Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our Story Begins Ten Years Ago...

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

Friday, February 16, 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 Panther yet I highly recommend it.  Fantastic movie.
            Oh, plus a couple of outlines for new projects, too...
            Anyway...
            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...
            Structure is 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 linear structure, 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 E is 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.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ultimate Screenwriting Tip—

            If screenwriting is your thing, it’s contest season.  Granted, these days it’s almost always contest season, but the start of the year is when a lot of the big ones open for submissions.  And contests are still one of the better ways to get a foot in Hollywood’s door while making you a couple bucks. So if this is something that interests you...
            And if screenwriting’s not something that interests you, well... keep reading anyway. You may glean something from this.
            Now, last year at about this time, I mentioned that I wasn’t going to offer any more sceenwriting tips.  I’m sticking with that, but I still thought it might be worth mentioning this one.  Because it’s pretty much the ultimate screenwriting rule of thumb.
            If it’s not on screen right now... don’t put it on the page.
            If it’s going on in someone’s head, but we can’t see it on the screen right now... don’t put it on the page.
            If it’s going to come up later, great. Put it on the page then, when it’s going to be on screen.
            If it’s something the director and crew will really, absolutely need to know up front, put it on the screen.  If it shouldn’t be on screen up front, then don’t mention it on the page until it is on screen.  I promise, they won’t start filming before they read the script at least once.
            Well, okay... the grips probably won’t read it at all.  Ever.  Sad truth.  But it’s not really something they need to know for their job.
            This is one of the absolute top killers in amateur scripts.  People load up the page with a lot of details that are completely irrelevant to what’s actually happening on screen right now.  It’s material that will come out later in the story or maybe never needs to come out.  But right now... it’s irrelevant.
            Because all that matters in screenplays is what’s on screen right now.
            Heck, I worked on some produced scripts that did this, and almost every one of them crashed into a bunch of other problems.  I saw one writer who padded a television script with half-page descriptions of every character—then acted surprised when it turned out the episode was over four minutes short (which is a huge screw-up in television). 
            Just remember this one rule and your screenwriting will level up almost immediately. No joke.  Do this and you’ll leap ahead of all those amateurs.
            Next time, I want to talk about structure.  We haven’t really done that in a while.
            Until then... go write.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Help From the Internet

            A random thought...
            Well, not that random.
            The other day I made a smart-ass response to a friend’s Twitter comment about different online writing aids and apps. There’s a bunch of them out there these days.  Some of them highly publicized.  My comment was... snarkily negative.  Let’s leave it at that.
            I know. Snarkiness with friends.  What has the internet come to?  It’s all downhill from here.
            Anyway, it did get me thinking about these different sites a bit.  I mean, a good writer wants to use all the tools available, right?  Is this just me inching ever-closer to cranky old manhood?
            I don’t think so.
            Okay, first off, let’s not even talk about the information side of this. If someone wants to hand over a bunch of their intellectual property to a random website and feels completely confident they’ve read and understood every single line of the terms of service... that’s up to them.  We’ll leave that discussion for others.
            I want to blather on about how useful these sites are, both short-term and long-term.
            So... let’s talk machines.
            (I feel hundreds of fingers poised over keyboards, ready to lunge at the comments section...)
            The most common computer tool we’re going to encounter is a spellchecker.  Pretty much every word processor has one.  Lots of websites do, too.  Blog sites like this one, Twitter, Facebook—they’ve all got some basic spellcheck capacity.
            That’s the important bit.  Basic.  The absolute best spellcheckers are, if I had to put a number to it, correct maybe 97-98% of the time. Don’t quote figures at me—I’m saying right up front that’s just based off my own experience.  These are the spellcheckers we usually find in the word processors.  The online ones... I’d drop it down into the 88-90% range.  Maybe even a tiny bit lower.
            What does this mean?  Well, there are words that have accepted alternate spellings, but a spellchecker will say they’re wrong.  There are also lots of common words—especially for genre writers—that won’t be included.  I was surprised to discover cyborg wasn’t included in my spellchecker’s vocabulary.  Or Cthulhu.  Okay, not  quite as surprised on that one, but still...
            Keep in mind, spelling is a basic, quantfiable aspect of writing. We can say, no question,whether or not I’ve spelled quantifiable correctly in that last sentence (I didn’t). That’s a hard fact (and, credit where credit is due, the spellchecker kept insisting we needed to change it).
            Also—a spellchecker doesn’t know what word I meant to use.  It can only tell me about the word on the page.  Or the closest correctly-spelled word to that word on the page.  Maybe it’s the one I wanted, maybe not.  At this point it’s up to me to know if that’s the right word or not.  And if I don’t know... well, things aren’t looking good for my manuscript.
            Consider all the things I just said.  The gaps. The problems.  The rate of accuracy.  And this is with the easiest aspect of writing.  Spelling is a yes or no thing.  It’s right or it isn’t.  This is something a computer should excel at... and the online ones are getting a B+ at best.
            How accurate do you think an online grammar program is?
           Grammar’s a lot more complex than spelling.  Spelling’s just a basic yes or no, but grammar has a ton of conditionals.  Plus, in fiction, we bend and break the rules of grammar a lot.  I tend to use a lot of sentence fragments because I like the punch they give.  A friend of mine uses long, complex sentences that can border on being run-ons.  I know a few people who remove or add commas to help the dramatic flow of a sentence.     And hell... dialogue?  Dialogue’s a mess when it comes to grammar.  A big, organic mess.  Fragments, mismatched tenses, mismatched numbers, so many dangly bits...  And it needs to be. That’s how we talk.  Like I’ve mentioned in the past, dialogue that uses perfect grammar sounds flat and unnatural.
            Think about this. I’ve talked before about Watson, the massive supercomputer that was specifically designed by MIT to understand human speech... and still had a pretty iffy success rate.  Around 72% if my math is right.  And it might not be--I'm not a mathematician, after all.
            D’you think the people who made that grammar website put in the time and work that was put into Watson?
            So, again... how accurate is that online grammar program going to be? 
            More to the point, how useful is it going to be as a tool?  Would you pay for a DVR that only records 3/4 of the shows you tell it to?  Do you want a phone that drops one out of every four calls?
            Now, I’d never say there’s no use for these tools or sites. But it’s very important to understand they’re not going to do the job for me.  They’re the idiot writing partner who’d really good at one thing, so I kinda need to keep both eyes on them when they’re set loose to do... well, that thing.  I need to know how to spell words and what they mean.  I still need to know the rules of grammar—even moreso if I plan on breaking them.
            See, that’s the long-term problem.  Assuming this professional writing thing is my long-term goal, at some point I need to learn spelling and grammar.  If I’m going to keep depending on someone (or something) else to do the work for me... when am I going to learn how to do the work? 
            Y’see, Timmy, these programs and apps are kinda like alcohol.  They won’t make up for a lack of knowledge. They’ll just emphasize it.  I definitely don’t want to be dependant on them.  At best, if I know what I’m doing and I’m careful (and use them in moderation), they might make things a little more smooth and painless.
            Next, a quick screenwriting tip.
            Until then, go write.
            You go write.  Not your computer.
            Go on...  go write.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Origin Stories

            So, I wanted to talk about why things get started for a bit.
            Motives are my character’s core reason for doing something.  They’re the answer to the question “why is this story happening?” I’ve mentioned once or thrice before the issues that crop up when my character isn’t so much motivated as dragged along into a story.
            It’s not unusual to have motives shift a bit in a book, but in shorter formats (screenplays or short stories) they tend to be pretty focused.  Sometimes I’m hiding a character’s motives from my audience, but they still need to be there.   As the writer, I need to know why someone’s doing something.  Because my motives are going to a key when it comes to what kind of story I’m telling.
            No, seriously. 
            For example, it’s tough to do a revenge thriller when my heroine’s goals are world peace.  Try to figure out a way that could work.  It's tough to solve a mystery when my protagonist's big goal is to go the prom with the quarterback.  Likewise, if the only reason I’m fighting the dark Uberlord who’s enslaved New York is to save my niece... that’s not exactly heroic.  When I’m fighting for me—my family, my purposes, my revenge—that’s just personal.
            Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to superheroes.
            I’ve blathered on about superheroes a few times, and one of the major stumbling points I see a lot is when someone with a non-heroic motivation is crammed into the superhero genre.  It creates a stumbling block.  One phrase you may have heard before is “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons,” and I think this is what confuses people.  The end result is the same, even though we took two very different paths to get there... so the two paths must be the same, right?
            Hey, look—here’s an example.
            Years ago I worked on a pretty awful superhero show.  This was before anyone believed you could do costumes without camp, and it hit a lot of stumbles.  The biggest ongoing one was the main character’s motive for putting on this super-powered suit and fighting crime.
            Well, actually, that was part of it right there.  He didn’t fight crime.  Most of the time he just settled scores.  He, his friends, or his family would get drawn into some struggle and he’d put on the suit to get them out.  And... that was kind of it.  Once or thrice someone would show up specifically to challenge him and he went out to fight them. Hell, one time the suit’s creator had to actually talk him out of using the suit to get even with someone who’d shoved him in a club. 
            No, dead serious on that.  One episode started with the hero being kind of arrogant, getting pushed aside, and then deciding to use a state-of-the-art weapons system to show that other guy who’s boss...
            Like I said, it was a pretty awful show.
            But you should be able to see the problem here.  No matter how often they tried to insist this guy was a hero, even with the times he stopped an actual super-villain or monster, his motives were always personal.  Bordering on selfish, really.  He wasn’t heroic because his motives weren’t heroic.  He cared about himself, his circle of friends... and that was pretty much it.  No dealing with muggers, corner drug dealers, any of that.
            To be clear, there's nothing wrong with personal goals, but I need to be clear how this paints my character in the bigger scheme of things.  Yeah, going up against a street gang is great, but if the only reason I’m doing it is to protect my friends and family... this isn’t about heroism.  It’s just personal.  When Bryan Mills (Taken) goes up against European gangs and white slavers and crushes a lot of their organization, he’s not doing it to make the world a better place.  He’s also not trying to help the hundreds of other families these people have hurt.  He’s just doing it to get his daughter back.  That’s it.  So if I'm doing this and trying to make him look like some great heroic figure for doing it... my story's probably going to stumble.
            Another important point.  With a lot of these personal motives, they have to end.  Killing the gang member who killed my sister—that’s vengeance.  We get it.  Killing some random guy from another gang because he dresses kinda like the guy who killed my sister... well, that sounds a bit wrong, doesn’t it?  If Mills just kept killing various European gangsters long after his daughter was safe at home... well, this is leaning into serial killer territory now.
            Heck, even trying to recreate those personal circumstances seems weird.  The Taken movies got progressively more convoluted as they kept coming up with reasons for Mills to use his particular set of skills. The old Deathwish films just devolved into unintentional comedy, they were so ridiculous.  Stretching out this kind of personal motive either becomes laughable or disturbing.  Or both.
            Y’see Timmy, it’s really hard to have someone be a hero, in that larger sense, if they’re doing things for personal reasons.  They can be the hero of my story, sure, but not a hero in the “heroism” sense.  One of the reasons Wonder Woman was such a standout superhero movie is  because from the beginning of the story she was 100%  doing this for a greater cause. She was going to head out into the world so she could find (and kill) Ares, thus ending WWI and saving millions of lives.  Her mother didn’t want her to go.  Steve didn’t want her to go.  Honestly, it’s not even like she wants to leave her home behind.  But she sees it as her responsibility to do this, to go out and save total strangers from this faceless threat.
            That’s pretty much what being a hero is.
            Next time, it’s contest season, so I wanted to toss out a quick screenwriting tip.
            Until then, go write.