Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thoughts On Plot 3: Backbeat, Verses, And Instrumentals-- Why Stories Are Songs

A tragically prophetic title, given what's happened to the band over the years. My favorite description of our music came from a drummer from whom I took a few lessons. "You sound like a cross between the Beat Farmers and Brian Eno."

Okay, here's the deal. All arts are the same. Once you get into more than one you start noticing that musical structure works in writing, that color use has a lot in common with chord structure, and that what it all comes down to is pattern. And the three basic principles of pattern construction are very simple -- repetition, variation, and placement.

Rhythm is the most elemental pattern of all. We live every moment of every day to the sound of two backbeats -- the inhale/exhale of breathing and the lub-dup of our heartbeats. One-two one-two one-two. We're born rocking.

And exactly this kind of backbeat informs fiction.

The standard terminology for what I'm about to discuss is a little awkward -- there are two types of scenes in fiction and they're referred to as scene and sequel. Really, they're more like action and reaction.

In a scene, a character enters into a situation and acts -- in good fiction the character acts to the best of their ability and whether they succeed or fail the scene usually ends with the character worse off than they were at the start of the scene.

In a sequel, the character in question takes in the result of what happened in the previous scene, re-establishes a position of emotional equilibrium (again, usually worse than it was before), and decides on a course of action.

Lub-dup lub-dup lub-dup. There it is, the heartbeat of conventional fiction. The essential backbeat. But like all fundamental truths in the arts it seems so freaking obvious it's impossible to imagine that it's useful.

At first.

But once you start examining stories from this perspective a number of things start becoming clear. First off is that while it's impossible to avoid the rhythm of scene and sequel you can choose how much weight to give one or the other.

You can have a scene take place off-camara. You can have a sequel take place during the time it takes the hero to pop a new clip into his automatic. You can consciously balance the two.

What's interesting about this is what happens at the endpoints of the spectrum. When scenes are consistantly minimized you get the moment-of-revelation form of literary fiction. When sequel is minimized you get pulp fiction.

Very interesting, no? If you're conscious of the interplay between scene and sequel in your fiction you can deliberately control the pace of your story. Want to speed things up? Focus on scenes. Are things seeming a little busy or shallow? Beef up the sequels.

And when you're conscious of whether you're writing a scene or a sequel you have a better understanding of the purpose of the passage you're writing. One of the writers I work with had a habit of interrupting scenes with bits of rumination from his lead character. After learning about scene and sequel it struck me that his stuff would flow more smoothly if he thought in those terms and kept the scene and the sequel seperated.

It worked. Scene and sequel alternate -- they don't mix well. Each has its own flow, its own tempo. Let 'em run smooth til they're over.

I mentioned earlier the importance of making things get worse for the character. This is another reflection of the principle of repetition with variation. Any given book is going to have certain elements repeated in it. If there are relationships between characters they'll have a number of shared conversations. In adventure fiction, the characters will have to face a variety of physical dangers.

These elements are like the verse and chorus in a pop song -- and like the chorus and verse in a pop song it's the differences between the iterations that makes them interesting.

The main thing to remember about differentiating these scenes from one another is that you have to keep raising the stakes. Think of it this way -- if you heard a song that started off with full instrumentation and then one instrument at a time was gradually eliminated from the mix (all of a sudden I want to try actually doing this) you have a song that will tend to get less and less interesting. It's possible to imagine that it could be made to work -- but the songwriter would have to know exactly what he was doing and why ahead of time.

You tend to get good results from continually jacking the tension, though. This is what they call rising conflict. Let's say your lead character is at odds with his boss and you have three seperated scenes where they interact one on one. Here are the outcomes of the three scenes arranged in different orders. Which sequence seems more like a story to you?

1. The lead character grows so upset with his boss he screams into her face and storms off the job.
2. The boss hints that she suspects the lead character of theft.
3. The boss criticizes the lead character for coming in to work late.

1. The boss criticizes the lead character for coming in to work late.
2. The boss hints that she suspects the lead character of theft.
3. The lead character grows so upset with his boss he screams into her face and storms off the job.

It ain't subtle. Learn to recognize scenes that are of a similar nature -- the verses, the choruses -- and make sure that each sequence of scenes builds on what went before, with the stakes and tension increasing from one to the next.

Because all of this is going to end when you get to the final instrumental, the climax. The point when the story is resolved, when the emotions built by the song reach their highest pitch. The more tension you have when you reach this point the better the payoff is. Remember this when you're building your scenes -- every inch of the way you're getting the reader ready for the payoff.

And yeah, I can think of a few other areas of life where this pattern works pretty well. Tomorrow I'll go into the role of character in creating plot.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Water Pick Trap -- or A Childhood, Condensed

When I was five we moved into the house on Twenty-second Street in Richmond. In addition to the new house, the parents had purchased something rather spectacular -- a water pick.

This gadget was something that squirted a mildly-high pressure stream of water out of a plastic nozzle in-between your teeth -- hydraulic dental floss, if you will. And the first time I was messing around with it I noticed something. Since my parents had plugged it into the outlet that was on the base of the bathroom light socket, the water pick couldn't be used unless the light was on.


I turned off the bathroom light, filled the water pick's reservoir, placed the nozzle so it was pointing toward the bathroom door... and left.

I spent the rest of the evening waiting for the repercussions. I knew I was going to get it -- I just didn't know if the punishment was going to be worth the crime.

Nothing happened. My folks went to the bathroom and came out bland and splattered.

But when I went to the bathroom myself, as soon as I turned on the light I was spritzed. Hoist by my own petard. So the next time I went into the bathroom I didn't turn on the light -- instead, I reached across the room in the dark and fumbled at the water pick.

Sure enough, it was full, pointed at the door, and turned on.

Someone had refilled the pick since I set the trap the first time.

And that was how it was. We never discussed it, we never mentioned it -- but it came to be accepted that you turned off the water pick before you turned on the bathroom light, and that you kept the reservoir topped off. So people who were familiar with our house -- and we had a lot of guests, our place was a central party zone -- learned about the trap eventually but first timers were almost always nailed.

Again, this was never discussed, just accepted.

The water pick trap was in place, armed and ready, for thirteen years.

That's my family. We're all like that.

Thoughts On Plot 2: Pistols For Plotters

At the moment I'm too lazy to look up the exact quotes, but...

Chekov's pistol: Do not show a pistol at the beginning of a story unless it will be fired by the end.

Chandler's pistol: Any time things get dull have someone with a pistol come through the door.

What Chekov means is that you shouldn't have any unnecessary story elements -- if the pistol isn't somehow important to the plot, then don't put it in.

But it also suggests that if you are going to have someone shoot a pistol it's a good idea to establish the existence of the pistol early on. You might do this by setting the story in an environment where people tend to be armed, so the appearance of a specific pistol is not something that demands explanation. Or you may want to show the pistol in question early on, possibly in a way that lets the reader know that it's important to the story.

Which is to say that continuity is one of the key elements of plot. When I spoke of setting expectations in the first plot post this is the kind of thing I'm talking about. Of course you can fuck around with continuity, especially if you're writing comedy or surrealism, but for the most part you're better off if the key moments in your story are fully integrated into the whole, if what has gone before those moments was constructed with the intention of building to those moments.

So -- at the start of the story, you show a character load a pistol. As the story progresses, you establish that character's relationships with the people around her -- as well as her relationship with the implications of the gun. Is she prone to violence? Impulsive decision making? Hilarious pratfalls? Spectacular bad luck? Is there someone she particularly likes or dislikes? Who would be the best person for her to shoot? The worst? And so on.

Because once you've got a character and a situation a story begins to unfold. What would that character do with that gun? How does that gun affect that character?

So there's one method for building a plot. You can either start with a scene in mind -- the moment when the pistol goes off -- and figure out means by which to build to that moment, or you can insert something you find intriguing (like a pistol) into the story early on and let it form part of the environment in which the character is expressing herself -- and then when the time comes to confront the presence of the pistol, you ask the character what she will do in that moment.

I've found that it's a good thing to work both ways, backwards and forwards. Remember, until it's published a work of fiction is very, very malleable. If you're great new plot twist is something that your lead character would have nothing to do with you can change the twist, change the character, scrap both of 'em -- at this point it's your option. Don't get so hung up on any one aspect of the story that you forget that you can change your mind about it.

Now a lot of the time I work without an outline. This was also the case with Raymond Chandler. Those intricate plots of his? He just typed 'em out. If you try and outline one you'll find out that they're sloppy, that they wander -- but readers have been eating him up for more than half a century. That's because regardless of how much sense they make, his stories contain a constant dramatic tension.

And his method is a simple one. The minute you start boring yourself throw something crazy into the mix. Have something come burrowing up through the floor or crashing through the ceiling; have a character reveal a shocking secret, have someone commit an act that seems totally out of character.

And then go back and place hints into earlier chapters, find a way to fit it into the climax -- make it into an organic, fully integrated element in the story.

Or get rid of it. Don't be afraid to dump passages that don't work. I mean, hey -- they don't work. Figure out whether or not there are any aspects to the passage that help the story, though. Use those to inform the new writing.

Tomorrow I'll have something good for you -- solid practical advice on how to control the pacing of a story. This stuff is fairly new to me so I'm still all excited about it...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thoughts On Plot 1: What Is A Story And How Can I Steal One?

Here's a contour drawing of a reproduction of a Velociraptor mongoliensis skull. I need to do more like this -- get my draftsmanship back in shape.

We all have our creative strengths and gifts -- and we all have our weak areas. Plotting and storytelling are not my gifts. In order to function as a writer I've had to develop a seat of principles and approaches that you may find useful.

Here's how I view plot. A plot is a sequence of related events in which expectations are raised in the audience and then addressed. It's a form that's pretty fundamental to organisms like us -- it mimics things like appetite and the sexual experience. Anticipation grows in intensity until satisfaction is achieved and the greater the anticipation, the greater the satisfaction.

Okay, that's the easy part. Now we've got a basis for judgment. But how do you tell a fucking story?

I went through years where I filled a lot of pages without telling a single story. Finally I took a creative writing class where the teacher called me on this in no uncertain fashion. (She had it in her head that I was a poet along the lines of Richard Brautigan while I wanted to write -- well, the kind of crap I write now, neo-pulp with literary pretensions.) She told me that I had everything but story -- and without story there was nothing. No one was going to be able to read my fiction unless it had a story.

She told me this any number of times. It really bugged me. Because she was right.

Finally I snapped. "Okay," sez I, "if she wants a fucking story I'll fucking well give her a fucking story. The Three Little Pigs is what I'll fucking well give her."

So I just took the sequence of events in The Three Little Pigs and laid it out. I was raised on the originals of these folk and fairy tales (never a good idea to teach a child to use a library) so I knew I was dealing with what was more-or-less a slasher movie. I was into Jim Thompson real big around that time so I decided to steal two of his tricks -- the shifting first-person POV and the first person death scene. I took it as my goal to make every death in the three little pigs happen on-screen in the first person. It was nice and ugly.

And the teacher loved it -- and when I sent it out to Cemetary Dance magazine the rejection slip was a form letter with two words written on it in green Sharpie -- "Came Close." So I learned a lesson. As another teacher once told us, "Don't hide your eyes -- plagiarize!"

In other words, there's no reason not to take a good look at the world of traditional stories, folklore, and mythology to find patterns for plots.

In writing the novel I took a number of characters from both classic and Scandinavian mythologies and just plugged them into the narrative willy-nilly. At first this seemed to solve all of my narrative problems but it soon became appearant that adhering too closely to the myths sucked. However, by the time I figured that out many of those borrowed characters had started to take on a life of their own. I kept the characters, dumped all extraneous mythological elements, and the story rose naturally from what remained.

Here's an example. I knew my story was leading through a bizarre afterlife so I brought Hades and Persephone into the story. When Zeus, Ares, and Charon all arrived afterwards the novel went off the rails. But the Hades and Persephone characters had made themselves at home -- Hades was a mentor figure to the lead character, Persephone had become his romantic interest, and the resulting triangle seemed to have some real narrative traction.

So I dumped all their connections, rethought the nature of the afterlife and rebuilt the characters to fit the new mythology. Hades became the Deacon, a civil war soldier turned preacher and weapon of the Lord. Persephone became Corrie, who has been living in the afterlife since childhood.

The myth of Hades and Persephone was propaganda in a way -- the goddess Kore ruled the underworld before Hades came along, dethroned her, and changed her name. I dumped Persephone's rape (I wouldn't handle it well enough to make it worth doing) but kept a lot of the dynamics of her relationship with Hades -- only married for part of the year, he took her power away from her, etc.

It was a bass-ackwards way of working and it no doubt took a lot longer than it should have -- but it worked. I was able to come up with a decent plot. The thing to keep in mind is that in both of these cases I wrote the stories. I didn't turn them over in my mind, I didn't make an outline and then put it in a drawer. I wrote the stories until they read like stories. That's the real secret.

Next time I'll let you know about the two best tools for plotting that I know.

They're both pistols.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

From The Valley Of Lost Projects: The Mask of Gold -- A Complete Short Story Posted In The Comments

After the great wave swept away the atolls of his kingdom, Kanatanka fled into what he thought was
an endless ocean --

Only to find himself in a strange land --

Filled with strange creatures.

In the distance he sees it...

The Black Tower

About a year or so ago I started working on what was intended to be an online adventure comic strip. In order to make life easy on myself I decided to do something simple and familiar. (Note to self -- this never works.) There are certain tastes of mine that are like malaria -- I can go for years without thinking to indulge them and then they resurface and I'm swept away on a feverish tide.

In this case it was Sword & Sorcery. When I was a kid back in the seventies there was a revival of this form of fantasy, spearheaded by the work that Lin Carter and L. Sprague deCamp put in on Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Ballantine Books has recently republished all of Howard's Conan stories (among others -- the Soloman Kane series being a particular favorite) and going over those rekindled my interest in this very minor sub-genre.

(As an aside, in a lot of ways this revival was fueled by the population of the Lord of the Rings -- even though the Weird Tales crew was active long before the Inklings. Conan predates Frodo.)

Here are two different ways of looking at S & S. First is that it's the fantasy equivalent of hard boiled fiction, that it was Howard taking the more mannered tradition established by William Morris (yeah, that William Morris) and Lord Dunsany and giving it a gritty, here-and-now perspective. The characters are going to be gutter-dwelling underdogs before they achieve greatness, and they're more likely to be motivated by a need for drinking money as by destiny. Magic isn't so much the organizing principal of the cosmos -- it's more like a Saturday night special. And so on.

From another point of view S & S came about as the result of Howard combining two genres -- historical adventure and horror. Howard's setting for the Conan stories was a thinly-veiled Europe, Africa, and Near East and his historical precedents were taken from any time that struck his fancy -- everything from the Neolithic to the Edwardian period.

I've always wanted to try my hand at that stuff. But I wanted a non-Eurocentric background -- a big part of my pleasure in fantastic literature derives from a sense of exoticism and other people have been playing in Howard's sandbox for so long that most work modeled on his stuff is dull, dull, dull. I wanted something different.

Hmmm. A vague pre-historic setting with a wild mix of creatures and cultures... Hey, you know where and when they had a great mix of critters just begging to be used in this kind of story? Miocene Central America. This would predate the evolution of man -- but this is a freaking fantasy, man. And there are rumors of everyone from the Polynesians to the Chinese having left their mark on prehistoric Central America. So I decided to go the Howard route and include anything that felt like fun rather than construct something that was intended as serious speculation.

Thus was born Kanatanka -- AKA Conan the Samoan. As a young king, his forbidden love led to the destruction of his island home. Fleeing the destruction, he finds himself in a strange new land...

The initial story, Tribes of the Black Tower, was partially inspired by my brother-in-law, Aubrey Ankrum. He was telling me about a show he'd seen about cairn builders and their practices of worshipping their ancestors. As he described how they'd creep through the narrow passages into the chamber where the bodies lay I found myself vividly imagining the experience and when we got to the part where they reached the chamber...

Well, the idea of what would happen to people breathing the gasses of decomposition came to me in a fashion that was not subtle.

"Dude," I said, "they were totally huffing corpses. They were getting high off that shit!"

And there was borne the degenerate cult of the Black Tower.

I wound up having to ditch Kanatanka as the novel proved too demanding. But as part of the experiment I tried writing a story using the character and setting. Aubrey thought it was the best thing I'd ever written; Rob thought it was the worst -- that it lacked the anger and fear that grounds the majority of my work. I can't figure out where to send the damned thing so here it is, in the first comment section. Hey, everyone, free story!

I will say that it was about as much fun as I've had with fiction. I didn't write it so much as sit back and transcribe the movie I was watching and when I was done it needed almost no edits to get it into its current state. So put yourself into a seventies state of mind -- picture Kanatanka airbrushed on the side of a van -- and read The Mask of Gold.

I think I may have to go back to Tribes of the Black Tower when I'm done with the rest of the novel...

Oh Brother.

You aren't helping, Govenor.

This was the headline on a local student newspaper I picked up yesterday. I've been turning some ideas for a perfect society over in my head and this gave me a good one, simple yet effective.

Any official acting against education gets their title misspelled. Until his attitude changes he's Govenor Schwarzenegger to me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

From The Valley of Lost Projects: Kanatanka

Kanatanka lay dying.

The echoes of the wardrums had long since died, and the stink of blood and shit on the battlefield had been overtaken by the scent of rotting flesh. Buzzards and condors, knife-tooth possums bigger than a man and long-legged forest caiman fought for carrion with the scattered survivors of the northern invasion.

Now they have come to his deathbed, friends and allies, old loves, all those whose lives had been changed for better or worse by the man who stood at the front of the fight against the monsters of the north. They have come to hear and record his tale, the saga of the outlander, the fugitive king, rebel, man-at-arms...


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cross Your Fingers...

Why is this man smiling?
Tune in tomorrow and find out!

Well, I typed a whole bunch of words yesterday but the five most important to me were 'the end' and 'to be continued.' After four years I've finished what I think is probably going maybe to be if I'm lucky a solid version of the first volume of the damned novel. The first chapters of this version are dated July 3, 2008 and the current draft is just over ninety-four thousand words. I've got a suspicion that the Monday night mob are going to tell me that some of it seems rushed and that I need to describe the settings more thoroughly.

Even if they don't, I still think that's the case. But I'm done enough to be able to look at the whole thing. I went through it and read each fiftieth page and thought about what had happened over the course of those fifty pages that had led the characters to this moment in the story. The manuscript is three-hundred and thirty-two pages long. It's a novel, all right. But is it a good novel?

Keep your fingers crossed.

One question that's starting to concern me is whether or not I should serialize the novel on-line. I'm not at all concerned about potential loss of individual sales. What I'm wondering is whether or not it will affect my chances of selling the book to a publisher. Gonna have to do some research.

Anyway, I'm going to let it sit for a while and focus on art for a couple of months before going back and doing a line edit, and then I'm going to be giving out reading copies.

(By the way, if anyone is interested in being a reader please feel free to let me know; put The Ghost Rockers into the title of your email and I'll get back to you -- the first ten people are in.)

After I get feedback on those I'll do one last edit and start looking for an agent. And while I work on those edits I'll also be starting to get into the next volume -- by developing one while finishing the other I'll be able to keep the continuity tighter.

The novel is very thoroughly plotted from the events leading to the end of the next volume on -- but the immediate future of things is entirely up in the air. I have no idea what's going to happen next -- which is another reason why I'll be working on that issue at the same time I'm reviewing the previous events.

It's a pretty odd piece of work -- it's hard to tell if it's a roast fantasy with a buddy soap opera stuffing or a confessional autobiography frosted with horror. There's a good bit of social realism and some fireworks and a few decent monsters and some tunes and fried egg-cheese-and-bologna sandwiches for Pete's sake.

Boy do I hope it doesn't suck. I mean, anything this big and loud and ridiculous -- it is just five inches to the left of being one of those things with a map and a glossary, if that, all kinds of ghosts and creatures and historical anachronisms and so on -- so of course it sucks.

But does it suck properly?