October 15, 2009 / 4 Comments

Cross Training

When we last left our heroes…

I ended last week in mid-pontification, so let’s do a quick recap. We’d talked about linear structure and then about dramatic structure. Now I want to talk about how they interact and tie together. It isn’t really that complicated an idea, but I’m going to use a few examples to make things clear.

As I mentioned before, dramatic structure is separate from linear structure, because it’s what the audience is experiencing. The dramatic structure follows the narrative while the linear structure follows the characters. Narrative is the way the story is set out for the audience. It’s the way we read a story or a screenplay, from the first page to the last, unless you’re reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book or one of James Burke’s clever histories. Simply put, narrative is the path the storyteller has chosen to take us along. Sometimes it’s the direct route, sometimes there are sidetrips. Picture a city with a system of elevated trains and subways. There are trains that circle the city, some that stop at every single platform, and there’s the express that takes you straight to Shell Beach. As the reader, you can decide which train to get on–or which book to pick up–but after that you’re on a set path that was chosen by someone else, and that path is the narrative.

So, keeping that little analogy in mind, let’s look at linear and dramatic structure on our train ride. Now, dramatic structure is easy in this analogy. It’s the speed of the train. As the train gets faster and faster, or gets to go for longer and longer without stopping, it becomes a more exciting, smoother ride. If your train is constantly having to decelerate, accelerate, brake, and so on, it’s jarring and distracting. Pretty soon the passengers have put on their iPods, focused on an ad poster, started thinking about that project at work or ordering pizza when they get home– they’re thinking about anything they possibly can except the train ride. When the train ride is your story, well… that’s not good. It’s breaking the flow. Screenwriter Peter Staughn recently used a similar idea in an interview. “Once the story engine’s up and running, you stop it at your peril.”

Linear structure’s a bit tougher, but look at it this way. Suppose you know that all the platforms on your ride go in a certain order. Perhaps they’re numbered or alphabetical. So while you ride the train, you can look out and see A, B, C passing by. Sometimes you see Z, Y, X out the window and you realize this particular train started at the other end of the commute. Now on one or two trains, you might look and see A, D, G, which seems weird as hell at first, but then you realize this is the green line and it’s got those strange curves in it that only hit every third station. Notice that in all these examples the platforms are still in alphabetical order, but this particular train is passing them at different points, giving the appearance that they’re random or in some strange order.

So, that’s how linear structure, dramatic structure, and narrative all fit together. That being said, let’s take a quick peek at the most common way they don’t fit together.

Last week I mentioned a common clash between linear and dramatic structures. The writer puts things out of linear order in the narrative for no reason, and this means the dramatic structure takes a hit.

Consider it this way. Suppose my linear story is A-Z, and so is my dramatic structure. The waves are smallest at A, largest at Z (or probably W with a bit of denouement). If I randomly rearrange these story points into our now-classic mqnw berctx yzuai sopdl fkgjh order, the corresponding dramatic waves become a jagged, roller-coaster mess of different highs and lows. To be more specific, the waves become static. If you want to stick with the train analogy, this is some bizarre track that loops and circles and leaps between stations almost at random, which means the engineer is constantly slamming on the brakes and leaning on the throttle to hit all the stations in time. It’s the kind of train ride where you just can’t wait for it to be over. Or maybe you’ll just get off at the next station–wherever it is–and take a cab from there.

So, if there’s going to be a flashback or non-linear sequence in your narrative, there needs to be a dramatic reason for it. It shouldn’t be a burst of static, it should fit into the pattern of dramatic escalation–the wave– you’ve already got going. It should push us higher up the wave or deeper into the trough.

Here’s a quick point of interest. When people talk about how flashbacks don’t work and shout never to use them, this is why. Far too many writers will throw in a flashback that explains something in the story (often in a horrid, expositional way– yes, I’m looking directly at you, Highlander II) but does nothing for the dramatic structure or the narrative. You get out that vital fact, but the story grinds to a halt in the process. heck, sometimes you don’t even get a vital fact (much as it pains me to say it, like many of the flashbacks in the finale of Battlestar Galactica). So gurus and other “experts” will tell you to avoid flashbacks because 95% of fledgling writers are going to do awful, pointless ones, and it’s easier to say “don’t” then to explain how to do them correctly.

In all fairness, I’ve made this mistake myself. When Ex-Heroes first went out to my little secret cabal of readers, more than one commented that one of the final flashback chapters was smack in the middle of a pitched battle. It disrupted the flow and killed all the dramatic tension the past two chapters had built up. They were dead right, too. When I rearranged things, it gave me a much more powerful ending

In a way, this hearkens back to something I’ve said three or four times before. All that matters is your story. If something isn’t helping or contributing to your story, it shouldn’t be there. Lots of fledgling writers try to do cool things with structure because they think this will make their story cool. The different forms of structure are so intertwined, though, that attempting to change one of them for the heck of it will most likely damage the others. Shuffling Raiders of the Lost Ark would just create a convoluted mishmash. Straightening out Pulp Fiction or Memento would be… well, pretty boring, really.

In architecture, there’s a reason that beam is there and that column is here. When you’re laying out a train system, you put tracks and stops in specific places, and the trains have certain schedules to reach them all efficiently. When writing a story, it’s the same thing. You can use whatever elements you like, but these elements need to fit together in a cohesive way to create a specific result.

And that, ladies and gentlemen (all twelve of you) concludes our intensive three week course on story structure. Is there anything else you’d like to know?

No, seriously. Anything else? I’m beat and I have no idea what to rant about next week. Any suggestions?

Well, we’ll figure something out.

Until then, go write.

0 replies on “Cross Training”

oh dear, i'm trying to edit a massive story right now and inserted about a dozen flashbacks in order to get rid of the huge amount of exposition clogging up the first third of the story… and now i'm worried it's just clogged with expositional flashback instead. 😀 Have i mentioned how i hate editing?

Hmm, things we'd like to see you rant about… any advice on synopses? I can't write them to save my life. Ooh, and screenplays for short films – is the technique different to writing a full length script? Is there any point to writing them (from the point of view of selling them)? Can they be adapted to full length stories or is that a bad idea?

something else i have difficulty with – how do you crit a script/story (especially for friends) without being too wishy-washy or wrecking friendships? 😀

can't think of anything else offhand… i'm sure you'll come up with something. Utilise that massive brain of yours! 😉

Well, like I said, just because you're using flashbacks doesn't mean they're automatically wrong. Some of my favorite books and movies have flashbacks. Hell, my book is full of 'em.


If you just randomly decided to create flashbacks… yeah, it's probably worth giving them another look. Sorry.

Hmmmm… some of your other questions… don't know if they're ranty blog material, but I could shoot you a few answers if you like.

Actually, after a conversation with my lady love, I think next week's post is going to be about nudity and Casablanca.

…and didn't that get everyone's attention… 🙂

If I understand correctly about the overall building of dramatic tension, a complex story might actually require the use of flashbacks.

I'd say that if the flashback casts light on the main story arc and is at least as compelling as the scene just left, and the next stage of the main arc is yet more interesting than the flashback, how can you not use it?

If your main arc is steadily building, you might use flashbacks to establish that rise and fall of tension and relief. Well executed flashbacks can solve the back story problem and establish that your characters really do have the means to do what seems impossible. Sort of like Stephen King used flashbacks in "IT."

But your main general warning seems to apply, for some reason many writers can't seem to manage the sudden shifts involved. A flashback within a novel has to be as difficult as any other scene to get right. Or more so. You have an important character at a different time and place. He may well be much younger. He does not know what he in this flashback to learn, until he does.

But for whatever reason, your story may not be able to start at the beginning of the flashback. (Because that really isn't the beginning of the story!) Maybe these events are of no significance until much later.

I think it's crap to say, never use any given tool or structure. Those who can't be bothered, or can't explain how it's done should just go away.

Not talking about you, Writer-on-Writing. I think you hit the target just fine.

oh well curses, now i'm going to have to find a creative soluation instead of a nice easy one… 😉

Hee. Is okay, i was just trying to think of subjects. But nudity and casblanca, you say? Well, i'm not going to argue with that. ;D

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