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.


robp said...

Do you know the Archie Bell and the Drells song Tighten Up? Have you heard the Todd Rundgren take-off Loosen Up? It's a brilliant and funny illustration of yr point about what happens when one by one each instrument is removed from a song.

Just an aside this time, otherwise yr nailing things and I'll step aside.

Sean Craven said...

Haven't heard either and now I want to. I'll have to start nosing around...