband's death. What does she remember? What does she dwell on? This will tell us several things. First, it will tell us what kind of pseudo-person Sue is (does she concentrate on the bad times or the good?) as well as show us what kind of relationship they had. Had the love between them dimmed? Were they fighting? Was he resentful of her success? Or perhaps he wanted her to work less so they could spend more time together?

Let's give Sue another big emotional reaction. It would be natural for her to value something she kept in the apartment. As she surveys the devastation, it occurs to her that this thing--whatever it is--may have been stolen. As soon as this thought occurs to her she will run to wherever she kept it.

We're the storyteller, so let's have it that Sue and Tom store their valuables in a safe. This is where she runs. The safe contains the normal stuff--important papers, deeds, their marriage licence and so on--but there are two other things here that interest us. One is something of great emotional value but not much monetary value while the other is something of great monetary value but not much emotional value. Which will Sue be more concerned about? Which would she most grieve the loss of? Her choice will tell us about the kind of pseudo-person she is.

ii. The Possibilities + Logic


Given Sue's situation and the things she has noticed, what will she infer?

From (i.a) I would have Sue infer that there wasn't a struggle. Further, from the placement of the bullets, two to the heart, Sue would believe that the killer was a good shot.

From (i.b) I would have Sue infer that the burglar was after something tiny. Something about the size of a thumb drive. Or perhaps something that could be stored on a thumb drive, something like the latest version of her experimental encryption program.

From (i.c) and (i.e) I would have Sue infer that her husband was having an affair.

From (i.d) I would have Sue not infer anything in particular, though she might wonder whether the murderer was looking for an optical memory strip hidden within the cards.  After learning her husband was having an affair she might feel a twinge of glee at their destruction.

Taking all the evidence together, I would have Sue doubt that this was the work of a burglar. Perhaps someone who wanted access to her research had seduced Tom. Once in the apartment this mystery woman had killed him and done a thorough search.

iii. What now? Possible Courses Of Action


The protagonist, Sue, has suffered a crushing defeat (her husband's death), she has reviewed the situation, explored the possibilities and formed some conclusions. At this point the question is: What now? This defeat needs to be translated into a goal that the protagonist can pursue in the next scene. 

In our example, Sue could do any of the following:

iii.a) Sue could call the police and turn the matter over to them. 

If Tom surprised a burglar then time is of the essence and Sue should call the police. There is also the possibility that, if her husband was having an affair, whoever killed Tom abducted this girl. The killer could have wounded her, she could be dying. 

How Sue responds to this will show us her character. It would be natural for her to hate the other woman, but I would have Sue be compassionate. She may dislike the other woman on principle, but she doesn't want her to die.

iii.b)  If Tom's death wasn't the result of a burglary gone wrong then perhaps calling the police wouldn't be the best thing to do. The killer would soon discover that none of the data storage devises he'd taken contained her program. As it stood, he would think she was on an airplane heading to the conference. That's where he'd go to look for her. That could give her a head start. 

She could run away. Hide. If she called the police, he would know where she was. Yes, she could hide the program but that would just mean that instead of killing her he'd torture her for its location.

She could destroy the program. But that wouldn't solve anything. No one would believe her.

No. Her only hope was to remain hidden. She had enough money to leave the country and maintain a decent standard of living in a country which lacked an extradition treaty with the US.

iii.c) Sue could attempt to find out who killed her husband and why. 

If the intruder wasn't a random burglar, if he wanted her encryption program, then Sue would feel responsible for her husband's death. She would feel she owed it to him to make his killer pay. Also, she doesn't understand why anyone would want her encryption program badly enough to kill. Yes, she developed an encryption algorithm that is unbreakable, but why would anyone kill for that? Perhaps what they wanted was to prevent it from being used.

At some point Sue will realize someone else is in danger. If she doesn't show up at the conference, the killer will target the only other person who worked on her encryption program: her assistant, Mark Fleming. If the killer searches Mark's room and he doesn't find the program, what then? Would he kill Mark? Torture him for information? How far would the killer go to possess her program? 

iv. Stakes + Anticipation


Each of these three courses of action has its own stakes. 

If Sue follows path (iii.a) then she will grieve the loss of her husband but, otherwise, her life will carry on as normal. Her job will remain unchanged, she will continue with her research and will give speeches at other conferences.

If Sue follows path (iii.b), though, her life will be radically changed. She will have to go into hiding, which would mean she couldn't work. She would lose her job and the security it provided. Also, if she disappeared after visiting the apartment the police are likely to think she killed her husband. If Sue makes it to another country and hides there for the rest of her life she would be safe. She would be alive and have enough money to live out her days with a reasonable standard of living. Who knows, one day she might even be able to move back to the US.

If Sue follows path (iii.c) her life will change most of all. She will have to face her fears and follow the killer to the conference. Taking this path would require that Sue take risks but she is naturally conservative. Careful. 

Sue phones her assistant and warn him of the danger he could be in but when she calls his cell he doesn't answer. She calls Mark's hotel--he was supposed to arrive a day early--and is told he hasn't checked in yet. Is Mark dead already? Or perhaps Mark is working with whoever broke into her apartment searching for the program.

Sue decides to attend the convention, but under another identity. She will hide in plain sight and try to find the killer who tearing her life apart.

By now the stakes of each path, each choice, are clear. Readers know not only what Sue's so-concrete-you-could-take-a-picture-of-it goal is, but what will happen if she fails to achieve it as well as what will happen if she does.

As the story progresses and Sue's goal becomes more difficult to attain, the pressure for the protagonist to quit increases. For her continued pursuit of her goal to remain plausible the stakes must increase over time, especially the negative stakes.

c. Anticipation


Sometimes I think of this step as part of a character's cognitive reaction, but Jim Butcher points out that in a horror story the anticipation aspect of the sequel is of primary importance.

In Joss Whedon's and Drew Goddard's movie The Cabin in the Woods there is a part where the characters have gathered in the basement of a cabin. One of the characters, Dana, has found an old journal and reads aloud from it. The group learns that a latin spell has been written in its pages, one that will restore--bring back from death--the family of the girl who wrote it.

The fool, who is really the only sane person here, says, "No! Don't read the spell."

A disembodied voice whispers: Read it, read it out loud.

At this point--even though I knew she was definitely going to read the spell--I was sitting on the edge of my seat screaming at the television: Don't read the spell!

Of course she read it, it's a horror movie after all! Still, there was anticipation. What would happen after she read the spell?

Notice that there isn't a lot of reasoning going on here, the sequel skips that part, but it draws out anticipation. This is typical of a horror movie since a big part of making a movie terrifying is anticipating the horrors to come.

d. Choice/Decision


Which course of action the character chooses has a lot to do with the kind of pseudo-person she is. Does she care about the welfare of others more than her own? Will she risk her own welfare to save others pain? Either answer, yes or no, shows us a lot about her.

In the end, Sue realizes she needs to find out who killed her husband and make them pay. She also needs to find out why her assistant, Mark, didn't check in. Is he dead? Is he in league with her husband's killer? She needs answers and the only place she's going to find them is at the convention.

Now we've got the general goal for the next scene (find out who killed her husband and why) as well as a specific one (get into the conference undetected). 

The character has made a choice, they know what to expect--or at least they think they do. Now it is time to act. This leads us into the next scene.

In this chapter I've looked at the structure of a sequel. In the next I'll examine why sequels lie at the heart of good storytelling.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Parts of Story: A General Story Structure



Now that I've talked a bit about genre and how important it is to know what genre, and subgenre, your book falls into, I'd like to step back and look at what all genre stories have in common. What follows is a description of what I think is the most common structure for genre tales. 

A Three Act Structure


The lion's share of stories can be broken into three acts.

Act One—The Ordinary World—First Quarter


Act One is where you introduce your characters and the world they live in. As the story unfurls, readers find out more about the characters as they interact with each other as well as with the world around them, both physical and social. We see their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The most important character in all this is the hero because the story is going to revolve around his quest. That's what a story is, after all: a description of a character's pursuit of a goal.[1]

The Inciting Incident And The Call To Adventure


I'll talk more about this in the next section, but The Ordinary World of the hero is relatively static, at least in the beginning. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence. The hero exists in a state of imperfection. He has reached a false local optimum. He isn't happy, and he knows he's not happy, but fear prevents him from changing; the fear that if he tries to change things will get worse. 

During the Inciting Incident something happens that changes the hero's world, a change that will, eventually, shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality, that must be addressed. This is the problem the hero seeks to solve, the wrong he seeks to right, when he answers the Call to Adventure.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the namesake character is an ogre who wants to be left alone in his swamp. Of course, what he really wants is for people not to make up their minds about him before they meet him. He wants to forge some sort of connection with others, but he's (understandably) afraid of being rejected because it happens so often.

When Lord Farquaad exiles legions of fairytale creatures to Shrek's swamp (this is the Inciting Incident), Shrek's solitude is stripped away. This sends Shrek and Donkey off on a mission to confront Lord Farquaad and convince him to send the fairy tale creatures somewhere--anywhere--else. But Lord Farquaad has another idea. 

Lord Farquaad proposes (this is Shrek's Call to Adventure) that if Shrek conquers the fire-breathing dragon and frees Princess Fiona from her imprisonment in the castle, that he will grant Shrek's wish and clear his swamp of fairytale creatures. Shrek accepts and, in the process, falls in love with the princess. Now Shrek has another goal, to tell the princess he loves her. What prevents him from doing so is his fear of rejection. This fear is what Shrek has to overcome if he is to achieve his goal and win Fiona's hand in marriage.

The Lock In


At the end of the first act it often happens that the hero is locked into his quest. He has a moment of realization and understands that if he takes up the quest he must leave his ordinary world behind. It is important that the hero understand the stakes involved and, despite the dismal odds of success, choose to take up the quest knowing that, if he does, there is no going back.

I've just talked about the movie Shrek. When Lord Farquaad gives Shrek his Call to Adventure, Shrek has a choice: accept or not. But archers perch atop the walls ready to shoot him dead if he refuses. After that, Shrek is locked in to the quest. 

In Star Wars when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, massacred by storm troopers, he understands there is no going back. His ordinary world is gone. 

I think the most obvious case of the lock in is The Matrix. At the end of Act One Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill or the blue bill. The red pill will change Neo's entire world and will show him the truth he has always searched for. The blue pill will restore the status quo of the Ordinary World. His choice is irreversible.

Act Two—The Special World—The Middle Half


At the end of Act One the hero answers the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the Special World. Here everything is different, strange, reversed. The hero's strength (usually characters have at least one strength) isn't going to serve him as well here, perhaps it even puts him at a disadvantage. 

In the first part of Act Two the hero goes through a series of Tests And Trials, most of which he fails, and he makes new acquaintances, both Allies And Enemies. It is also here at around the beginning of Act Two that the B-story starts. Some of those the hero meets will become his staunch allies and will join his quest while others will become his enemies. This time of testing is also a time of Fun And Games. In a movie this is where you often have a feel-good montage.  

The first half of Act Two often contains a moment of bonding. If there is a romance, the hero and his love interest may deepen their relationship. After all, the hero is about to confront the antagonist and, perhaps, pay with his life. If there is no romance, the story will likely still contain a moment of bonding, a pause, a girding of the loins, as well as a review of the stakes. What will happen if the hero loses? If he wins? Who will it effect? What will be the cost? What will be the reward? 

The Midpoint


Finally, the moment of confrontation has arrived. The Ordeal has begun. Since we know the stakes of the battle, we watch anxiously as the hero risks everything to defeat his foe. The confrontation between the hero and his nemesis can be a physical one but it needn't be. Sometimes they are each going after the same item, the same treasure. In the movie Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy loses the ark to Dr. René Belloq, his nemesis. In Star Wars Luke discovers the Death Star.

Regardless of whether a physical confrontation occurs, the midpoint represents a sea change in the story. Where before the hero was passive, now he is active. This doesn't occur all at once, but it marks the change. Often this change occurs because the hero receives information. This information could be about the antagonist. It could also be about the nature of the Special World and the Antagonist's--as well as the hero's--place in it. 

After the confrontation at the midpoint the stakes of the battle get cashed out. If the hero is successful, he will get a reward. If the hero isn't successful then usually this is just the beginning of the grief that rains down upon him and those he cares about. Often, if the hero fails at the midpoint he will also fail at the climax of the story. Similarly, if the hero wins at the midpoint he will often win at the climax.

Regardless of whether the hero wins at the midpoint, the stakes go up. Way up. The hero hasn't resolved the conflict, he has increased it. I can't stress this enough. Where before it was only the hero's life at stake now it is also the lives of the hero's allies. Perhaps, by the time we reach the climax, even the lives of his loved ones back home (as well as, perhaps, the world or even the entire galaxy) will lie in the balance. 

Another important change that occurs around the midpoint is that now it's not just the villain who is pushing the events, driving them, it is also the hero. You even see this in stories that have a non-traditional structure, stories such as The Usual Suspects.

Toward the end of Act Two matters have radically changed, and for the worse. There is often a Major Setback, quickly followed by an All Hope Is Lost moment. As the name implies, something occurs that transforms the hero's world, or his view of it, and brings him to his lowest point.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the Major Setback comes when he overhears Princess Fiona talking with Donkey. Shrek misunderstands who Fiona was talking about and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Fiona thinks he is ugly and unlovable. Since he was working up the courage to tell Fiona he loved her, this revelation comes as quite a blow.

The All Hope Is Lost moment comes shortly after when Shrek is cruel to Donkey. Of course we, the audience, know Shrek is acting as he is because he mistakenly believes Donkey was talking against him. Shrek tells Donkey to go away, that he isn't welcome in his swamp again, ever! This is Shrek's lowest point. As a result of his own actions, Shrek has become estranged from the two people who care about him most.

Act Three—The Return Home—Last Quarter


After the All Is Lost moment the B-story is usually resolved. As a result, an important change occurs in the hero and he is able to resolve his inner conflict. As a result, the hero is able to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate try to achieve his goal. 

 I don't mean a superhuman ability--though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be. But whatever it is, the ground must have been laid for it, otherwise it would be a cheat. Perhaps the hero is now, finally, able to think clearly. Perhaps the hero understands how other people feel (he lacked empathy), or perhaps he had to release a certain way of thinking that was holding him back.

Whatever the case, something fundamental within the hero changes and, as a result, he is able to defeat the villain and achieve his goal. (I should mention, though, that not all heroes have an internal conflict. If this is the case, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero without any real internal conflict.)

One way of describing this point in a story, this beat, is that the scales drop from the hero's eyes. He thought he knew how things were, but he didn't. To use Shrek as an example again, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He was dead wrong. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before, he decides to risk rejection and ridicule and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example. At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's The One, and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes; he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and this realization transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. Neo triumphs over The Matrix and becomes The One. 
I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it. 

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

Aftermath


In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of his adventure? What was his reward? Or, if he failed, what was the cost of his failure? Tie up loose ends.

Caveat


I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there's only one story structure. As Chuck Wendig says, every story has a structure and there are as many story structures as there are stories. No one can look at the structure of a story and say, "That's wrong!" just because it's different.

The structure I've talked about, above, is one I've been thinking about and working on for a while now. I think that it describes over 90% of the stories I've read, listened to, or watched; or at least parts of it do. That's because it looks at a story abstractly. It is a web of generalizations and so is almost guaranteed to get something right! 

I like using story structures. Often, if I feel that something is wrong with a story but I just can't put my finger on it, I go back to basics and study various story structures in an attempt to puzzle out what the problem is. I think that's the bottom line. If something helps you, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Let your own sense of what is right for you be the bottom line.

Links/References


1. Often stories have more than one main character. In these cases there is, still, often, one character whose arc is predominant. Where this isn't the case then I look at the story as really a combination of many stories that are held together by a common thread such as a person or theme.

Also, while I usually use the term "protagonist" to describe the main character of a story here the word "hero" seems more appropriate.

Friday, April 18, 2014

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose


Did you know that, since 2001, James Patterson has sold more books than any other writer? Apparently 1 out of every 17 hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Patterson's writing, there is no arguing with his popularity. So, how does he do it? Here are seven tips Patterson gave to those who want to write suspenseful prose.

(This blog post is based on the article, World's Best-Selling Author James Patterson On How To Write An Unputdownable Story, by Joe Berkowitz.)

1. Fast Paced: Cut out the parts people skip.


James Patterson says:

"I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip.[*] I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you'd feel like "Stop with the description--what's going on with Haig?" I tend to write stories the way you'd tell them. I think it'd be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that's my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I'm an okay writer, but a very good storyteller."

I think that's what many writers on the bestseller lists would say, that they identify themselves primarily as a storyteller. Their prose may not be as poetic as some, but they can tell an suspenseful, absorbing, story.

* Elmore Leonard also gave this advice.

2. Make it intimate.


James Patterson says:

"I try to put myself in every scene that I'm writing. I try to be there. I try to put the kind of detail in stories that will make people experience what the characters are experiencing, within reason."

I think this is the key to good storytelling. I know Stephen King doesn't think a whole lot of Patterson's books, but one thing both men are know for is a) selling a lot of books and b) being good storytellers.

Personally, I think that King's prose is every bit as good as his storytelling. But, putting that aside, look at the first sentence of Stephen King's book, The Shining: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick." (I discuss this further in Parts of Story.) That sentence is angry and shocking but, above all, intimate. And it raises the question: Why does Jack Torrance think that and whom does he think it of?" Storytelling at its best. 

3. Short chapters.


James Patterson's books tend to have short chapters. I did some calculations and, from the four books I looked at, the average chapter length was about 640 words. That's only about three manuscript pages! Wow, that is short.

4. Outline.


Patterson says that outlining saves time (a view which Chuck Wendig shares). Patterson creates a fairly extensive outline; each chapter is summed up in about a paragraph of text. He says:

"Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you're gonna get the scene, and you're gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work."

If, as I said above, Patterson's average chapter is about 640 words long and if we say that a paragraph of text is about 100 words, then it would appear that those 100 words make up about 1/6th of a chapter.

5. Outlines can and should change so be flexible.


When Patterson writes, his characters speak to him and ruin many of his plans. They can even change the ending!

Patterson says: "One of the drafts I do, I'll decide that okay, it went this way, but it doesn't feel very interesting--what if this happened instead of that? And rarely do I know the ending. Occasionally, but mostly not."

That's a little scary! When I sit down to write I like to have an ending in mind, I like to have a destination. But the ending can--and occasionally does--change.

6. Fake it till you make it.


When he was 26 years old, Patterson won an Edgar award for best first mystery. That book was The Thomas Berryman Number.

"I felt like there might have been a mistake. That’s the kind of lack of confidence you can have early on. You're writing this thing and you hope people like it. You're rewriting and rewriting and get lost in the sauce. Confidence is a big thing."

7. Know your readers.


Patterson says that writers should know who they're telling their stories to and then ask themselves: "What have you got for them?" He says:

"It’s useful that if you tell somebody in a paragraph what the story is and they go, “Ooh ooh, I can’t wait, tell me more,” as opposed to they were just kind of nodding politely. Well, then that just puts so much stress on the writing. That means that the style has to overcome the fact that you don’t have much of a story."

Patterson also mentions that readers want suspense and that the essence of suspense, of creating suspense, is to get the reader to want the answer to a question your story has raised. He says:

"I try to pretend that there's somebody across from me and I'm telling them a story and I don't want them to get up until I'm finished."

Good tips.

Thanks to +Elizabeth S. Craig for sharing a link to Joe Berkowitz's article through Google+. 

Photo credit: "Sondershausen Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Parts of Story: How Setting Can Help Bring Characters To Life



When writing a scene, how much description is enough?

All writers have certain things we do well--or at least, that we do better than others. Things that, relatively speaking, we excel at. I know someone who writes descriptions that make you feel like you're there; you taste the salt in the sea air and feel the early morning chill. But when this person writes dialogue, although it's good, it's not at the same level. And that's fine! Actually, it's reassuring. It wouldn't be, well, human, to be terrific at everything. (Which, I suppose, is an argument that Neil Gaiman is not quite human, but I digress.)

Descriptions aren't my best thing. There, I've said it. I'm talking specifically about the sort of description that needs to go at the beginning of scenes and stories to orient the reader; description that isn't intimately connected with the action of the story but needs to be mentioned. I can't tell you the number of first drafts I've finished where I had given no hint as to the protagonist's hair color, it's length, whether she was cute or handsome or beautiful. Or even a he or a she!

Why? Because it wasn't intimately connected with the action of the story. Or so I thought. Obviously, I under-describe. Readers like to know, for example, whether a character is male or female because they form assumptions, assumptions that may later be proved wrong and that can be disconcerting. 

So back to my question: When writing a scene, how much description is enough? 

I've spent some time mulling this question over and rereading many of the books I've listed in the recommended reading section. I think that, perhaps, in order to answer this question we need to recognize that:

1. A setting isn't just physical, it's also emotional.


In his book, The Fire In Fiction, Donald Maass writes that we should select specific things about the characters environment and describe them in a way that shows the character's emotions. He writes that the combination of details about the setting and the emotions attached to them, "together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story's characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel."

Yes. Exactly. That's a great way of stating what we want to do. But (and this is the 64,000 dollar question), how do we do it? I hate it when writers state a question perfectly then quickly pronounce it a problem for the ages, shake their hoary heads, and move on.

Donald Maass doesn't do this. He answers the question and does so with examples. I won't reproduce them here, those were Donald Maass' examples, passages that spoke to him. I've written before about Stephen King, enough perhaps to give you the idea that I admire his writing, especially the way he could draw me into the worlds he created.[2] (I used to swear there had to be dark magic involved!)

But I think Donald Maass, here, has put his finger on another technique King uses, one which I hadn't noticed.[4] The following are the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).
"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

"As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."[1]
Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters not the room. We understand the characters, the circumstances, first. Then we get to the physical setting. 

a. Character first, setting second.


The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized I wasn't 'seeing' an office. I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was there for a job interview. But that's okay. That information isn't important, not right away. What is important is that we understand the kind of man Jack is, what is important is that we understand how he reacts to Ullman as well as what sort of relationship they have to each other. And we get that (a start at least) from the opening paragraphs, all without knowing the color of each man's hair, if the walls are painted or wallpapered, what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

But look at the information we are given. In the first sentence we are told that the protagonist is Jack Torrence and, through that, we know he's (probably) male. We also have an idea of how old Jack is, an age range. A child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious.' That belies not just an adults vocabulary but, most likely, either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little prick" (depending on their temperament) might well have also said it. But Jack didn't. He's angry but controlling it. 

And, finally, that first sentence also gives us the point of view: third person, subjective.
"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men."
From the second sentence (I'm only going to talk about the first two) we learn that Ullman is short and fat and that Jack thought he was prissy. It's interesting (interesting to me at least!) that while we're told how tall Ullman is, how he moves, that he's plump--quite a number of physical details--we aren't given any of this information about Jack Torrence, the protagonist. 

But that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, we're seeing all this from Jack's perspective, from the narrators point-of-view which is firmly ensconced in Jack's mind. As a result everything Jack sees, everything the narrator tells us about the world, also tells us about Jack. And Jack--this character--couldn't care less about his hair color or how it's cut and styled. One feels Jack would label that as 'prissy,' something Ullman would be concerned about. 

It isn't until a few paragraphs later that we learn what we are watching is a job interview and that the characters are in Ullman's office:
"He slipped Jack’s application back into the file. The file went into a drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a Tensor lamp, and an in/out basket. Both sides of the in/out were empty, too.

"Ullman stood up and went to the file cabinet in the corner. 'Step around the desk, if you will, Mr. Torrance. We’ll look at the floor plans.' He brought back five large sheets and set them down on the glossy walnut plain of the desk. Jack stood by his shoulder, very much aware of the scent of Ullman’s cologne. All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all came into his mind for no reason at all, and he had to clamp his tongue between his teeth to keep in a bray of laughter. Beyond the wall, faintly, came the sounds of the Overlook Hotel's kitchen, gearing down from lunch."
The second thing that jumps out at me is that ...

b. Intimate settings reflect the personality of the characters.


When Stephen King--or, rather, the narrator--describes Ullman's desk (see the passage, above), he is describing Ullman. He is describing items--the desk, the chair, the in/out basket--that Ullman has impressed his personality on. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

It is only in the last paragraph that we are given the information that these characters are at the Overlook Hotel and that it's just after lunch. By this time we know that Jack was enduring a job interview ("He slipped Jack's application back into the file"). But we are only interested in these things because, now, we are interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use the setting to introduce conflict.


King uses the setting--which largely consists of the two men, at least at the beginning--to inject a mammoth amount of conflict right from the first line: "Officious little prick." But, as I mentioned above, Jack's thoughts tell us more about him than about Mr. Ullman:
"Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."
What are the circumstances? King doesn't answer this question right away. He lets the information unfurl, naturally, like we're perched on Jack Torrance's shoulder, riding along with him on this most disagreeable of days, a voyeur learning about this character and his world; a world which just happens to be the world of the story.

And we're hooked!

Or at least I am. King gets me every time. After I read about three or four paragraphs I couldn't put the book down if I tried. And who's trying? 

2. Describe only those aspects of the setting that are relevant to the scene's purpose.


I've spent most of this chapter talking about Stephen King and what his work can show us about how and when to use description (he also has a wonderful discussion of this in his book, On Writing). I'd like to close with a more general point about keeping description focused.

As you know, each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. Each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, show down. 

- Who is the main character, the focal character, in the scene?[3] 
- What is the focal character's goal? 
- What must the focal character accomplish to attain that goal? 
- What opposing force prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
- How does the focal character react to the opposing force? 
- How does the focal character meet this opposition? 

Once you answer these questions you'll not only know the scene's purpose you'll know its overall structure.

But how does that help us describe the setting? Donald Maass suggests that to discover what aspects of the setting are important--to discover what aspects of the setting we must describe to readers--we must first find the turning points. To do this ask:

- What has changed?
- When does it change?
- How is the focal character affected by this change?

Make sure that setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. What has led up to these points, these changes?

Everything else--including details about the setting--should focus on these points. If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to any of the turning points in the scene then ask yourself: do you really need to include it? Perhaps it would be better placed in another scene. Or another novel. 

I hope some of what I've written, above, is of help in describing how much description is enough. In the final analysis I agree with Stephen King: It's all on the table. Use whatever you want, especially on the first draft. Experiment, try new things, let it fly! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and hopefully read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier for you to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

(Note: This is a chapter from my upcoming book: Parts of Story. I've decided to blog the book because, that way, I'm more likely to stay on track. And it seems to be working (Yay!).)

Links/References


1. Notice that these paragraphs were written in third person and yet King seems to have achieved all the intimacy of first person. I've written a bit about how Stephen King might have achieved this--one of the techniques I think he makes use of--in this post: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.
2. Stephen King, since writing his enormously helpful book, On Writing, is well known for believing that stories exist external to, independently of, writers. He believes he discovers stories in much the same way an archaeologist discovers dinosaur bones.
3. Briefly, a viewpoint character is the character whose point of view the chapter is being told from. If the point of view is limited then this viewpoint character will be one of the characters in the story. The focal character is the character that all the fuss is about; they are the protagonist, the main actor. For example, in many of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes was the focal character while Watson was the viewpoint character. 
4. Stephen King also, and very powerfully, uses his character's emotion-laden thoughts to lay bare their souls and make us interested in them. Or at least that's what I think. I've written a bit about this in my article on Free Indirect Discourse (I've given the link, above, in note 1). See also: How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?
5. The remark about it all being on the table is from King's book, "On Writing." 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?

How Did Agatha Christie Hook Readers?


In previous posts I've written about Stephen King and how his prose possesses the almost magical quality of being able to draw me into his story world. (See: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.)

King gets me to care so deeply about his characters, to identify with them so fully, that even though I'm scared to death and half convinced a decomposing mummy has taken up residence under my bed (it's just waiting for me to stick an unprotected foot over the side), even so, I can't stop reading.

Lately, though, I've been reading less of the King of Horror and more of the Queen of Crime. In a previous post (How To Write Like Agatha Christie) I mentioned that Christie's books have sold 4 billion copies, making her the best selling novelist of all time. (see also: Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules and How To Write Like Agatha Christie: Motifs)

What's her secret?

Of course she didn't have one. There is no piece of writing wisdom that, if whispered over an open grave at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, will transform one's prose into the equivalent of catnip for readers. Not even if it's spoken in latin. (More's the pity.)

No, but Agatha Christie did have a bit of Stephen King's magic. She had the knack of making her characters interesting, companionable. She had the knack of making us care about them, for making it matter to us whether they were murdered or falsely accused.

I've always liked Christie's characters, they have always felt like the sort of people I would enjoy spending an evening with--well, most of them. Since one of these wonderfully charming people is a cold blooded killer I doubt I could ever become too comfortable!

The Opening Paragraphs of Murder at the Vicarage


Let's take a look at the opening to the first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage. This book was published in 1930, four years after Christie's great success with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In fact, Christie acknowledged that the character of Caroline Sheppard was a prototype for Miss Marple.

Vicarage was written in first person from the perspective of--you guessed it--the vicar. Here's how it begins:

"It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage. The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments.

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that any one who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

"My young nephew, Dennis, said instantly:

"'That'll be remembered against you when the old boy is found bathed in blood. Mary will give evidence, won't you, Mary? And describe how you brandished the carving knife in a vindictive manner.'

"Mary, who is in service at the Vicarage as a stepping‑stone to better things and higher wages, merely said in a loud, businesslike voice, "Greens," and thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner."

1. Early Character Development


Christie gets right to it. Although the murder doesn't occur for another five chapters she wastes no time letting her readers know what kind of book they're reading. She even gives us a broad hint about who is going to die and, for good measure, teases us with the idea that the murderer will turn out to be the vicar, or at least that he will be suspected of the crime. But he isn't, though it does get things off to a quick and interesting start.

Also, in that first paragraph we're told that the current scene contains "one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments." Right off the bat, the reader is busy hunting for clues and asking themselves which are the important bits and which are the red herrings.

2. Light, Witty, Tone


One thing that jumps out at me immediately is the tone of the passage. It's light, witty, tongue firmly in cheek. 

Christie pokes a bit of fun at the vicar, letting the reader see him as an old curmudgeon with a not-so-hidden soft streak. Dennis teases the vicar and then Christie effortlessly points the camera at Mary. In the same gently mocking tone we are told she is "in service at the Vicarage as a stepping-stone to better things" and then we are shown that she is an abominable housekeeper (she "thrust a cracked dish at him in a truculent manner"). 

Further, all the things Christie shows us are character traits which are connected to significant threads in the story itself. Mary's abominable housekeeping (and the vicar's wife's even more abominable housekeeping) is connected to at least one major clue and sets up one of the main sources of conflict between the vicar and Griselda: her unsuitability for the life of a parson's wife. 

Griselda's unsuitability--or, rather, his unsuitability for her--leads the vicar to worry she is having an affair, but everything is tied up nicely in the end when Christie reveals that much of Griselda's odd behavior is due to the fact that she has been keeping a secret: she's pregnant! And very nervous about how her husband is going to take the news. Of course everything is tied up at the end with a bow and the soon-to-be parents are happy as blissful clams.

3. Opens With Action


In the first few paragraphs there are no descriptive passages. We aren't told what color the wallpaper is or about its design. We don't know what anyone is wearing and we don't know what any of the character's look like. 

But we do know the important bits. We have a decent, though rough, idea of what each character's character is (I wish there was a more graceful way of saying that!). It is as though, with one or two strokes of her brush, Christie brought these characters to life. Not, perhaps, in the same way Stephen King does in, say, The Shining, but that's fine. Personally, I find it difficult--though (disturbingly) not impossible--to imagine King writing an English cosy. 

Colonel Protheroe, the character who will be the victim, is mentioned in dialogue so, naturally, there's no description of him. Nevertheless we learn everything about him we need to know: he is so impossible to deal with that even a man of the cloth would dearly love to stick a carving knife in him.

4. Intimate


Agatha Christie's tone is intimate. Inviting. Wry. She writes:

"I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) [...]" 

In a first person narrative the protagonist speaks directly to the reader, but this isn't always glaringly obvious. In that aside to the reader--"remarkably tough by the way"--it feels to me as though the vicar took a break from his narrative, leaned close to me, and whispered a companionable warning about the quality of the beef. 

Here we have not just a narrator speaking to a reader, they are gossiping. And it feels intimate and personal. That's the sort of thing a friend, a companion, would do. And that's the sort of thing--these little intimate peeks inside a character's soul--that draws me, as a reader, into a story. That sense of character, that sense of ... for lack of a better term ... aliveness

This is something I've noticed about Stephen King's prose as well. I'm going to blog about it in the next few days so I won't go into it in depth here, but if you have a copy close at hand, take a look at the first few paragraphs of The Shining.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Back? Good. That first line: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick," is shockingly intimate. It is as though we can read Jack's mind (it is almost as though, we too, have the shining). This tells us not only about the person Jack Torrance is speaking to, it tells us a lot about Jack Torrance himself. 

(I would argue that King's first sentence is a lot like Christie's aside about the quality of the beef. Both are intimate, private, remarks make by characters who are reaching beyond the page to connect with you.)

As I reread those initial passages of The Shining I kept thinking, yes, Mr. Ullman isn't the warmest, nicest, person in the world, but there's really nothing wrong with him. Yes he probably looks down on Jack as a mere functionary, but, really, that's how Jack sees himself. What one word seems to sum up the Jack Torrance of those early passages? I'd say: angry. And that's one of the themes of the book, perhaps the dominant theme: Jack's anger and how he deals--or doesn't deal--with it.

Okay, I'd say that's enough for now. In the future I want to analyse two other books by Christie, their openings, in an attempt to pick up clues as to how she wove her spell. Will there be a common thread? Stay tuned!

Posts about Stephen King:



Photo credit: "Belvedere Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene? (Part 2 of 2)


This post concludes a series I began in my last post: What is a Scene? 

Conflict


E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, writes:

"Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development."[5]

Let's examine these two sentences.

a. The king died and then the queen died.
b. The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.

What does (b) have that (a) lacks? In a word: conflict. 

(a) is simply a statement of events. As Forster writes, all that a reader can ask--or wonder--in this case is "What happens next?" But, that said, I can't imagine that there could be any sort of genuine curiosity. One could continue by writing, "Then the page died and the cook died." And so on. One could relentlessly take out the entire royal court, but it wouldn't make an interesting story.

(b) is more than a simple statement of events. One can imagine that the queen had a goal: not dying. Something interfered with that goal. What was it? Her grief at the death of the king. (Here we have an antagonistic force--grief--rather than an antagonist.)

Conflict is what moves a story forward. If a story were a car then conflict would be its engine. 

There are various ways conflict can occur but any kind of conflict will involve someone or something who is being prevented from attaining what they desire. 

I think this is why some storytellers hold that the antagonist, rather than the protagonist, is the most important character in a story. But not to the reader. The reader is rooting for the protagonist (or should be). No, the antagonist is the most important person to the storyteller. Why? Because the antagonist is going to create the conflict that drives the story forward.

If nothing prevents the protagonist from getting what they want then all we have is a series of events. Alfred wants a piece of cake and gets it. Beth wants a cup of rich black coffee and gets it, and so on. Boring!

Without something to prevent the protagonist from getting what she wants a story would be about as interesting as watching paint dry.

The conflict should be unique.


Although we do want conflict--lots of it!--we don't want to go with easy conflict. We want conflict that is unique to our protagonist. 

For example, in every episode of the TV series, Monk, there was conflict. Lots of conflict. One of Monk's two main goals was to get back on the police force (the other was to find out who killed his wife, Trudy). Unfortunately, he was his own worst enemy. His obsessions, his compulsions, his multitude of fears and quirks would get in his way and prevent him from achieving his goal. 

One reason that television show worked so well was because the conflict was unique. It was a unique, believable, situation.

Internal Opposition


In order to have a conflict that is unique the opposition to the character's goals must be unique. In Monk's case, the unique opposition was internal. It came from his own limitations, his multitudinous compulsions and phobias. I mean, the man was scared of milk!

Monk was his own worst enemy. His catchphrase said it all: It's a gift and a curse. His uncanny abilities of observation were a direct result of his many phobias, his obsessions. If he lost them he would be normal, sure, but he would no longer excel at solving crime.

So if we see Monk's fears and compulsions as his internal opposition, we see that this did not change through the series. These were the same in every single episode.[6] That said, these fears, these compulsions, were challenged and explored in new ways each episode. The show was kept fresh and interesting because the external opposition Monk encountered varied from episode to episode.

External Opposition


Anything external--exterior--to the character, anything that stands between them and the acquisition of their goal, counts as external opposition. The man who gets punched by a boxer to prevent him flirting with the boxer's girlfriend has just encountered external opposition.

But this external, opposing, force doesn't have to take the form of a person. It could just as easily be a tornado or an illness. Or, as we saw in the beginning of this chapter, grief.

In a television show like Monk the external opposition usually came from two sources: the murderer and someone from within the police department who, for whatever reason, didn't want Monk on the case. These obstacles--both of which were strongly linked to the internal opposition Monk faced (his phobias and compulsions)--combined to form the storytelling engine that drove the episode forward.

Disaster


The overwhelming majority of scenes end in disaster. Given this, why do readers keep turning pages?

It may seem counterintuitive but, as I've said, readers are drawn through a story because their hopes for the protagonist are constantly thwarted by the antagonistic force. 

Try-Fail Cycles


That seems depressing and perhaps a wee bit fatalistic, doesn't it? If the protagonist is constantly thwarted, if he never gets what he's going for, if he never achieves his goal, why don't readers just write him off and give up? Why don't they close the book and stop reading?

Here's why:

1. The reader keeps turning pages because the stakes keep increasing. 


It's ghoulish, but when there's a wreck on the side of the road people slow down to look. Even if it's nothing but a crumpled fender people slow down. Remember in school, if a fight broke out there was no shortage of onlookers. Similarly, in the circus, why do you think some trapeze acts used to be done without a net? Because it upped the stakes and, in so doing, increased the level of excitement, of curiosity.

2. The protagonist only failed because the antagonist was so strong, so brilliant and, perhaps, because the antagonist wasn't playing fair. 


In other words, it's not the protagonist's fault. The deck was stacked against him. 

Which is not to say that the protagonist should ever make this excuse. He shouldn't. He mustn't. He needs to blame himself for the failure even if there was no way he could have avoided it. Only the antagonist is allowed to whimper and shake his fist, spluttering: It wasn't fair!

3. It isn't so much that the protagonist has failed, it's that he almost succeeded. 


I don't have the space to go into them here, but in another chapter I will give examples of try-fail cycles. But, briefly, think of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Lately I've been watching more contemporary movies, movies such as The Winter Soldier, in an effort to give you more up-to-date examples, but if there was one thing that Raiders excelled at, it was try-fail cycles.)

The hero doesn't fail dismally, he almost succeeds. He's so close to succeeding you could taste it. If it wasn't for something completely out of his control, if it wasn't for bad luck, he would have pulled it off.

4. Though the majority of scenes end in disaster and the major goal is never won before the end of the story, minor goals are achieved.


There's a sequence in the middle of Raiders that illustrates this nicely. Indy is trapped in the Well of Souls which has become a snake pit. There are a lot of snakes. Keep in mind that Indy is scared of snakes, that's his minor flaw, his comical--ironic--quirk. His goal in this sequence is to get out of the Well of Souls. 

That goal, to escape the Well of Souls, is what I'll call a sequence goal. A number of scenes and sequels are daisy-chained together, one flowing into the other, and his goal in all of them is to escape the Well of Souls. 

He does. (There was really no question that he wouldn't, it was only a question of how.) After Indy escapes--immediately after--he takes up pursuit of the story goal: finding the ark and bringing it back home.

Throughout the movie Indy achieves many of his sequence goals and he seems to get closer, at times tantalizingly close, to achieving his main goal. But he never does, not until the end.

As soon as the story question is answered, as soon as the protagonist saves the girl, finds the treasure, solves the mystery, that's it. The story is over. Done. Before that happens, though, the protagonist will have all kinds of mini-goals. He'll fail to achieve most of those as well, but he will succeed a few times. But only a few!

I'll talk more about try-fail cycles in another chapter and we'll look at a writer's tool I use often: Yes, BUT; No, AND

Thanks for reading! This post is a rough draft of one of the chapters in my upcoming book, Parts of Story. I welcome any and all questions and (constructive) comments. 

Links/References


5. P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, reproduces Forster's passage, above, and then comments:
"To that I would add, "Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat." That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development." 
P.D. James' comment has more to do with plot and the respectability of the murder mysteries--the genre--as literature, but the quotation was just too good not to include in a footnote!

6. That's not quite true. In at least one episode Monk lost his fears, his compulsions, due to medication he took. Also, in certain episodes his fears became very much worse. But for the most part, his fears and phobias--his psychological condition--did not change. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?

Parts of Story: What Is A Scene?


Jim Butcher describes a scene as the place "where all the plot in your book happens. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal [...] he is engaged in a SCENE."[2]

Dwight V. Swain writes in Techniques of the Selling Writer that a scene is a "blow by blow account of somebody's time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition."[1]

Jack Bickham in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes gives us a warning. He holds that one of the most important aspects of a scene is its continuous nature. A writer develops the "action between the characters moment by moment, with nothing left out; you follow the rules of cause and effect, stimulus and response. To put this another way: you make sure that you never summarize during a high point of conflict in your story."

What elements do these three descriptions have in common? I think it's this: a scene centers around an uninterrupted conflict between two opposing forces. One very important thing: in a scene there is no exposition. No flashbacks. No information dumps. The action is uninterrupted.

The goal of the scene is to draw your readers into the story, to capture their interest, to get them to ask not only what happens next but to wonder why it happened.

Here's how Dwight V. Swain sums up the core, the essence, of a scene: 

Goal --> Conflict --> Disaster

Let's look at each of these.

Goal


Every scene needs two opposing forces, a protagonist and an antagonist (or, more generally, an antagonistic force).[3] Each scene needs someone who wants something desperately as well as someone, or something, who is just as desperate to stop them getting it. 

The goal should be specific.


The protagonist should have a goal so specific you could take a picture of it. A desire for riches isn't a good goal because it's too general, too abstract. Wanting to win next month's million dollar lottery, though, is a fine goal. It even suggests ways to bring it about: buy lottery tickets! Or, if you're writing a crime story, perhaps the protagonist figures out a way to rig the lottery.

Instead of a character wanting to be rich, have them dream of graduating from Harvard Law at the top of their class. Instead of a character wanting love in her life, have her daydream of marrying Ernest Watly, the eccentric librarian who moved to town last year. Instead of a character wanting to travel, have postcards from locations all over the world taped to her walls and give her an abiding desire to see the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The goal should be clearly communicated at the beginning of the scene.


The protagonist's goal should be clearly spoken or demonstrated at the beginning of the scene. There are two things here: first, the goal should be clearly and simply expressed and, second, such expression should occur at the beginning of the scene. As I wrote that sentence it seemed too obvious to state but then I remembered all the stories languishing under my bed in which I didn't follow that advice. 

The scene question.


Every scene should, implicitly, ask the question: Will the protagonist succeed in achieving their goal?

In a scene, any scene, the protagonist sets out to do something. Something specific. Something concrete. But his efforts are opposed. The antagonist has a goal too, and she can't achieve that goal if the protagonist does. So there's a problem. There's conflict.

This is good because now we've created uncertainty. The reader is (hopefully) wondering whether, and how, the protagonist will circumvent the opposition and get closer to achieving their goal.  If so, we've created suspense. It is this opposition between the major characters, this uncertainty, that will create suspense and keep readers turning pages.

The protagonist (and antagonist) must want something desperately.


Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer notes that characters, like people, have three kinds of wants: to possess something, relief from something or revenge for something.

P.D. James in her marvellous book, Talking About Detective Fiction, writes that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."

Whatever the character wants, they must be willing to sacrifice quite a lot for it; possibly everything. Their sanity, even their life. Why? Because as a story progresses the opposition the protagonist faces must increase. At a certain point the protagonist's pursuit of their goal will lack plausibility unless they have a strong desire, and a strong motive, to achieve that goal. 

This is where character development is so very important. If what the character wants grows out of who the character is, out of their deepest desires and drives, then--when these drives are linked up to the goal--it will be plausible that the character will be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve that goal.

I'm going to leave off here. On Monday I'll finish this post and talk about the roles of both conflict and disaster in creating a scene.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story, which I usually publish separately. But this particular chapter proved to be a bit thorny and was taking so much time I decided to post it as one of my three weekly posts. I'm sorry if that creates any confusion. Thanks for your patience as I (slowly) blog my book. Cheers!)

Links/References


1. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
2. Jim Butcher, Scenes, on Livejournal.com.
3. I didn't want to launch into an in-depth explanation of terminology at the beginning of this article since that would be akin to giving an information dump at the beginning of a scene! But I do have a few things to say. In my book this part will likely end up in a glossary. 
- "Protagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and simply means "chief actor." Today, we use the word to indicate the primary character in a story or the main actor in a play. That said, many stories are told through different points of view (POV). Each of these POV characters is the protagonist of their own story. In this way we could talk of a "story protagonist" and a "scene protagonist." I tend to shy away from using these terms as I think they could be confusing. 
- Like "protagonist," the word "antagonist" comes to us from the Greeks and means "opponent, competitor, enemy, rival"[4] and is used to refer to the nemesis or main rival of the protagonist; the character who stands between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist often isn't evil or even bad (if they are then the antagonist is often called a villain). Strictly speaking, the antagonist is just someone who stands between the protagonist and their goal.
- The phrase "antagonistic force" refers to anything that gets in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal, whether human or not. Tornadoes, diseases, and so on, are examples of natural phenomena that have been used as antagonistic forces.
4. Antagonist, Wikipedia.