A Structured Story

I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.

The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.

Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.

One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.

Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.

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Episodes

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be part of the Beans Podcast, run by three friends and updated twice a week. I appeared as one of two guests to speak on a subject of our choosing and to join in the general banter. Released on Christmas Day, the episode is available here.

But the main thrust of today’s entry is to talk about Star Wars. [Reader’s voice: On a writing blog?] Indeed, on a writing blog.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace villag...
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace village nearby Nafta, Tunisia in Tunisia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hadn’t previously been interested in the series; I’d only seen Episode I: The Phantom Menace on its release while trying to impress a girl. But 1½ weeks ago, I decided it was time to watch Episodes I to VII in the order of release then Episode VIII: The Last Jedi at the cinema, which came as a shock to some friends.

It’s a huge time investment to watch eight films at around 2¼ hours each, and you risk letting your concentration wander, thus missing a vital plot point. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve now become really rather immersed in the universe. From reading articles online, it seems I’m more or less up to speed with the action so far, and I’m understanding a lot of the jokes and references. The next stop will be to watch some of the official spin-offs.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Star Wars, it won’t be news to you that the plot of each one follows a formula. Yet you might be surprised to find out that almost every mainstream film follows a similar formula. On his website, Michael Hague discusses the six turning points of all successful screenplays, using Erin Brockovich and Gladiator for reference.

The word ‘formulaic’ is often used negatively as a synonym for ‘predictable’. Predictability often stems from weak plot twists. A formula, by contrast, helps the screenwriter to keep the attention of the audience as the characters’ difficulties become worse and worse.  Note that a happy ending isn’t necessary, merely a satisfying resolution of the preceding story; I refer you to A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Buried (2010).

Next time you’re at the pictures, look out for the structure. A good writer will make the turning points natural and the formula invisible, but these elements will almost certainly be present.

Further To…

As National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, I thought I might have run out of steam by now.

English: NWP teachers at work.
English: NWP teachers at work. This photo has little relation to the entry; I just like the guy’s hat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the contrary, I hit a turning point in my novel on Saturday, a remarkable 25 days into the contest. I now have a new structure that I’m pleased with, and I’m more excited than ever to commit it to paper. The downside is that the new structure incorporates little of the material I’ve already written, so what I have now is effectively a 40,000-word collection of character sketches.

It therefore looks like I’ll be continuing this project during December as I don’t want to let the momentum trail off.

What I actually planned to do in December was to turn a certain public-domain novel into a screenplay; as far as I can tell, nobody has done it before with this book. It’s waited more than one-and-a-third centuries, though, so a few more months of delay won’t make much difference.

Finally, you might remember I made an entry regarding my experience of understanding the Scots and Dundee dialects; it was called Fluent in 1½ Languages. Since then, some brainbox at the University of Abertay has shown that understanding the Dundee dialect is as good as knowing a second language.

Double Deckard

In one of my writing groups, it’s almost a running joke that I’ve never seen many popular films that the other members have. So when a friend mentioned that she wanted to see Blade Runner 2049, I decided to do it properly.

English: Oscar Pistorius during 2011 World cha...
Oops, wrong blade runner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A week ago on Saturday, I started an intensive weekend of reading the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. I followed this up with the original Blade Runner on the Sunday night; then on Monday, the three official short films that tie in with the story; and on Tuesday, I finally watched 2049.

Was the preparation worth it? A decisive yes, as I was then familiar with the universe, but the first film is a different beast from its source material.

The novel has elements that are shuffled or omitted in Blade Runner: replicants are called androids, there’s prestige in owning a real animal, and Rick Deckard is married. In fact, the only near-verbatim scene was Rachel’s empathy test. Despite the changes, however, Dick was reportedly satisfied with the end product.

Which brings me to the latest instalment. I like that a similar period of time has elapsed in the fictional universe as in real life, especially as the first film has had time to build up a cult following.

But 2049 also focuses slightly less on action and takes a more philosophical tone, mirroring the book; this is made possible with a running time of more than 2½ hours. I think there’s still a glaring gap for someone to write an adaptation that’s more faithful to the novel.

At the risk of turning into a name dropper, I once had the opportunity to ask Irvine Welsh how he feels about his books being made into films; Trainspotting, The Acid House, et al. He replied that he accepts the differences between the two media and that however the film turns out, “It never hurts book sales.”

Outside The Box

Regular readers will be aware that this blog covers all types of writing from short stories and poetry to screenplays and rap music. I believe there’s a lot we can learn from all these forms. Even watching Made in Chelsea is a great lesson in improv.

However, on moving into a new place last month, I took the decision not to own a TV. This was something I’d considered for a long time as I would either rarely watch it, or it would become a distraction when I could be doing something productive. Either way, it would more than counteract the benefits of having one.

The other factor swaying my decision is the matter of the TV licence. In the UK, you need to pay an annual fee if you have equipment that receives television broadcasts, if you watch live TV online, or if you use BBC iPlayer for any purpose. The money goes towards funding the BBC and there are heavy fines if you aren’t correctly licensed.

While it’s a difficult field to police, that’s enough of a disincentive for me not to have a telly. If there’s something I really want to see, I have other options. You can watch DVDs or most catch-up services without a licence, and you can also own a radio without charge. Even better, I’m fortunate enough to be within easy reach of two cinemas: one mainstream, the other independent.

With not having a TV, it’s an obvious question to ask what I have in its place. The answer:

 

Readjusting My Reading Ratio

Over the last few weeks, I’ve devoted a lot of time to writing my MLitt dissertation. I’m pleased to report I submitted it on Wednesday, two days before the deadline. Yet I’ve also found I’ve been reading more than I have for months.

The dissertation totalled more than 17,000 words, so rather than edit on a screen, I printed the full document for analysis. I like to leave some time between making one set of corrections and the next, and since I’d cleared my writing diary to work on the piece, I would read a book to fill the gap. This was especially true when I spent a couple of days in rural Aberfeldy with patchy Internet access. I tackled the following works:

  • Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Morning Breaks in the Elevator by Lemn Sissay
  • Tonguit by Harry Giles

I can recommend all these books. When I’m writing my blog posts, Zemanta generates a list of related articles, and it seems Barack Obama has also been reading The Girl on the Train.

Reading is, of course, a vital part of becoming a better writer, and as I begin the next on my list – Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse – I wonder about the optimum ratio of writing to reading that an author should achieve. Is 75% writing to 25% reading an ideal proportion? Perhaps half-and-half would be better? Could an argument be made for reading more than you write?

Let’s factor in other forms of storytelling. Yesternight, for instance, I watched In Time, set in a future where time has become currency. The film benefits from some terrific writing that shows most of the workings of the fictional universe through dialogue and camerawork without a narrator having to explain the rules. So could some of my reading time be devoted to looking at screenplays?

I know I haven’t answered these questions for myself; whenever I do something else, I feel as though I need to be productive. And yet without outside experiences and influences, a writer is at risk of covering the same topics from the same perspective time and again.

One of my aims on the MLitt course was to create a diverse portfolio of work. I succeeded, but in the creative part of the dissertation, this diversity caused difficulty in making the pieces flow by theme. Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream is in a diary format, and was a way of bringing together my different styles of work.

I’ve also spent much of August at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. One place I went was The Janice Forsyth Show, recorded as-live in front of an audience for later transmission on BBC Radio Scotland. While I was there, I realised it might be possible to adapt my dissertation piece for the stage, so I’ve acted on the impulse, and I have a meeting with a playwright tomorrow to discuss the possibilities.

If I hadn’t taken that time out of my writing to visit Edinburgh, I might still be questioning what to do next with the piece. And should I come up with a definitive answer about the optimum writing-to-reading ratio, you’ll be the first to know.

Character reference.

As a writer, I often think I should denounce television and sell my set. I could easily live without watching the box again, and use the time to read stories and work on my own novels.

But on the other hand, I’ve now watched every episode of Fargo season one, and Inspector Montalbano and The Young Montalbano – collectively cited hereafter as Montalbano . In their individual ways, these programmes can teach a writer some valuable skills.

In Fargo, we have distinctive characters. Lorne Malvo, the controlled and self-assured lone wolf who often speaks in allegory. His demeanour directly contrasts with the nervous and uncertain Lester Nygaard who constantly stumbles over his speech. They’re being pursued by the two police chiefs in Bemidji and Duluth, who believe they’re superior both in rank and intellect.

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s therefore difficult to mistake one character for another. As such, each earns his or her place in the story. Incidentally, I found it impossible to unravel the formula behind the Fargo screenplay.

Montalbano also has well-drawn characters, but its formula is more obvious when you watch a number of episodes in succession. At the start, the inspector will probably be woken by a phone call; halfway through, a Mafia connection might be made; at the end, it’s likely the suspect will confess then commit suicide. There are a dozen additional common plot points.

This description makes the show sound formulaic, and it is, but formulae exist because audiences react well to them. The writer’s job is to work with the formula in such a way that the structure becomes nearly invisible. In the case of Montalbano it took a good few episodes to see the commonalities. I haven’t read the Andrea Camilleri source novels, but I expect they’re similar.

While we’re here, let’s take a moment to look at so-called reality shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex or The Hills. There is still a formula at work, but the writers approach it in a different way. It’s a technique that was shown to me by a drama teacher long before either of these shows were made.

Instead of a word-for-word script, the cast are told what the scene will be. Each actor is then given a card with his or her individual motivation that the others don’t know, and any information that needs to be dropped into the conversation. This produces dialogue that’s much closer to natural speech than a traditional script, especially if there’s an argument in the scene. The structure for the complete programme is still under the control of the writers.

From these TV programmes, we have masterclasses in structure and character. These are two considerations that have helped me redraft one of my novels that simply wasn’t working.

The first thing I did was to cull some characters. The protagonist worked with five people, and now works with three; his partner’s sister was only there to look at the protagonist disapprovingly, so she’s now been cut out.

Secondly, the structure simply wasn’t working, particularly towards the end. As it’s an adventure story, I looked up possible structures and found one called the Monomyth, a more detailed version of the three-act structure. By following this and using my own variations as the plot demanded, I now have a structure I’m happy with.