Posts Tagged ‘plot’

Spider Jerusalem - a writer's writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Spider Jerusalem – a writer’s writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Last week, podcast Writing Excuses reached story structure in their year long writing course. The exercise for this episode was:

Take a favorite piece of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.

I’m not going to do this one in huge depth. It’s an exercise you could potentially keep working at indefinitely, and I’m a bit strapped for time. So I’m going to have a look at what’s happening, and what’s being promised, in the first few pages of one of my all time favourite comics – issue 6 of Waren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s science fiction series Transmetropolitan, a story called ‘God Riding Shotgun’.

Page 1 – Bring on the Crazy

The first page is a splash page – a single large image of journalist Spider Jerusalem typing a rant about religion while dressed in a fake beard, a tin foil halo and a robe made from a stolen bedsheet.

The promise it’s setting up is obvious – in this issue we’re going to see Spider’s take on religion. And because Spider can’t write about anything without getting in people’s faces, that means he’s going to end up fighting, verbally or physically, with priests.

But there’s something else as well. The story Spider is writing involves a taser-wielding priest of the Official Siberian Church of Tesla. This indicates that religion has got pretty weird in Spider’s city, and sets up the expectation of more weirdness to come.

Page 2: Subplot Time

Page two sees Spider waking up his assistant Channon, who isn’t happy at the disturbance. The religious angle is temporarily set aside to set up another plot thread – developments in the relationship between Spider and Channon.

This issue sees a turning point, in which the usually abrasive Spider breaks down his assistant’s defensives and is then forced to admit that he’s been acting like a jerk. This page sets that up by showing the status quo we’ll be moving away from – Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it.

Pages 3 and 4: Pick a Fight, Any Fight

On page three, Channon realises that Spider, high as a kite, has woken her up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a way of throwing in a conflict early on to keep things exciting, giving the issue’s main plot time to develop more slowly, and promises future friction between these two characters.

It also moves along the sub-plot about their relationship – the status quo is disrupted by Channon arguing back.

The end result, for now, is Channon questioning how much longer Spider’s body can take the abuse he’s giving it with drugs and lack of sleep. In terms of the series, this is foreshadowing a problem further down the line by pointing out to the reader that their might be a downside to Spider’s wild lifestyle.

Page 5: And Now The Main Action…

Page 5’s central point is a conversation about the huge number of new religions springing up in the city, and ends with Spider demanding that Channon find him churches. The conflict with religious representatives promised on page one is now about to turn into action. The drug-addled journalist is going to go out into the world and find, or make, a religious story. It’s the turn that leads us into the plot proper.

Understanding What Other Writers Do

This exercise made a change from the previous ones, in which I got to be creative. Even just doing it briefly, it helped me to understand what Ellis was doing structurally in building this story, and so to think about how I could use similar tricks. The early conflict in the sub-plot to buy time for the main plot was a particularly neat touch.

If I have time later I might come back and analyse the rest of this issue, because this was interesting and I love reading Transmetropolitan, in all its foul mouthed and angry grandeur.

Anyone else had a go at this exercise, or feel like giving it a try now? Just have a think about the chapter you’re reading or the program you’re watching and see if you can work out what’s going on structurally. Let me know how you get on – share your results or a link to them below. It’ll be interesting for me to see what others got from this.

Whatever we do in life, we get better by learning from other people. Whether it’s plumbing, writing or how to make the perfect fried egg, even if we don’t agree with them, seeing someone else’s technique can help us reflect on our own. I’m always going to have a lot to learn about writing as a craft – anyone who writes does. So when I see a lot of people enthusing about a writing book, I’m going to give it a go. Several people I respect have recommended James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle, so it seemed like time to give it a go.

You’ve Got to Start From Somewhere

‘Structure is the translation software for your imagination.’ – James Scott Bell

I like having structures to write with. They act as reminders of the fundamentals needed in a story. If they’ve worked well before then following the structures others use can help you to write something better, something more readers will enjoy.

I know some people don’t like the idea of following a structure. They think it constricts creativity. I disagree. I think that structures support creativity, and only becoming stifling when you follow them blindly. To paraphrase Pratchett, rules are there so that we think before we break them. That’s the benefit of using a structure like Bell’s – it means you don’t have to reinvent the plotting wheel, but can spin off from it when you feel that’s appropriate.

There’s no doubting that Bell provides a useful structure. I can see why this book is popular – it presents a clear approach that’s easy to use, ties together character and plot, and should provide the ups and downs a story needs. It’s even got a neat little gimmick to sell it by – that you’re starting from the middle.

It’s not entirely true, but it is a neat gimmick.

One More Option

But this book didn’t blow my mind or provide me with massive new ideas in the way I’d hoped for from the hype. I think that’s because I’m already following a structure much like Bell’s, but from a different source.

Bell’s structure has a lot in common with the seven point story structure favoured by Dan Wells, and which I use for almost all my stories. You don’t really start in the middle, you start by knowing where you’re going from and to, work out what the key turning point is at the centre of the book, and build in turns and pinches from there. The labels are different, and Bell adds some useful details I wasn’t using before, but in many ways it’s the same beast.

If you want to strengthen your plotting this is definitely a useful book. I’ve noted down half a dozen things from it in my notebook on technique, and if I hadn’t already seen Wells’s structure talk it would have hugely reinvigorated my writing. But because of where I’m at, it didn’t entirely live up to the hype.

It’s useful to have a range of structures you can work with, so that you can pick one that suits you. Bell’s writing from the middle is one more useful structure. It’s just not one I’ll be following.

The ending is one of the most important parts of any story. Sure, the beginning is what hooks readers, but the ending is what shapes their thoughts and feelings after they finish your work, and so colours their memories of the rest. It determines whether a story is satisfying through the payoff it provides, and makes a huge difference to whether readers, viewers and listeners come back for more.

The ending was the closest to a bum note for me in reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. Without spoiling it, I think it’s safe to say that all the pieces are put in place properly, and in that sense the ending is earned. But there’s a huge shift of tone for the climactic sequence that’s at odds with the rest of the book. It’s like the author changed genres slightly to get the results, rather than sticking with the Austen-style social drama that had dominated to that point, and that disappointed me. I like genre mash-ups, but I also like endings that fit the books, and this one didn’t quite. It wasn’t so awful I won’t read more, in fact I enjoyed the book so much I’m already reading the sequel, but still, it was a shame.

I’m also aware that the ending of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother really divided people. I thought it was great, fitted the story and said some things about love and life that I don’t expect from a mainstream sitcom. Others thought it took an easy option. If you don’t mind the spoilers, this video from the excellent PBS Idea Channel looks at it in more depth:

 

My current freelance ghost writing is also raising some questions for me about endings. I’m working on a series of books, and the plot I’ve been given involves each book setting up questions for the next. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making readers want more and leaving them feeling like they got closure. How I pace the final story beats of each book is shaped a lot by that.

Which stories do you think got the endings right, and why? Which got them wrong? Share your thoughts below, help me refine my own thinking.

And as ever, if you’d like to read more from me, you can find out about my ebooks here, including some of the glowing things people have said about them in reviews.

3261773180_27ccde179c_zYou can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can never entirely take the classroom out of the teacher. Hence the fact that Laura sometimes tells me off for using my ‘teacher voice’ with her, and that when I see people learning I want to build on it. So given several positive responses to my previous post on planning a novel, I thought I might spend a bit more time looking at how I use seven point story structure.

To share an example of how this worked for me, I’m going to talk about ‘A Flash of Power‘, a steampunk flash fiction story I published here a few weeks ago. So you can see how I planned it, and how that worked out in the end.

Think short

Unlike planning a novel, for a short story I seldom have more than one plot strand. That’s particularly true for flash fiction – seven story beats in less than a thousand words is quite enough. It also means that those beats aren’t such big shifts as in a full novel, and tend to be more immediately connected.

Step 1: a beginning and an end

Before planning the story I brainstormed a whole bunch of ideas then thinned them out using 100:10:1. I didn’t actually come up with a hundred ideas, but I did the fundamental part of brainstorming lots of ideas, developing a few and then picking one. For ‘A Flash of Power’ that was taking Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the steampunk heroes of a couple of stories in Riding the Mainspring, and giving them the challenge of stopping  a runaway moving factory.

That gave me an obvious end point for my story’s resolution:

  • They stop the machine.
    TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

The second part means there’s some some small slither of character development in what’s otherwise a slightly daft adventure story – mad inventor Blaze-Simms recognises the need for some small limit on what he does.

Seven point structure suggests starting at the opposite point from where you’re going to end, so that gave me my hook to introduce the story with:

  • On moving factory TBS built – lightning-powered, combined with lightning generator.
    DD questioning the logic of the factory, as it’s now out of control.

So the factory’s out of control, and Blaze-Simms is being challenged on the wisdom of his creation but hasn’t listened yet.

Now to work out how they get from hook to resolution.

Step 2: twists and turns

The mid-point is when the characters make a transition towards pro-actively tackling their situation, and that propels them from the hook to the resolution. In this story the characters are trying to stop the factory from the start – again, a flash length story didn’t leave me time for any pre-amble and I wanted to start in media res. So that transition needed to be them taking control, and that meant giving them a plan to stop the factory, making my mid-point:

  • TBS says they can earth the factory.
    DD accepts that as the plan.

Now I needed turn one, the event after the hook that would normally introduce the conflict and which sets them on the path of reactively trying to solve the problem. With the factory already out of control, the conflict came from showing why it was dangerous:

  • It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

Oh no, disaster! The great big factory is going to crush the little people! Quick, heroes to the rescue!

I also needed turn 2, the event between the midpoint and the resolution, where the heroes grasp victory from the jaws of defeat and find the final thing they need to succeed. Here it is:

  • TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

Great. They have a plan and the tools to carry it out, getting them to the end. But everything’s going a bit too smoothly. So…

Step 3: Making things awkward

If your protagonists have everything go their way then the story’s boring. Things need to go wrong. So between turn one and the midpoint came pinch one, piling on pressure for the characters. In this story I didn’t want to add an extra villain or major new complication, so the setback came from the failure of the characters’ own idea to solve the problem:

  • DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

They’ve pulled the plug but the factory keeps going, leading to the midpoint and coming up with a proper plan. But after that comes pinch two, in which even more pressure is applied and they look failure in the eye:

  • DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

Oh no! Our hero is hurtling, however briefly, towards his doom.

Step 4: Once more, this time in order

Put all of that together and you have the plan I used to write ‘A Flash of Power’:

H:
On moving factory – lightning-powered, combined w lightning generator.
DD questioning the logic, as factory’s now out of control.

T1:
It’s heading straight towards a town and disaster.

P1:
DD rips out obvious connections between power sources – doesn’t help.

M:
TBS says they can earth it.
DD accepts that as the plan.

P2:
DD tries to get to parts room by climbing a drainpipe, but gets shocked off the pipe and almost blown off the factory.

T2:
TBS gets hold of the necessary conductor for earthing – it’s what DD’s been hanging off.

R:
They stop the machine.
TBS looks pretty fried, promises no more moving buildings.

And you can compare that with the story I actually wrote here.

Let me know if you’re finding any of this useful. Sometime soon I’ll probably talk about what comes before all of this – some of how I approach developing the core idea of a story. And as I put some of it into practice over NaNoWriMo I’ll probably discuss other writing techniques I use, partly because of my inner teacher, but mostly because November looks crazy busy and I won’t have time for blog ideas that aren’t just spewing out what’s on my brain that day.

If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo then come buddy up with me on the site – I’m there as gibbondemon, just like my Twitter tag – and if you enjoy ‘A Flash of Power’ then you can read more adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms in Riding the Mainspringavailable for the Kindle through Amazon and on other formats via Smashwords.

Happy plotting!

 

Picture by Ben Tesch via Flickr Creative Commons.

Sometimes we do best by listening to the wisdom of others. So today I’m going to take a back seat and share some wisdom from everwalker, who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the power of myth and story archetypes. Take it away…

 

myth chart

How many stories can you think of? One hundred? Five hundred? A thousand? In 2013 1,444 films were released worldwide, and approximately 2.2 million books published (not counting self-publishing, which accounted for 391,000 in the US alone. That’s a lot of stories, right?

According to Christian Booker, there’s only seven. In his book The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories, he says:

“Wherever men and women have told stories, all over the world, the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways… There are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any story-teller ever entirely to break away from them.”

Booker is far from the first person to posit this theory. Dr Samuel Johnson and Goethe were both before him, but we don’t have any surviving texts of theirs that go into detail.

Booker’s list of basic plots, then, is as follows:

  1. Overcoming the monster: the hero sets out to destroy a great evil threatening the land.
    Examples: Perseus, Beowulf, Dracula, Harry Potter
  2. Rags to riches: the hero defies oppressive forces and blossoms into a mature figure who wins riches and the perfect mate.
    Examples: Joseph, Cinderella, Pygmalion, Superman
  3. The quest: the hero sets out to find something, usually with companions.
    Examples: The Aeneid, Pilgrim’s Progress, Treasure Island, Lord of the Rings
  4. Voyage and return: the hero sets off into a distant land with strange rules, survives the madness, and returns home more mature than when he set out.
    Examples: Orpheus, Goldilocks, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Chronicles of Narnia
  5. Comedy: the protagonists are destined to be together but dark forces intervene. The story conspires to make those forces relent and everyone is seen for who they really are.
    Examples: The Wasps, Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Four Weddings and a Funeral
  6. Tragedy: the protagonist spirals slowly down into darkness and is finally defeated.
    Examples: Medusa, Faust, Dorian Grey, Lolita
  7. Rebirth: as with tragedy, but the protagonist realises his error and changes his ways.
    Examples: Orestes, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, Star Wars

For me, this leaves two questions: why do we feel compelled to use the same building blocks over and over and over again, despite the changes in social structure and cultural norms? And is it something to be embraced or fought against?

seven-basic

The first question is pretty fundamental to the idea of storytelling in general. Why do we tell them at all? As a means of communication, sure, but what are we communicating? Well, generally it’s about how to live well. Stories tell us where we came from, where we are now, and how to make the best future possible. They give us social guidelines and behavioural models. Those that don’t play by the rules of the story – the villains and tragic figures – get cast out as being detrimental to the community. The details have changed to accommodate different times and cultures, but the necessity for a working communal structure remains. Thus the stories endure. There is more nuance to it, of course. Shared stories bring us together as individuals, and provide an accessible template for self-identity.

And there’s the problem. We have individual identities with egos and selfish impulses that can easily become damaging to the wider community. Stories are a tool to remind us of the ‘right’ way to behave in order to achieve the sense of belonging that we also, conflictingly, crave. They not only show us how to build a community, they also soothe that part of us which doesn’t want to.

So, should we be railing against the uniformity of our stories? Trying desperately to find an eight original plot? To be honest, I’m not sure we should. Yes, it would be nice to come up with something completely and brilliantly new but sticking to the building blocks hasn’t done people like C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling any harm. In many ways it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, at a subconscious level, we have an expectation that stories will follow certain patterns then any that don’t run a serious risk of being unsatisfying. Besides, the fundamental need for a community that works, and a sense of belonging, is probably stronger now than ever. In this over-communicating society, connecting with people outside of cyberspace is a major challenge. Those building blocks might be a bit warn but we aren’t done with them yet.

 

Several of my posts this week have been inspired by Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You. But there’s one thing she discusses that I really don’t like, and that I hear authors doing all the time.

She talks about the characters taking over.

My character made me write it

A lot of writers talk about the points at which the character takes over. When they want to go one way but the character won’t fit with that direction. When the character takes the story in a direction they didn’t expect. When they feel like the character has gained a life of its own and taken over. For many, the character then becomes the one directing the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and sympathise with this outlook. Characters are absolutely central to story, and sometimes that comes into conflict with the plot you had intended. Sometimes you realise that the way the character’s heading and the way you wanted to take the story don’t match, so you change course. That direction didn’t seem to come from your ideas, so it must have been the character taking over, right?

Wrong.

So very wrong.

Mystifying vs empowering

Lets face the uncomfortable truth. There are ideas in our heads that we aren’t aware of. There are emotions and instincts that take over and try to warn you when you’re heading in the wrong direction. That’s called the subconscious.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable to think that we’re not in control of what’s going on in our brains. So we mystify it, we externalise it, in the case of writing we talk about the characters having lives of their own.

But they don’t. Everything about them comes from you, from your ideas, your passions, your emotions. The person telling you that your plot and your character aren’t consistent isn’t the character, it’s you. That uncomfortable niggle when something doesn’t fit doesn’t come from your character or your muse, it comes from you, from the skills and awareness you don’t even recognise that you have. Your brain is capable of far more than you realise. Accept it. Revel in it!

Wait, that came from me?

Wait, that came from me?

 

Sure, the metaphor of the character taking over is a useful one, but it still muddies the waters, stops us carrying this through to its logical conclusion. It makes the character seem like something whole and complete, beyond you to change.

Again, wrong.

Facing the conflict

If your subconscious is telling you that the character and the plot don’t match then you don’t just have two options – write your plot or listen to your character. Once you acknowledge that the character, that little nagging voice, is just as much you as any other thought, then you have three options – the bad option, the standard option and the other option.

Bad option: Ignore it, let the character behave inconsistently for the sake of plot. Terrible idea, it’ll annoy readers and make a worse story. This is why people usually take the second option.

Standard option: Change the plot to fit the character. Keep things consistent through different events. This is usually the right option. It keeps the character, the driving force behind your story, consistent.

Other option: Change the character to make the story work. This is lots of hard work, as it means going through the rest of the story and altering the way the character thinks, talks and behaves, but if you really want that plot twist then it is an option. It might even lead to a better character.

Facing the cold, hard truth

Openly acknowledging that the character is part of you, and just as open to change as anything else in your story, is an uncomfortable but an empowering thing. There’s a useful part in the ‘my character says…’ approach, and that’s acknowledging the voice of your subconscious. But lets go further. Lets recognise that voice for what it is, own the insight it brings us, make it our own. It’s more honest, it gives us more options, and it can lead to better storytelling.

Taking responsibility for what your character ‘says’ also means empowering yourself as a writer. How can that possibly be a bad thing?

 

Photo by Matthew Wynn via Flickr creative commons

I went to see Thor: The Dark World this week and, no surprise, I enjoyed it. It was just as fun and engaging as its predecessor, even if I missed Branagh’s distinctive direction.

But there was something interesting about this film’s use of conflict that seemed worthy of more comment.

Less Ecclestone

It’s been widely noted that the film’s main villain, Malekith, didn’t have a lot of screen time. At first glance this seems an odd choice for an action movie, especially when they’d cast the ever-menacing Christopher Eccleston in the role. There’s talk of more Eccleston footage that wound up on the cutting room floor. Maybe that’s the case, maybe it’s just what people want to hear.

But while I wouldn’t have minded more Malekith, I thought this decision actually played to the film’s strengths, and highlighted where its real conflicts lie.

Internal vs external conflicts

Most of the conflict in a film like this is external to the characters. They aren’t grappling with their doubts and inner demons, though there’s usually a nod to that. The main things they’re grappling with are each other, in big knock-down fights or exchanges of pointed dialogue.

But there are levels of external. There are the threats and conflicts that rise against the group of protagonists, and these are those between them. The Dark World is mostly about the latter. It’s about the politics of Asgard, family feuds between gods, and to a lesser extent the conflicting ways that human society responds to the unfamiliar.

The battery and the machine

So if the film’s main theme and story isn’t about dark elves, where does Malekith fit in? Was he just a bolt-on to provide action set pieces?

Of course not. His presence applies the pressure needed to bring out those other conflicts. He’s the rising water that leaves people hunting for rescue, the sinking balloon from which someone must be thrown for the good of the rest.

The machinery of the story might be bickering Asgardians, but Malekith and his minions are the battery that powers that machine. And in that role, they get just the right amount of screen time.

If you’ve seen the film what did you think? Not enough Eccleston, or just enough? Was it all just about Tom Hiddleston? What were your highlights?

I’ve just finished reading Shannon OCork’s ‘How to Write Mysteries’, one of those random charity shop acquisitions I’m fond of. I’m not a mystery writer, but I like to read widely about writing, as it helps develop a range of skills. And to help some of that learning settle in my head, here are a couple of key lessons I learned from this one.

OCork talks about the real and apparent plot. By her reckoning, every mystery should have these two main plots, if not more. The apparent plot is what seems to be going on. The real plot hides behind it, and is slowly revealed as you go through the apparent plot. This is meant to create curiosity and excitement in the reader, as they recognise what is being exposed. I think this idea has value beyond mystery novels, as it’s a way of both building intrigue and helping your reader feel smart. I have a theory that feeling smart is a big part of what makes us enjoy books, so this sits well with me.

The other top tip I took from this book was to use each success to foster another difficulty. The character might retrieve the magical sword they need, but this will draw the attention of the goblin king, creating a new challenge to overcome. They might succeed in wiping the files they were being blackmailed with, but the hack that let them do this draws the attention of the FBI, putting them on the run. It’s a way of piling on the excitement through new challenges, but making those challenges seem to arise naturally.