May 2, 2024

Onward and Upward

Very sorry this is very late. I ended up with a clever thought about how I could restructure the whole thing. And then ha ha ha ha I kind of slashed half my fingertip open while working on some little toy soldiers (always be extra-careful when you’re using fresh X-acto blades, folks) and the bandages made typing a little challenging for, oh four days.

But here we are. Finally. For one last blathering-on about structure. This is the cool one, though.

So, I started off talking with you about linear structure, and then I talked a bit more about narrative structure. This week I want to combine these two and talk about dramatic structure.

As the name implies, dramatic structure involves drama. Not “how shall I recover from this sleight, woe is me” drama, but the tension and interactions and momentum within my story. Any story worth telling (well, the vast, overwhelming majority of them) is going to involve a series of challenges and an escalation of tension. Stakes will be raised, then raised again. More on this in a bit.

Speaking of which, before I dive in… okay, look, on one level I hate breaking all this stuff down and quantifying it because we’re talking about art. We’ve all got our own likes and dislikes and styles and methods, and there’s rarely any good, one-size-fits-all advice The art part of this is personal, and we should all be a bit cautious when some guru starts telling you how stories go together and slaps down graphs and charts or some nonsense like that.

So. with that out of the way… let me dive in and tell you how stories go together. I’ve got graphs and charts to help out.

Now, dramatic structure means I want to arrange my story so tension is rising. The plot needs to advance. Characters need to make decisions, and those decisions should have an effect on them and what’s going on around them, for better or for worse. Usually for worse. It may sound silly to say out loud, but tension should be higher at the middle of my story than the beginning, and higher at the end than it was in the middle. That’s just common sense right? Nobody wants to read (or write) a story that gets less interesting and compelling as it goes on. Or a story that starts sort of compelling and then stays… sort of compelling, and at the big climax is sort of compelling. I mean, maybe I’m just weird that way?

Mind you, these don’t need to be world-threatening challenges or gigantic action set pieces. If the whole goal of my story is for science-nerd Wakko to ask out popular girl Phoebe, a challenge could be working up the nerve or just finding the right clothes. But there needs to be something for my character to do to bump that tension line higher and higher. Stand up to the bully. Get to work in time for that important meeting. Come up with $30,000 by five o’clock on Friday to save Aunt Dot’s car wash. And, yes, defeating the cyborg ninja werewolf from the future so I can deactivate the terraforming device before it turns North America back into primordial tundra.

So let’s talk and let me show you some fun visual aids. On all of these graphs, the individual points are going to represent the linear structure. I’m going to be using the alphabet to mark them because we can all recognize that order pretty quick– A, B, C, D, and so on. Our X-axis (oooh, look at me, talking all mathy and sciencey) is going to be the progression of the story—our narrative structure. Think of it as the arrangement of plot points from the first page of my story to the last page (and damn, I wish I’d thought of that explanation earlier). Finally, the Y-axis is going to be our tension levels—dramatic structure.

Got all that?

Also, apologies up front. I didn’t realize how rough these graphs would be shrunken down. Sorry. Just open ’em in another tab. Also graphic design is my passion, yadda yadda, moving on.

Okay, let’s do an easy starter graph.

This is the story of me sleeping. It’s pretty simple. We start when I go to bed, and end when I waking up. It’s told in a linear fashion, so the linear and narrative structures line up. There’s a brief moment in there when a cat woke me up (maybe Julius or Alucard?) and I went back to sleep, but that’s pretty much it as far as dramatic tension goes.

Like I said, simple. Really, this is a story where nothing happens. It’s pretty boring. You may notice it’s pretty close to a straight line. A flat line, really. And if you’ve watched a lot of medical shows, you probably know what it means when they say something’s flatlined

So, if we want to see our heroes overcome challenges and watch the overall tension rise… what would that look like?

Well, here’s a very bare-bones dramatic structure. We start small, and tension increases as time goes by. Low at the start, high at the end. Makes sense, right?

But… this is pretty much another straight line, right? And straight lines are pretty close to flat lines (see above). So how am I supposed to have a dramatic structure that constantly rises but isn’t a straight line?

Well, let’s think back to high school physics for a minute (sorry if this is traumatic for any of you). Did any of you ever deal with that problem of playing pool on a train? As long as the train’s moving at a steady speed, you can play a game of pool on a moving train without any weird effects. Because you, the floor, the pool table, the balls… all of it’s moving together at the same speed. We’re not aware of the speed because everything’s moving together. We don’t hit a problem until the train speeds up, slows down, or goes around a corner.

Maybe a more familiar example—if I’m driving my car at a nice, even speed, I can reach out and play with the radio. I can have a drink of water or soda or coffee. I can wiggle around and take off my jacket or get my wallet out or whatever. And it doesn’t really matter if I’m moving at 40 or 60 or even a hundred miles per hour. Going in a straight line at an even speed is just like… well, not moving at all.

Y’see, Timmy, we don’t feel a constant velocity—it’s the change that stands out. That’s what grabs our attention. When I have to hit the gas or slam on the brakes or turn fast. that’s when I’m very aware I’m on a train or in my car. And these are the moments that demand attention. These points stand out above the constant ones.

So my dramatic structure can’t be a nice, even rise like that last graph. In a good story, there’s going to be multiple challenges and my hero isn’t always going to succeed. No, really. He or she will win in the end, sure, but it’s not going to be easy getting there. There’s going to be failures, mistakes, and unexpected results. Ups and downs. Because that’s normal. We don’t want a character who’s good at everything, never has a problem dealing with anything, maybe never even encounters anything to deal with. So that line is going to be a series of peaks and drops. For every success, every time we get a little higher, there’s going to be some setbacks. Any time my characters complete a challenge, new, bigger challenge is going to appear. Hell, it might even appear before they finish the current challenge.

Still with me?

Okay then, let’s try a third graph.

So, now we’ve got peaks and valleys. Things start small, but are pretty much always rising. Also, notice how even when there are lulls or setbacks, things never go all the way back to zero. The breather we get on page 150 is not the same as the one we got back on page 16. The overall dramatic structure is that tension is rising.

This might sound like a blanket statement, but pretty much every story should look something like this graph if I map it out. I mean, they’re not all going to match up precisely peak for peak, but they should all be pretty close to this pattern. Small at the start, increase with peaks and dips, finish big.

That’s it. The easy trick to dramatic structure that Big Novel doesn’t want you to know. No matter what my narrative is doing, the tension needs to keep going up.

Simple, yes?

Okay now let’s take a look at another one…

Do you see what’s different about it? Looks the same at first glance, yes? But check out that bottom row. I’ve changed the narrative structure by breaking up the linear structure. There are three flashbacks in the story now. So—for the reader—the events aren’t unfolding the same way they did for the characters.

BUT… again, the overall graph still isn’t that different. For this story, the flashbacks are adding to the tension. Learning this information at this point has made the drama stronger. I’m choosing to put this plot point here in order to create a specific dramatic effect.

This is something I’ve mentioned twice or thrice here on the ranty blog. There needs to be a reason for this shift to happen at this point—a reason that continues to feed the dramatic structure. If my dramatic tension is at seven and I go into a flashback, it should take things up to seven-point-five or eight. And if it doesn’t—if it actually drops the dramatic tension to go into a flashback—why am I doing it? I shouldn’t be having a flashback right now. Not that particular one, anyway.

Now to be clear, this isn’t an automatic thing. Events E-F aren’t ten times more dramatic just because I stuck them near the end of the story instead of the beginning. This is something I need to be aware of—me, the writer—while I’m working out my narrative structure. if I map out my story like this, even in my head (and be honest about it), I can get a better sense of how well my story’s structured. I probably don’t want a super-fast, high-tension story beat right at the start of my story. A scene with no dramatic tension in it most likely shouldn’t be in my final pages. If I’ve got a chapter that’s incredibly slow, it shouldn’t be near the middle of my book.

And if I do have things like this—things that are bending that story structure waaaay out of shape—it might mean I’m doing something wrong.

Okay, I think with that I’ve thrown enough at you. Ask any questions down below. Just remember, a lot of this is going to depend on you. The other two forms of structure are pretty logical and quantifiable, but dramatic structure relies more on gut feelings and empathy with my reader. I have to understand how information’s going to be received and interpreted if I want to release that information in a way that builds tension. And that’s a lot harder to teach or explain. The best I can do is point someone in the right direction, then hope they gain some experience and figure it out for themselves.

On which note… next time, I think we’re due for another talk about Zefram Cochrane.

Until then… go write.

February 9, 2024

Birds AND Bees

Last week was a bit of a flop, sorry. It happens sometimes, and I’m trying to be better about not letting it throw everything off for a week. We’ll still talk about throwing things out, don’t worry. I’m rescheduling a bit, moving a few things back on the calendar

Speaking of the calendar… Valentine’s Day is next week! With all the fun indoor (and sometimes outdoor, if you’re daring) activities many of us associate with said holiday.

So I though, in the spirit of the day, it might be worth revisiting the sometimes awkward topic of… writing sex scenes.

Don’t worry. None of this is going to be too explicit or NSFW and it probably won’t get your work machine flagged. You know your boss better than I do. Move forward accordingly.

Like sex itself, a lot of writing sex is going to come down to our own personal preferences, comfort zones, and what works in a given situation. As such, it’s going to be really tough to offer any specific advice about when and where and how these moments should happen in your book.

What I wanted to talk about here is more the act itself, so to speak. Writing sex scenes is a skill, just like writing action or gore or anything else. It’s a balancing act of too much vs. too little, exciting the reader or maybe horrifying them, and it’s ridiculously easy to make people roll their eyes.

No, not like that.

So here’s a few things I tend to keep in mind when writing a sex scene.

One is that we don’t always need to show sex happening in order for sex to have happened in my story. Nuance and subtext are a huge part of sexiness—on the page and in real life. If Phoebe drags Yakko off into the forest while the rest of us are siting around the campfire, we can make an educated guess what they’re probably doing out there. Especially with context. If they’ve been flirting for the whole trip up to the mountain, whispering to each other while setting up tents, and they come back half an hour later with stupid grins, wrinkled clothes, and leaves in their hair… I mean, is anybody confused what they were doing out there?

So depending on the overall tone of my story, maybe I don’t actually need to write out my sex scene—I can just let my reader fill in the blanks themselves. And again, like so many well-done subtle things, this can end up being much, much sexier than actually spelling everything out. As an artist friend once pointed out, “nudity isn’t sexy. It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”

Probably worth noting that, like any kind of subtext, there’s always the possibility it’ll slip past some folks. So depending on how important this particular hookup is to my plot or my story, I may want to be a little… y’know, less subtle. Just to help keep things moving. Still don’t have to show anything, but maybe drop one or two more clues when we return from our walk in the woods.

Two, if I’m going to show my sex scene, I want to remember that sex is… well, action. Not necessarily in “expending lots of energy and effort” (although that might be the case in this story), just that actual, physical things are happening in my story. And like any other action, it gets dull fast when it’s written poorly. Yes, it can get dull.

There’s going to be some exceptions, but I think most action shouldn’t feel like it takes much longer to read then it would take to happen. Nobody wants to read about a three paragraph sniper shot or a four page fist fight. When I over-analyze or over-describe anything, I’m slowing the pace of my story, and I don’t want to slow things down to tell my reader how fast things are happening.

And writing about sex works the same way. I’m not saying every sex scene has to have the frantic intensity and enthusiasm of two college sophomores, but If I’m telling you these two people are eagerly ripping each others clothes off and it’s taking six paragraphs for it to happen… you’re probably going to start skimming. And that’s never good. Strong action trusts that the reader’s going to fill in a lot of the blanks and understand what happened between A and C.

Now, since we’re talking about describing all that action…

Three would be personal taste. I think the catch with writing explicit sex scenes is they essentially become porn. Porn, as a friend once pointed out, is when we see everything. And after a certain point, that’s pretty much exactly what we’re talking about with any written-out sex scene. And some people like porn, some don’t. No judgment either way. That’s just a simple truth.

But there’s more to it than that. Because even the people who do like porn don’t all like the same kind of porn. This particular act really turns me on, but you find it kind of quaint and almost routine. Reading about that might weird me out, this might be a complete non-starter for you, and that… okay, that seriously disturbs both of us. On a number of levels. It’s a pretty safe bet that the more explicit—or shall we say, exotic—my sex scene becomes, the less people it’s going to appeal to. And the more people it’s going to… not appeal to.

This is going to be one of those points where I want to have a very clear sense of who the audience is going to be for this story. And I need to be honest about that. What kind of sex scene I put in, and how I describe it, is going to have an impact, so I want to be sure it’s the kind of impact I’m trying for.

Four, last but not least, is something I’ve also talked about with my rules of love that I bring up now and then. Y’see, Timmy, for a long time Hollywood tried to convince us if two good looking people (or even average-looking people) ended up alone in an apartment, a car, an office, a cave, whatever… they’d have sex. It was just what people did. What else were they going to do? Talk? Watch television? Read?

And there are a lot of reasons to think this way. A fair number of people enjoy sex. A decent amount of folks have a phase in their lives where sex is a high priority. And crass as it may sound… sex sells. More than a few filmmakers sold an additional ticket or three (or four or five rentals) off the promise of skin and naughtiness.

But the truth is… most of us don’t have sex at the drop of a hat. And there are times and places that it’s just not going to work. For any number of reasons. Sometimes the reason that sex scene feels kind of forced and gratuitous is because… well… it is

So go forth on this holiday and write your sexy moments. But please consider if you really need to show them. And how they’re paced. And who you’re writing them for. And if they should be there at all.

Next time… I’d like to talk about the new tabletop game my friends and I have been playing. And how it relates to writing.

Until then, go write.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

June 24, 2021

Two Days Earlier…

A couple weeks ago I talked about a certain kind of opening that shows up in a lot of books and movies. It’s when that prologue or first chapter or first scene has some stuff happen (computer virus is stolen, monster lands on earth, vampire comes out of the earth, etc) and then it jumps forward in time four day, five weeks, six months, or more. It can be a problematic opening, and the fact that I feel the need to point out that time gap—how separated these events are—should usually be a sign to take a serious look at how important that opening chapter or scene really is.

Today I wanted to talk about the reverse of that opening. It’s another one you’re probably familiar with, and I’d guess it should probably be an even bigger red flag. It’s not always a sign I’m doing something wrong… but I think it’s really leaning that way.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the infamous opening scene of high action, desperate people, severe crisis, screams, shouts, gunfire, exclamations, and then—

Thirty Six Hours Earlier…

You’ve seen this, yes?

Now, on a casual first glance, this opening seems great, right? We’re diving right into the action at the start. We’ve got tension. Strong character moments. And then—usually—a following scene that shows these characters in very different circumstances, leaving us with the mystery of “how do they end up there?”

Thing is, the more we look at it, the more this opening tends to falls apart.

First, it’s dropping us deep into the action. Sounds good on the surface, but as we’ve talked about before, a lot of folks who do this misunderstand what “starting with action”  really means. By its very nature this opening is out of context, and there’s a good chance I don’t know any of the characters involved, so this “action” opening has superficial stakes at best.

Think about it. Me telling you Wakko has a knife to Dot’s throat is… bad? Good? Bad for Wakko?  Without context, there’s a drastically different way to view almost any scene any of us can imagine. Seriously. Kids on the playground, people fooling around on the couch, someone reading a book in the library—in the right context, any one of these can be funny, sexy, sinister, or right out creepy.

Ah-hah! Says random internet guy #108. That’s the whole point! Like you said above, it’s creating a sense of mystery!

Funny you should mention that…

Second, this opening’s trying to build mystery by showing me an out of context piece of my story. But, a lot like the straight action, this opening mystery is a mystery without any stakes. If I need another six or seven scenes to establish “no, it’s really weird that Wakko would have Dot at knifepoint,” well… doesn’t needing another seven scenes to explain it kind of hint my opening isn’t that powerful?

Plus… this isn’t really a mystery. It’s just withheld information. We expect things are going to be different at the end of my story. The tension level should be higher. My characters should be in a different place, on several levels. It’s sort of like if I said “Wait, he’s Spider-Man at the end of the movie, but he’s just Miles Morales at the beginning?? Whoa! How could that possibly happen?”

The point of the story, quite literally, is to tell us how we get to the end of the story.

Third, it sucks a lot of tension out of my story. One way or another, I’m telling people who makes it to the end. Nothing that happens to Wakko until then is going to be a real threat, because I know he needs to be there at the end to hold a knife to Dot’s throat. Likewise, Dot’s got to be there to be knife-helden. Anyone standing around watching this? Well, we know they’re going to make it, too. This may sound silly, but if I tell people what happens at the end of my story… they’re going to know what happens at the end of my story.

Small note—if I’m gambling on my readers/audience forgetting that opening bit and being surprised when the plot guides us back to it, well… does that sound like a great opening? One I’m hoping my readers forget?

Fourth and finally, I think when I use this kind of beginning, it’s me admitting I just don’t have a great beginning for my story.

Y’know how I’ve suggested cutting off some prologues and seeing how the story works without them? I’d bet three out of four times, if I cut this “One Week Earlier” opening off my story, I’ll find the one I’m left with is kind of weak. Nothing really happens. The characters aren’t that interesting. It kind of meanders a bit before it gets back to the plot.

Y’see, Timmy, if I’ve started my story at the wrong point, the “Two Days Earlier” opening can seem like a quick fix. It’s me pasting on a more interesting beginning. But odds are it hits a lot of those problems I just mentioned. That’s why I think it’s such a big red flag.

I should consider starting my story now instead of at the end. I’m not saying this never, ever works, but if now feels like such a lousy place to start my story… well, that might be my subconscious telling me something.

And maybe I should listen to it.

Next time, I’d like to tell you why you should delete all your dating apps and meet someone the old fashioned way.

Oh! And a shameless self-plug. NPR is doing their summer reading lists and is looking for sci-fi and fantasy books that you loved from the past ten years. And while I’d never stoop so low as telling you how to vote on such a thing, I’m not above reminding you how much you liked Paradox Bound and how it’s a wonderful stand-alone novel that would appeal to most anyone. Just something to have in mind. While you vote.

Anyway, until next time, go write…

April 22, 2021 / 4 Comments

License to Prologue

I know I said I was going to talk about creepy clowns this week, but I couldn’t get the idea to gel quite right in my head. Plus then I got the social media question and had to deal with some other stuff. Anyway, I figured I’d backburner the clowns for now and talk about something more exciting for a minute.


Sorry, not prologues. Everyone knows prologues are awful and you should never, ever use them. Except, y’know, when they work. What I meant to say was Bond.

James Bond.

Let’s talk about James Bond and prologues.

If you think about it, prologues are kind of baked into the Bond film formula, especially the classic films. We’d always begin with James off on some little side mission, or maybe just finishing up a larger one, and then the opening credits would roll and we’d begin the actual movie. You know what I’m talking about, yes? It was the standard structure for decades, and even the new films kind of hold to it (although not quite as rigidly).

So why were these prologues so amazing that they were used through over twenty movies?

Three reasons…

First, it’s starting with action. By dropping us into the story right as a mission’s being brought to a close, it’s a perfect time for face-punching, explosions, gunfire, and bigger explosions. So not only are we starting with action, it’s action that has a clear purpose, a reason for its existence.

Second, the prologues always directly involve Bond. We don’t get long prologues about what other agents are doing, it’s about what our hero is doing. Right now. He’s part of the action, and usually the driving force behind it.

Third, and maybe most importantly, the Bond prologues always end up tying back to the main plot. Often directly to it. We get far enough in and learn that guy’s not dead after all, she was related to that other guy, or that other person got away with the goober that’ll let them do the thing in act three. So the prologues also serve as a bit of worldbuilding for the overall story and maybe some character introductions, too.

Three solid reasons the Bond prologues always worked.

And it’s not just Bond. This structure became so popular dozens of other action movies followed it. Hell, they’re still following it. Look at Thor: Ragnarok. Drops us right into the action with Thor winding up a mission to get Surtur’s crown, which ultimately ties back and becomes a key part of resolving the movie’s main plot.

So don’t be scared of doing prologues. Just make sure they follow Bond’s three simple rules. And if they don’t, well…

I was going to make some sort of “licensed to kill” joke here but everything I came up with was pathetic. Just pretend I said something fantastic. And accept there’s a good chance I’ll need to get rid of a prologue that doesn’t follow these guidelines.

Next time… I may double-post again next week. So there could be multiple topics.

Until then, go write.