Foundations and Spires

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Ebbs and Flows and Thunderous Crashes)

Life is comprised of many moments, most of which are not very distinct from one another. Our arcs tend to be the result of a million different experiences and choices, which all compound gradually and imperceptibly. So subtle are the shifts, that when we pause to look back at it all we are baffled to know how we ended up where we are.

Sometimes.

There are also very dramatic moments, points that hit with incredible impact, and that we immediately know will change our life forever. One that comes to mind was when my first child was born. A moment before he was only a person that I imagined about, the next he was an actual individual with a face and a cry, and who I would be spending the rest of my life connected to. Just like that I was a Dad, and life would never be the same again.

Stories feature both sorts of shifts as well. They have the slowly building moments that ever-so-subtly shift us from the beginning to the end, but also they have the dramatic scenes which turn the story on a hinge into an entirely new domain. Indeed there are many stories that come down to one of these single, focused ideas. A particular scene, or situation, lies at the heart of it, and all the rest of the story is either built as a foundation to support that key moment, or else is an edifice upon it.

 

The Foundation)

First let us consider the stories that begin with a very singular premise, from which an entire tale springs out. These are stories that we can almost hear the writer saying to his friends “here’s an idea for a story…” and then gives the single, central idea that he will then riff on for all the rest of the tale.

One such story would be The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I can easily picture the studio executives sitting in a room during the Cold War, spit-balling different ideas, and then one of them says:

“Here’s an idea for a story…a Russian submarine runs aground on a quiet, American island. So now the Russian sailors have to go ashore and try to find help, but all the locals think its an invasion!”

“Golly, gee! So what happens next Fred?”

“Well…”

And the rest, as they say, is history. From that single germ an entire set of hijinks follow, one after another, running from one comedic standoff to the next. Honestly the plot of the rest of the film isn’t that important, it’s simply about having an interesting situation and exploring that space for a while until the end credits roll.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is all silly, good fun. But the dramatic premise can also be utilized to build a story of deep significance as well. One year later Hollywood gave us Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is similarly built around a single core idea: a young, white woman brings her fiance to meet her parents before they are married. Her fiance, notably, is a black man.

This film came out at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, where the nation was still reeling from its new norms, and there was, of course, an abundance resistance to those changes. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dives right into that conversation, reliving the exact same discussions that were happening in real-life homes across the nation. By intentionally seeding itself with the most volatile premise imaginable, that of interracial relations coming straight into the home, it gave itself an ample foundation for all of the social commentary that the filmmakers wanted to deliver.

 

The Spire)

At the other end of the spectrum we have the stories that build up to a central idea, rather than emerge out of one. The creators of these stories seemed to have a very clear idea of where they wanted the story to get to, and then asked themselves what sort of narrative could lead up to that.

Consider the example of the famous short story The Lady, or the Tiger? The title alone tells us what this tale is all about: a very simple, but important choice. The key point of the story is to give the reader a situation, and then ask them what they would do in it. The situation is a bit strange, though. A princess loves a man who is in love with another woman, and now she must choose whether to trick him into his own death, or else let him go off happily with that other woman. Either way she loses him, the only question is in which way.

Honestly the rest of the story that leads up to this central point just doesn’t matter. It tries its best to justify the reasons for why this particular situation might exist, but the scenario still seems implausible. This is a thought experiment, pure and simple, and that’s really all the justification that was needed.

The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is an excellent example of a story that is already interesting in its own right, even before it gets to its lynch-pin twist at the end. That twist is far from just tacked on, though. It has been meticulously set up for, and without it the film might have been “good,” but not “unforgettable.”

This is the best use of a keystone point in a story. It is built on a strong foundation already, but then transforms the whole to an entirely other level.

With my next story I am going to try and combine both types of story cruxes. I am going to begin with a situation that I think is interesting in its own right, that of a captain, a sailor, and a pirate in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. From that foundation I will build out a story of mistrust, morals, and desperation. But then, at the end, I mean for it all to come to a head with a focused finish, where we see the key point that everything was building to. I’m excited to try my hand at something very tight and focused, and hope that I’ll be able to deliver a compelling little tale from it all. Come back on Thursday to see what you think of it.

The Narrowing Wide

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Life Stuff)

Life seems to occur in chapters. We many times come to a major juncture where we realize that life for the past several years has fit within a single theme, but now a new trajectory is about to take place. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but almost always never in the way that we had anticipated. For though we try to exhaustively outline every chapter of life ahead-of-time, we always seem to go wayward in the actual writing of the work.

I had one of these moments just recently, with the birth of my second child. Something about changing from a family of three to a family of four opened a whole new reality in our home. This one change is substantial enough, but it also proved to be the catalyst for other changes that were past due. We are going to start looking for a new home, we have purchased a car with more seats in the back, and we are changing jobs to be able to afford all of these changes.

Thus a singular event grew wider and wider, causing a ripple of side effects, each of which came with their own set of ripples as well. Of course eventually these life changes tend to stabilize. Eventually you finish ramping up, or downsizing, coming together, or moving apart, and then the complexity of life starts to contract. The chapter of life starts to wane.

But the thing about life is that once things start to feel normal, there is sure to be a fresh disruption to expand things out again. If nothing else, we just get bored and start talking about “needing a change.” If life does not compel a new chapter upon us, we instigate one ourselves.

 

The Ebb and Flow)

In case you didn’t know, a central theme of this blog is how the nuances of life invariably find their way into the structure of our stories, and this matter is no exception. We not only have learned to imitate life in how we divide our stories into thematically consistent chapters, we even structure those chapters with the same pattern of expanding and then contracting.

Think of the quest of Frodo and Sam in the Fellowship of the Ring. Things start off pretty simple in the Shire, but all at once everything expands dramatically with the arrival of the ring and the charge to carry it to Bree. This leads to the further expansion of the little hobbits’ world as they discover new locales, witness amazing feats of magic, fall into danger, meet all sorts of colorful characters, and even recruit some of them to their party. Finally they arrive at their destination, and the world of wonder starts to contract as they enter a small and cozy village.

But then…a new “chapter” of the story begins. For things don’t go according to plan and a new leg is added to their journey, carrying them back into the wider world. That chapter leads them to Rivendell, but of course things don’t come to their final rest there, either. The pattern continues, through the Mines of Moria and to Lothlorien, past the breaking of the fellowship, and still continued into the other books of the series.

If you look for the pattern, you will soon recognize that each chapter of the trilogy introduces a change, either of status or intention, widens off of that idea, and then draws to a close around it. Yes the larger plot of destroying the ring ever continues, but along the way the characters resolve the chapter of Isengard, the chapter of saving Rohan, the chapter of traversing Mordor, etc.

 

Mini-Stories)

In fact, each of these chapters is nothing more than a miniature story in its own right, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. A more explicit example of chapters-as-their-own-stories can be found in the idea of the television series, where each episode is usually comprised of its own complete arc, though usually with an ongoing narrative that continues over an entire season, and even the entire run of the show.

Sometimes it can be hard for a show to walk the line between the two. It might lean too heavily towards developing the overarching narrative, resulting in the occasional “bridge” episode that lacks its own, complete arc. Or the show might lean too heavily on making each episode a complete experience, and as a result avoid meaningful character development, for fear of alienating new viewers who aren’t up to speed on the latest micro-drama.

One show that was very compartmentalized in every episode was the Mission: Impossible series. Bruce Geller, who was the original producer for the show, even insisted that the writers not include any character development in their episodes, having the agents come and go freely without explanation. Each episode is so autonomous that you can pick up just about any one and not miss a beat.

A better balance was found when the series was later expanded into theatrical films. The Mission: Impossible movies pay homage to their roots by featuring a series of set pieces, each one of which feels like its own episode of the show, but each of which also leads into the next step of the overarching plot.

In fact, every major secret agent or spy film seems to follow this pattern. James Bond and Jason Bourne also travel to a new destination, with a specific objective to be accomplished there. Things go wide as they gather intel, are acquainted with the relevant characters, and prepare for their operation. A climax of action occurs, the objective is either accomplished or failed, and the target moves to another location, repeating the same process over and over until the greater narrative comes to its close.

 

Multiple Benefits)

Composing your story of several diamond-shaped micro-stories is beneficial to you as an author, and also to your reader.

For you, it takes the gargantuan task of writing a large narrative, and breaks it into much more manageable miniature tales along the way. It is an easy template to follow of Introduction, Expansion, Climax, and Resolution.

And for the reader, it helps the story from becoming stagnant and disinteresting. There are many high points to look forward to along the way, and the final climax feels all the more epic for the many rises and falls that were experienced just to get there.

In my current short story, Raise the Black Sun, I just brought to a close one diamond-shaped-sequence, that of the caravan traveling their final leg to Graymore Coventry. It opened right after I closed the sequence with the witch, and was initiated by the problem of the Treksmen falling into despair. It expanded in its sense of intrigue as we watched their numbers dwindle towards doom, found a new wrinkle as the few survivors bonded around their shared hardship instead, and then started to narrow back down as they approached their destination. Finally there came a sense of resolution in their solving the mystery of the end of the horizon, and now they go to the entrance of Graymore Coventry, literally closing the door on the previous chapter, and opening it into the next. Come back on Thursday to see how that chapter move forward!

Update on My Novel: Month 4

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For August I said I wanted to work on the blog each day, but at the very least wanted to reach 20 days. When all was said and done, I finished the month with 19. It really hurt to get so close but not quite make it. More positively, though, for the last two-and-a-half weeks I faithfully did my writing on every single weekday.

As I’ve thought things over, trying to work on my story during the weekend just doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it does for some people, but for me it doesn’t. Moving forward I accept that I will only be working on this Monday-Friday and not on holidays. That means for the month of September a “perfect” work-month would be 20 days, and that is going to be my commitment.

Before describing what I accomplished during August, I need to explain a little bit of how I craft a story. I personally like to use three levels of detail for my outlines. The first is just an extremely brief set of bullet points, one for each major arc of the story. It reads a lot like an elevator pitch.

When I have that first layer feeling just right, then I move on to the second. For that I expand each of those arcs and now detail all of their subcomponents. So in the first layer I might say the explorers make a camp out in the wild and test different crops to see which one the island can produce best. In the second layer I add that during this period Clara grows more bold, at least until she breaks her mother’s brooch and becomes weighed down with guilt…etc.

In the third layer I am detailing out all of the individual scenes that will happen. I explain who will be present, what their motivations in that moment are, and what the resolutions will be. After the third layer is complete all that remains is to start writing the actual drafts of the story.

I like this approach, but one issue with having three separate layers is keeping them in sync. Last month I shared how I had remolded the middle of my story after discovering significant structure changes that it needed. That remolding was done on the third, most detailed level, which changed it so drastically that then I could not find how to attach it back to the final act as described by layers 1 and 2.

After struggling for a little bit, I realized that for August’s work I just needed to take this structural overhaul down to layer 1, and rework the ending at that simplest level of detail. Then I percolated those changes up to layer 2, and brought it to completion as well. In August I got both of those done, and also started updating the final act of the third layer. My hope for September is to finish that update, and finally get back to the first draft of my story. I’ll let you know how it turned out one month from now!