Sunday, December 25, 2016

Story: Sympathy and Significance

The integration of character with plot moves us as few things can. Here’s an example. Among three 4-D shorts at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is “Sea Monsters: A prehistoric Adventure (National Geographic, 2007). 

That genre and topic might sound irrelevant to the contemporary novel. Actually, though, the story of a young marine dinosaur named Dolly provokes acute understanding of evolution,  fossil hunting, and one prehistoric creature’s existence. The movie exploits adventure and mystery to teach science and connect with distance that’s difficult to conceive. Whether animated film or fiction, story lets humans remember, relate, perhaps even rectify. That’s the common thread between dolls, dolomite, and Don Juan, along with billions of other possibilities. All of it starts with character.

~ Character

The star of this particular story is a Dolichorhynchops from the vast inland sea of Kansas 80 million years ago. That world feels close and vital less due to 4-D (including rumbling and a bit of splashing) than a protagonist with a plight culminating in more than one happy ending.

Empathy comes from identifying with another being—human or otherwise. Fortunately, face-to-face experience evokes kindness in most primates. But from afar, when beings vastly differ in appearance, lifestyle, habitat, or time span, empathy comes harder, too often disintegrating into a sense of “Other”: “You’re not like me, so I don’t have to care.” 

That where story comes in. Once readers connect, they feel compassion, even when the species has an unfamiliar, unpronounceable name. Happily, characterization often shatters distrust of “Otherness.”

~ Plot.

Dolly’s Super-Objective, or primary goal, is surviving long enough to reproduce. Around 80 million years later, paleontologists from Kansas to Australia, from 1918 to 2002, have their own Super-Objective. What can they learn about Dolly from the fossil she has become? Like all good stories, theirs has elements of mystery, of change.

The journey of a character, whether from another world, timeframe, or continent, always involves external pressure. The interaction between environment and Super-Objective instigates plot. The secret behind all those childhood favorites (“Curious George,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “The Little Engine that Could”) is the same secret that drives novelists from Jane Austen to Zora Neale Hurston: Will this character I’ve come to care about get the job done? By the deadline?

Strong plots follow the classical pattern: The protagonist is in trouble. As Charles Baxter put it, “Hell is story friendly.” Then the protagonist must have enough perseverance, chutzpah, and skill to continue struggling even when it seems hopeless. Dolly has quite a battle with that shark. And the entire audience breathes a huge sigh of relief when she escapes with only the small wound that will solve the mystery of her life story (a fragment of shark tooth embedded in her skeleton). 
Plot and protagonist must be inseparable. Unless we care about the character, no amount of plot will matter. Unless something’s relentlessly progressing, even the best-drawn  character can’t sustain the story.

~ Theme.

It’s the reward for integrated character and plot. Depending on how you interpret theme, every story has it, even if it’s mainly that detectives must look beneath the surface to compute whodunit, or love’s better the second time around, or look before you leap.

The themes in this short film are immense. The rocks are full of stories. Fossils are stories. The stories of the dead live well beyond their material existence. And those who hunt those stories become stories themselves. 

Tip: Whatever you want to say, let your story—and only your story—say it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

How Not to Break a Bough

If you pile on too much weight, whether it’s a tree limb or a story’s spine, the structure won’t withstand the burden.

Story spine? This term from the screenplay world is equally useful to both screenwriters and novelists, explaining how story builds from the fusion between longing and action. The article “Classical Screenplay Structure,” from the Screenplayology site, defines the protagonist’s driving desire as a Super-Objective, a passion that motivates the journey from inciting incident to climax:
the Spine is the unified thread of actions taken on the part of the character in pursuit of his or her Super-Objective. Together, the Super-Objective and Spine offer the screenwriter a path of adherence to Aristotle’s prescription of plot unity.
Of course Aristotle’s three unities (time, place, and action) translate only indirectly to film and fiction. Many novels span planets, across centuries. And although a play without subplots might seem exquisitely coherent, contemporary audiences both expect and enjoy subplots. The Poetics best assists contemporary writers when applied to the spirit, rather than the letter, of its laws.

Tip: Strong story structure originates in an inextricable meshing of plot and character.

In Kate Wright’s excellent blog on “The Five S’s of Screenwriting, she clarifies that
Spine begins with discovering what your story is about through character behavior. It is about creating a unifying depth within your story, character by character, action by action, sequence by sequence, layer upon layer. The surprise is that once you discover what your story is about on a profound level, there are an infinite number of insights and details you can infuse into the material through character behavior, actions, and images. The challenge is to discover this unifying idea or principle that synthesizes what the story is about in simple terms.
Have you identified the driving force of your novel? That’s the start of its spine, a backbone both sturdy and flexible enough to support all the images and examples most novelists long to include. Solidify the fundamental structure, and you get to indulge yourself a little (though just a little!) more.

Karina Wilson’s column on “Screenwriting: The Emotional Spine” analyzes the fusion of individual units into a powerful whole:
The spine has three main functions in a vertebrate: strength, flexibility and communication. The emotional spine of a screenplay serves those same purposes. It provides strength, joining the separate elements of plot and character, and connecting the three acts. It provides flexibility, especially within characterization, allowing people to twist, to be flawed, erratic, make bad decisions and U-turns–as long as they remain connected to the spinal cord. It permits the communication of messages, particularly within subtext and meta-narrative, running deeper than dialogue, or a single character’s arc.
Each portion of that backbone must fit and contribute.  Obvious as this sounds, most writers at least occasionally get lost in word choice at the expense of the deep structure.

How to remedy that? Susan Kougell suggests literally picturing a human spine and hanging plot points on that. Some may find this a bit metaphorical. The idea, though, is to fashion  a spine sturdy enough to support all the characters, details, and description. No vertebrae can be weak or absent. The story shouldn’t stoop over or suffer from osteoporosis, a pitiful core, or a flabby middle.

For many of us, weighing down the offshoots comes more easily and feels more fun. But that makes for a misshapen tree or novel. Build a mighty trunk, capable of supporting a blizzard of snow—or words. It’s all about the spine.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Seeing the Stories in the Stars

Some of the earliest storytellers looked up at those distant pinpoints of light and both identified and created patterns—which is the beginning of storytelling.  Using this pattern-finding ability, various societies detected not just three stars, but a shepherd, a messenger to the gods, a foreshadowing of winter,  the three Wise Men, a symbol of yahweh’s power, a swordsman, a hunter.

That’s an awful lot of stories, gleaned from all over our planet, evoked by random stars that barely represent any pattern at all. But this isn’t surprising because, according to  Michael Shermer, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” 

We invent stories to entertain, explain the inexplicable, cement social cohesiveness, cope with adversity, and even defy death. “The patterns we perceive,” John Verndon says, “are determined by the stories we want to believe.”  So as a novelist, you want to reveal a pattern that illustrates whatever you’d like readers to notice, consider, or even do.

~ Plot.

This, of course, is the fundamental use of a pattern to convey beliefs. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the pattern takes the shape of a journey down the river, one beginning with total naivety on the boy’s part, ending with a glimmer of understanding that slaves are not property or “Other”—but fellow humans, and being “sivilized,” as Huck puts it, isn’t just confining. It’s down right dangerous. 

This sort of episodic story structure is out of favor these days. But the strategy of transforming random events into a  coherent pattern is certainly not. Most novels, contemporary or otherwise, use pattern to reveal a different way to see the world. 

~ Imagery.

Patterns shape Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is a distant beacon symbolizing different things to different characters, but to them all, it’s out of reach, even when you get there. How you think about the lighthouse controls what you’re able to do, as Lily discovers when she’s finally able to complete her painting. 

Novelists have always used imagery to compare and contrast characters in terms of moral or aesthetic values. Images not only cement theme but bind disjointed events and details into a coherent whole. Recurring patterns can unite an encyclopedia range of illustrations and tangents, as Jonathan Franzen does in The Corrections or Chad Harbach in The Art of Fielding

~ Causality and morality.

Perhaps it seems a little dated to have all the good guys win and the all the bad ones wind up behind bars. Yet The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (Kim Edwards) reminds us to be careful what—or whom—we discard. Writers like Shauna Singh Baldwin, Kiran Desai, Chitra Divakaruni, Chang-Rae Lee, and Colson Whitehead remind us, much like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, that treating others intolerantly yields intolerable cruelty.

The novel remains a moral instrument because a passion for justice underlies the human storytelling drive. Always has. If fiction is as random as reality, or as cruel as the underdog losing and tyranny triumphing, how can the novel achieve its ultimate purpose? The novel remains a source of hope when the world outside the book’s pages seems mighty hopeless.

But that hope must be earned. If heroes win simply because they're lucky, fiction merely replicates the world readers seek to escape by reading about heroes?  Most novels trace just causality. Be brave, oppose immorality, capitalize on resources you never knew you had and you can right wrongs, acquire human or divine salvation. Repair the broken world. 

Fiction satisfies us most when looking back on the one we just finished, we detect a subtle pattern. The journey involved maturation from obvious mistakes to misfortune to finally achieving happiness and victory due to better, wiser, more generous choices. Novels serve the same purpose as constellations. It’s not just dark and distant out there. Orion looks down on us.

Tip: Stories do their work by revealing hidden patterns.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Taste the Sauce

The best cooks know that a recipe is only the start. Unless you check the final blend of flavors, how will you know if that “pinch” of salt is heavy-handed or lightweight? What if the vinegar is less tangy than bitter, or the flavor of the pepper flimsy or fiery? 

Great cooking is an art. So is great writing. Every novelist can acquire hundreds of recipes for plot, dialogue, characterization—all the way down to the structure of the sentence. But don’t stop there.  

Tip: Recipes are an indispensable starting point, but you still have to adjust the seasoning.

Even the finest, most tried-and-true recipes won’t achieve the following without your personal touch:

~ Plot that feels organic.

Hundreds of plot recipes exist, everything from the Aristotelian arc, to John Truby's 7 Key Steps, to Jack M. Bickham’s Scene and Sequel, to Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. You can structure plot using templates, sequences, caves, psychological baggage, and pressure or plot points. The terminology differs. But all of these trace the movement from terrible trouble to some sort of climax, usually involving a happy ending, usually produced by the protagonist’s own choices and actions. 

You can construct a solid foundation using any one or any combination of these plotting options. In the end, though, a completely credible plot can emerge only from a completely causal one, where every choice inevitably results in the next outcome, right up to the end. 

Without that? It all feels at least slightly contrived. It’s not entirely believable, and not at all organic. You’re not done until you apply the taste test.

~ Dialogue that propels.

Consider all those dialogue “rules.” Never go too long without some dialogue breaking up the narrative; gradually build every exchange to a climax; insert speaker attribution or stage business every ____ number of lines, and so on.

But doesn’t every single dialogue exchange differ from every other? You can’t plan in advance when or how long characters will speak. Adhere too closely to any recipe or formula, and your dialogue won’t reflect character struggle authentically.

The best dialogue advice is fairly general. Sol Stein reminds of the need to give each character “a different script.” That will always summon a genuine exchange, as will this advice from Robert McKee:
Learn to judge you dialogue by listening past the words and sensing the harmony or disharmony between cause and effect. Dialogue rings true when a character’s verbal actions resonate with his motivation, when his inner desires and outer tactics seem to complement each other.
~ Characters that breathe.

Whether Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, or Toni Morrison’s Sula, no single technique evokes emotion in every reader. The further you stray from prescriptive methods that tend to oversimplify, then the happier your readers will be. 

For example, Dara Marks is absolutely right that the past controls us. Her title, “The Fatal Flaw - The Most Essential Element for Bringing Characters to Life,” offers an excellent recipe. Yet it’s neither the ultimate one, nor the only route to creating character arc. The observation by Heraclitus that “Character is fate” is another recipe, but again, one among the many, many ways to develop complex character and plot. You’re not done until, like a great chef, you add the personal touch.

Want to cook up a great novel? Read a lot of writing recipes. Familiarize yourself with those suitable to you, and you’ll make the place where you create a comfortable and stimulating hangout. 

But not everyone enjoys the same dinner. Or novel. As you put the finishing touches on an offering that’s entirely your own, picture whom you’re serving. That’s the way to perfect the seasoning.