This is the last of three posts that cover my current thinking on narrative structure. I don’t claim to be an expert, and this is more for my benefit than it is for anyone else’s I guess, but it’s the combination of maybe five or six books on the matter as well as countless balls-ups and rewrites, and as such it might prove useful.
First, watch Sam Raimi’s wonderful thriller A Simple Plan, and pause at 1:15:00.
So here we are at gate 2. I like the way Donald Maass discusses crisis. Here’s what he says in Writing 21st Century Fiction: “Let your main character fail. Exhaust every option, block every path, alienate every ally, and defeat your protagonist in fact and in spirit.” It’s pretty raw, but that’s Maass all over; he’s the supreme raise-the-stakes-even-higher! guy.
Blake Synder is equally as forceful. He encourages us to present, “…total defeat. All aspects of the hero’s life are a shambles. Wreckage abounds. No hope.” Synder goes on to say – in movie terms – that the following 5 seconds to five minutes of film should dwell on this disaster in a sort of ‘dark night of the soul,’ before our protagonist makes an irreversible decision that moves them into act three. (Often the nature of this decision is kept from the reader. Dialogue is missed out in this manner; “So I told him what I was going to do. I laid it out in every detail. When I’d finished, he looked up, blinked and said, “You’re crazy. It’ll never work.””)
In A Simple Plan, the FBI show up. At least it looks that way; Raimi raises the stakes by questioning the identity of the new character. And we end up where we started – in a snow-choked woodland clearing where our final tragedy plays out.
Do we need the scene at the fireplace? I’m not sure. The Of Mice and Men bit strikes me as the most fitting conclusion, right? Do we need the crime-doesn’t-pay moralising? I thought we covered that during the inciting incident in act one when Hank says, “You work for the American Dream. You don’t steal it.”
Nevertheless, a great movie, a superb story, and an object lesson in structure.
Seven books I own - and would recommend - on story structure:
Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel
Donald Masss Writing 21st Century Fiction
James Scott Bell Plot and Structure
Blake Snyder Save the Cat!
Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction
Ronald B Tobias 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them
Christopher Vogler The Writer’s Journey
John Yorke Into The Woods
This is the middle of three posts that pretty much cover my current thinking on narrative structure. I don’t claim to be an expert – I challenge anyone to screw up the middle of a story quite as well as I can – and this stuff isn’t new. Nevertheless, it’s the combination of maybe five or six books on the matter as well as countless balls-ups and rewrites, and as such, I might a least save you a bit of time.
You'll need a copy of Sam Raimi's movie A Simple Plan.
OK. Part Two. Once you’re through gate 1, there’s no turning back, remember. Usually this gate is psychological. It is in A Simple Plan; it’s murder and the associated guilt that comes with it.
Philip Larkin once quipped that most stories have three things; a beginning, a muddle and an end. He’s got a point. Act two is hard. I started to get better at this when I listened to Writing Excuses, which is a really useful podcast on the craft of storytelling. Hosts Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal use the word escalation to discuss act two. “Act two is a series of try-fail cycles…” they say; the protagonists try but fail to achieve their goal, and with each attempt and failure, the stakes are further escalated. (See also the ‘Yes-But, No-And’ model for further details on try-fail cycles.)
If you’re up for it, stick A Simple Plan on again kicking off, remember, at gate 1 which is 33:00. Spoilers coming up. There are at least six degrees of escalation in Raimi’s act two. I’m doing this from memory, folks, but my seven go something like this:
You’re looking for a point of complete crisis next. It must be three or four times the enormity of the gate 1 crisis, and must be followed by gate 2 – another turnstile, this time a decision, choice or action which makes the remainder of the story inevitable.
The crisis is easy here – it comes at about 1:15:00. Gate 2 - in my opinion - is the arrival of a character. I'll finish up tomorrow in the next post.
The next three posts exist because of a twitter-chat I was having with @eugene_lambert, (author of the upcoming The Sign of One) and a class I taught on story shape. They pretty much cover my current thinking on narrative structure. I don’t claim to be an expert – I challenge anyone to screw up the middle of a story quite as well as I can – and this stuff isn’t new. Nevertheless, it’s the combination of maybe five or six books on the matter as well as my countless balls-ups and rewrites, and as such, I might a least save you a bit of time.
Oh, and remember – diagrams like this only represent the story as it happens, not necessarily the story as it's told. There’s a difference, and that took me literally years to figure out. I detest myself sometimes…
Anyway. If you want to play along, folks, you’ll need a copy of Sam Raimi’s movie adaptation of Scott B Smith’s A Simple Plan, available at all good retailers and streaming services. It works because of a unity of place, a small cast of characters, and a relatively straightforward plot in which the story as it happens is the story as its told.
Go on, people. Just watch the first 33 minutes then pause; there are spoilers ahead.
Before you watch the rest, speculate as to how act two – with its six degrees of escalation – will work. List all the stuff that’s been left unresolved, all the problems that have been set up to unravel.
Then read the next post.
I’ve just finished an obscure Stephen King novel – if there can possibly be such a thing – called The Colorado Kid. It was published in 2005 with Hard Case Crime, a publishing house who deliver a fine line in pulp covers with gaudy lettering. It looks brilliant. Eight years later, King returned to Hard Case Crime with Joyland, a carney mystery sporting a vivid pulp cover with gaudy lettering that looks brilliant. The two stories have become entangled in my head somewhat.
What King does so well is the old-timers-shootin’-the-breeze narrative. Invariably the story will work as a flashback and be told from the perspective of a wise, insightful, even-handed octogenarian. Or two, in the case of The Colorado Kid. They’ll make comments about the incomplete nature of the narrative, wry observations about the impossibility of reconciling the messiness of life with the neatness of fiction, dish out some homespun life lessons. Often the audience is the reader, sometimes King throws a youngster as a stand-in. In the latter case, at some point in the narrative a third party will pitch up with some sandwiches and cold cokes. There’ll be a patch of late August sun too, so no-one gets uncomfortable. They’ll all sit in the warmth and yarn. I love it.
Recently I was doing a class about flashback, using film as illustration. We started with Luhrmann’s Gatsby and discussed Carraway’s voice-over from the sanitorium particularly the line, “Back then, we all drank too much…” which became a productive prompt for a flashback story. Then we visited Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café so we could see what happened when parallel narratives were established. It was good. Well, I enjoyed it.
There are a whole bunch of flashback techniques other than King’s, it turns out. Some are illustrations; a suspect’s response to a detective during an interview might become a compact flashback narrative. There are fractured flashbacks that come a piece at a time, building slowly to a whole, used particularly when a traumatic and suppressed memory is gradually returning. There are regret flashbacks; accounts of crucial errors. (I use these in Lifers.) There are flashbacks that occur from the mid-point of the story that effectively foreshadow what’s to come. Loads of ways to do it, folks.
Mostly though, I’ve been enjoying King’s old-timers-shootin’-the-breeze thing. Many of King’s stories may be dark, supernatural, disturbing, but when they are framed in a way that distances the content from us somehow, they’re made safe like diffused bombs. We can hold our breath and chew our fingernails as the narrative unfurls, but deep down we know we’re eating sandwiches, sipping cokes, and listening wise, insightful, even-handed octogenarians.
There’s no better way to spend a sunny afternoon than that.