Category Archives: Structure and Plot

IOU a story that works: Narrative Debt

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I first came across the term ‘Narrative Debt’ in the appendices to the extended edition on the Two Towers DVD and it struck a chord with me. As a pantser I work with narrative debt all the time, so I understood the concept; I just didn’t have a name for it.

To my mind it is a variation on ‘Chekov’s Gun’. Anton Chekov said, ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it is not going to be fired, it should not be hanging there.’

Which is a tad prescriptive.

But it also has more than a grain of truth in it.

Not surprising. He was, after all, a great writer.

However, a gun can hang on the wall for an entire novel and still not go off, because the protagonist can’t reach it. He/she might be trying to reach it, they might even get their fingers on it, but the antagonist might stop them pulling the trigger, or they might have unloaded it at some point, or the protagonist might die just as they reach the gun.

The writer’s job is to not  forget that the gun is there, because the reader won’t. ‘Hang about, they’re in the library. There’s a .357 Magnum in that drawer, in the desk that he/she is standing behind. They put it there, you muppet, just shoot the bugger.’  It is best not to make readers think of your hero as an idiot, unless you intend them to think of the hero as an idiot — which is a difficult trick to pull off.

Narrative debt means, to me,  ‘Don’t cheat the reader’. [Caveats apply]

Don’t neglect to tell them something of importance that the POV character would know. (Jack Reacher novels: ‘Echo Burning’: Reacher takes a phone call, gets a one-word answer to a question, but the reader doesn’t know what the answer is until much later.)

Don’t drop in something out of nowhere to fix a plot problem and just leave it there without going back and working it into the plot earlier. (His Dark Materials ‘Amber Spyglass’ too many to mention)

Don’t let a plot, sub-plot, or character just fizzle out and disappear without some kind of closure. (Jason and the Argonauts: Heracles just wanders off halfway through the story and never returns.)

A writer can of course get away with all these things from time to time, (Child and Pullman are very good writers, and Jason and the Argonauts is a couple of thousand years old as a story) but they have to know what they are doing (not entirely sure what the hell Pullman was doing if I am completely honest, very irritating book that). They can’t just do it because it is easier than building a story that works. A writer owes a reader a story that works, that is the contract between the two: ‘Give me your time and I will give you a story worth reading.’

Narrative debt sometimes makes the writing process a lot harder. Tough. That’s the job you sign up to when you decide to become a writer. If you want to just make stuff up that makes no sense, then become a politician (and even they need Spin Doctors to make their nonsense sound reasonable).

A story that works is satisfying. It doesn’t have to tie off every single plot thread in a neat little bow at the end, but it does have to keep its promises to the reader.

I build stories via characters, so most of my narrative debts accrue from interactions between characters and from what I do to them in the process of telling the story.

If I have a character that hates another character and at some point they have to make a decision as to whether or not they save that hated person from some jeopardy, then they have to think about it. They won’t suddenly overturn their entire dynamic with that character just because the plot requires it of them. To be fair, in a first draft they might, but then I will go back and fix it in the second. It is what second drafts are for, fixing plot holes like that.

And usually it is already there in the character, because I know my characters. I treat them as real people. What do you mean you don’t? Oh right, you worked on ‘Lost’ and ‘Heroes’.

In Kinless, I have a character called Kihan. He turns up in the story and makes a decision to do something for this land that he does not know and has no connection with, which will probably result in his death. Several beta readers pointed out that he had no reason to do this in the first draft. However the fix was already there, he had a perfectly valid reason for doing this, it was in the narrative debt relating to the character. He did it because of who he was, what he had been through, and what he wanted to be. And all this leads to what he becomes.

But narrative debt is also a structural thing.

Lovers have to love. Enemies have to fight. Stories have to make sense. A story is a construct. The writer is choosing what to put in and what to leave out. The writer is making choices all the time. The writer’s choices are the story.

Let’s go back to ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Gollum, as a character, had to get his hands on the ring. Aragorn had to become the king. Saruman had to get his come-uppance. Frodo had to be utterly destroyed by his quest to destroy the ring. Those things had to happen because that is the nature of storytelling.

Gollum gets his hands on the ring and in the process destroys it (still the best damn scene in the book). Aragorn had to face up to his fears and surmount them. Saruman betrayed everything he stood for and lost everything because of this betrayal. Frodo had to suffer to get the ring to Mount Doom and such suffering remains with a person. And all the other characters had their own journeys to complete too.

That is narrative debt.

If the ring was destroyed without Gollum getting his hands on it then he would just be an ineffectual monster who was easily defeated. If Aragorn did not grow a pair and step up then he would be an ineffectual hero. If Saruman did all that he did and got off scot free then what is the cost of evil. And if Frodo did all that he did and returned to his previous life without a care, then what is the cost of heroism.

It’s a debt.

It’s a contract with the reader.

The writer makes the deal, ‘Read my story and I won’t let you down, I won’t treat you — the reader — as an idiot, I’ll pay off on the debts my story accrues.’

Otherwise, the reader might as well read Hansard.

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Structure is not a Formula

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A formula is a precise mix of ingredients put together in exactly the same way to achieve the same result every time. Which is fine for cleaning agents, but not so good for stories because a formula is easy to see working in a story.

The ‘Ordinary World’ beginning. Oh look he’s a farm boy feeding the chickens. Oh look she’s a cop just going on shift. Oh look he’s a rich playboy waking up from another night of excess. Oh look she’s a CEO dealing with the board.

Yeah, that opening is so stale it’s beginning to stink.

The ‘Refusal of the Call’. Oh look he/she is not going to do whatever it is we know he/she is actually going to do (or there won’t be a story) because he/she is scared/has responsibilities/is an anti-hero (and therefore doesn’t care, until of course they do and that there is their arc all neat and tidy in the formula for you to use)/it goes against their sense of loyalty and duty.

Whatever. Because we’ve seen it a million times before.

It’s easier to see in films of course, because screenplays are simpler than novels (they have to be, the complexity comes from the choices that the actors and director make) but it is much more pernicious in novels, because there are no constraints of time or budget in a novel — so why the hell limit yourself to a formula?

I’m not saying you can’t have an ‘Ordinary World’ opening, or a ‘Refusal of the Call’ moment, or any of the other elements that go to make up a formulaic story (‘The Dark before the Dawn’, ‘The Death of a Beloved character ‘, ‘The Disastrous Mistake’, ‘The whatever-some-writing-teacher/blogger/author.about.writing-used-as-a-shorthand -because-it-made-teaching-the difficult-easier’). These are tropes, archetypal story-telling techniques, they work, but they are not structure, they are not essential, they are just tricks.

Structure is not a trick. Structure is an essential. Without structure you don’t have a story, you just have a series of unconnected events or, worse, a linear progression of things that just happened to happen.

So what is the difference between structure and formula?

In a word: Flexibility.

A structure is not just the parts themselves, it’s not how the parts connect, it isn’t even the arrangements of the parts. A structure is all those things. (Which is what makes it so difficult to explain, which is why writing teachers go for the easy short-hand, which is why structure should be a life-long obsession for a novelist. You ain’t ever done with structure, there’s always more to learn).

Look at the photo at the top of this post. More than likely that is a bridge, or it might be the Eiffel tower, or something else that leaves the skeleton of the structure exposed. Because an arrangement of steel or iron girders is the basic skeleton of a lot of structures.

You can use it to build tall, like the aforementioned Paris landmark, or broad, like the aforementioned crossing point over a river. You can cloak it in concrete and build a skyscraper, or a low-rise block of flats, or an office block, or a factory. You can cloak it in sheets of metal and build a warehouse or aircraft hangar. You can build schools, hospitals, sound-stages, army bases, anything really, all using the same basic structure and all looking completely different because they have completely different purposes.

Don’t mistake vernacular (like the brutalist or modernist eyesores) for structure. The structure, the skeleton, is flexible, because it is not a formula.

A formula has structure because it too is an holistic whole, but it is the same holistic whole every time. It is one version of a structure repeated ad infinitum like those suburban housing estates where every house is a rabbit hutch, but you can choose the colour of the doors. To make them ‘more individual’ you might be allowed to choose from 3 or 4 basic floor-plans and tweak them a bit, but really they are a formula based on how much they cost to build against how much they can be sold for.

I’m sure you, like me, have got lost in a suburban estate at some point. It’s because all the houses follow a formula, but you already knew that, only you probably said ‘Everywhere looks the same as everywhere else’, or words to that effect.

Personally, I like the seven-act structure in my work, because it gives me all the flexibility I need. I can write a circular story, or an action/adventure story, or a love story, or a Thriller, or Fantasy or Science Fiction, or any other genre — except the Literary genre of course, they think structure and plot are four-letter words and they are only half-wrong (as always).

However, if you look up seven-act structure on the web, as I have (and I was quite disheartened by the experience) then people talk about twist-points, pinch-points, or (dear god in heaven, no) reverses, which is only talking about the ‘connections’ between the parts (acts).

It isn’t talking about the acts in terms of what the acts are supposed to do. The first act of a seven act structure is the introduction, the second act: the set-up, and so on. It isn’t talking about how the parts are arranged within the structure. You can break a structure up, rearrange the parts, make it a non-linear narrative, and — so long as the structural integrity is preserved — the story will still work.

Pinch-points and twist-points are just the points where the acts meet, they are the joints between the girders (if you will). Reverses are just one single bloody form of joint. Start talking about reverses (or rising/declining tension for that matter) and you have begun to turn a flexible structure into a rigid formula.

Because you aren’t talking about structure in the abstract any more. You are making the abstract concrete, which is not what structure is. It is like saying that the steel frame of a building will always have identical stresses, identical requirements, no matter what the terrain, or the purpose, or the artistic intent behind the architect’s vision.

Okay this is getting a bit long now, so I’ll stop there. As Louise said, on July the Thirteenth [http://firedancebooks.com/blog/?p=344] (which directly inspired this blog) ‘Structure… well you can talk about that for ever. So I won’t.’

I of course will, because I quite like talking forever J.

Structure is incredibly important in novels. It’s what makes them stand-up rather than flop around on the floor like a jellied mess of ‘things just happened’.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

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If the Story Requires It

As  a writer I have no real problem with heading straight for the dark-side. I’ll write a torture scene or a bloody fight scene or some nasty vicious bit of political chicanery without a qualm if the story requires it. But that’s the important bit, If the story requires it. I do not write torture porn because I don’t really see the point. A story with the single purpose of showing people being treated abominably is a story I really don’t want to read.

It’s writers missing the point. The point of blood and gore is not the blood and gore, it’s the story and the story can’t just be, ‘Here’s some blood and gore, aren’t my characters nasty pieces of work?’ It’s like they read Elric and identified with Stormbringer.

SF&F is my bailiwick, but you see it in thrillers and other genres too.

The important thing about brutality in a story is consequences. It’s always about the consequences. If something bad happens then it reverberates, it throws out ripples of cause and effect. Should bad guys always get their comeuppance? Not always. That sort of morality play is also boring because it takes away the tension. Should they lose something because of their vicious behaviour? Yes.

This isn’t the real world. This is fiction. If, as a writer, somebody decides (and it is a decision) that a brutal character should be written as somebody to admire, then I wonder about that writer’s morality. Not religious morality, not philosophical morality, but their common decency. There is nothing admirable about rape, or torture, or mass-murder. Characters who do this are not anti-heroes, they are villains.

And don’t tell me (in the case of fantasy) that this was the way it was back in the Middle-Ages, because you ain’t writing about the Middle-Ages. You’re writing about a world that you made-up; this is your world, your rules, your choice.

Besides, the strong-men of history, the nobles who went on Crusades and slaughtered entire cities, the Mongols who gave cities a choice, surrender or die, the Spartans who created a society based completely on war, and all others of that ilk. Yeah, they were the bad guys. They were not heroes.

They may have done heroic things on times, but they did that stuff by accident. If you have a society based on might is right, death before dishonour, and unthinking obedience to a leader, every so often you are going to find yourself doing something seemingly heroic because you can’t back down. Does that make you a hero? Well, if the rest of the time you are raping, pillaging, and slaughtering people by the gross, not so much.

This holds true at smaller scales too.

Bullies are weaklings. Always. If somebody has to damage somebody else either physically or emotionally to make themselves feel stronger, then they are by definition not strong. Unless of course they are psychopaths, who do things simply because they can, because they have no empathy. Psychopaths aren’t strong either, they are sick and lacking in humanity.

Therefore, there are consequences for bullies. They are weak and will break easily. And there are consequences for psychopaths. They will never know the simple joy of a smile reciprocated.

If a character is neither a bully or a psychopath, but are damaged by their upbringing, then they’re damaged. That’s a pretty big consequence and something worth exploring.

As far as I am concerned, morality is not about how you fight but why you fight. Once the gloves come off there are no rules, but there are rules about why the gloves come off. A character who uses violence simply to get their own way is weak.

There are of course a lot of nuances here. Is a soldier ordered into an immoral war, immoral? Is a law-keeper upholding an immoral law, immoral?  Is somebody raised in an immoral society, immoral? And so on. These are the juicy bits that every writer should want to sink their teeth into. And please remember when I talk about morality, I’m not talking about religious morality, but the morality of decency, fairness, and doing the right thing.

The nuances are the tension in a story and there should always be consequences.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

 

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Asking questions via the situation and getting the character to answer them

See, I’m a pantser, a pure unadulterated seat-of-the-pants storyteller. I know some people reading this will snort right about now and think to themselves, ‘No, he’s not’. They’ll either assume I am lying to you, though only they know why, or to myself. Essentially, they automatically assume that I am either a blowhard or deluded.

I, in my turn, assume their assumptions come from being too closed up in the mythology of writing classes to allow the words to run free.

But that is my assumption and, like their assumptions about me, it is based on insufficient evidence to be considered factual. So, unlike their virulent desire to prove that I am not what I say I am, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and let that body lie dead beneath the boughs of the unfruited tree. Me? I head for the tree with fruit on it, pick the low-hanging and then climb up to get the inaccessible, take them all down, mash them all up together, and call it a story.

Somebody  sent me a brief snippet from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. Never read the book, heard good things about it, but never had access to a copy. So I’ve only read three paragraphs of Chapter five. I kinda gave up on writing books for lent a decade ago and I haven’t noticed the lack since.

Just like to say, Mr King, what you say in the small snippet of Chapter 5 I’ve read [Quote Stephen King] When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. [Unquote] I hear you, man.

So this is my take on what King says more eloquently in ‘On Writing’. (Oh by the way, reading that snippet. I think he might well be even more of a pantser than I am, I wasn’t sure that was actually possible. )

Character

Characters are real people to me. No, they don’t talk to me. No, I don’t have conversations with them. Hell, I barely know what the buggers look like. But they are real and usually amorphous. From the first moment they appear in a scene they are revealing themselves to me, a bit at a time, piece by piece. Everything they do, every word they utter, every thought that passes through their minds, reveals a little bit more of the puzzle to me.

I really don’t know who they are when they turn up. I don’t know if they are good guys, or bad guys (Okay, sometimes I think, ‘I need a bad guy here’ and create one, but I don’t know what sort of bad guy they are: evil, misunderstood, banal, trapped, whatever) or instigators. I don’t know if they are the love interest, the unrequited love, or the nightmare lover that tears your soul apart. I don’t know if the are the loyal friend, the honourable enemy, or the sneaky little bugger I am going to love to hate.

But that’s fine. I don’t need to know who they are until they show me, which means the reader gets to find out about them at the same time. Very good for pacing that. I’m writing and wondering why-the-hell-did-he-do-that-thing-he-did, which means the reader is wondering it too, and then the question is answered.  For both of us. At the same time. No artificial story beats there, just a ‘Oh right, so that’s what’s going on’ for reader and writer at the same time.

Of course in the second draft there will be rewriting and foreshadowing and adaptations to make the story tighter, but I try very hard to keep the drip, drip, drip, of character revelation to the same beat as in the first draft. I shape it a bit, but I don’t plug it up and place the interaction someplace else, unless I really have to shift the damn scene for story reasons. This is the hard bit of editing for me, not the story stuff, but the character stuff that has to be moved because of the story stuff.

Situation

Situation, setting, where the story takes place, when the story takes place, will lead to the why the story is worth recounting via the how it all plays out.

Unless it is part of an ongoing series (like my Tales of the Shonri  originals to be found over on http://writerlot.net/  and even then I’m creating the setting story by story, which is why some are a bit skimpy on detail) I don’t know what the setting is until I start writing. It is nice to have some sense of place, which may be why King tends to set all his stories in his own backyard, but the sense of place comes from the story-telling process.

The soft touch of the grass beneath his naked feet as he raced down towards the water’s edge, screaming, “Ellie! Ellie! Ellie!”

Just made that up (obviously) so what’s the setting. Grass. Water’s edge. Hmm, okay you don’t get grass running down to the sea, not normally anyway, so it’ll be fresh water. So either a river or a lake then. Some place dangerous probably, because it sounds like somebody is in trouble, mind you it might turn out that he has been away for a bit and is calling out to his love, or maybe he thought she was dead, or maybe she has come back from the dead.

See, situation. Geezer running across grass towards water calling out to somebody female.

From that situation other situations arise. Is she drowning? Does he save her? Does she drown? Does he drown saving her? Do they both drown? Is this a story about the afterlife? Or grief? Or love? Or none of these things? Is she returning from beyond the grave? Is he returning from beyond the grave? Is he returning from a war? Is she now married to somebody else? Is…?

Questions.

Situation is the source of questions. Character is how you answer them. A story is how the answered questions throw up more questions that then need to be answered until there is only a single possible conclusion left. Until you run out of questions that character can answer and are just left with the question of how the character will prevail or endure or not.

I just keep on answering the questions as they come up. I don’t work out what they are going to be ahead of time, because then the characters are answering questions that I already know the answer to, which is a bit like cheating at a test. You ain’t cheating anybody but yourself, or in this case the story.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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