Monthly Archives: April 2015

Hide it with Emotion

Child hiding under table

Hiding it:

One of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.

Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale — to keep the rope tight.

There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see the rope. The structure should always remain invisible if we are to avoid the accusation of formulaic writing.

One of the better ways to hide structure is through emotion. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.

In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.

We are dealt a double blow – we feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.

In my most recent novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.

I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.

Judging by the reviews The Land Below has received so far, it seems as if I made the right decision.

Summary

Hide the structure of your story behind layers of emotion.

Invitation

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Image: Lance Nielson
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Episode, Season and Series Questions

Lego charactersIn a previous article I suggested that each act in a story is driven by a question it seeks to answer. In the first act of The Matrix that question is: What is the matrix? In the second: Is Neo The One? And in the third: Can The One defeat agent Smith and his cronies?

But just as there are questions that frame each act, so there are questions that frame each episode and each season of a television series. These questions also apply, with small adjustments, to a book series.

In Gotham, the first season’s overall question is: Who will win the mob war, and how will that affect Jim Gordon’s attempt to clean up the city, as he continues to solve specific crimes, while the overall series question is: How does Bruce Wane’s attempt to find the killer of his parents shape his transformation into the Batman?

Each episode typically features a villain-of-the week and is driven by the dramatic question: How is this villain to be defeated? But the episode must also acknowledge the season’s question: How does the defeat of the villain affect the mob war? The death of the witness to the Wane’s murder, for example, would impact the entire series question — not that Cat is about to be killed off by the writers.

A book series, too, asks at least two overall questions. In my book series, The Land Below, the first novel’s dramatic question is: Will Paulie make it to the surface? My next book, The Land Above, is framed by the question: How does Paulie, and his companions, survive the horrors that lurk on the surface?

Each story in a series, then, is governed by several interlocking questions that not only drive a specific episode, but help keep the entire series on track.

Summary

Sketching in the overall series, season, and episode questions, prior to commencing the actual writing of the first episode or book, is the first step in mapping out the direction of your story and its characters.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday

Image: Floodllama
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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.