Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Making Dinner Before Breakfast

I don’t usually cook first thing in the morning. Today, however, that’s exactly what I did. When you plan to run the crock pot for eight hours, well, I guess it’s an early start or a late dinner.

I’m an okay cook if I have a recipe. I can follow a formula. Today, however, I’m experimenting with some spices a friend suggested. These little deviations from the book usually lead to my biggest successes in the kitchen. And my biggest failures.

The best cooks, of course, are those that have done this for years and know why things are on the recipe and how changing the recipe will work and what changes to avoid. But you don’t get there by being afraid to experiment.

Now, gentle reader, I assume you are not an idiot and that you have already gotten the metaphor. I’ve spent several of the last posts discussing structures and formulae. I wanted to take a moment to remind us all that writing strictly by formula is often passable but generally falls short of genius.

If you know the formula/structure/recipe when you start, you have an advantage. But becoming a better writer, like becoming a better cook (or a better anything, really) requires a type of learning and discovery that only comes from practice.

Take risks, experiment, get advice from people you trust, and have fun with it. Throw your failures in the recycle bin. If you keep at it, people will remember your successes.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Story and Structure, Part Three

‘Cause there had to be three, right? Powerful number, three.

I had a few more thoughts about the Rule of Three since my last post. One obvious and easy-to-use pattern is to have the first two things be not quite what is needed. This is too hard, this is too soft. The third, as Goldilocks will tell you, is just right.

Three is also the minimum number you can have to establish a group and an outsider. How many fairy tale princes have two older brothers? And poor Cinderella, with her two wicked step-sisters.

I’d like to wrap this series up by swinging back around to story structure. Let’s see if I can do it in three parts.

ONE: Introduce, at a minimum, a character and a goal to be achieved or a problem to overcome. Even better if you can provide a setting as well.  Little Red needs to get to Granny’s house, but the path leads through the dark and dangerous woods.

TWO: The conflict must be dealt with. The woods must be entered. This is a good place to insert the Rule of Three. The soldier on the road is given a magic bag, a seeing glass, and a violin, each of which will be necessary to escape the ogre.

THREE: Resolve the conflict. Using the Rule of Three keeps the resolution from being too simple (and hopefully from being too complex as well). After dancing each night with the Prince in her three gowns – one silver like the moon, one blue as the night sky, and one gold as the sun – the Orphan Princess finds true love.

And that’s the sort of thing I thought about when I needed to craft a tale on the fly.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Story and Structure, Part Two

Once, back in the ancient days, there was a poor cobbler’s son, who wanted nothing so much in all the world as to marry the baker’s daughter and live a quiet life.

Still talking about the tricks I used in creating a satisfying story on the fly. Today I want to talk about stylistic language, the Rule of Three, and story structure.

Stylistic language is just setting and keeping a tone of voice that suits the tale. One of my personal rules when I was performing as a storyteller was never start with “Once Upon a Time.” To me, that phrase is reserved for either (a) working with very small children, or (b) making fun of fairy tales and parodying them.

So at the very beginning of the story, I had to make a decision that helped set the tone of voice. And I kept a number of stock beginning phrases available to select from.

The other interesting thing in the example above is that contains a lot of compressed information. A good rule in performing is to say what you need to say and then shut up. My intro above  introduces in one sentence a setting reference (back in ancient days/fairy tale), a hero (poor cobbler’s son,) and the goal that must be met for the story to end happily (marry the baker’s daughter). 

Important side note: The goal can change if the character grows and changes. The story can end happily if he learns that the baker’s daughter is not really for him and he marries someone else. But it’s easier to simply meet the conditions set at the beginning.

So in order to hang a story on these bare bones, the hero needs to overcome an obstacle between him and his goal.

And this is where the Rule of Three comes in. Three is a measure of complexity. One is simple and unsatisfying. So he asked for her hand in marriage and she said yes. End of story. Yawn. Two is not quite enough to clearly establish a pattern. Four is more than we need.

So the hero must do three things. Or maybe one complex thing with the help of three friends or allies. Or three kindnesses he does to strangers along the way get him the three tools he needs to succeed.