Report from the Trenches #7
I said in last week’s post that, watching myself wrestle with this rewrite, I realize I’m attacking the problem on three levels. Level One (which we talked about last week) was about genre—making sure I knew what genre I was working in, and then re-hammering the narrative so that it lined up with the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre.
The second level of this work, what we’re gonna talk about today, is going back in the global sense to Basic Storytelling Principles.
- A story must be about something. It must have a theme.
- The hero embodies the theme.
- The villain embodies the counter-theme.
- Every supporting character embodies an aspect of the theme.
- In the climax, hero and villain clash over the issue of the theme.
I have 57 files in the greater folder for this project and 22 for the re-work. Some of the titles of these files are Tuff Middle, Rachel Hunts Instancer, Second Act Belongs to Villain.
If I were working with a partner, the pair of us would talk this stuff out aloud. “What does the Villain want?” But because I’m working alone, I use these files as a way of talking to myself. I just sit down and start spewing.
I have no idea where this section goes, or if we have room for it at all, but the question is, “What has Rachel been doing since Instancer dumped her? Has she hunted him, and if so how, since when, and what happened?”
LETS SAY she first suffered with no proof (only a crazy suspicion) that Instancer was supernatural. Still she thought she might be losing her mind, as any woman might after the “ghosted” end of a passionate affair. Then came the “herem.” Excommunication. Family abandoned Rachel, jobs dried up. Etc.
At this stage I’m not thinking in scenes or dialog.
My thinking is architectural.
If we were building a suspension bridge, we’d first establish the footings and the anchoring points on each shore. Then we’d calculate where the towers should go and how much stress the steel could take, etc. In other words, design.
We’ll worry about actually building the bridge later.
That’s what I’m trying to do with the story at this stage.
The tension that drives the narrative will be the clash between the hero and the villain, just like in a bridge it will be the weight of the roadway versus the strength of the supporting towers and the suspension cables.
So I’m pounding away at another talking-to-myself file, “Manning (hero) versus Instancer (villain)”, asking myself how are these two characters different, how are they alike, what does Manning want, what does Instancer want? Are they mirrors for each other? How? What does that prove? Are they dependent on each other? How? What does that prove?
I don’t know any of the answers going in. I’m free-associating.
If we think of Alien or Predator or Jaws, the heroes spend a big part of the movie trying to figure out how to stop the unstoppable, kill the unkillable. Our story demands the same.
What would Manning think along these lines?
- Instancer is physical, at least in this world. He can’t be shot but he can be grappled with. He’s very strong but not superhumanly strong. He can’t lift buildings.
- If he can be ‘conducted’ into this world, can he be conducted out?” That’s the key. We have to figure this out. Etc.
What I want to have at the end of this exercise is a schematic of the story, one that hangs together dramatically and architecturally like the Golden Gate Bridge or the screenplay for Rocky.
I want a hero whose problems, aspirations, wants and needs are as clearly defined and as emotionally involving as those of Rocky Balboa.
I want an antagonist like Apollo Creed, whose emotional surface reflects Rocky’s and works beautifully against it, yin versus yang.
I want supporting characters like Adrian and Mick and Pauly, each of whom represents an aspect of the theme.
And I want a crystal-clear, powerful theme
A bum can be a champ if he’s just given the chance
that plays in every scene of the story and is paid off in the climax, not just for the protagonist but for the supporting characters as well. And of course for the reader.
I don’t need scenes at this point.
I don’t need dialogue.
I don’t need sequences.
Level Two is about structure.
It’s about architecture.
By the way, this process that I’m going through now after the collapse of Draft #11 is the process I SHOULD HAVE been doing from Draft #1.
I was lazy.
I was scared.
I didn’t push myself far enough.
That’s why #11 crashed.
That’s what I’m back to Square One, reverting to basics.
It happens to everybody.
So to recap …
Last week we talked about the first level (for me, at least) of a Ground Up Rewrite.
That level was about genre.
It involved identifying the genre we’re working in (again, a task we SHOULD HAVE done in Draft #1 and even earlier) and defining for ourselves the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre … then reworking our story to align with those principles.
Level Two, what we’re talking about today, is about doing the same thing, not for Genre, but for Universal Storytelling Principles.
We go back to basics.
We remind ourselves of the timeless principles (and believe me, Homer and Shakespeare had to do this shit too) that balladeers and rhapsodes and puppeteers, not to mention Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, have been using forever.
And we go back to those basics ourselves.
Next week, the fun part: Actually WRITING the freakin’ thing.