The Structure Game

A story is a story is a story. The medium tends to make no difference when looking at narrative structure. I often find myself noting plot points that signal the progress of the story’s structure when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie. Act 1 shouldn’t be long but set-up the goal the main character wants to achieve. Act 2 does its best with ever-increasing obstacles and conflicts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal. And then when all looks lost at the end of Act 2, the main character works out something that points the way to the climax in Act 3 when he or she achieves the goal or not.  Have you ever played the structure game while watching a movie?

Last evening I was watching a suspenseful action movie entitled Unstoppable. A half-mile long train gets away from an engineer when he leaves its cab to change a switch that would have diverted the train off the main line.  The train’s locomotive pulls freight cars, some carrying a toxic chemical, some carrying diesel fuel, and others carrying non-toxic materials. Because the engineer was moving the train off the main line, he failed to connect the train’s air brake system which would have stopped the train automatically.  So, the train barrels down the main railroad line in Pennsylvania, heading for a highly populated area. One railroad manager called it a “missile.” This was the set-up for the action in this story, commonly called act 1. The train plays the villain. As soon as the train gets loose and the railroad people realize the danger it poses — the “revelation” — the viewer understands that the goal for all these people is to stop the train.  But how?

Who are the heroes?  I use the plural form because there are more than one in this movie. We meet them all in act 1 also, their character introductions juxtaposed with the train.  A railroad manager named Connie who coordinates the action from a command center.  A veteran engineer named Frank who’s a bit irritated to be breaking in a new conductor named Will. And then there’s Ned who ends up being a wild catalyst for the climax of this story — he also works for the railroad, but I cannot remember now what his official title was.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

In the second act, these four characters have to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the railroad’s upper management who are only thinking about how much money the railroad could lose, as well as actual physical obstacles like distance, speed, and the unmanned villainous train. They must deal with conflicts of ideas among themselves, conflicts of personalities, and the inevitable conflicts with law enforcement and politicians and the media (who always seem to get in the way in this type of story). I’m not going to describe anything specific here because I don’t want to ruin this really fun story — I recommend the movie.  Suffice it to say that at one point I realized I was shaking I was so tense, and I had to get up and walk around while I watched. I genuinely admire movie stories that are unpredictable, i.e. there’s no way to know what will happen next. This was definitely one of those stories.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

The beginning of act 3 shows the characters in desperation and despair. Will they be able to stop the train? Will they survive the ordeal? People have already lost their lives because of this runaway train. Desperation breeds desperate actions, and I was quite pleased that in this movie, the desperate actions made sense. They were all extremely dangerous and breath-taking, too. I really wasn’t sure at all that these four characters would accomplish their goal at the end. And that’s what the climax is all about: answering the question does the protagonist achieve the goal or no? It’s not that rare for a protagonist not to achieve a goal, but perhaps he or she grows in some way as a result of seeking to achieve the goal. What writers want to accomplish at the end is an ending that is satisfying to the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer.

Unstoppable (2010) entertained me immensely and I’m not even that interested in trains.  But part of the entertainment for me was noting the plot points that signaled the narrative structure and its progress.  The next time you’re watching a movie, see if you can play the structure game.

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Grammar Matters

This morning, I began reading the October 2017 issue of The Writer. October already! One of the articles concerned the verb to be and how it weakens prose. Have you ever gone through a piece of writing specifically to root out all the to be forms and substitute action verbs instead? The author of the article (“Not to be”), Gail Radley, suggests using the find function in your word processing software to find and replace all forms of to be.  I like to print out what I’ve written and circle all the to be forms in red first, then work sentence by sentence to find the best replacement verbs. Radley shows in the article how often the to be form is near the verb that needs to replace it and she provides examples. An excellent article.

This article sparked thoughts about grammar in general. If you don’t think grammar is important to your prose, consider this. I occasionally agree to review novels when asked at GoodReads or elsewhere although I’m not a professional book reviewer. I’m usually happy to help out fellow writers and enjoy reading their work.  But there have been two times when I’ve agreed to review a novel but decided once I began reading that I could not write the review.  Why? Because the novel had been so poorly edited and contained so many grammar issues that the prose was nearly impossible to read. For both of these writers, I sent private e-mails with my assessment and that I would not review their books publicly.

Grammar exists not only to organize words but also to insure that the words make sense when put together. For professional writers, no reason exists in this world to justify not insuring that the grammar in their writing isn’t the best. Do you want readers to understand what you’re writing? Do you want readers to read your writing easily and with enjoyment? Do a close edit for grammar issues, whether you’re working on a novel or shorter piece.  If you feel rusty or unsure of your grammar usage, invest in a good usage manual like The Chicago Manual of Style and a grammar guide like Barron’s A Pocket Guide to Correct Grammar. Enough grammar reference books exist in libraries and bookstores that there is no excuse for a professional writer to not write grammatically correct prose.

We have editors – copy editors –  to help us in the later stages of completing a piece, of course. If you don’t feel confident in your grammar, a good copy editor is worth the cost, i.e. a professional copy editor who knows English grammar and usage. If you want your writing to be the best it can be, the clearest and easiest to read, then you have to put in the work and effort to accomplish that goal.

I will continue to review books, and accept the occasional request to review at GoodReads or post my review at Amazon or B&N.  If you self-publish, please be sure to hire a good copy editor before publishing your book.  It makes the reading and review process that much more enjoyable to me and all book reviewers.

Writing Update

To be honest, I was thinking of skipping writing a post here this week in order to work more on “Aanora” today, but then I decided to write a short update on where I am with all my writing now that I’ve become accustomed to my fulltime work schedule during the week. Actual writing at the computer (or handwritten) occurs on the weekends. Thinking and imagining occurs all the time, even when I’m at the day job. During this past week, my printer at home began sending me error messages that the ink pads were almost full which for my particular model apparently means that I need a new printer. Too bad.  I love this printer. It has served me well for the last four years. So this means that until I get the new printer, I won’t be printing out much of what I’m writing.  I usually print out a draft and do revision work by hand rather than on the computer. This could also be a motivation to hurry up and buy the new printer.

“Light the Way,” the sci fi short story whose first draft I finally finished this summer is still fermenting. I think I printed out the first draft at the time I finished it, so I could do some revision work if I get stalled on the “Aanora” story.

Clipped a nice story from the newspaper this morning about Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the settings in Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the Perceval series. I’ve discovered that Google Maps can be especially helpful in researching locations also. I’m almost to the point with this novel where I no longer feel daunted by it. Revision work could start at any time.

What has been preoccupying my mind (and imagination) though is the “Aanora” story. Yesterday I worked more on the rough outline in order to work on the second act, i.e. the Conflict/Obstacle Act. I want the conflicts and obstacles to evolve organically out of the characters (what I want with every story), so it’s been necessary to think more about who the villain is. Now I know who the villain is and what he wants, but he’s not the only obstacle in the way of the main character achieving what he wants. I realized yesterday that the main character is probably his own biggest obstacle. So this could be a challenge. I understand now that Aanora is so important because she will help the main character overcome himself. Not quite sure how that will happen yet.  I also have the climax sequence in my head but haven’t yet written it.

Working on “Aanora” has been a weird experience for me. Instead of the story unfolding through a main character scene by scene, I’ve had scenes from different parts of the story come to me.  It feels a little like my imagination has thrown a bowl of spaghetti at the wall of my mind to see how much of it will stick to it. I’m frantically trying to save all the strands to see where they fit later. Fortunately, the characters continue to intrigue me and I’m enjoying spending time with them as well.

I do miss my fulltime writing life…..

Top Ten Posts of All Time on Anatomy of Perceval

Recently, WordPress sent me a happy anniversary e-mail, reminding me that I’ve been a member of WordPress for ten years. Ten years!! How time flies, eh? I remember that I joined WordPress with a great deal of trepidation. I had no idea how to write a blog, but I wanted to establish my authorial presence and write about the experience of being a writer. So, being nervous made me delay actual writing of any posts. It would be a good month before I actually posted anything on September 18, 2007. I continued to work on the pages, also.

I’m especially pleased to have 2,672 followers as of today!  Thank you for following!  I hope in the next year to increase that number.

Over the years, I’ve tried to keep the Table of Contents up to date with only middling success. I’ve also changed some of the pages, added pages, deleted other pages. This blog has been organic in its development. It is still evolving. Recently, I realized it was time to update the Table of Contents and make copies of all the posts from 2015 and 2016. I know this will take some time, so please bear with me. The Table of Contents page will be updated eventually!

So, this September 18th marks the 10th birthday for Anatomy of Perceval. I’d like to celebrate by listing the Anatomy of Perceval top 10 posts and pages of all time here. I began this blog to write about the experience of writing, yes, and specifically writing a novel series, my Perceval series. It’s interesting that most of the popular blog posts I’ve written are more general. This list does not include the Home page/Archives which received 21,037 views or the About page which received 1,127 views.

Here are the Top 10:

What Does Title of Publication Mean?  on March 5, 2011

Writing a Blog: Is it a Publication Credit? on June 19, 2010

Facing the Blank Page on September 1, 2012 – this post was “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress’ main page

To “Maestro” or not to “Maestro”   on May 31, 2008 

What does “commercial success” mean to you? on May 17, 2014

WRITING: Vocation or Avocation? on April 12, 2008

Choosing and Using Pens on February 4, 2012

Screenplay vs. Novel on July 20, 2013

“Seven Pounds” or About Character Motivation on June 27, 2009

What Does Publication Mean? on August 15, 2009

 

And here are the ten runners-up:

Creating Character: Lisbeth Salander on October 23, 2010

How Does a Composer Know What to Write? on November 6, 2010

Does Height Make the Conductor? on February 29, 2008

Job Description: Creative Writer on February 26, 2011

Music Humor, or Music that makes me laugh on March 10, 2012

EVAN QUINN – this is the page about Evan, the main character of my Perceval series

Politics in 2048 — An American Dystopia? on June 14, 2008

Reading as a Writer: Lisbeth Salander Again! on July 24, 2010

Sticks and Drones: Conductor Blog on September 13, 2008 – the conductor blog I wrote about here no longer exists, unfortunately. I think the conductors have left up the content they’d written, however.

Heroes or Wimps? on June 2, 2012

Figuring out the questions

Every writer’s creative process differs from every other writer’s. It took me a long time to understand mine, to leave it alone, and let it do its thing. For the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aanora, trying to figure out how best to open to her and her story. Like every other part of the creative process, this part should not — cannot — be pushed.

One thing that always bothers me with the appearance of a new character is figuring out what her or his driving desire is in the story. Once I know that, more questions emerge, and the biggest is what happens now? A wise screenwriting teacher once said that after determining what the main character wants, then it’s time to ask just what that character will do to get it. This gives the writer an idea of the moral make-up of that character, if he’s passive or active, and how he approaches problems. But the question that comes next is where I’m struggling now: what are the obstacles/conflicts that the character must overcome in order to get what she wants?

As I began thinking about that, I had a shocking thought: Aanora was not the main character of the story! Oh, no. This was weird. Who was she, then? And who was the main character?

 

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole At NASA APOD)

I suppose this revelation that Aanora wasn’t the main character could have totally derailed me and my thinking, but I just kept asking questions of my imagination and waited.  I do a lot of waiting during the early stages of developing a story. Sometimes I’ll work on something else, like blog posts or book reviews, or I’ll start doing what I sense could be related to the new story in terms of research.  Since this story seems to be heading into outer space rather than staying on earth, I’ve begun researching the Milky Way Galaxy. It boggles my mind how gigantic our galaxy is, and it’s only one in a universe full of galaxies. And I’ve also begun thinking about Aanora’s original home, her backstory.

Eventually, some answers bubbled out of my imagination. Aanora was a pivotal character, a VIC (very important character), and crucial to the story and that’s apparently why she appeared in my mind first.  She is also apparently crucial to the success of the captain and crew of the space ship that finds her. I know now that they had been sent to find her, to ask for her help in a diplomatic mission. So now I have more and more questions! Where is the space ship from? Who are the beings on the ship? Who is the captain and his crew? Are they peaceful? Warlike? Well, if they are seeking Aanora for diplomatic reasons, perhaps they are also diplomats? What is the diplomatic mission? Who does it involve? Am I going to be creating sentient aliens? In this dimension or Aanora’s? Oh, and by the way, who is the main character of this story?!

Writing an outer space story makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s new for me now — when I was in elementary school I wrote maybe ten or eleven outer space sci fi stories that my teacher read aloud to the class.  I really haven’t written anything with an outer space setting since. Two things I began yesterday when I was working on this story: 1) a Notes document that contains all my questions, and then the answers when they come to me; and 2) the beginning of a very rough outline which is to say a list of plot points.

I’ve never really written about my creative process in this way before — laying it out for the world to see. I’m very curious to see if it will help or hurt my process. It could supplement my Notes file, although I do welcome comments! And I’m hoping that this process with this new story will actually ease me back into work on the Perceval novels eventually.