Sunday, July 18, 2010

Under Deconstruction

Current Reading: Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott

Inspirational Quote: "Four things, actually... well, four things and a lizard." -- David Tennant as Doctor Who (I can think of no better title for a blog than "Four Things and a Lizard).

First, a PSA:

Reader and all-around good egg S.L. Card points out a workshop notice for ReConStruction which may interest those in, around and capable of getting to Raleigh N.C.

And now, to what's been on my mind for a while...

I try not to give generic writing advice for two reasons:

1) If I'm so smart, where's my book? (It's coming... it's coming).

2) What I think makes perfect sense for me is not guaranteed to be sensible for someone else.

But if there's one piece of advice I accidentally gave that I really believe in, it's this: if you want to be a good writer, read actively. Don't just consume the printed word, but digest it. Make a note of the bits that affect you. If you're in love with a character, try to figure out what the writer did that made you fall in love. If there's a phrase or image that haunts you, try to understand what there is about it that makes it memorable. Once I've finished books, I go over different scenes and passages again, the ones that stayed with me after the cover closed.

Sometimes I even read with a notebook.

The Magnus Somnium is being stubborn. It drags in places and zooms in others. High points seem just don't seem to be as high as they ought. I think it's a plot problem, but in order to understand the fault, I first have to really understand plot and structure. This is handy as a guide. So is just about everything Jim Butcher says here. And I'm sure by now, if you write fiction, you've compiled a million of your own references.

But what does it all mean? I have trouble with moving from the theoretical to the practical, and I admit it freely. I love theory, getting lost in ideas which are perfect and flawless and inspiring. I also love the practical applications because that's where theory crashes into the real world loses all the bits that don't work. It's just the transition that mystifies me.

So I decided to take a look at a couple of books I enjoyed recently and examine their plot, see what happens when. I present the following because I hope it will be as instructive for you as it was for me. I apologize, as there will be spoilers (it's unavoidable... I can't talk about plot without telling something of the story).

Mainspring, by Jay Lake (324 pages)

Page 1: The Angel appears to Hethor and gives him a mission. (0%)

Hethor seeks advice about the mission.

Page 28: Hethor is expelled from his apprenticeship. (8%)

Hethor journeys to Boston.

Page 54: Interview with the Governor ends in prison. (16%)

Escape and time on the Basset.

Page 177: Crossing the wall, almost crushed by gears, loses his guide. (54%)

After confronting an antagonist, he spends time with the Correct People.

Page 289: The Airship crashes at the South Pole. (89%)

Journey under the pole with tests.

Page 316: Final confrontation with the antagonist. (97%)


Storm Front, by Jim Butcher (322 pages)

Page 4: Harry gets calls that result in 2 jobs. (1%)

Surveying the scene of the crime.

Page 30: Harry commits to investigating black magic despite the trouble it could cause. (9%)

Harry investigates the Lake House.

Page 76: Morgan delivers a warning. (23%)

Interviewing the suspects.

Page 168: The black wizard sends a demon after Harry. (52%)

Harry loses some hair and discovers his cases are connected. The antagonist's identity is revealed.

Page 262: Attack in the office. (81%)

Harry prepares.

Page 293: Confrontation at the Lake House. (90%)


Now that I've seen how things are put together in the real world, I can start to draw a few conclusions:

  1. Both books use a ticking clock. If Hethor fails to wind the mainspring before a given date, the world ends. After he loses his hair, Harry has to find and defeat the black wizard before the coming storm arrives, or he'll die. Time is as much the enemy as the antagonist.

  2. Each book has a handful of significant incidents that mark turning points in the protagonist's progress. They're usually disasters, although they might not be recognized as such. They're separated by stages that lead up to the next turning point.

  3. (Turning Point) Books I like start off with an unusual event in the protagonist's life that gives them some purpose and forces them to act. This inciting incident might not be the result of the protagonist's action, but everything afterward will be. If it's not right on the first page, it's very close to it.

  4. (Stage) After that, the protagonist reacts according to their usual nature. In the first case, Hethor seeks knowledge and advice from his superiors. In the second case, Harry checks out the crime scene.

  5. (TP) Around 10% into the story, we have the first big disaster. Harry promises he'll solve the crime, but then is forced into a car and told that doing so would be a mistake. Hethor's thrown out of Master Bodean's house. Both these disasters isolate the protagonist. Hethor's lost his home. Harry alienates the cops.

  6. (Stg) The protagonist seeks the most simple and obvious solution to the problem. Hethor goes to the authorities. Harry pokes around the Lake House.

  7. (TP) Around 25% into the story, another big setback. Hethor gets his interview with the governor, and ends up in prison. Harry finds out the White Council is watching him VERY closely. The problem can't be solved the easy way, and trying to do so makes things worse. Either the problem is bigger and more complicated than they thought, or trying to solve it has created another, worse, problem.

  8. (Stg) The protagonist limps on, trying to solve the problem with a slightly different approach. Harry interviews suspects. Hethor becomes an apprentice sailor.

  9. (TP) Near the half-way point, something huge happens that changes the game. There's no retreat now, no surrender. Hethor crosses the equatorial wall to the mysterious southern hemisphere. Harry is attacked by a demon in his apartment.

  10. (Stg) The previous event has changed the world again. This time, the protagonist looks likely to fail and the consequences of failure become unbearable. During this section, the protagonist may gain allies, but they'll be lost or unavailable by the time we get to the next incident. Instead of being a follower, Hethor becomes a leader among the Correct People. Initially reluctant to use powerful magic, Harry cuts loose and discovers the black wizard's identity.

  11. (TP) 80% into the story, a final disaster strips the protagonist of all support and all hope. Hethor crashes his airship at the pole, without the Key Perilous or time to find it. Harry and his police liason are attacked in his office, costing him the last of his talismans and nearly exhausting his magic.

  12. (Stg) There's nothing left to do now, no choice, but to storm the enemy fortress/proceed to the goal. Hethor seeks the mainspring. Harry goes back to the Lake House.

  13. (TP) The climax happens anytime after the 90% mark. The clock runs out and the protagonist confronts the antagonist and either wins or loses. Hethor fights to wind the mainspring. Harry tries to stop the spell that will end his life.

  14. (Stg) Once the climax is over, so's the book. There are a few pages of cool-down, an aftermath or "where are they now," but it doesn't take up much space. It shows the reader how the protagonist's life has changed as a result of events.
Of course, not all books are structured like this. Literary fiction plays with structure all the time (although Racing in the Rain breaks down pretty similarly to the above), but commercial fiction seems to be built in the same way.

I know many of you who write will look at this and go, "that's way too restrictive. I can't write to a formula, or a skeleton like that." Fine. I'm okay with that. But are you sure you aren't already writing a plot similar to that above? It's a species of the 3-act structure, and an evolution of the Heroic Journey, which has been running through stories since long before Joseph Campbell slapped a label on it. As readers, we have certain expectations for stories. We look for certain milestones. A structure like the one above helps us meet those expectations, and give readers a satisfying experience. I think we ignore such things at our peril.


slcard said...

Thanks, Captain!

Ulysses said...

My pleasure.

Suzan Harden said...

Thanks for the breakdown! This makes so much more sense to me than some of the plotting workshops I've taken.

Ulysses said...

Happy to be of service.
I found it a pretty interesting exercise.

I'm not used to making sense though. Feels kinda weird...