Posts Tagged ‘structure’

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’

Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons

Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of what I’m taking from books, what I’m noticing and learning from, is about structure rather than writing style. For better or for worse The Gunslinger, the first of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books has forced me to change focus.

A string of pearls

Structurally, The Gunslinger is a series of separate incidents as we follow the protagonist across a desolate American west that seems to be part fantasy part post-apocalyptic wasteland. The parts of the book, originally published as separate short stories, sit together like pearls on a necklace – pieces that work well together but are distinctly separate.

The setting is reminiscent of that structure. That are a lot of distinct pieces here – the western atmospherics, the falshbacks to a feudal palace, the visions at a mountainside shrine. They’re all individually fascinating, but they don’t quite mesh into a coherent whole. This isn’t a problem – reality itself is neither coherent nor thematically clear – but it makes it hard to think and talk about King’s world building.

Plain English

So that leaves the prose.

This is only the second Stephen King book that I’ve read, and the first piece of fiction. As I’ve not been thinking much about writing style it’s hard for me to analyse it, but it’s undoubtedly one of the strengths of the book. What King seems to do – and I’m hoping I’ll refine this thought while reading the second volume – is to use simple words to create complex images. There’s plenty of description and evocation of characters’ internal states, but a lot of it’s done using straightforward language and short words. There’s no sign of excessive time spent with a thesaurus. It helps the story to flow.

Just look at that quote at the top of the page, the first line of the novel. It’s simple, clear and intriguing. It tells you a lot about what’s going on using only a dozen words, mostly one and two syllable. It evokes and intrigues. That’s good writing.

Learning to learn

I suppose the main lesson that I’ve learned from this one is that I don’t know how to properly analyse writing style, and I could benefit from working on that. But I’ve also been reminded that simple is often good, a lesson we easily forget.

Have you read The Gunslinger, or others of King’s works? What did you think? How would you describe his prose?

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 just finished reading Terry Prachett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long War, their sequel to The Long Earth. It’s fair to say that, while there’s a lot to enjoy in this book, I wound up as ambivalent about it as I was about its predecessor. This time though I think there was a clearer, more definite problem, and it’s one that interests me as a writer – it’s the problem of expectations.

The Long War is set in the Long Earth, a series of millions of parallel Earths between which people travel. Over a decade has passed since the events of the first book, and humans are settling more and more into the parallel worlds. But there are conflicts brewing, as social and political change disrupt the status quo.

As with The Long Earth, this is well written. It flows easily, the characters are likeable and interesting, and the world that’s being built is fascinating. I had the same problem with the narrative’s ambling nature as I had with the previous book, but that’s a matter of personal taste – I prefer my stories with a bit more focus, a bit more intensity to them.

But this book had a problem its predecessor didn’t, and that’s in the expectations it set. Both the book’s title and its blurb implied a racheting up of the conflicts that were stirring in the previous book. There’s talk of how war is coming, and it’ll be unlike wars that have come before. It got me all ready for an exciting tale of action, in which the military implications of flitting between different worlds would be explored. That sounded exciting.

And that’s not this book. It’s clear from the ending that there’s a reason why Pratchett and Baxter chose the name they did, and that the more low-key resolution is there to make a point. It’s an interesting point. It’s an optimistic one for human nature. It even says something about the nature of the Long Earth. But it wasn’t what I’d been led to expect. There’s wasn’t a big build-up of tension. There wasn’t a feeling that things could go violent at any minute. And there really wasn’t a war. In fact, if not for a single reference near the end, the book’s title would have seemed to be completely cheating.

The thing is, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if it hadn’t set those expectations. I’d have known from the first book what I was getting into. I’d have settled in for more well-written ramblings through a well developed world. But that Wasn’t what I was led to expect, and as I read I found myself increasingly disappointed as that promise wasn’t fulfilled.

The writers on the Writing Excuses podcast often talk about the need to end a story by fulfilling the promises you make at the start, the things you’re implying it will be about. A book’s title and blurb are part of that start, and The Long War didn’t live up to its promises. As a writer, I’ve made a mental note not to make that mistake myself, to consider what my titles are telling the reader.

Have you read The Long War? What did you think? And can you think of other examples where books don’t deliver on their promise, or deliver something completely different, for better or worse?

I’ve just had to rewrite a scene from a different point of view. It was really wrenching. The scene, set at a Roman arena, felt very evocative from the original point of view, that of a jaded ex-legionary seeing the games for the first time. I got to invest the experience with cynicism, to make it about of a connection not quite made, filled at once with nostalgia and alienation. And of course a warrior is well suited to notice and describe the details of a fight.

But ultimately, that wasn’t enough. The scene serves a function within the story, moving on plots, developing characters. And those parts of the scene are better evoked from the point of view of a young Roman aristocrat, showing her triumphs and frustrations, the things that are going on around the games.

My big lesson for this is that what best serves description isn’t necessarily what best serves character and plot. Or maybe that what feels most exciting for one scene won’t necessarily be the best choice for the whole story. Or… I don’t know, I’m just trying to retrieve meaning from my disappointment.

Have any of you had to change the viewpoint on a scene or a story? Why? How did you feel about it? Have you read a scene in someone else’s work that you thought had the wrong viewpoint? Offer me comfort or wisdom or both, people of the internet.

If we take creative structures to their extreme we end up with templates. There’s a certain snobbery around these, whether intended or not, that implies that using them isn’t really doing the craft, that it is somehow going to limit your creativity. To that I say nonsense.

There are all sorts of writing templates out there. Worksheets for setting design. Story structures. Character archetypes. They’re all short-cuts for creating part of your story, that give you a framework to hang the details on, and a reminder of what the important details are.

I’ve been using templates a lot recently, especially Dan Wells’s seven point story structure and Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s books on structure and characterisation. Once I’ve got an initial kernel of a story, these help me flesh it out in compelling ways. I’m building on the boundaries others have provided, creating something new within those structures, something that’s my own. And my stories have been better for it.

 

This doesn’t mean that I’m bound to those templates, or that I’m going to keep using them forever. They provide me with a way to practice the fundamentals, to go over building blocks of good writing until they come to me on instinct.

If I was learning to play folk music I wouldn’t start with my own composition. I’d play All Around My Hat until everyone around me was sick of that song. Then I’d learn the next tune, and the next, each time learning a bit more about how to play folk, until eventually I was ready to write the ultimate tribute to the victims of the Peterloo Massacre.

The Peterloo Massacre - not a template to follow (image courtesy of Nefarioussenator on flickr creative commons)

The Peterloo Massacre – a template for oppressing peaceful protest
(image courtesy of Nefarioussenator on flickr creative commons)

Using templates in writing is the same thing. It’s playing others’ songs so that you can write your own.

These templates provide boundaries, and that can provide inspiration. They’re not a restriction to which you must rigidly adhere, but a guide you can use until you feel confident to create those structures for yourself. Or that you can stick to forever if they work for you.

No story springs fresh out of nowhere, every one builds on foundations that others have laid. Fresh sparks of genius don’t fly unbidden from Neil Gaiman’s forhead, unrelated to everything that has come before. Instead he takes mythology and superhero comic tropes to create Sandman, or riffs on The Jungle Book for The Graveyard Book. If using others’ structures is good enough for him, then it’s certainly good enough for me.

What templates have you found useful? Do you, like me, sometimes feel that traitorous niggling in your guts that these are cheating? Have you seen them used well or badly in something you’ve read? Then leave a comment – there’s a template for it below.

A recent post about time by everwalker got me thinking about how we relate to the past in fiction.

Often, the past is a matter of back story, presented in scattered references throughout the story, or in cruder examples dumped on the reader through dialogue and exposition. Uncovering that past becomes a matter of literary archaeology, piecing together the clues so that you can understand where the characters are coming from. That’s part of why the exposition dump is less satisfying to read – it takes away the satisfaction of putting together the pieces.

Time travel stories are obviously different. Characters step back into the past, whether their own personal past, as in Looper, or a bit of history, as in Doctor Who. This allows the story teller to play with our perspective on reality, to question how reliable the truth is that’s been presented to us, as when The Doctor discovered that the eruption at Pompeii was caused by an alien. It also raises questions about how we are shaped by our past, as when history is re-written and characters change – shown entertainingly, if not coherently, when a character in Misfits headbutted Hitler.

 

Writers can play around with the past through story structure too. Iain M Banks did this in Use of Weapons, with one narrative strand moving forward and the other back, diverging chronologically but coming together thematically. While challenging to pull off, this can make for some interesting storytelling, and give the writer more control over the order they reveal information in. And of course this can be used to heighten tensions and create dramatic irony – those moments when a character says ‘of course that could never happen’, but we know it’s happened there three weeks into the future.

Some of my favourite examples come not from sci-fi but from sitcoms. Before he was the brains behind Doctor Who, Steven Moffat wrote Coupling, in which time was fractured to comedic and dramatic effect several times, most notably in the episode Nine and a Half Minutes, which showed the same period of time from three different perspectives, giving the same events different meaning in each version. And then there’s How I Met Your Mother, a mostly unremarkable American sitcom, but which presents the whole show as past events told by an unreliable narrator, allowing his faulty memory, imagination and deceptions to be presented directly on screen, as he rambles around and occasionally re-writes his own past.

The past isn’t just a foreign country. It’s a puzzle that has to be pieced together any time we write a story. But it’s a puzzle with many different solutions, and the order we put it in, as much as the pieces, help create the story. I haven’t had the courage to properly experiment with this yet, but I look forward to the day when I will. And in the meantime, if you can think of other good examples, let me know below.

Before I start this post, I should say that there may be spoilers for The Hunger Games books. If you haven’t read them, you might want to come back to this later. You might also want to go out and read them right now – seriously, they’re brilliant.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I discussed how well Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy gets inside the head of Katniss, the story’s protagonist. That skill supports multiple layers of understanding of the story, which also enrich the reading experience. To steal Donkey’s metaphor from Shrek, the Hunger Games is like an onion, and today I want to peel back the layers.

Firstly, there is Katniss’s understanding of events. Katniss’s limited understanding of people, along with the emotional scars she aquires during her journey, allows her only a limited understanding of events. She sees only the surface of what’s happening around her, or reads her own specific interpretation into the motives of others. This adds depth to the character, as it reveals her flaws, her mental habits and her emotional state. It’s a skilful piece of show not tell that adds richness to the character.

Then there’s the level of understanding a first time reader can achieve. Collins’s deft portrayal of Katniss’s thoughts and feelings allows us to see past what Katniss understands, and gain a deeper understanding of events. We see the things that Katniss doesn’t, such as Peeta’s very real love for her. As the political plot unfolds in the second and third books, our understanding is usually ahead of Katniss. How far ahead depends on the reader, but any reader gets to feel smart at working out things that Katniss hasn’t. This also adds a pleasing layer of irony to reading Katniss’s thoughts, and incredible tension as we realise that something she’s going to do, for the best of reasons, is completely misguided. To go back to the example of Peeta, we know what emotional harm she’s doing to him long before Katniss does.

Lastly, there’s the layer of plot that provides big surprises, the things going on behind the scenes. The biggest example of this is the finale of the second book. There are hints throughout the book at something going on, not enough to allow the reader to gain a full understanding, but enough so that everything slots into place afterwards. It left me reacting with a satisfied ‘aha!’, rather than a disappointed ‘what the?’ when the twist came. It allows for surprises for the reader as well as Katniss, and adds extra pleasure to re-reading.

There’s a natural tendency when telling a story to want to put it all out in the open for the reader to see, if through the skewed perspective of your characters. But Collins’s approach makes her books far more satisfying, in both plot and character.

This week, I’ve taken a lesson from Writing Excuses and tried the seven point story structure. It’s not the first structured plotting tool I’ve used, and it won’t be the last, but it was particularly useful.

I won’t go into the seven points – you can get that from the Writing Excuses episode or Dan Wells’s lecture. The important thing is that you plan your writing around seven key moments, most of them involving significant change. I found that seven points was pretty much a perfect amount for a short story. I could see how it would run to a decent length, but could still fit into a few thousand words.

The seven points helped to give focus to a story I’d been struggling with. In particular, working out the end state first and then starting from the opposite point gave the story and central character a dynamic arc they’d previously been lacking. Filling those seven key points also added a sense of transformation and tension that my story had previously lacked.

Seven point structure doesn’t do everything, by any means. I had to do a lot of thinking, and use another writing tool, before I even started with it. But I find that any new approach to structuring my thinking is useful, just to give me a different perspective, and I’ll be coming back to this one.

And best of all, I think my previously mentioned post-deluvian pirate story might now work. Though only if I can stop making excuses and get back to writing…

Last weekend Mrs K and I accidentally stumbled upon the Mintfest street arts festival. This made for a wonderful weekend, wandering around Kendal, seeing strange little acts of dancing, juggling, machine building and all sorts of other madness. But while none of this was writing related, my writing brain was still ticking away. Lets face it, if you can’t find inspiration in a mad puppet circus then you can’t find it anywhere.

The best example of this was a trampoline performance by the remarkable Cirque Inextremiste. How does trampolining get to be remarkable? That’s a little hard to explain, but to give you an idea, it involved a comedy terrorist, a five foot red rubber ball, and a stack of calor gas cannisters, all of which spent time bouncing on the trampoline. Off the trampoline there was a spud gun, a blowtorch and some alarmed audience participation. To cap it all off there were some haunting clarinet solos. It was exciting, funny, and at times almost sad.

So what did my writing brain make of this? A story of martyrdom and bouncing explosives, with a musical ending? Well, maybe. But my main take aways were about structuring story.

Firstly, Inextremiste did a great job of setting up plot elements, and using them efficiently. Throw away gags used to warm up the crowd were also set-up for later moves. Objects played multiple roles in the story. The finale was a great pay-off for the hectic action that had come before, and finished with a calmer moment to let it sink in.

The other thing it made me think about was the use of action. The whole performance was visual, with no spoken words. The story was clearly designed as a vehicle for a series of increasingly impressive trampolining stunts. Yet every one of those stunts progressed the story. Unlike the action in poorly plotted thrillers, every act, however spectacular, moved the plot along, adding complications to the central character’s quest for martyrdom.

Looking back over some of my stories, I can see places where a set-piece is there because I like the action, but it changes nothing. And what I was reminded of by Cirque Inextremiste is just how lazy that is. If they, without words, could show how every ridiculous bounce on a trampoline contributed to a story, then I, with the whole English language at my disposal, have no excuse not to do the same.