Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Build a story, leave the door open

A story is more than a series of events that happen. Scenes have to be interesting, they have to build and they have to play a role in communicating the overall narrative. But how do you know if the scene you have written is helping to tell the story or distracting from it? One way to decide is to look at the scene and ask yourself what is its significance? Not to the character, or even to the writer, but to the story.

Most things that happen in a story can be said to have some sort of influence on the greater scheme of things if you really push it. A girl walking down the street on the way to school who notices a red sports car, which is then never mentioned again, could be said to have some symbolic or metaphorical resonance with the themes of the story. That's fine, but once you know that, you are then able to decide whether that's the best way to achieve that effect (which it may well be). Problem is most people don't do that and leave it hanging as a thing that happened in the story just because. And that's what it will read like.

If a woman is getting ready to go for a job interview and the phone rings and it’s some guy trying to convince her to switch phone plans, and once she gets rid of him she goes off to her a job interview, what’s the significance to her story? If it makes her late and she misses the bus, then that could have a very strong impact. If the guy tells her that she'd be stupid to pass up this limited special offer and she gets very irate, calling him a cocksucker who should stick his head up his own ass so he has somewhere quiet to eat his bag of dicks, and then puts the phone down and goes back to being very normal and getting ready (pink shirt or white shirt?) that tells us something about her but it has a particular significance since she's going for a job interview where that aspect of her personality may prove to be a liability (although personally I'd hire her on the spot).

The great the significance, the stronger the scene. But that doesn't mean you have to be overt in making sure the reader understands that significance. What is important is that the writer knows.

On the page, the reader doesn't need it to be spelled out, and the effect may not become apparent for many chapters. But when all the chapters in the story have a unifying thread, even if their attachment to it is a little tenuous, as the story develops all those separates moments will be drawn into a single, focused throughline that will add to the richness of your story. And very often when you get stuck and can't see your way to the ending, you will find that somewhere in those minor scenes will be the answer to your problems, thanks to the fact that deep down they are all interconnected.

Unrelated events that occur within a story can individually be quite interesting, but they don't build to anything if they are left unconnected...

Reading a lot helps give a broader understanding of what can constitute a good story, but trying to learn what makes the story interesting from an interesting book is difficult because you end up being too interested in the book to notice. And if you make notes and try to break it down it can be quite a tedious experience.

If you do break it down, what you get is an understanding of why that book may be interesting but not necessarily how to make yours interesting. Just because a monkey appears on page 6 doesn't mean putting a monkey on your page 6 is going to make your story better.

People tell stories every day and it is fairly easy to tell the difference between something worth listening to and something that is just small talk. It is a natural ability we all have, to know when something that happened is going to be of interest to those around us. Do you want to know why the guy at work locked himself in an office and refused to come out until the police came and broke the door down? Or do you want to know what I had for lunch? You don't know the answer to either, but one is more of an unusual occurrence than the other, and that's what draws our attention.

When somebody says something like, "You won't believe what happened at work today" the actual thing that happened may or may not be of interest, but they are leading with the hook: something out of the ordinary occurred. Something unexpected. This is what makes it a story and not just a list of information.

Within a story, the key underlying structure is this: Things don't go as expected.

As long as things don't go to plan, the reader will want to know what the character is going to do about it. This doesn't mean that a guy visiting his wife at Nakatomi Plaza has to discover the building’s been taken over by terrorists (although it is very inconvenient when that happens). The unexpected thing that happens can be big or small depending on the story and the characters. Watching a character deal with a situation they are not prepared for is very engaging.

If Mary has been dumped by her boyfriend who is going away to college, and she's upset about it, and her friends are trying to console her, that is a narrative. Things haven't gone to plan for her, but this is still quite a dull story because she didn't really have a plan, and neither is she planning to do anything about the predicament. She is just having a good, passive cry.

The fact that the reader can see all parts of the situation, and understand them, means there is no reason to go into it any further. This kind of story will appeal to people who happen to be interested in overly emotional scenarios that produce a physical response in them. Like with porn. The story doesn't need a strong narrative because that's not the purpose of the story.

But if Mary's boyfriend has dumped her and started going out with Mary's recently divorced mother, and Mary is upset by that, then that is a much more interesting story for this reason: Mary will have to do something about it.

He isn’t just disappearing, leaving her with a vacuum to deal with, he’s upstairs banging mom. Things can't remain as they are so the reader knows there's more to come but they don't know how it'll turn out. They don't even know what they would do in that situation. Even though they completely understand the predicament they don't have a list of possible solutions the way they do most situations.

For the story to work best not only must things not go as expected, the way they do go has to be unexpected. Because solving a simple problem is easy.

"Are you still here? I thought you'd be gone by now."

"I know, I've lost my keys. Have you seen them?"

As you can see the options are fairly simple and well known. If he can't find is keys, he will have to make other arrangements. The reader might not know exactly how the scene will proceed, but they have a pretty good idea of the options available.

"Are you still here? I thought you'd be gone by now."

"I know, a monkey just stole my passport. Did you see him?"

Because the reader has no idea what they would do in this situation they will be willing to keep reading. Not that you should introduce a monkey into every story (although it can't hurt).

It is important to remember that the scale of the problem does not necessarily relate to the level of interest of the reader. Somebody who puts out a massive oil fire because they know what they're doing and things go smoothly, is going to be of very limited interest to people. Somebody who runs out of milk on a Sunday night when all the local stores are closed and his ex-girlfriend, who thinks he can never get himself together, is coming round, poses a much more engaging problem. Especially as the neighbours won't talk to him since he accidentally killed their cat...

In summary:

1. Establishes the significance of each scene to the story.

2. Make sure things don't go to plan.

3. The unexpected always grabs the attention. But don't overdo the monkeys (unless you really like monkeys).


F said...

I don't worry about it at all during a first draft.

Later I find beautiful things that welled out of my subconscious. And a bunch of useless crap. Sometimes they are the same. And sometimes they are monkeys.

Eric Laing said...

"Don't overdo the monkeys" is a maxim worthy of the ages. Great post!

mooderino said...

Thanks. Maybe I should get t-shirts made...

Just Wendy said...

I have a few monkeys I need to weed out too.

Good post. Much food for thought.

Suze said...

mood, I've been reading through a few of your back posts. Since I think it likely not many people will do same, I'm gonna go ahead and express myself freely. I'm feeling so back-asswards about my writing, right now.

I know it's good, but I don't know if it's good enough. And with The Industry the way it is, right now, I can't tell if I should keep pushing my existing stories which, again, are good, but perhaps a story I might write (fresh) now would be even better, stronger, enjoying the benefits of what I've learned by writing three stories and learning a bit through querying-- God awful process-- and conferences and posts like these.

I think I saw something in one of your earlier posts about peer review. I may have to look back and track it down.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to write all these posts on craft. You employ a certain tone about it that makes them a little easier to digest than other writing of this nature, so feel good about that. It's hard to tell a writer what they might consider doing differently and have that writer not get all prickly about it-- or to just simply ask, 'well, who the hell are you to tell me?' I'd be interested to know what genre you write. Maybe you've written it somewhere in these posts.

Also, I liked the post about swearing. Except for the use of the word 'cunts,' which I don't think I'll ever be able to stomach. But then I've been know to say people are acting like dicks so perhaps that could be construed as a double standard. Who knows ...

Gonna read a few more of your posts. Hope you Brits are enjoying our American independence, this weekend. :)

mooderino said...

I write mainstream fiction with an emphasis on humour. You can see a sample for yourself here: Lickety Split

The problem with writing is your beholden to the opinions of people (in the industry) who aren't particularly any more clued up than anyone else. They rely on personal preference and taste. Until you get published and the readers speak (by buying the book), the only place you can go to for encouragement and validation is yourself.

The same is somewhat true of peer review.

At a basic level it really helps sort things out (and the vast majority of aspiring writers are at about that level), but once you get 'quite' good, it becomes very subjective and hard to find guidance.

It all comes down perseverence and luck and that's a hard thing to deal with when things aren't going your way.

As for starting a new project, if you think you've got a better understanding of things, and a good idea for a story I would say it's worth taking a shot. Early stories can become a bit fixed in their structure and difficult to rebuild without the whole thing falling apart.

Thanks for the kind words, it's nice to now I'm not just talking to myself here.

We Brits spend every July 4th planning how we're going to take back the colonies. Our main weapoon will be the element of surprise.

Suze said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I doubt this was the right place to spill all my author angst but you took it in stride, real nice. I read a portion of your excerpt on Lickety Split as well as some of the initial comments. You've got voice-- which is half the battle, if not more. Best of luck to you in all your efforts. In this business, it's talent and skill but it's also chance.

Finally, news flash. We call the collective this side of the pond 'states,' these days.

Suze said...

Read a few more pages. You're in your twenties, early thirties at most.

The dialogue between Danny, Colin and Max is when you really hit your stride. You've got a good ear for it. People will read dialogue like that even when the story isn't moving forward because it plays like a (tolerable) scene in a film that makes them feel like they've had this conversation before, only edited with a bit more grace than 'real life.' (As opposed to reel life.)

I know you didn't invite my opinions with the link but it's been my experience that writers like to hear when they've got it right. Also, I think Susan's still alive.

mooderino said...

I like to hear when I've got it right or wrong or just meh. The one thing I pride myself on is not being precious at all about my writing. It can always be improved,and if someone says something I don't agree with or even find hurtful i can ignore it, so feel free.

The first few chapters is what I've had most trouble with. In reality I read books with slow starts with no problem, but the powers that be insist that's where you win or lose the reader. It's bullshit, but whajagonnado?

I like the banter between the boys but if you don't find it funny or relatable you are going to find it tedious, and the kind of people who work in publishing, especially in the UK, are a bit too out of touch with the world i'm writing about (IMO).

The plot, and Susan's fate, only really becomes apparent at the end of Ch.4, some would say too late for the hypothetical 'reader' everyone seems so concerned about.

Thanks for the feedback. Strange isn't it how my prose is so youthful, yet my online persona is so mature?

Suze said...

Okay, it's not just the dialogue you execute well, though that is definitely a strength. Everything after Raffo buying the condoms reads at a really quick clip. And by everything, I mean the page, page and a half I read just now.

You looking for a critique partner? Our genres have wild gaps in them but you can write. I'd like substantive feedback on two of my Women's Fiction novels. One in terms of pacing and both in terms of which one I should try to sell first. I'm toying with branching out into MG-- think 'The Secret Garden' meets the Atari 2600 generation but have only tinkered with enough to get a feel for whether or not I can write convincingly as a 12-year old.

You may be past needing peer review prior to submission on this novel but I saw a few things I could encourage, a single typo and had a couple of minor suggestions.

Let me know, Mr. Mature Posts. And yeah, it's major bullshit that you have to grab the reader in the first two pages but we get a lot of crap flung our way as aspiring writers. What are you gonna do?

mooderino said...

A typo? I find that very hard to believe. My tpying is one of my greatset strengths.

I'll be happy to swap reads with you. Although I should point out I say whatever comes to mind. Not that I'm particularly brutal, but if i don't get something I'll say so, and if I lose interest at some point, I will mention it. Of course everyone says that's what they want to know, not always the case in practice.

It would help to know which sort of authors you are drawn to, no point telling you you're being too melodramatic if you aspire to being like Nora Roberts.

My email is if you wanna send me stuff.

p.s. Is women's fiction the new name for chick-lit?

Suze said...

All right, I sent an email to the address you provided. One of my email exchanges off Blogger with Talli Roland got diverted to her spam filter so if it doesn't pop up, may want to check.

Nora Roberts, mood?

mooderino said...

When I say I'm well read I ain't kidding. I have suffered for my art like you wouldn't believe.

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