February 22, 2018 / 4 Comments

Our Story Begins Ten Years Ago…

            For those who came in late…
            So we’re in the middle of a big discussion/lecture/infodump about story structure.  To be more exact, the different typesof story structure, because there are several of them and they all serve a different purpose.  If you missed me blabbing about linear structure last week, you might want to jump back and read that first.  Or maybe re-read it as sort of a refresher before we dive into this week’s little rant.
            Speaking of which…
            Now I want to talk about narrative structure.  Remember how I said linear structure is how the characters experience the story?  The narrative structure is how the author decides to tell the story.  It’s the manner and style and order I choose for how things will unfold.  A flashback is part of the narrative structure, as are flashforwards, prologues, epilogues, and “our story begins ten years ago…”  If you studied (or over-studied) this sort of stuff in college, your professor may have tossed out the term syuzhet. 
            One more note before I dive in.  Within my story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of this little rant, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about me, the writer, and the choices I make. Because I’m God when it comes to this story, and the narrator doesn’t do or say anything I don’t want them to.
            That being said…  here we go.
            In a good number of stories, the linear structure and narrative structure are identical.  Things start with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, and conclude on Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, and very common.  My book, The Fold, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.  Same with Autumn Christian’s We Are Wormwood, Dan Abnett’s The Warmaster, or Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male.  These books may shift point of view or format, but they still follow a pretty straightforward linear narrative.
            We don’t need to talk about this type of narrative too much because… well, we already did.  When my narrative matches my linear structure, any possible narrative issues will also be linear ones.  And we discussed those last week.
            There are just as many stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences. In other instances, the story might split between multiple timeframes. Or the story may be broken up into numerous sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to how they all line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there).  My own Ex-Heroesseries employs numerous flashbacks, all in their own linear order.  So does F. Paul Wilson’s latest, The God Gene.  In his “Vicious Circuit” novels, Robert Brockway splits almost every other chapter between present day and the events of forty-odd years ago.
            Narrative structure involves more than just switching around my story elements, though.  It’s not just something I can do off the cuff in an attempt to look trendy.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind. 
            Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I tell you about is what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to acknowledge that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who stole the painting, then roll the story back to Monday where everyone was a witnesses and saw the thief’s face.  If they knew then, they have to know now.  If I have Yakko act surprised to find a dog in his house on Friday and then have the narrative jump to him adopting the dog from a shelter on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are kinda stupid, overly-simple examples, yeah, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff around in clever ways, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy problem to avoid, it just requires a little time and work.
            The second thing to keep in mind when experimenting with narrative structure is… why?  Why am I breaking up my story instead of telling it in order?  Sure, all that non-linear stuff is edgy and bold, but… what’s the point of it in mystory?  Why am I starting ten years ago instead of today?  Why do I have that flashback at that point?  How is the narrative improved by shaping it this way?
            Now, these may sound like silly questions, and I’m sure many artsy folks would sweep them aside with a dry laugh.  But they really deserve some serious thought. I talked a little while ago about how when my reader knows things can greatly affect the type of story I want to tell.  By rearranging the linear order, I’m changing when people learn things.
            And if this new narrative form doesn’t change when people learn things… again, what’s the point?
            The  third and final issue with having different narrative and linear structures is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I mentioned last time that we all try to put things in linear order because it’s natural for us. It’s pretty much an automatic function of our brains.  This flashback took place before that one.  That’s a flash forward.  This flashback’s showing us something we saw earlier, but from a different point of view.
            The catch here is that I chop my narrative up too much, people are going to spend less time reading my story and more time… well, deciphering it.  My readers will hit the seventh flashback and they’ll try to figure out how it relates to the last six.  And as they have to put more and more effort into reorganizing the story (instead of getting immersed in said story), it’s going to break the flow.  If I keep piling on flashbacks and flash-forwards, and parallel stories… that flow’s going to stay broken.  Shattered even.
            And when I break the flow, that’s when people set my book aside to go watch YouTube videos.  No, it doesn’t matter how many clever phrases or perfect words I have.  People can’t get invested in my story if they can’t figure out what my story is.  And if they can’t get invested… that’s it.
            Y’see, Timmy, narrative structure can be overdone if I’m not careful.  This is something that can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, but for someone just picking it up… this might be a bit of a  pile.  Maybe even a steaming one.
            That’s narrative structure.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure. Perhaps even more important, it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I’ll try to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine to (hopefully) form a powerful dramatic structure.
            Until then… go write.
December 21, 2017 / 3 Comments

The Happy Ending

            Oh, get your mind out of the gutter…
           Well, it’s been a brutal week on a couple levels. And it’s the holiday season, I think we can all use a little cheering up, don’t you?  So let’s talk about some good stuff.
            And I’ll start by talking about what happens in the grim, dark future…
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice here, I’m a bit of a geek.  One of my biggest geekery hobbies by far is Warhammer 40K.  If you’re not familiar with the game, it takes place in the distant future (around the year 40,000—surprise!) where mankind has risen, fallen, risen, fallen again, risen one last time… and is now pretty much on the way out.  Not immediately. Not in our lifetime.  But the glory days are gone and the Empire of Man is well past middle aged and fighting to hang on to its driver’s license, if you get my drift.
            When my lovely lady and I first started hanging out, she expressed interest in this silly toy soldiers game, and—being a geek—I immediately started telling her about the different armies and the massive back story and setting of the game.  And after a few hours of listening to stories of the waning Imperium, she finally laughed and said, “Why would anyone want to live in this world?  I’d just kill myself.”
            Which is a fair point.  To be honest, I hadn’t been fond of some of the earlier stories myself.  They were just bleak as hell. You may have heard the term “grimdark” used for some fiction.  It actually comes from this game.  That phrase I used up above, “in the grim, dark future”—that’s part of Warhammer 40K’s tagline.
            Of course, it’s not just the little toy soldiers.  The grimdark label ends up on a lot of things these days.  Urban fantasy stories.  Post-apocalypse stories.  Superhero stories.  And this isn’t just about genre books.  People try to do “serious” books all the time that are nothing but sadness, misery, and death.  There’s a common belief that making things gritty and dark, and edgy automatically makes them more “mature.”   I’ve mentioned once or thrice before how some writers think having bleak, depressing endings is artistic because it’s more “real.”
            I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of this.
            The catch is, this gritifying of stories rarely works.  Usually making something grim and dark just makes it… well, grim and dark.  That’s it.  Seriously, check out bestselling books or big box-office movies.  The popular stuff almost always leans toward lighter and fun.  A lot of it has (gasp) happy endings.
            As another famous sci-fi icon once said, it’s not enough to live.  You have to have something to live for.
            Again, why would anyone want to live in my fictional world?  Seriously.  Take a moment and think about it.
            What saved the world of Warhammer 40K for me was the writing of folks like Dan Abnettand Sandy Mitchell.  They added a human element.  They told stories that involved jokes and drinking buddies and love and people just enjoying their lives.  Heck, Abnett had a whole subplot in one book about a toymaker saving his business by building wind-up robots.
            I’ve gotten a lot of praise for my Ex-Heroes series.  It’s a series that’s lasted through five book so far, and across six years. Long after when many people said zombies were… well, dead.  And I believe a lot of that praise and success comes from one simple thing.
            It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but it’s a hopeful one.  Yeah, things are overall awful, but the characters are actively trying to make life better.  They choose to move forward rather than do nothing or wallow in the past.  They laugh.  They love.  They play games.  They flirt.  They celebrate.  They have fun.  A lot of their life is stressful and difficult, but it’s not every-minute-every-hour-every-day stressful and difficult.
            And it’s important to see these other moments because now we know why the characters are going on.  We know what they’re living for.  Deadpool is a story about hopelessness and terminal diseases and bloody revenge, but it’s also a story where Wade and Vanessa pretty much screw each other silly for an entire year before he proposes with a Voltron ring
            Resist the urge to have nothing but grim darkness.  Don’t be scared about having a good thing or three happen in your story.  Don’t think you can’t have any light-hearted moments. 
            Believe in the happy ending!
            On which note, I hope you all have a fantastic weekend and (if it’s your holiday) a very Happy Christmas.
            Try and get a little writing in before then.
May 12, 2013

The Scooby Ambiguity

            Not a pop-culture reference to the title of a Middleman episode.

            But it could’ve been…
            So sorry I’m behind in the ranty blog.  Between finishing the new manuscript and Texas Frightmare, the past few weeks have been a blur.  I think I’m back on schedule now, though, and you should be getting very regular posts for the next few weeks.
            I was trying to come up for a term for the idea I wanted to get across this week, and my girlfriend suggested the Scooby Ambiguity.  Which fit perfectly and also helped me structure my little rant.  As before, I’m hoping this becomes a standard term in storytelling.
            Allow me to explain.
            I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the basic plot of a Scooby-Doo episode.  The gang rolls into town and encounters some kind of ghost or monster, usually three or four times.  Then Velma finds some clues, applies some deductive reasoning, and reveals the ancient mummy to be Dr. Najib, the museum currator, in a disguise.
            (For the record, there’s a fantastic article about Scooby Doo and secular humanism over here at Comics Alliance.  No, really.  It’s also makes some brilliant observation about character and setting, so check it out.)
           Now, every now and then, in a Scooby episode or another story structured like it, we’ll have a moment of confusion, often near the end.  We’ll get one fact that doesn’t match up.  If Dr. Najib was in the costume… then who was the mummy we saw in the old tomb? There weren’t any other accomplices.  The film projector was shut off.  Could that have really been… the mummy?
            (cue spooky music)
            You’ve probably seen this sort of thing in a lot of stories.  It’s a pretty classic “…or is it?” device.  One of the first times I remember seeing it in was the old X-Men/ Teen Titans crossover penned by Chris Claremont, when the ghost of Jean Grey shows up to warn the X-Men about Darkseid.  Simply put, the Scooby Ambiguity is the one element that doesn’t fit in my established setting
            Now, when done right, this can be a wonderful thing.  When handled with a light touch, it can give the audience a little thrill of excitement.  It might even count as a minor twist.
            When done wrong, though… well, your story falls apart
            For example…
            There’s a series of fairly successful books I read now and then.  I’ll be polite and not name them, even though they’re kind of a guilty pleasure.  I know they’re awful on several levels, and they always frustrate me for one reason or another, but I can’t help myself…
            Anyway, the series is firmly grounded in the real world.  Real locations, real law enforcement, real problems.  It’s a lot like Scooby Doo, in fact.  There are stories about zombies, mummies, and vampires, but in the end we get a solid, scientific explanation for these things, and more than a few times someone actually gets a mask pulled off.
            In one of the books,  the main character is a passenger on a jumbo jet with an unknown killer on the loose, and a huge stormfront is actually keeping them in the air, forcing them onward rather than trying to land. 
            Then, in the last hundred pages or so, we learn the killer is actually the physically manifested psychic energy of four passengers who are all projecting their Id out into the world.
            No, I’m serious.  Out of nowhere, in the middle of this reality-based story, the killer is a telepathically-created monster.
            On the flipside, consider Dan Abnett’s ongoing book series about Gaunt’s Ghosts.  It’s a sci-fi war story about soldiers during a massive interplanetary crusade.  There’s guns, tanks, ongoing logistics and morale issues.
            And every now and then… a miracle.  Nothing gigantic, nothing that couldn’t be written off as odd coincidence or luck.  Yet Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and his men are following the crusade path of Saint Sabbat, and they do seem to attract a lot of coincidences and a lot of luck.  It never wins the day for them, and it never leaves much in the way of evidence, but it is there and the colonel-commissar is often left feeling a bit confused and in awe of it in the aftermath.
            Y’see, Timmy, the Scooby Ambiguity works great as a thinly-connected side note, but the minute I make it a major element of my main plot, things start to crumble.  Either I’m writing about a world where X can happen or I’m not.  By its very nature, the ambiguity doesn’t fit within my established world, so making it a major part of my plot creates a jarring distraction that breaks the flow.
            This isn’t to say I can’t have a story about homicidal psychic-energy monsters, but if I do it needs to be clear from the start that this is a world where such things can exist.  If not, pulling some bizarre element out of left field is going to alienate a lot more readers than it impresses.
            And alienated readers often find something else to do rather than finish reading.
            Next time, not to sound morose, but I wanted to talk a bit about death.
            Until then, go write.
December 7, 2012 / 2 Comments

That’s Crossing The Line!

            I’ve been asked about a dozen times lately to take part in “The Next Big Thing.”  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of a self-promotional blog tour that a lot of authors are passing around.  I passed on it because that’s not the kind of thing I use this page for.  Oh, sure, I’ll mention it if I have a new release or maybe if something of mine goes on sale, but I don’t want to go much further than that.  This page is more about hints and instruction than anything else.

            And I suck at self-promotion.
            But that’s all a bit besides the point.  I didn’t want to blather on about crossing that line this week.  I wanted to talk about crossing lines.
            Some people think a genre story has to be pure.  A horror story should be nothing but suspense and scares and gore.  Every moment of a drama should be serious and weighty.  Comedies should be non-stop laughs—there shouldn’t be a moment where something inherently funny isn’t happening on the page or the screen..
            The thing is, those “pure” stories are all boring as hell.  The horror ones stop being scary.  The drama becomes melodrama.  The comedy becomes painful. 
            The reason for this is a lack of variety.  An idea I’ve mentioned before is that the tension levels in a story should rise as the story progresses.  It’s great to begin my story with the action dialed up to nine, but it doesn’t really leave me anywhere to go.  If my novel or screenplay has everything dialed up to nine, what I’ve really got is a monotone story.
            Likewise, if every point on my story graph is the same point—say unspeakable horror or maybe uber-cool action—then what I now have is a homogenous script.  Flipping pages is like cutting into a block of cheese.  Every part is just like every other part.  Case in point…
            unspeakable horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Even when I’m escalating things, getting the same point over and over and over again becomes silly pretty quick. 
            Consider most of the good stories you’ve read or seen.  There’s a lot of comedy in Jaws.  Ernie Cline’s cyber-fantasy tale Ready Player One has some moments of serious suspense.  Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wonderful love story in it.  Dan Abnett’s sci-fi action novel Embeddedhas a pretty enthusiastic sex scene.  Ghostbustersactually gets a bit scary at points.  The characters in the new Hobbit movie break out into song.  Twice.
            That being said, I don’t think any of us would call Jaws a comedy, and Embedded is hardly a porno.  Raiders has that love story and a couple really good laughs, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call it a romantic comedy.  And The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journeyis definitely not a musical.  We all realize that little dips and swings into what would qualify as another genre doesn’t invalidate a story.
            If anything, they usually strengthen it.
            The secret to all storytelling is characters, and the best characters are going to act like real people.  They’ll tell jokes at the wrong time.  Some of them will think about love and sex when they should be paying attention in board meetings, and others will fret about those board meetings at moments they should be thinking about love and sex.  A few of them might even be stressed about scratching the paint on Dad’s car when they should really be worried about the axe murderer lumbering up behind them.  
            One of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back is when they’re about to test the carbon-freezing on Han Solo.  For all intents, he’s walking to his execution.  He knows it, his friends know it, we know it.  Even if he survives– he’s gone.  Leia knows this and finally admits her true feelings… and Han responds with a wiseass comment.  We all giggle and then there’s a horrible blast of steam as Han’s turned into a piece of collectible wall art.
            Y’see, Timmy, if my stories and characters lack this kind of range they’re going to come across as very flat and tedious.  If I can’t have a moment of laughter, a bit of flirting, or a non-sequitor distracted thought, my characters are going to feel like puppets rather than people.  Much like a chef uses a few different flavors to bring out the main tastes of a meal, a writer wants to sprinkle in a few moments that step out of the genre to make the characters and the material much more powerful.
            So don’t be scared to stretch a toe over those lines now and then.
            I know I said I was going to talk about structure, but that’s kind of a huge set of post so I think I might save it until the new year and take a bit of stress out of my holidays.  So next time, I’m  probably just going to say something quick about heroes.
            Until then, go write.