On Structure & Chaos

I’m reserving a photography related post for later. The day after my birthday graced me with some amazing pictures of an ancient & beautiful cemetery in Washington, DC, and the two deer who took shelter there. But, as I hinted before, this post will discuss novel structures, story structures, and other manner of madness.

Once upon a time, when I was young and thought I would spend my life in the film industry, I learned all about story structure from a gentleman named Syd Field. I would start and stop novels like any other high school kid. When I did anything serious, it was in the short story format. The wisdom from my learned predecessors said, “Short stories are the way to go. You write a ton of those, get experience and recognition in the magazines, and you can go onto longer forms from there.” Shame I came into the world as short story magazines were slowly dying, and on-line magazines (along with the modern Internet) were barely in their infancy.

The art of structuring a three act film plot, creating scenes to move from plot point to plot point, was my only introduction to any form of macro scale writing. You had three acts, usually 120 minutes, to carry viewers from beginning, middle, and end. It seems a bit hackneyed and predictable, but when seconds on the screen cost as much as some folks salaries, time was literally money. And it worked. You could create an amazing story structure following this ideal. Look at Three Days of the Condor and you will see an excellent example of the three act structure at its best. Chinatown is often held as a paragon of the format and is used by Syd Field as a prime example of the art.

I started with the act structure, and the plot points upon which the acts turned. I’d then lay out the scenes between them – back then, it was done with colored index cards – to make sure every moment held some relevance to the plot or character. “Did this propel the movie forward?” And when I did sit down to write the script, the prose was as bare as one could manage. I began reading haiku at the suggestion of one screenwriting teacher. The haiku poets conveyed whole moments in 17 syllables. We had a bit more room to work, but we needed the economy. Dialog, brief descriptors, a little flare, but no fluff.

Life took me on several different detours after college. I kept writing, but the world of screenplays and watching my carefully outlined plot shattered by men who said, “Yah, we need to ditch this character stuff and get right to the sharks killing people” became a distant thought. I had bills to pay, and only a few outlets for my short stories. I worked, I tinkered with short fiction, and envied my friends who visited WorldCons and got to throw elevator pitches to favorite authors.

Then, one year I went to Gencon. There, I attended three days worth of writing seminars by an author I quite admired. He put a boot up my ass about life in the current marketplace, about writing in general, and how if I really wanted to get anywhere, I’d need to start working on a novel. The age of short stories were over. For all the time you spend writing a short story, you could have two chapters in a novel done.

This woke me up. As soon as I left, I took an idea I’d had rattling around my head and began to write out an outline. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to outline a novel. Turns out, no one else did, really. The process was so individual, so tied to each writer’s particular style, there was no golden diagram of act outlines. You can’t apply the Syd Field diagram to a book. But I tried my best. I plotted out the beginning, middle and end events for the story. I broke it into acts, figuring where my turning points would go. Instead of laying everything out in cards, I wrote up a ‘scriptment’ which is basically a treatment of the story with a few snippets of dialog here and there to catch the flavor of the moment.

Once I had the scriptment, I went in and broke it into chapters, looked for good cliffhanger points, and started to work on the novel itself. Over the course of two years, I chugged through the outline, creating my first trunk novel Elemental Metal. It went through two revisions before I sent it out to agents in the hope of garnering representation. While that gestated, I worked on the outline for the second book Running Black. The process remained the same. I collected some very polite “Thank you, but you’re not what we’re looking for” notes from a dozen and a half agents before devoting myself to the second book.

This time, though, I took a detour. I wrote up several documents on the world, often in the voice of characters there, to help me get my backgrounds straight. Only after that did I dive into the book, breaking down the outline, following it to the bitter end. Now, normally I love the bitter end – the last few grains of coffee in the bottom of a tiny cup, soaked in sugar, begging for you to dip your finger into the slurry and enjoy. But not this time.

Everything felt forced. Nothing felt organic, or alive. I was so focused on getting everyone from one point to the next, I could see the plot with too much ease. And when someone stepped out of line, they were hammered back into place. You’ve probably been in Role Playing-Games like this, where the GM won’t countenance deviation from his Hari Seldon-like plan. Mjolnir would come down and hammer you back into place, as a friend would say.

So for these two new books, I’m trying something different. I still have a beginning, middle and end. And I am still writing an outline, but only up to a certain point. Once I’m far enough ahead on the outline, I write the scenes to go with it. When I start to catch up, it’s back to the outline to plan out a little further. My characters became co-collaborators. If they changed a scene from it’s original conception, I could adjust the future scenes accordingly. They hadn’t been written, hadn’t been locked into stone. I gained a very interesting secondary character from the process. Now, it’s just a matter of seeing if I can get it all to work.

Back to the keys…