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.

September 25, 2009 / 2 Comments

Secrets of the Order

I have been prodded to remind folks the Amazon link off there on the side has grown again. So… go hit the link.

What about that title? Sounds impressive, eh? Alas, the order we’re talking about is a bit more mundane. It’s not much of a secret, either, now that I think of it.

Well, too late now. You’re already reading. Let’s move on.

Structure, unbelievable as it may sound, is how your story is put together. It’s the underlying shape and order that everything else hangs on. If you don’t have structure, all you have is a pile. Even something as amazing as the Guggenheim still follows a lot of the basics of building construction.

Much like the physical architecture of buildings, there are certain rules a writer needs to follow with the structure of their story. And, much like with architecture, ignoring these rules often means the story will collapse. Or end up so unsightly nobody will want anything to do with it.

There are two types of story structure I want to rant about. One is linear structure. The other is dramatic structure. They’re two separate things that should tie together if you’re doing things correctly, in the same way that dialogue and character should tie together. Hopefully we’ll have time and space here for both.

So, first up, here’s a pop quiz. What does this mean?

Mqnw berctx yzuai sopdl fkgjh.

No clue? What if I put it like this…?

Ghijkl abcdef mnopqrs wxyz tuv.

A little easier for some of you to see the pattern? Yes and no? Okay, try this…?

Abcdefg hijklmnop qrstuv wxyz.

Ahhhh, well now it’s obvious, isn’t it?

I mentioned a while back that three act structure always needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, they don’t always need to come in that order. A Princess of Mars begins with the frame story of Edgar Rice Burroughs inheriting a manuscript from his recently-deceased uncle, John Carter. The film The Prestige has a wonderful, interwoven, double-frame structure of a prisoner awaiting execution and reading the journal of his supposed victim, a man who had stolen the prisoner’s journal and is relating what he discovers as he studies it. My upcoming novel, Ex-Heroes, has almost a dozen major flashbacks in it to a period before the beginning of the novel. And, of course, everyone remembers Pulp Fiction for its wonderful non-linear story.

One easy way you can check a story to make sure all these tricks work is to cut it up and put the bits in chronological order, like a timetable. This is the order the characters and the world are experiencing the story (as opposed to the reader). Does effect still follow cause? Are the actions and dialogue still motivated? If it starts to get fuzzy or questionable, that’s not a good sign.

The other problem here is some people have taken that non-linear inch and run a few kilometers with it (mixed metaphor intentional). Since I can go a little bit non-linear, I can push the envelope and go a little more, and a little more, and a little… Well, the first example shows the problem with this. There comes a point when the narrative has been broken up with so many flashbacks, recollections, and frames-within-frames that you’ve just got gibberish.

Oh, sure, if you spent twenty minutes or so studying that first example you would’ve eventually figured out it was all the letters of the alphabet. I don’t doubt that at all. The same could be said about any number of non-linear books or screenplays. Given enough time, a spreadsheet program, and a bottle of rum, most of us can make sense of just about any story.

Thing is, Timmy, I doubt many of you read this collection of rants with the hope that someday you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You read it because you want to understand something now, not for me to show off by giving you an incomprehensible puzzle of verbs and nouns and clauses to work out over the next week or so.

Of course, all audiences feel this way. So while it’s okay to mix a story up a bit, at the end of the day your reader has to be able to follow the story. Flashbacks and frames are great, but, like so many things, need to be used responsibly and with moderation. Bruce Joel Rubin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Ghost, recently made the keen observation that stories, especially film stories, are experienced through the gut, not through the mind. The moment your audience has to go into their head to understand the story–you’ve lost them. It shatters the flow and brings them out of experiencing the story and into, on some level, analyzing it. So the last thing you want is so many non-linear elements that the reader has to stop for each one and figure out how it relates to the last twenty or thirty.

This is also a good time to mention this little oft-occurring problem…


The thing that immediately sticks out is the element that has no business being there. In the midst of our flowing, structured story (the alphabet) the 456 is something that ties to nothing before or after it and has no bearing on anything else in the story. It is, to use a previous example, the speech about Masada in that early scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Depending on the story, the 456 may be a clue for stories yet to come, a really cool dance/ action/ comedy sequence, or something none of here can even imagine, but if it isn’t really part of the story then… it shouldn’t be in the story.

Hmmmmm… this isn’t huge, but I think if I continue with dramatic structure this is going to get kind of sprawling. So let’s call this good for now while it’s still readable.

Next week, I’ll continue my mindless rant about structure with a discussion of drama and kayaking.

Until then, go write.