Files I Work With
A week from now is the official launch of Shawn’s terrific and much-anticipated new book, The Story Grid. I’m gonna use today’s post to describe one way that I employ Shawn’s principles when I work.
Right now I’m on the sixth draft of a fiction project. (In other words, NOT the first draft, which goes by completely different rules.) When I start to work each morning I open onscreen five files:
1. The actual draft I’m working on.
2. A file I call Scene By Scene.
3. Culls (meaning everything I’ve cut).
4. A file I call MissingMissingMissing.
5. Conventions of the Genre.
I’ll go into these files in detail in subsequent posts, but let’s talk about #5 now because it comes straight out of The Story Grid.
One of Shawn’s inviolable principles (with which I agree completely) is
The Writer Must Know the Genre She’s Working In—and Must Adhere to its Conventions.
Okay. What does that mean for me as I’m working? The genre I’m working in is the Detective Story. So …
In File #5 above, I have written out my own version of the conventions of a detective story. (I’ll include this document at the end of this post, but don’t quote me on it; it’s just my own demented version.)
I’ll keep this file top-of-mind throughout the drafting process. I’ll refer to it all the time. I’ll tweak it. I’ll add stuff as I think of it, etc.
How did I arrive at this list of conventions? As far as I know, there’s no reference work. So I just looked at a bunch of detective stories (Chinatown, The Big Lebowski, Blade Runner, The Maltese Falcon) and made my own list.
Shawn goes into great detail about genre in The Story Grid. He believes it’s so important that he named his own management company Genre Management. He talks about internal genres and external genres, all kinds of deep stuff.
It’s key to keep in mind, I’ve found, that you and I in our stories are probably working simultaneously in multiple genres. We’ve probably got a Love Story mixed in with our Historical Fiction or Sci-Fi, possibly a Coming Of Age Story, and so forth. We’re gonna have to keep track of all of ’em, but for now let’s stick with only the Detective Story as an example.
How do I use this list of conventions?
I make it my bible.
For example, in every detective story there’s at least one scene—i.e., a convention—where the private eye (even if he’s “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski) gets the crap beaten out of him by the Bad Guys. Think Jake Gittes getting his nose sliced open in Chinatown, then nearly having his back broken by the farmers in the orange grove, or Harrison Ford getting hammered by replicant Brion Jones in Blade Runner, not to mention the pasting he receives from other replicants Rutger Hauer and even Daryl Hannah.
I tell myself, “Steve, you gotta have at least one Beat-up Scene, and probably more than one.”
And I make sure I have one or more.
Shawn has two maxims for conventions of genres. First, adhere to them. (It’s okay to break the rules but you have to know you’re breaking them and be sure you’re okay with that). And two, when you execute a convention, do it in an original way.
Another two conventions (sometimes called “obligatory scenes”) of cop stories are
1. A foot chase
2. A car chase.
Remember The French Connection? How about the foot chase with Gene Hackman running flat-out in a Santa suit? Was that great or what? And the car-chasing-the-elevated-subway, again with Gene Hackman, was as original a car chase as has ever been filmed.
At the end of this post I will, as promised, affix my file, “Conventions of a Detective Story.” But first lemme offer a couple of thoughts on the mechanics of next week’s publication of The Story Grid. Here’s how the launch will work:
On Monday 4/27, an e-mail will go out to all First Look Access members. [You can sign up. free, above in the right-hand corner of this page.] These members will get alerted first and they’ll get the Super-Primo discounts and most free extras. They’ll also get the full week to respond before the book goes on sale at full price.
On Wednesday 4/29 I’ll announce the book’s publication to all website visitors in this “Writing Wednesdays” space. There’ll still be great discounts and freebies (but not as great as the First Look Access deal). There’ll be three days to respond instead of five.
On Friday 5/1 at one minute to midnight, the discounts and freebies end and The Story Grid goes wide for sale on Amazon.com, B&N.com and all other outlets at full price.
If you’re not signed up for First Look Access, think about doing it. You can always unsubscribe.
Okay, that’s it till next week.
Now, as promised, here’s my hand-made file, Conventions of the Detective Story. Please feel free to correct me in the Comments or add stuff I’ve left out.
CONVENTIONS OF A PRIVATE EYE STORY
1. Hero is hired to investigate something. He is given a bullshit story by the person hiring him. Deceptive pretext.
2. He takes job because he’s desperate—or intrigued. Or both.
3. Hero tails “cheating woman,” discovers stuff that he’s not supposed to discover—specifically existence and/or identity of an Uber-Villain (Noah Cross) of whom he had no or little awareness before.
4. Uber-Villain/Bad Guys beat the crap out of hero.
5. Bad Guys ransack hero’s home.
6. Person that detective was originally hired to follow (usually the dame), partway through the story tries to hire him to tail somebody else.
6. Hero becomes romantically involved with female he’s tailing.
7. Hero has to do some serious sleuthing. A scene sneaking into some place? Hero takes risk to do so?
8. Hero has to “put two and two together.” Must show good detective work, like “the Dude” in Big Lebowski.
9. Female reveals deeper story underlying original bullshit story. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
10. Hero confronts Big Bad Guy, possibly gets crap beaten out of him again. “Hero at Mercy of Villain” scene?
11. Verbal sparring between Big Villain and detective—and perhaps grudging respect is shown by each side (and even a little affection) toward the other.
12. Sometimes there’s a bond of similarity between the villain and the detective.
13. There’s a character who’s a rival to the detective—a cop usually, that the detective knows from “back in the day,” with whom the detective engages in a battle of wits, trying to solve the murder, e.g. Lou Escobar in CHINATOWN. Often this character is an impediment to the detective, threatening to arrest him.
14. Hero is told by Bad Guy to shut up, otherwise he or people he loves will be hurt.
15. Hero is advised by friend/cop that there’s no point in making a stink, nobody cares. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
16. Foot chase
17. Car chase
18. There’s a Good Girl: the one the Private Eye SHOULD love.
19. There’s a Bad Girl, the one the Private Eye actually falls for.