Monday, October 30, 2006
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Sunday, October 15, 2006
I watched a movie on AMC last night (or actually, I watched a lot of commercials with a movie sprinkled in between) called 'The Last Samurai' with Tom Cruise. He plays an American Civil War veteran who gets hired by the new Japanese Imperial Army to train and modernize their troops. The new government is trying to modernize and is outlawing samurai. The samurai don't take kindly to this and rebel. The story is about Tom getting captured in battle and slowly getting to know and respect his enemy before changing sides. It's a very good movie and you should watch it because it perfectly illustrates the topics of the last few days here.
Act One (part one)- Setup, orphan hero and other characters are introduced, hero captured in battle that is plot point 1.
Act Two (part two)- Reaction, wanderer hero lives among the samurai and observes their ways, pinch 1 happens with a wooden sword fight between hero and samurai warrior. The midpoint is revelation that chief samurai has been captured and will be executed. Hero changes sides and starts taking steps to free him.
Act Two (part three)- Proaction, warrior hero kills government assassins and becomes samurai himself in pinch 2. Frees samurai chief, some minor characters die, in plot point 2. Now we see that the antagonistic force has actually been the modernizing Prime Minister who is trying to destroy the ancient ways of the Japanese people.
Act Three (part four)- Resolution, martyr hero and samurai chief lead the last of the samurai into battle against the regiments of the Imperial Army who now have cannon and automatic weapons. The samurai make a good showing but they get shot up and only Tom Cruise survives. He gives the chief samurai's sword to the Emperor, who finally gets a backbone and fires the Prime Minister. Bushido, the way of the warrior, wins out in the end.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Now for Act Three. Act Three starts with the warrior
hero, who has been getting more proactive towards
accomplishing his goal, becoming the martyr. He has
gone through whatever transformation he needs to,
using info learned in the last Act, to drive towards a
resolution and defeat the antagonistic force thus
getting what he needs. But first, more on how Act Two
Plot Point #2 ends the second act and announces the
beginning of the third. Vogler terms this as the
hero's death and rebirth, in figurative terms. Frodo
tangles with Shelob and doesn't fare well. Sammy
saves the day and the hero now knows that everything
may have to be sacrificed to dunk the stupid ring.
Aragorn reveals himself as the King of Everything and
admits that he must march on the Black Gate in order
to save humanity.
Another thing that has to happen right before we get
to Plot Point #2 is a lull. This is the darkest hour
where all seems lost. Ringwraiths ride unchallenged
across the battlefield. Not only is Frodo dead but
the orcs of Cirith Ungol (or is it Minas Morgul?) are
going to eat him. This is usually the event that
triggers the hero's transformation. Very often a
major sidekick or perhaps the mentor will die here.
So Act Three (or the fourth part) opens with a
transformed hero who has new power and is ready to
give everything. In Love Actually, this takes
place when Hugh Grant starts knocking on doors looking
for his love interest. In Notting Hill this
takes place when Hugh Grant starts driving through the
streets looking for his love interest. This part is
called, not surprisingly, the resolution.
A resolution must resolve things. If you have a big
novel, there will be a lot of things to resolve. This
part takes up about a quarter of your length. The
important thing to remember here is that all the cards
are on the table. Everything is revealed, except in a
mystery, and no new information or characters are
uncovered. As far as plot devices go, the hero has
all the means to achieve the goal. Sauron is toast.
The Death Star is headed to the scrap yard. Somebody
is finally going to realize they love Hugh Grant.
Whatever questions you brought up to make the story
interesting, they get answered now. Good guy wins.
Bad guy loses. Lights come up and you think, "Holy
cow, did I drop a lot of popcorn."
Now, a good resolution will still leave a reader
wondering how this is all going to happen. Everyone
knows the hero will succeed in the end. Unlike real
life, fiction has a climax and an ending. But we're
not sure who's going to survive with him. You should
have plenty of sidekicks around to kill off at this
point. Most importantly, the hero needs to be the
architect of his own victory. Even if the cavalry, or
perhaps the Rohirrim, rides over the hill to save them
all it is still the hero who kept it together long
enough to beat the bad guy.
Like any structure description for writing a story,
this can be wiggled around a bit. However, you move
off of it at your peril. There is a reason this
structure describes so many memorable and commercially
successful stories. There is a reason it has been
around since Homer. It has all the beats that
resonate with a Western audience. It is comfortable
to watch. Therefore it is satisfying, allows us our
catharsis, and fills up our need to be entertained.
All stories can benefit from a structural analysis
using this form.
This sure turned out to be a long series of posts.
I've got to review them now and make sure I didn't
forget anything. I took another look at a novel I
tried to finish a couple years ago and I'm noticing
that there are several places where I didn't follow
the structure. Sure enough, those were all the places
where I felt bogged down and directionless.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
There is one specific scene that needs to happen in this part. Brooks calls this Pinch #1. You have to pinch your readers to remind them what the danger is and what's at stake. This is best done in a very blatant way, most likely after a particular test or trial is failed. You could also have one of you allies show up and save the hero. For Vogler this would be the Approach to the Inmost Cave. Beware, here there be monsters.
At the midway point of Act Two, which is also the mid point of the novel, you have a major revelation of information that completely changes the course of the story. Before that, your wandering hero was searching for clues. After it, your hero has the info he or she needs and is ready to become a warrior. They have stopped reacting to events and they start being proactive. Now they take the fight to the antagonistic force. Vogler places this as the Supreme Ordeal. In Star Wars this is the time spent on the Death Star and the midpoint is the revelation that R2 has the plans necessary to destroy it. From that point on, we're no longer just flying to Alderaan, we're trying to save the galaxy.
The proactive time after the midpoint also should include Pinch #2. Once again the hero and the reader need to be reminded in a pointed way that there is a real possibility of failure. The antagonistic force shows up again but this time we have new knowledge and the stakes have been raised. The antagonist is now more dangerous than ever before.
All this leads to Plot Point #2 and the end of Act Two. Act Three is the resolution and I'll discuss that later.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
As an orphan, the hero is disconnected from everything that's about to happen. Then a pivotal event occurs that launches the direction of the story. After that event, the hero wanders in search of information and has to learn how to get what he wants. Then the hero transforms into a warrior who starts taking steps to get him to his goal. After another pivitol moment, the hero is willing to give up everything necessary and become a martyr. This applies to almost all stories from romances to thrillers.
A very popular form of storytelling is the three act structure. This fits very well with the heroic stages above. Act One is about a quarter of the whole work and it is the setup for what we all need to know in order to enjoy the story. Introduce characters, set a hook (usually with foreshadowing), show the hero's needs and situation, etc. This does not mean no action. This just means that a story is building and the hero is mostly unaware of it. But the structure here is about pacing, whereas Vogler uses the structure for plot. The two are different.
Act One ends with a scene or two that make up Plot Point One. This should be roughly one quarter of the way into the story. It is the first time that the adversary, be it a person, a disease, or a storm, is put front and center so there can be no mistaking that the direction of the story is changing. The hero is usually presented with a choice to make. This is what Vogler describes as entering the Special World. In Star Wars, Plot Point One is the death of Luke's Aunt and Uncle. And I bet it happens at 26 minutes into the movie.
I'm running out of lunch hour. We'll move on to the rest later.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Sunday, October 08, 2006
The next two sessions were separated by a long lunch where I had to go meet with a potential landlord and walk through a house we're probably going to rent. Both sessions were taught by Larry Brooks and were absolutely excellent. They made the whole weekend. His explanation of story architecture was one of the clearest I've heard, and like I just said, I know a thing or two about storytelling. If you get a chance to go to one of his longer seminars I would highly suggest it. He gave us the sixteen hour version crammed into about two hours.
What some people don't like, most notably the self proclaimed left-brained writer who walked out on him, is outlining and organizing their story. They want to just let it flow and see where their characters take them. This is wonderful but will often lead down paths that don't make for good novels. This is why we have to write so many drafts before we get it publishable. Notice I didn't say, 'get it right.' 'Right' is a subjective thing that can change from person to person but 'publishable' is pretty well established by the industry. (Like it or not.)
He got his ideas on stroy architecture from writing screenplays. Almost all good movies have very similar pacing. A hook in the first five minutes, a pivotal plot point at 22 to 26 minutes, a major event that changes the direction of the movie at the midway, and then another plot point at the 3/4 mark that announces the beginning of the resolution. There's a great deal more to it than this because the main character is also going through their transformation at the same time. If I think I can present the ideas in a more logical fashion, I just might. It's much easier to grasp when you can draw out a timeline.
The point is that this is a time tested structure that matches the way a person emotionally responds to a story. It also synchs up with another popular structure, the Hero's Journey. More on this later, kids need to go to bed now.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
The last class of the day was on Theme. Eric Penz gave a good presentation where he asked the question 'why write' and listed the answers; they all pointed to a need to say something important. That something is your theme. If you didn't have something to say you'd pick some easier hobby. As Jim Macdonald has often said, keep theme simple. This was the theme of the presentation as well.
After that it was home for cheeseburgers and kids who should have done more to pick up the downstairs room. Tomorrow: Day Two.
We were asked to write an opening line or book blurb that would hook a reader. Someone in class came up with this one that got the best reaction from the group (and I'm paraphrasing badly):
"When Jane found a body in the ditch she knew it would be difficult for her. The police were skeptical, her parents were ashamed, and her church group shunned her. The only one who took her seriously was the killer who knew exactly where she lived."
That's pretty good.
If we didn't have a mystery novel in the works, which I don't, we could come up with an opening line following the dialogue, "Where were you last night?" I offered this tidbit and it seemed to go over well:
"Rachel hid the knife in front of her and did not turn around. He was not close enough to kill with one strike and the kids might wake up any minute."
I then patted myself on the back.
The most beneficial thing she helped us with was a two sentence formula for summarizing a novel. This is needed for query letters to editors and agents and always seems to be troublesome. Essentially you need to ignore 75% of your novel and get to the point. Too many people, me included, think you need to explain a lot or no one will understand what your plot is. The trick is to forget the plot and focus on five things: Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent, Disaster. This also is similar to Donald Maass' advice for queries: Setting, protagonist, problem.
It was interesting to try to write two sentences that encapsulate the novel I have percolating right now, Broken, which is the rest of the tale that is started with my short story 'Protector'. Here it is:
"With Kingdoms and factions pushing towards war, Jacob Trueman must keep the Kingdom's Daughter alive. When a ancient evil reveals itself and brings devastation to the Kingdom's borders, Jacob must fight enemies seen and unseen to protect his charge."
That's actually a shortened version of what I first wrote. I could probably take a few more words out as well. But that's the point of the exercise. The summary here is not the complete story and says nothing about the journey Jacob makes after fleeing from the good guys after being falsely accused, etc. etc. etc.
I'll have more time to blog later but things are off to a good start here.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
I often get into debates over silly things like
movies, books, or torture. I suppose I could avoid
these situations if I really wanted to but I don't.
They make me a better writer. I shall pontificate.
Debate is an exchange of ideas with the intention of
persuasion. It is not a simple conversation; there is
a presumption that right and wrong will figure into
the final assessment. There will be a winner and a
loser. (Unless you're arguing about abortion, then
there will be only losers.) Therefore, you must bring
your A game. You have to clearly state your position
and define how it differs with your opponent. Then
you have to support your position with facts and
reason while attacking the enemy's (sorry,
'opponent's') facts and reason.
Some people can do this well and some cannot. I've
found that when people start getting emotional about
an issue the debate portion of the evening is usually
over. Typically this is when I start talking about
football. This might also be because I have the
amazing gift of taking someone else's facts and
reasoning and making it say what I want instead of
what they want. (Why? Because sometimes I can't
dazzle 'em with brilliance.)
So how does this relate to writing? Fiction is much
like a debate. You are lying and trying to make it
sound convincing. Unless you're writing a sweeping
historical romance you only have a certain amount of
time to make your point and hook your reader. As a
writer, you should train yourself to quickly sort out
what is relevant, what is fluff, and how you can
quickly present it. Debate will help you with this.
It's also fun at parties.
Let's examine this. For structure, we do have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For plot, we have characters, crisis, and resolution. For theme, we have envy and redemption. Dialogue is a little thin. Scene and setting could also use some work.
I'd say he's halfway to a Hugo.