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.

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…

November 1, 2014 / 2 Comments

Bloodsoaked Carnage and Horror 101

            Running late, as usual. In more ways than one.  I was looking back and realized I haven’t done a solid Halloween-related post in ages.  So this is doubly long-overdue.
            I wanted to revisit something I blabbed on about once a few years back.  I figured it was worth going over again for the holidays and for general purposes.
            When I sit down to write something scary, it helps to know just what I’m trying to accomplish.  “Scary” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and some of that depends on context.  Do I want to make hearts race or blood run cold?  Am I trying to make sure someone never walks down a dark hall again, or that from this point on they can never eat chicken and rice without thinking of… well, other things?
            Someone with a sheet draped over them can be funny, creepy, or plain terrifying, but if I don’t know which one I’m aiming for, it’s much harder to accomplish anything.  I mean, I can’t get the desired effect if I don’t know which effect I desire, right?  It’s like playing pool (or billiards, for you continental types).  I can call my shots or I can smash the cue ball into anything on the table.  Either way, there’s a chance of getting a ball in a pocket, but one’s got a much better chance of doing something impressive.
            With that in mind… what kind of scares am I going for?
            There’s a bunch of arguments to be made in several directions, but I think fear, as a storytelling device, generally breaks down into three basic categories.  Stephen King’s said something similar a few times, and I’m kind of expanding on that in my own way.  There’s a couple different names people use for them, but for our purposes today, let’s call them the shocker,the gross out, and dread.  These three form the core elements of most scary stories.  They’re the base ingredients, as it were.
            Let’s review…
            The Shocker This is when something unexpected happens and makes the reader or audience jump.  It’s an immediate fear caused by something happening right at this moment.   When that bear trap snaps shut on someone’s leg or they get a machete in the head, that’s a shock.  Ever seen someone’s eyes bug while they’re reading?  They probably just found a shocker.   A lot of the deaths on Game of Thrones tend to be shockers because—as violent as that world is—we don’t expect to see people we like bite it on such a regular basis.  Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit with chaos and shouting to keep it going—especially on film—but a shocker is really a short-lived thing.
            The shocker is a powerful storytelling tool, don’t get me wrong, but it’s important to remember that it can’t stand on its own for long.  By it’s very nature it’s quick and done.  There can be fallout and aftershocks, but they’re always going to be weaker. I also can’t use shocks one after another.  Repetition bleeds their strength and can even make them lean into comedy or (worse yet)boredom. 
            The Gross-Out As King himself names it.  This is when things are just disgusting.  It’s when I tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea.  It’s when we spend six paragraphs going over the exquisite sensation of lifting someone’s still-attached eyeball out of their socket, maybe turning it around to get a view of the room, and then sliding sewing needles into it (maybe even throughit) again and again until it bursts and the warm liquid runs down the optic nerve and drips into the empty socket.  Which then gets packed with salt.  Or maybe it’s just about running a lawnmower over a zombie and describing every color and texture as the half-rotted body sprays out across the grass.

            One of the big differences between the gross out and the shocker is duration.  While a shock loses power the longer I try to prolong it, a gross out can gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born).  Still, like anything, if it goes on too long or happens too often, my readers will get bored with the gross out, too.

            Another interesting point.  The audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming.   Anticipation is part of it.  We don’t have pages and pages of set-up, but it rarely pops up out of nowhere (because if it did, it’d be a shocker).
            Dread This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could.  Or maybe it’s something we know ishappening even if we don’t actually see it.  Dread is fear of potential events, if that makes sense, which puts it very close to suspense.  We know any minute now something’s going to crawl out of the shed or reach out from under the bed, and the fact that it hasn’t yet is what gives us the chills.  Dread needs enough space for my readers to realize things aren’t matching up within the story or within their own experiences.  It works well in larger tales because there’s space for back story, but if I’ve got enough experience I can make it function in tighter spaces
            Now, there’s three catches that come with me using dread.  One is that it relies on me having a very solid grasp of how my readers are going to react and what they’re going to know.  If I say you’ve been invited to the Strexcorp company picnic, most of you are going to shrug, put on some sunscreen, and head down to play volleyball.  I have been known to have a bug thing now and then, but I shouldn’t assume everyone will find the sight of a cockroach to be the most awful thing ever.  If the shocker is a sledgehammer, then suspense is the scalpel of fear.
            The second catch is that dread relies on the audience having… well, not to sound elitist, but it depends on a certain level of intelligence and involvement.  If you try explaining climate change to a chimpanzee, you’ll notice they don’t get too worried about it—assuming they sit there for your whole lecture.  The huge reveal about David Warner’s photographs in The Omen doesn’t pack anywhere near the same punch if I come in when they’re done examining the priest’s apartment (see—you should’ve watched The Omen and then this would make sense).  Dread requires an investment and an attention span. 
            Last but not least, dread needs good characters  more than the other two types of horror mentioned above.  My readers need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through.  If they can’t, this isn’t a story, it’s a news report.
            Now, after all that, here’s one more mouthful for you to digest.  Did you notice that each of these types of horror has a different time investment?  The shocker is quick, the gross out needs a few minutes, and dread really takes its time.  Each one is very distinct.  I can’t expect to stretch a shock over two or three pages and I can’t build a sense of dread in a single paragraph.
            Once I know just what I’m trying to do, it’s easy to see how each type of horror should work on the page and also how they can work with each other.  A lot of old ghost stories are little suspense tales that build to a shock.  A lot of  torture porn films start with a bit of dread, but then dive headfirst into gross-outs punctuated by shocks. 
            Y’see, Timmy, when I’m writing horror I need to be aware of the effect I’m trying to create and how much space I need to accomplish that effect.  If I’m trying to build a sense of dread in less than a page, or if I want to make a shock last for just as long, my story’s doomed.  These are things that are very hard to manipulate.
            Of course, it’s possible to do scary things without any of these core elements, just like it’s possible to bake without using flour or sugar.  But I need to be aware that working around these things means a lot of extra effort.  And maybe some really clever thinking.
            Next time, I want to break this bad habit of running late and start over from scratch.
            Until then, go hand out candy.  Oh, and write.
             Running behind this week.  Sorry.  I’ve just gotten too relaxed after Ex-Communicationand the success of 14.  And I got zombie Legos, which have taken up far more of my time than a grown man should probably admit to…

            Bonus points if you know when Batman blackmailed someone with that title line.  Yeah, Batman.  Hiding a bomb somewhere in Gotham to stop his opponent.
            Anyway… on a related note.
            The late, great Alfred Hitchcock had a famous example about suspense that you’ve probably heard before.  To paraphrase, suspense is when two people are having breakfast and they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table.  If the bomb goes off, it’s a shock, absolutely, but the longer they sit there and the bomb doesn’t go off… well, the tension’s going up a few notches every minute.
            Now there’s a few conditions that have to be met for this to work.  It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a short story, a novel, or a screenplay.  Suspense needs certain elements to be effective.
            Firstoff is that there has to be a real threat.  A can of whipped cream under the table just doesn’t equate to four pounds of plastique.  Neither does four pounds of liquid negathilium with a dynochrome timer, because none of us have the slightest clue what that is (for all we know it might be tastier than the whipped cream).  The bomb under the table has to be something the readers immediately understand is a horrible thing.
            Second, the reader or audience needs to know about the threat, even though the character doesn’t.  We have to be cringing every time they bang a glass on the table or pound their fist for emphasis.  If one of them is checking their watch, it should make us tremble every time we see those hands tick forward another minute.
            Thirdis that the characters need to be smart enough to recognize that threat—if they knew about it.  This is where it gets tricky, because this requirement has to be carefully balanced with the first two. 
            Let me toss out a trio of quick examples.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
            A while back I watched a movie where the main character’s friend was… well, psycho.  Not quietly, in-the-background psycho, mind you.  She was brutally-kill-your-pet, attack-and-mutilate your next best-friend, constantly-check-up-on-you, stare-at-you-longingly while you sleep psycho.  There were so many warning signs that she was unstable.  How could everyone not catch all those pointed glances and wild eyes and trembling hands.
            My lovely lady was reading a script a while back where a naive country boy moved to Manhattan and was taken advantage of again and again.  And again.  And then one more time after that.  And every time it was made painfully obvious that the woman/ man/ indeterminate the main character was dealing with was screwing him over.  It was like reading a cartoon script where nobody recognizes Snidely Whiplash as the villain, even with his black cape, twirling mustache, and bad habit of ending every sentence with an evil cackle.
            Finally, there was a fairly popular sci-fi prequel this summer.  It featured, in one scene, a hissing alien which seemed to be a cross between an cobra, a python, and a gigantic, albino leech.  One of the human characters, you may remember, kept trying to pat it on the head.
            In each of these cases, the writers were so desperate to meet one or both of the first two requirements (establishing the threat and letting the reader know about that threat) that the third requirement suffered for it.  This is a recurring mistake I see when people try to create suspense.  My characters aren’t supposed to know about the bomb (to keep using our main example), so they just don’t see it.  No matter how much evidence there is that a high explosive device has been activated under the breakfast table, no one reacts.  Because if they reacted, there wouldn’t be any suspense.  So the attempt to create tension just creates a ridiculous blind spot instead.
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s a corollary lesson to be learned here.  If there’s a bomb under the table and my characters don’t know it, that could be considered suspense, yes. 
            However, if the bomb has a bright red flasher, ticks louder than Big Ben, and the characters still don’t know about it, that isn’t suspense. 
            It just means my characters are idiots.
            And it’s tough for any of us to relate to characters who are idiots.  I’ve mentioned a few times now that my characters should always be as smart as my audience.  If they’re not, everyone’s just going to get frustrated.  So when I’m building suspense and tension, I have to make sure it’s in a way that makes my characters look smart while still informing my readers.
            No, it isn’t easy.  If it was, everybody would be doing it.
            Next time, I want to talk about triangles.  They’re dangerous, pointy things.
            Until then, go write.