Thursday, July 29, 2010

Story and Structure, Part One

I used to do this trick where I’d tell a story, totally impromptu, making it up as I go along. I’d do this performing to a live audience. The general consensus from the feedback I got is that, over time, I got fairly good at it. I haven’t tried it in years, mind, so I don’t know if I still have the knack.

But I’ve been thinking recently about how I did it. I relied on a number of tricks – stylistic language, the rule of three, creative repetition, and a basic, even formulaic, idea of story structure.

I’m going to start with that last one first, because it is actually the most important one for writing. The others are mostly embellishments, so we’ll get to them later.

Usually, in impromptu work, the performer is given a topic or challenge. This does two things: first, it keeps the performer from just telling some already memorized work and second, it gives the performer a starting point. I tended to work from three things, often a character, a place, and an item, which I asked the audience to provide.

So, basic story structure: We start with a hero (character) in an established situation (place) who has something that he or she needs to do (perhaps acquiring or delivering an item). The necessary conflict is generated when doing the necessary thing doesn’t turn out to be easy.

The story is resolved when the hero succeeds. How satisfying the story is depends on how cleverly and how easily the character succeeds.

And that’s where the rule of three comes in, which I’ll explain next time.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Assumption of Adventuring

I like my action/adventure stories. Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, superheroes, all that. But the average citizen, of course, is not an adventurer. In fact, adventuring is an odd thing to do.

Part of the classic Hero’s Journey formula is the Call to Arms – the point when the protagonist is given the incentive to leave the ordinary world and venture out into the extraordinary one. There has to be a reason for Luke Skywalker to leave the farm.

But apparently not always. I was watching an old 1970’s Sinbad movie the other day (Ray Harryhausen!) and I noticed that adventuring was just pretty much what Sinbad did. It was assumed from the beginning.

Remember the first Indiana Jones film? We see Indy the Adventurer first – dodging traps and running from hostile natives. If the movie started with Professor Jones in his classroom, the penchant for whips and leather would seem a lot odder. We’d want to know how this tweedy teacher got to be a two-fisted action hero type in his off hours. By establishing his hero identity first, the film neatly skipped over the question of how he is drawn into the adventuring life.

My point? I guess it is about predicting what your audience will accept. Since adventuring is not a normal profession, it raises questions. The classic formula provides one answer, but not the only answer.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Practice makes…

It occurs to me that just about every book I’ve ever read about the craft of writing invariably includes the advice, “Write. Just write. Just do it.” It’s a matter of discipline. Good intentions don’t write stories. Writers write stories.

I feel a little bit of the hypocrite here because I’m struggling with the final revisions of my April project script and more often then not I’m not doing my struggling at the keyboard.

But the advice is still good for another reason beyond getting the work done. Practice works. When learning a physical skill, the repetitive motions you make when you practice actually help the brain make the connections needed to perform those motions faster and more consistently.

I believe that practicing writing makes writing better, too. When you start catching the same mistakes and stop making them. When you decide to experiment with  italics. When you realize that you’ve developed a unique voice for your lead character.

And those are just the quantifiable bits. The cool stuff about writing is that you sometime produce stuff you didn’t even know you had in you. The act of writing spurs creativity, stimulates ideas.

I once wrote a play where one of the characters expressed an idea I’ve had for some time. A deep, thoughtful, insightful idea about the human condition. And then, in the very next line, the other character onstage called the idea crap and started a counter argument.

I didn’t expect that. Here I am with my grand idea, and suddenly I’m writing the opposition paper against it. It was great. Hopefully, it made the play better, too.

So if you want to be a writer, write.  Write for discipline, for getting stuff done. Write for practice, to develop your skills. Write to inspire yourself, to discover the hidden depths of your own ideas. Just write.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go off and start taking my own advice.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Decision Points

Last time I wrote about the decisions authors make detailing their characters. This time, I’d like to consider the decisions made by the characters themselves.

Stories are built on the actions of characters, and the making of decisions is a core action. Unless a character is somehow acting against his or her will, all character actions inherently include the decision to act.

A great deal of dramatic power can rest on a single decision point. Choosing between two or more marriage proposals, for example. Or a pregnant woman choosing whether to have a surgery that will help her but risk her unborn child. Choosing whether to kill an enemy or show mercy. Whether to attend a funeral where one is unwelcome, because the dead must be honored.

For a choice to have dramatic power, it has to be difficult. Choosing between two bad options, or between two good but mutually exclusive options, or choosing between risks. Easy choices don’t count.

And showing the character making the decision also ties him or her to any consequences that follow. Even the unintended ones.

Character can also be revealed in the decision making process. Why choose one way and not the other? The author can spend paragraphs expounding on motivation, or can simply let the choice stand for itself.

Authors have a lot of decisions to make. Sometimes, so do their characters.