Back to Back to Basics: Phases of Life and Story Structure

Life and our ability to assess our own knowledge goes in phases.  There are many summaries of this, but since this is a writing blog, I wanted to point out that attitudes about story structure can change over the course of a life, or over the course of writing a novel or story.  I am working my way through a new novel during NaNoWriMo, and I’ve noticed that although I’m a great fan of story structure (for reasons I’ll go into below), I don’t really follow the structure religiously, and yet things seem to work. 

I just read the first half of the notorious screenwriting manual Save the Cat, and I’m surprised to say that this book doesn’t deserve a lot of the bad reputation it deserves.  What makes Save the Cat notorious is its insistence on a rigid unfolding of the story, such that the hero goes through certain emotional states or does particular things on specific pages of a screenplay.  You can translate the proportions of Snyder’s “beat sheet” onto the pages of a novel and get yourself a very rigid unfolding of your protagonist.  Hollywood has gone through phases with Snyder’s work, where as of its writing, Save the Cat was praised as the definitive work on screenwriting structure.  Now, a few years later, people contend Save the Cat has ruined movies forever by being too rigid.  

I don’t think Snyder’s book deserves to be hated, since his main point in the book is not actually story structure, but that you, as a writer, absolutely need to know what your story is about.  This is even more crucial for novelists than it is for screenwriters, because it’s easy to get caught up in all the details of a novel, have multiple story threads, and just too much complexity.  The worst part of writing a novel for publication is trying to write a query letter that condenses 90,000 to 200,000 words of very careful character development and worldbuilding into a single sentence.  Snyder insists that the writer have a good logline that tells the script reader what the movie poster looks like.  My goal before I started work on my WIP A Mother’s Curse was to come up with a tagline that could go on the cover of the book, and would tell me what the cover looks like.  It really helps.

Hollywood has also gone through this phase of praise and abandonement with The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s description of the common elements of mythology across all the world’s cultures.  I think the hate is mainly self-inspired, since people have figured out that The Hero’s Journey is not a story structure, but a descriptive model of mythological storytelling.  The Hero’s Journey doesn’t tell you how to write a story, it tells you how stories have been written (and not all stories, as Campbell makes clear). The Hero’s Journey is really a psychological theory, i.e. about the mind, and its reflection in storytelling, not a theory of storytelling.  Thus people who try to write strictly according to The Hero’s Journey are often going to write stories that fall flat, and they’ll be at a loss to understand why.

Just like The Hero’s Journey, these trends in Hollywood illustrate how understanding of how things work goes in phases, tempered from within by the writer’s (or human being’s) attitude and maturity.  In other words, these are phases of life, not just phases of art.  In general the phases are:

  1. “I’ve eaten plenty of pizza in my day.” The novice writer has read tons of books, and even has an inkling of what goes into a beginning, middle, and end of a novel, and sets out to duplicate that without really being conscious of what he’s doing.
  2. “Why does this taste like saltines dipped in tomato soup?”  Confusion reigns as beta readers (or mom) tell the writer how creative he is, but there’s something missing.  This is often the stage where writers face a lot of rejection and don’t know why, or they can’t complete a novel and don’t know what’s missing that would supply the energy to finish it.
  3. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look at a cookbook.” The writer realizes he’s in over his head, and consults a few books on the subject of novel writing.  He goes “back to basics” and finds formulas, three-act structure, realizes he didn’t have a friggin’ antagonist (!), and starts from scratch.
  4. Arrogance. Once all the elements are in place, the writer finds how much easier it is to finish a work, and comes to believe that structure is The Solution, and goes around telling everybody about it.
  5. “Maybe my oven’s not hot enough.” Something is still missing, despite the writer figuring out that stories do all have to have certain things, those things alone will not make a great novel.  This is when, in my personal experience, a lot of humility, firing a deadbeat agent, and getting a writing teacher will help a lot.
  6.  “Flour, water, yeast, salt, and attention.”  The writer goes back to back-to-basics, and learns how to break the rules.

Now, just as with The Hero’s Journey, this is not a prescribed set of steps, it’s something that mimics the stages of life, and has to be experienced from within, not set out on.  I haven’t observed enough writers to know at what point publication happens, but according to Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, it could happen at any stage.  Maass writes that books often get published with authors in Stage 1 or Stage 2 and then they don’t know what the hell happens when they can’t write the next book.

My guess is that they had all the necessary elements for a reader to really love a book without really knowing what they were doing.  The author had intuitive knowledge of what makes a great book, and was able to put that on the page, but didn’t have enough discursive knowledge to know what to do when something went wrong.  I completed my first novel without any planning, without saying who the antagonist was or what the central conflict was.  My short stories, on the other hand, were missing many of the elements that actually make up a story.  I had to 

  1. Go back and analyze what a story is in the most basic formulation, as in “You know I was walking to the store today and this guy nearly ran me over while talking on a cell phone…”
  2. Look at some books on what a story exactly is.

Only then was I able to write a decent story.  I got really hung up on story structure for a while because reading about it made it so much easier to make sure that things didn’t happen too fast or that I wasn’t boring the reader.  There really is a beginning, middle, and end to every story, and if certain things happen in the wrong place, readers will be (at best) left with a funny feeling.  The Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn, for instance, feels like two stories because instead of a fake death followed by a real climax, it has a real climax at the two-thirds mark, followed by a coda of another two hundred pages, which works up to a second climax. 

Recently I’ve realized that trying to lay out a story structure is a hindrance rather than a help when you can discover those stages as you tell the story.  It took me two months to get started on my WIP, and most of that time was trying to figure out what the right inciting incident was.  Trying to lay out plot points and get them in the right places seems like a good recipe, but it actually has slowed me down since I don’t know enough about the characters to know what trouble they’ll get into before I write about them.  This gets into “architects versus gardeners,” and plotters versus pantsers, but my basic point is that as you’re writing, you can discover where the plot points are and assign stuff to happen in the newly-discovered Act I. 

Having one “inciting incident” is a little misleading, especially in a novel.  In a two or three-act play or film, you may only have time for one thing to really get the ball rolling, but in a book there’s often a series of events that really ramp things up so the reader feels like she’s in “the middle.”  I got into a situation in The Last Omen where I couldn’t decide what the inciting incident was.  The problem was not that there was no inciting incident, but that there was an escalation of events between one upset in chapter 2 and several more before the main character was really in over her head.  That’s fine in a book.  Also, books can afford things like flashbacks and misleading narrators in ways that just make films confusing.  So, although movie advice is often superior to novel advice (which tends to focus on “inspiration”), there are crucial differences between the two forms that need attention.

A lot of structuring happens in revisions, and so I’m not worrying about structure so much as I write a first draft.  Without the discursive knowledge I’ve gained through stages 1-6 and not being an expert at any stage, I couldn’t make revisions, but trying to stick to a stucture ahead of time is too restrictive.  Write now the focus is on the first draft.

I have been working hard on NaNoWriMo and I’m almost done.  The work in progress is called A Mother’s Curse, and is heavily-influenced by Celtic Revival material, and an anecdote I read in Bede about the founding of Scotland.  Apparently the Picts didn’t have any women with them when they arrived in Ireland, so they “borrowed” wives to found their new civilization in Scotland, under the agreement that they revert to the Scot side of the family in any succession disputes.  I thought this was a nice recipe for political mixups, so the story begins (this time) with the death of a king (who wants buildup anyway).  I’m mixing this in with a fair bit of magic, Lovecraftian monsters, a nasty femme fatale, and an occasional first-person narrator, a behind-the-scenes sort of puppet master.

I’m still querying The Last Omen, and have received some positive attention from agents.  I also have gotten more personalized rejections in my short stories, which I’ve just decided to keep in rotation until one of them gets published.

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“Just write”

I saw The Last Jedi yesterday, and here are my thoughts:

  • Plenty of interesting stuff, lots of surprising moments
  • I still prefer the swashbuckling pulpy adventure of the first movie to the overstated drama of the newer films
  • As much as it was a good movie, I would still rather see a totally new story.

I have three young boys who love Star Wars (thanks to me), and I am getting a little tired of it. “Star Wars” movie is now a phrase that gets used all the time, and it emphasizes the feeling I had while watching The Last Jedi that these films are more like TV shows in the way they tell a never-ending story. Each time the characters face basically the same obstacles and spend their time solving a fairly explicit puzzle. This was understated in the first trilogy, but now it’s almost like watching Law and Order. Continue reading ““Just write””

Thor: Ragnarok is a Kung-Fu Movie

In which I alienate Marvel fans, all of China and Stephen Universe fans!

thorI took my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok yesterday since they had the day off from school.  I recently sat through Iron Man and totally enjoyed Wonder Woman, but I am not a big fan of comic book movies.  Tim Burton’s Batman was cool, but in the past ten years things have really gotten out of control with comic book movies.  Wonder Woman was an exception, but when I watch these movies usually I feel like I’m not really seeing a story acted out, but loosely strung-together action sequences.  Everyone’s flying through the air and kicking the crap out of each other and completely destroying entire cities.  The action just goes on and on, and lately they seem to take themselves way too seriously with the whole moral ambiguity thing (forgetting that moral clarity is what makes superheroes).  As I said about Rogue One, I would much rather see an action/adventure/fantasy story about some new material instead of a comic hero or Star Wars. Continue reading “Thor: Ragnarok is a Kung-Fu Movie”

Phasma (Star Wars)Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book with my kids, who are Star Wars fans. I loved The Force Awakens, but just to add my own perspective, I think the proliferation of Star Wars material is a bit overwhelming and unnecessary to enjoying the movies. In addition, most Star Wars bonus material I have read is not that well done. I wanted to read this book mainly for my kids’ enjoyment, but I was excited to hear that Delilah S. Dawson was doing an entire novel. Delilah is inspiring as a writer and blogger, and gives wonderful advice on how to build a strong career. So I picked up Phasma and was blown away by the amazing prose in the opening pages. The author takes an entirely boring scenario and makes it crackle with tension. I had to read the rest.

If you like anything Star Wars, you’ll love this book. If you like science fiction and fantasy, and good writing, the best parts of this book will be the current-time conflict between Cardinal and Phasma, two rival stormtroopers in the First Order. Phasma’s backstory is an interesting quest with a very well-developed culture, and a mystery that will be satisfying for fantasy readers. I think the best writing and the biggest tension happens toward the end of the book, and it’s well worth getting through some slow “endless desert” passages. The last hundred pages of this book are filled with suspense, and I really had a good time reading it.

Phasma is already a bestseller, so if this is the first book you’ve read by the author, I highly urge you to pick up her original material, which is much much better. For example she has a Weird Western series under her pen name Lila Bowen that I highly recommend, the latest chapter of which is Malice of Crows.

View all my reviews

The Hunt for Story Ideas

The_Hunt_for_Red_October_movie_posterLast week my novel manuscript was rejected by my agent, so I’m spending this week coming up with new novel ideas. Coming up with novels from scratch is somewhat new, somewhat not new since I had to go through the process of actually creating good stories with my first three books. The difference was that I “pantsed” them and so by the time I went to outlining I already had characters, a setting (which in fantasy means a whole world or at least part of one), a main problem for those characters, and a premise (in the sense of Lajos Egri) on which to build a story (I didn’t have good stories, let that be a lesson to you). I also had what I call an “archetypal clarity” or “cosmic principle.” This is the additional element of fantasy that the universe is organized around. The One Power, for instance is the cosmic principle behind The Wheel of Time. Continue reading “The Hunt for Story Ideas”

Serious kids’ movies

In which I alienate fans of Labyrinth by arguing that an excellent codpiece by itself doesn’t create the reverence and dread of a real drama.

First the news: I had another hen eaten by a fox on Saturday, so I replaced her with four new birds that I know are female (backstory: a year-and-a-half ago when I got chicks, we accidentally got a Wyandotte rooster, who the kids named R.L. Stine). I have a sequel to Firesage outlined, tentatively called Watermark, and a rough idea for a third book in a trilogy. After some thorough beta reading I have almost got Firesage ready to send to my agent, and I think this one will sell. Despite his wariness that epic fantasy is a “cold genre” I think editors will relate to the primary question of what the main character will do to make a good life for her unborn child. I went to the bookstore the other day to look for comps (and I found some good books), but I always walk away with the feeling that my books are so unique people won’t know what to do with them. I don’t think I have ever read or even heard of a fantasy book that deals with the unique anxieties faced by pregnant women, so I’m hoping that will do it for me (if you have heard of one, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter).

Continue reading “Serious kids’ movies”

What makes a good film adaptation? The Dark Tower

In which I alienate fellow Stephen King fans.

elba
Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) faces The Man in Black (Matthew McConnaughey), not the only evil face in the movie

The other day I went to see the film adaptation of The Dark Tower. It was 11:55 AM on a Wednesday and I was the only person in the theater, but I suspected that even if I went at 7:30 PM on Friday, I would be in a small crowd. The movie has gotten plenty of bad reviews, including my favorite kind (sarcasm), the ones who tell you that the movie is already terrible and disappointing, and it shouldn’t have been made in the first place. These were followed by at least one “so what” review, which I read, but I didn’t really care to believe either. The Dark Tower is a majestic, beautiful, grand story, written by one of my favorite authors, and so I wasn’t going to take the word of a few people who might not even care for Stephen King’s writing.

Continue reading “What makes a good film adaptation? The Dark Tower”

Screenwriting advice (for novelists?)

In which I alienate still more people who liked Arrival

fadeinThe main thing I’ve been doing other than working toward the climax in the rewrite of Firesage is studying screenwriting. Since The Queen’s Night is on submission and people seem to like the characters (despite my efforts to make them horrible people bent on nothing but pleasure, power, and geometry) I have thought it would make a good movie. A lot of readers and writers think about their favorite books in a sort of filmic way, and when readers get their favorite books adapted, it’s a sort of validation. A lot of the heroic and dramatic can be succinctly expressed in film, and so a lot of us get our sense of the dramatic from the movie screen, and seeing our favorite story on that screen gives it a larger existence. So naturally I thought of adapting the movie myself, and learning about screenwriting in the process.

For a couple reasons, I don’t think I will even try. Continue reading “Screenwriting advice (for novelists?)”

Content and Style: The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

In which I alienate the people most likely to buy my book.

Margaret_Atwood_2015
Atwood at the 2015 Texas Book Festival; photo by Larry D. Moore

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books, so I was pretty excited when I heard Hulu was adapting it into a series. Of course, I also had my trepidation. I don’t care much whether an adaptation fails or succeeds, but my expectations for adaptations these days are pretty low. Nevertheless it’s nice to see such an excellent book advertised and interpreted.  I watched the first episode last night and found myself thinking I would rather be re-reading the book.  If you were confused or disappointed by the episodes you’ve seen, read the book.

Continue reading “Content and Style: The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu”

The Nifty, Geeky Story

In which I alienate the entire sci-fi short story readership, fellowship, and mothership.

Arrival_Movie_PosterI just got back from Paris. Yes, I’m fancy. It was great, thanks for asking. I wrote a short story while I was there (which, given what I’m about to tell you, probably will never get published). On the way back I got to watch two recent sci-fi movies and I found them interesting to compare, particularly given my previous arrogance about “entertainment” (he said disdainfully), I was surprised which one I enjoyed more. Continue reading “The Nifty, Geeky Story”