Save the Dog, Save the Story!

Snowy dog
Save the Dog:
Engendering curiosity can be an effective structural device that prevents the story from flagging.

In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge reminds us that when a character or event is not fully explained from the outset, or the hero seeks the answer to some question or mystery not yet provided by the text, the reader keeps turning the pages in search for answers.

Whodunit murder mysteries obviously rely on our insatiable curiosity to discover the identity of the killer, a curiosity that increases with each red herring.

But less obvious examples include strange objects and actions, such as the recurring motif of the peculiar mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the reason behind Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby.

The longer the writer withholds a secret the more satisfying the revelation has to be.

In Silverado, the Kevin Kline character, Paten, is constantly asked, “Where’s the dog?” We have no idea of what dog the characters are talking about, and why it is so important.

But towards the end of the film we discover that Paten was once captured during a robbery because he took time out to try and rescue a dog. This does not only satisfy the audience’s curiosity over the unanswered question, it increases our sympathy for Paten, too.

Although the technique is not sufficient, on its own, to carry the entire weight of the story, used in concert with other structural devices such as turning points, pinches, and the mid-point, it does propel the tale towards its climax and resolution in a more compelling way.

Summary

To prevent your story from flagging, pose a series of questions at strategic points.

Image: Holly Victoria Norval
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Thank You, Mr. Field.

Syd Field
Syd Field (1935 – 2013)
Every once in a while I come across a nay-sayer – a writer who believes that the study of writing as a craft, and the study of structure in particular, is anathema.

Such writers believe that greatness springs ready-formed from the inspired brain – that great writing, somehow, is handed down to us, preconceived and complete, like the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

But even if it were true that genius does not require training and a writing methodology, where would that leave the majority of us typing away on our keyboards in the dark?

When I first started writing I knew little about structure other than the old Aristotelean advise that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end. My efforts were guided mainly by the aggregated jumble of books I’d read and films I’d seen.

I was not short on starts. Images, sounds, ideas came to me in a bewildering stream of disjointed segments, but like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle taken from different boxes, they did not fit together in any coherent way.

Writing a story back then was a hit-and-miss affair. It was a sweaty, messy, grinding struggle that sometimes produced good passages. Mostly, however, the writing was bad enough to convince me not to give up my day job.

None of these passages survived.

It was only when I came across Syd Field’s, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, that the light finally flicked on. Here was a book that laid out the structure of a story in a series of beats governed by turning points that spun the tale around in a zigzagging manner, weaving in surprises to keep the reader interested until the climax and resolution at the end.

Suddenly, I could take an idea and plot it out before commencing the actual writing of it, regardless of whether the Muse had scheduled to visit me that day, that week, that month. My first novel, Scarab, which shot to the #1 spot in the Sci-Fi category on Amazon’s Kindle, is a result of this process.

It was the start of a wonderful journey that has spanned three continents and continues to this day. And though Syd Field is now only one of the many teachers I have followed, I’ll always remember him as my first.

And for that, I’ll toss the nay-sayers a shrug and say, thank you, Mr. Field.

Summary

Syd Field taught me the basics of story-structure.