Tag Archives: plotting

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/

Licence and attribution for image: Everystockphoto

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PK’s Jaundiced Futurism: On Enhanced E-books Alternate Endings

Enhanced e-books will be a boon for non-fiction. Video, interactive diagrams, the ability to update in the light of new information or research. The possibilities are endless.

Fiction…umm…not so much.

I can see hypertext novels coming back into fashion, though they will have to do away with those bloody irritating links — not very conducive to immersion having every character name and artefact highlighted. I can see illustrations becoming prevalent, though there is a point beyond which the novel becomes a graphic novel. I can even see interactive databases for the more extreme world-building; think of Tolkien’s appendices as a searchable database.

All that I can see being useful for storytelling.

But I’ve read a few posts recently, on blogs and writing news aggregation sites, where high muckity-mucks in the publishing industry also mention ‘Alternate Endings’ as an enhancement.

Why? How does betraying the story count as an enhancement?

There are essentially three forms of storytelling now current in our culture. Interactive games, the media (films, television, graphic novels, radio, audio books) and text (novels, shorts, twitter, blog-stories, and so on. There are slight differences in distribution, but the medium is still text-based).

In games, alternate endings are a great idea. The player is the protagonist in the game, he or she is the one making decisions about how they play, so it’s not a bad idea to make those playing decisions affect how the game ends.

Play the game through, shooting everything with the biggest gun you can get. Not a bad way to play a game for the first time: while you work out how the game engines work. Play it through again, but being kinder to the game environment and to all those realistically detailed creatures you can kill. Some people claim to play Grand Theft Auto while going out of their way to avoid running down the virtual pedestrians the game designers place all over the virtual streets. I have no idea why you would do that, it isn’t supposed to be a simulation of driving in the city, but some people are just strange.

Between those two extremes, there are a multitude of possible choices that the player can make and each choice could affect the ending of the game. All good. All useful. All enhancing the experience and making you want to play the game again. If only to collect all the endings in the same way you used to collect gold rings when playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Obsessive, yes, but games can make you a tad obsessive — that’s part of their appeal.

In the media, mostly films it must be said, alternate endings are sometimes DVD extras. Twenty-Eight Days Later is the one that immediately springs to mind. No spoilers, for those who have not seen it, but I preferred the bleaker ending. I remember watching the film and feeling cheated by the ending they actually used. It felt forced. Please note this is before I even knew the alternate ending existed; once I found that on the DVD, I was even more irritated by the Hollywood ending they chose.

But, and this is important, films (and I suspect TV) are created in the editing suite. They are not created during principal photography. The actual filming simply gives the director options when the film is finally cut together. So much so, that many fine movie actors deliberately avoid giving the same performance in every take. They ‘wilfully’ (as Ian McKellen said about Ian Holm — when making Lord of the Rings) vary what they do to give the director options in the cut.

This is where the alternate endings that end up on DVDs come from. From this exact same process. The director may film more than one ending, because they don’t know how the story is going to play out, they don’t know if the pacing will work, they don’t know if the producers will accept a bleak ending, they don’t know until they have made the film. And since the ending is filmed and done and dusted, well you may as well stick it on the DVD as an extra. That’s a no-brainer.

In text — well novels really, yeah…look, I know these publishing execs have a great deal of experience and are, obviously, very smart people, but…um…have they any idea about how a novel actually works?

Just in case they need a heads-up, I’ll explain.

This is how a novel works. Every scene, every scrap of dialogue, every piece of action, every bit of fore-shadowing, every character interaction, every bit of weather, every setting, every damn thing that survives the editing process and ends up in the finished novel does service to the plot and make the ending of the story emotionally satisfying to the reader. That is a novelist’s duty. We don’t always manage it, but that is our aim.

Alternate endings will destroy what we have tried to create. They will make whole sections of dialogue nonsensical or irrelevant. They will make action scenes seem trite and unrealistic (because if we need alternate endings we can’t kill off characters that need to be killed off because we need them for the alternate ending). They will make foreshadowing a series of red-herrings that are never explained. They will make character interactions bland and boring (because everything will have to be left open to allow for different endings). Even the weather may have to be moderated so there are no extremes just to help keep the ending open. And of course settings will have to be rendered either very sketchily indeed or in so much detail that every single possible interaction between the character and the environment is possible.

Most importantly of all, we will be breaking our trust with the reader. Clever is not the same as honest. A writer seeks honesty, honesty to the prose, to the plot, to the characters. We seek to show the truth through the prism of our own understanding. Readers know this, that is why they read books instead of watching a film or playing a game.

Alternate endings are clever, even philosophical profound. Hmmm. Would they be nihilistic, existential, or solipsistic? I suppose that would depend on the author.

I’m not saying that a genius writer at the top of their game could not write a novel where the different endings actually enhance the story, where they alter the way it is read, where they change the way the reader understands the world. But I seriously doubt there will be many novelists of that calibre alive at any one time.

So, publishers, please, for the sake of the art-form I love, and the craft I have learned, and for my own sanity, stop talking about alternate bloody endings for novels.

Unless of course, you want to write the damn thing yourself.

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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Please stop using the term ‘Plotting’…

…when you mean ‘Planning’ a novel or ‘Outlining’ it before you write.

It leads to crazy-arsed disagreements when I say I’m a ‘Pantser’.

They always go something like this.

“I’m a pantser.”
“So you don’t plot then?”
“Of course I plot. I just do it on the fly.”
“So you’re not a pantser then?”
“Yes, I am.”
“But you said you plot the story.”
“The important term you are overlooking is ‘on the fly’.”
“There’s no need to be snarky. Just because you want to think that you are some special sort of writer who doesn’t need to plot.”
“I do plot.”
“But you said your a pantser.”
“I am.”
“But pantsers don’t plot. Plotters plot, the clue’s in the name.”
And so on to the end of time.

Please, stop confusing the issue with a bad word choice. You’re supposed to be writers for ****s sake.

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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The Difference between Planners and Pantsers is:

Not that pantsers are somehow organic and spontaneous while outliners are staid and rigid.

No, the difference is that Planners can leave the plan. They are able to just busk away from their outline whenever they need to.

Pantsers (and I can only really speak for myself here) can’t do that. We take the plan as The Plan and have to follow it. Therefore we don’t plan and hence we don’t have to follow it.

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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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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