February 17, 2018

Getting Our Story Straight

            Running a little late this week.  Again.  Crazy busy these past few days.  Craig DiLouie was here in southern California, so we hung out for a day. Then there was Valentine’s Day.  And if you haven’t seen Black Pantheryet I highly recommend it.  Fantastic movie.
            Oh, plus a couple of outlines for new projects, too…
            This past week at the Writers Coffeehouse I babbled on about different forms of structure and how they work together.  I haven’t really gone into that here in a couple of years, so I figured now might be a good time.  While it’s all fresh in my mind.
            Fair warning—this is kind of a sprawling topic so it’s going to spread out over the next two posts as well as this one.  I also may use a few terms in ways of which your MFA writing professor would not approve.  But I’ll do my best to be clear, despite all that.
            Speaking of professors…
            Structureis one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot when we’re talking about writing.  Sometimes in a generic sense, like that last sentence, other times in much more specific ways. You may have heard gurus talk about narrative structure, dramatic structure, three-act structure, or maybe even four- and five-act structure (if you’ve been dabbling with screenwriting a bit).
            An important thing to be clear about before we go too far—all of these are very different things.  I think this is why people get confused about structure sometimes.  A lot of things fall into this general category, and while some of them are vital to the storytelling process… some aren’t.  And it doesn’t help when “expert” gurus try to conflate them.  I read an article once where one guy was trying to use the five-act structure of television shows to demonstrate that three-act structure was an obsolete form (ProTip–it’s not).
            When we talk about structure, we’re talking about the underlying framework of a story.  The skeletal system, or maybe the nervous system, depending on how you want to look at it.  And, just like with anatomy (or architecture or programming) there can be more than one underlying system. And they all work together to make a functioning person. Or house.  Or story.
            It’s key to note that all these systems (or structures) are not the same. Sometimes things will overlap and serve multiple purposes. Sometimes they won’t. And, as I mentioned above, just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’ll work in my story.
            Okay.  Got all that?
            Good.  Get ready to take a few notes
           The three main structures in a story, for our purposes these next few weeks, are linearstructure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure.  They all interact and work with each other.  Just like with anatomy, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself.  So it’s important that I have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
            The one we’re going to deal with this week is linear structure.  Simply put, it’s how my characters experience the story.  There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula.  Another term you may have heard for this is continuity.  Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday.  Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner.  Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
            There’s a simple reason linear structure is so important.  Almost all of us are experts with it.  That’s because linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day.  We notice when effect comes before cause, even if the story gives them to us out of order.  A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline.  When detectives break down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in.  If I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. 
            A good way to test the linear structure of my story (a method I’ve mentioned before) is to arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order.  My story should still make logical sense like this, even if it’s lost some dramatic weight this way (more on that later).  If my story elements don’t work like this (if effect comes before cause, or if people know things before they learn them), it means I’ve messed up my linear structure.
            Now, I want to mention a specific example where linear structure gets messed up a lot– time travel.
            In a time travel story, it’s very likely there’ll be multiple linear structures.  My time traveler might be experiencing Thursday, Friday, then Wednesday, and then Thursday again.  They’re still experiencing four days in a row, though—even if their friends and coworkers are only having three. And their three are Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.
            I mentioned this diagram at the Coffeehouse on Sunday. It’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—Jack Harkness and the Doctor himself.  I’ve marked a few key, mutual events in their lives.
            Jack’s life is pretty straightforward, for our purposes here.  A is when young Jack first meets the Ninth Doctor and decides to travel with him for a while.  B is when he later encounters the Tenth Doctor and Martha.  C is when they all briefly meet again a year or so later to stop Davros and the Daleks.  They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life.  And Eis when the Doctor’s there for Jack’s death at the ripe old age of twenty billion or so (mild spoilers, sorry). 
            That’s a pretty normal, linear timeline.  Young to old.  The one most of us have (just slightly exaggerated in his case).
            Now… look at the Doctor’s.  This is the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around (more on this next week).  He travels in time, though, so he meets Jack in kind of an odd order.  First time for him isn’t the first time for Jack, and vice-versa.  But it’s still a logical, linear order for the Doctor—he’s living his own timeline, A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack.  A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
            Make sense?
           Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, the characters are experiencing the story in linear order.  If halfway through my book one of my character flashes back to what happened a week ago, this isn’t new information for him or her—it happened a week ago.  So all of their actions and reactions up until that flashback should take that information into account.
            It sounds pretty straightforward and it really is.  Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blab about over the next few weeks because it’s logical and objective.  But, alas, people still mess it up all the time.  And the mistakes are usually because of… narrative structure.
            But we’ll talk about that next week.
            Until then, go write.
August 27, 2015 / 2 Comments

Q-n-A Bonanza Extravaganza

            Spectacular spectacular!
            What I’m going to do this week is run through a few questions and requests that have shown up here this summer.  A few of them I can do a full post on, but some of them are things I’ve touched on before (or, at least, I think I have) so I think I can answer them with a few paragraphs and links.
            So… let’s get to it.
How similar are your drafts in terms of character arcs and overall plot? 
            Tricky question that’s going to be a little different for every writer and for every project.  For me, once I get a pretty solid draft, it’s really rare for things to change that much.  It happens sometimes, but not often.  I think once the plot and story are solid, for most writers, there won’t be any real changes to them.
            Please note, though, that I didn’t say no changes.  Every draft is going to be a little different as I tweak and cut and make other adjustments.  But all of these adjustments serve the plot and the characters.  Things are just getting tighter and clearer.  Maybe it means omitting a few story beats or changing someone’s second language from French to Spanish.  But these changes aren’t changing the bigger picture, they’re enhancing it.
           It’s probably worth mentioning that if I’m making changes that do radically alter my plot or characters, what it really means is that I don’t have a solid draft yet.  Yeah, even if I’ve done six drafts before this.  If I suddenly realize Yakko should be my main character while Dot’s the supporting character who dies in the second act… that’s a big change.  That’s a lot of changes.  It means different interactions between different characters, new motivations, possibly a whole new linear structure.  And it also means I’m kind of going back to square one.  Now I need to tweak and cut and make adjustments to this plot and story.
            Do you have any thoughts on working on multiple projects at once? Like editing one, drafting another, plotting a third? Is that something you do?
            Yeah, I do this, but in a bit more limited sense.  When I’m working on a first draft of something, I focus pretty much exclusively on that.  Once I’m out of that, though, and into the editing, I’m always jotting down character ideas, lines, beats—all sorts of elements—for whatever I’m going to be working on next.  So while I’m doing drafts on one I’m setting all the groundwork for another.  I’ve also  found this helps me as far as any kind of block goes—being able to dip my toes into something else helps keep my brain from getting stuck on a project.
            Overall, though, this is one of those things that’s definitely more advice than rules, because it’s all going to come down to the individual.  Am I someone who can split their attention or not?  And to what extent?  Some folks can do it (to different degrees), some folks can’t.  Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to try it once or thrice.  I’m comfortable at the level I just described.  You might be able to do two or three  things side by side.  Someone else might need to focus on one thing at a time.   
            I do think it’s worth noting that “another project” can easily be a distraction, too.  Sort of like eating when you’re bored.  I’ve also seen some folks use multiple projects (consciously or not) as an excuse to never finish anything. Sooooo… something to keep in mind.

I’m still struggling with how writers develop an interesting narrative voice – character voice I think I’m getting the hang of, but the narrative bits still sound like me reading a grocery list. 

            Narrative voice can be tough.  Part of it depends on how much I want to insert myself as the author. Some folks do this extremely well, others… not so much.
            As far developing a narrative voice goes, think of it like a narrator. Who’s actually telling this story to the reader?  I’m not saying my book or short story has to be in first person, or that a narrator even has to exist, but in my perfect world, who’s reading this aloud?  Christopher Lee?  Felicia Day?  Doug, the guy down at the garage?  Ms. Phoebe, my college English professor?  Knowing the narrator tells me how they talk and what kind of words my narrative voice will use. 
            So, from a certain point of view, the narrative voice is another character. Even if it’s me, it’s the version of me I’m choosing to project through my writing (a friendly me who wants you to enjoy the story and is going to tell it in fun, simple terms, and who also has much better abs…).  So narrative voice is a lot like character voice, which is something I mentioned here just a few months back.  Well, okay, a year and a half ago
            It’s probably worth mentioning that if there isn’t some kind of narrative voice in my head to start with, that might be a sign of a bigger problem.  If I have no sense of how my story should be told—how my audience should be hearing the words in their heads—I may need to stop and think about things some more.   Maybe the plot or the story aren’t as solid as I thought, and if they’re not clicking with me, there’s a good chance they won’t click with anyone else.
            Do you feel  an author should stick to one genre for the most part?  I want to go write something as far from my current genre as possible. Will that throw my fans for a loop?  I notice that you and most other authors pretty much stick to one thing.
            Well, I’d argue not much of my work falls in the same genre, unless we’re talking in broad, sweeping terms.  I’ve got a superheroes vs. zombies series (sci-fi fantasy with some soft horror), a suspense-mystery-horror novel, a sci-fi thriller, a classic mash-up where I share credit with Daniel Defoe, and I just started work on a historical time-travel road trip story.  I’ve also got some short stories out there that are straight horror, some that are straight sci-fi, and even a pulp action war story.
            And I’m not alone.  The majority of writers work in a bunch of genres.  They may be known for one thing, but they’ve usually got a lot of other stuff past that.  Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Scott Sigler, Craig DiLouie, Eloise Knapp, Timothy Long—and these are just the ones I know personally. All of them have written in at least two or three genres.
            Heck, look at Stephen King.  He’s known as a horror writer, but Firestarter and The Dead Zone, two of his earliest works, are pretty much straight sci-fi when you really look at them (there’s a post in that alone).  Under the Domeand 11/22/63 are both pretty solidly sci-fi, too.  The Dark Tower series is an epic fantasy.  Eyes of the Dragon is a young adult novel.  And then there’s “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” a  prison drama/character study that was adapted into a wildly popular film by Frank Darabont.
            So, no.  I don’t think an author needs to stick to one genre.  Yeah, there are some fans who might get upset I’ve moved away from their particular interest, but there’ll be just as many who’ll be intrigued to see how I deal with something else, and new ones who’ll come to me because of that something else.  And it’s my opinion that flexing those other muscles, so to speak, usually makes someone a better writer overall.
            I will say, though (there’s a “however…” on almost all of these, isn’t there?), that I don’t recommend chasing the popular trend.  It’s tempting to jump on the nymphomaniac-android-biker-school-romance bandwagon, I know.  But it rarely works out well in the long run.
            And I think that’s everything for now, yes?  Okay, I went over three or four paragraphs for some of them, but if you’re going to complain about that… Also, if I misread your question somehow, or if my answer just wasn’t complete enough, please say so down in the comments and I’ll try to answer there.  Or maybe bump it up to a full post.
            Next time, I’m going to answer one of those larger questions I mentioned up at the top. 
            Until then… go write.
August 21, 2015 / 4 Comments

Earlier In Our Story…

            Lots of requests from last week, thanks to you who’ve answered so far.  However. I’m still gathering my thoughts on how to answer some of them.  Plus, I’d already finished most of this, sooooo…
            I wanted to take this week to go back to something I’ve talked about before.  Flashbacks. I’ve encountered a few books recently that lean heavily on this device and… well, most of them weren’t good.  One of them was good to a point, but after that point it quickly tipped into frustrating, and from there to just plain bad.
            Well, let me bring up a more important question for us all to ponder while I babble on.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve within the story?
            Let me give an example.
            I read a novel recently about a Black Widow-esque assassin who’d gone through a nightmarish bout of training and indoctrination before being set loose on the world and her assorted targets.   Its chapters alternated between present day and the past.  The “now” of the story was her carrying out a series of missions while the “then” was how she was recruited and trained.
            The two plot lines didn’t make linear sense.  Y’see, for the first two-thirds of the book, our assassin (let’s call her Phoebe) was hunting down one target, finishing her assignment, and moving onto the next one.  It was kind of a Bond movie setup.  But she was paranoid-nervous the whole time. Was someone watching her?  Hunting her while she hunted down her targets?  She’d built up a lot of enemies over the years. Was one of them lining up on the base of her skull right now?
            Meanwhile, in the parallel past plotline (say that four times fast…), we saw how she was recruited out of the foster system after a series of schoolyard fights.  Her brutal apprenticeship.  Her first kill.  Her early missions.
            And then, the last third of the book rolled around…
            In the final “then” sections, Phoebe met Nadia, one of her peers (and, it’s vaguely hinted, maybe even a long-ago love interest or at least regular friend-with-benefits).  And it turns out Nadia is a traitor, a double agent who Phoebe exposes and they end up in a huge battle that rages through a shopping mall (again, really cool).  In the end Nadia gets away, but swears to return and kill Phoebe for exposing her. And from this page on, in the “now” sections, Phoebe wonders if it’s Nadia out there waiting to kill her.  Maybe Nadia has a rifle aimed at her head.  Nadia, the only one she ever let get away, could be right around that corner.
            See the problem here?
            As the “then” storyline progressed, it became clear that the “now” timeline was cheating and tweaking things to create dramatic moments that wouldn’t exist if the two lines were being honest.  The author forgot that all of “then” happens before every minute of “now”—the order they were telling the story in didn’t matter.  The author tried to set this up as paranoia in the “now” sections, except it turns out Phoebe was completely justified in feeling this way.  She knew all along someone was actually hunting her.  Hell, for the first two-thirds of the book she knew the name of the person hunting her, a person it’s strongly implied she’d been intimate with, and she never thought of Nadia once—even though most of the story is from her point of view. She just had vague thoughts about “a possible threat” or “maybe another operative” until this convenient point in the story.
            This is the type of thing people are talking about when they say flashbacks don’t work.  Well, okay, those people are kind of stupid.  Flashbacks do work and you should use them… if they make sense within the story’s structure.
            From a linear point of view, does my story still make sense with this flashback?  Or flashbacks, as the case may be.  What happens if I rearrange everything so all the chapters are in linear order?
            If a lot of my character motivations or behaviors become murky, it means I’ve got a problem.  I don’t have a good thread for my character, and their reactions are based off my narrative, not their linear experiences.
            If large parts of my story now drag, that’s a sign I’ve got a structure problem.  The flashbacks were the only thing creating tension.  It means my story is really either in the past or the present.  I’m just killing time and eating up word count in the other setting.
            If I put everything in order and my story works better—it reads smoother, its easier to follow, and the plot moves faster—then that takes me back to those early questions.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve?
            Don’t laugh at that last one.  I’ve seen people who turned their stories into a mess of non-linear flashbacks that served no purpose whatsoever, and they ruined an interesting story by doing it.  It happens more often than you’d think.
            Like any element in my story, I can’t be throwing in flashbacks for no reason. Just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’s going to work in my story—especially if I don’t understand whyit worked.
            Do cool stuff in your stories.  But have a reason for doing it.  A real, honest reason that doesn’t cheat or frustrate your readers
            Next time…
            Well, I actually got a fair number of requests and questions last time, so here’s what I was thinking.  I’m going to pluck out the one or two that would work as full posts and we’ll probably see them in the next three or four weeks.  But next time I’m going to do a whole post of quick topics that I can address in four or five paragraphs (and maybe a link or three).  So if you have something writing-related you’d like me to address, mention it down in the comments and it’ll end up on one list or the other.
            And until then… go write.
July 17, 2014 / 3 Comments

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

            Classic movie reference.  Come on, broaden your horizons.  Watch something made before 1976.
           Anyway, I’d like to start today by telling a story or two.  They’re examples of a problem I see crop up now and then, and one I just finished wrestling with myself.  It’s one of those issues where it’s easy to either write myself into a corner or (worse yet) write something where characters are acting in an unbelievable way.
            Oh, and by the way, before I forget, there’s a thermonuclear warhead in the apartment next door.  Something like ten megatons, if I read the specs right.  Armed and everything.  Just thought you should know.
            Anyway, let me tell you the first story.
            In my often-referenced novel The Suffering Map (unpublished, for good reason), one of the main antagonists is Uncle Louis.  Louis is an old-school mobster with a legendary temper, and he’s rather upset that someone (we’ll call him Rob) threatened his niece (who’s in her late fifties).  He sends a man to rough Rob up a bit, and that man ends up dead with his body horribly mutilated.  So Louis sends two men to kill Rob.  They both end up dead and mutilated.  And when this news reaches Louis he decides…
            Well, actually, he decided to wait for three days and then go after Rob.
            See, I had this whole structure of days worked out, and it turned into kind of a vicious circle.  I needed three days to pass, so Louis had to wait.  Which meant I needed to come up with stuff for everyone else to be doing.  By the time I abandoned that structure, though, I’d grown kind of fond of the reveals and character moments I’d created.  Now Louis had to wait so I’d have room for those bits, no matter how strange and out of character it seemed.  It wasn’t until my fifth draft that I realized this was just dragging things and creating a huge lag in the plot.
            Though not as huge as that bomb sitting next door.  I looked it up.  That’s almost fifty times the size of the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki.  Think about that.  I mean, I think it’s small compared to some missiles and such, but right here in the middle of Los Angeles that could still kill a lot of people.  Millions, easy.
            Anyway, back on track.
            Here’s another example of what I wanted to talk about today.
            A few years back a woman I knew wrote an urban fantasy story and asked me to look at it.  A single mom activates a portal and she and her kids are transferred to a mystical realm.  There’s some magic, some disobeyed instructions, and all three kids vanish.  Invisible?  Teleported?  Dead?  We don’t know, and Phoebe, our heroine, was desperate to find out.
            Well… until she ran into the handsome barbarian chieftain, anyway.  Then Phoebe became aware of just how shredded and torn her clothes were after coming through the portal… and how much skin they exposed… and how much skin the chieftain was showing.  Tight, tanned, well-muscled skin, and Phoebe started wondering if there was a Mrs. Chieftain, and if not… just how prudish were people in this semi-medieval world?
            Speaking of kids…  Hmmmm.  Sounds like one of the little kids next door is hitting the warhead with something.  Maybe a hammer.  Yeah, there are kids next door, too.  Didn’t I mention that before?  I guess one’s technically an infant and the little girl’s a toddler, but they third one is seven or eight.  He’s hammer-competent.
            Well, probably can’t do anything about it.  At best, he might turn on the timer.  If he hasn’t already.
            But I’m wandering away from the point again…
            Or am I…?
            Y’see, Timmy, there are some threats that are just too huge for me to ignore.  Either as physical threats or emotional ones.  One of my children vanishing.  A man in a hockey mask stalking toward me through the forest.  An armed nuclear bomb. 
            Once I know about these things… that’s that.  I can’t establish a huge threat and then ignore it.  If I tell you there’s a nuclear bomb next door, that has to be the priority.  Not being polite.  Not property laws.  Not getting a good night’s sleep and dealing with it in the morning. 
            In my new book, the characters found out about an immediate global threat.  Not a ten years down the road thing—this time tomorrow half the planet will be dead and by the weekend all of it will be.  And it put me in an awkward spot when they did, because at that point nothing else could matter.  Nothing.  Once they realized how big that threat was, they couldn’t be thinking about anything except taking care of it.  Yeah, they could have little asides or chuckles, but nothing that distracted them. 
            It forced me to restructure the end of my story.  But it also made the end much stronger.  And nobody’s standing around wondering about that bomb next door.
            Alas, I’m going to miss next week because of the San Diego ComicCon.  Please swing by the Random House area (technically the Crown/Broadway booth) on Friday after 2:00, say “hullo,” and call me a talentless hack in front of important people.
            When I come back, odds are I’m going to be very fatigued.
            Until then, go write.