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.
Thanks so much for another article on the process of writing/creating!
I especially enjoy this one because it provides confirmation/affirmation for the way I “talk to myself” during the development stage of writing: I ask questions in regular format, then write the answers out in italics as I “chat” with myself about the characters and story. And I often find that I provide pretty good answers, if I just take the time to do the process and explore.
I spent a lot of time this past summer doing this for a new feature script I’m going to write and it was very productive. So now I look forward to your next installment because now I have to the actual freakin’ writing too!
Thank you so much for another trench report. For my latest project, I created a modified Foolscap/Global Story Grid spreadsheet and stuck it to the wall behind my laptop so I don’t lose sight of the internal and external values, theme, genre, and conventions. I find it hugely helpful to have these things right in front of me as I make my notes and continue the design. Your posts are wonderful at reminding me of the importance of that piece of paper on my wall. Thank you!
To have the courage to stare Resistance down and decide to go “back to basics” after Draft 11 is why I show up here week after week – thank you for another great post Steve!
Thanks for discussing the process. I have always loved process.
Your thoughts about setting the structure in Draft #1 are useful.
Writing is lonely work. I’m grateful that you spend time and energy making your process known. It feels like having a conversation with you. I like being in on the process. Always have. It helps me to grow. Makes my brain come alive to be connected with yours.
(My website is in process.)
In my experience, once the “architecture” is in place, and I feel satisfied the characters are established, the ultimate challenge is to see if I can find something new and not derivative to add. It can be in the language, the plot, or even the setting. I leave that up to my unconscious to find. If it’s too formulaic I don’t feel satisfied with the work, even though I’m aware that isn’t necessarily what the marketplace requires.
Regarding the “writing alone” challenge, I watched a recent movie, Their Finest, the other night and was envious of the screenwriter’s knack to bounce ideas off each other in real time. What a gift!
Thank you for sharing this struggle. I’m learning so much from you and Shawn. 🙂
Just a thought, re: where you mused about “Instancer” and what he can and cannot do. One pitfall in fantasy is not clearly defining the internal “rules” of your universe and what can and cannot be accomplished with magic.
To use Game of Thrones as an example, King Stannis employs the services of Melisandre, a Red Priestess from Asshai and servant of the “Lord of Light.” In the second season (and second book) Melisandre births a “shadow baby” in the cellars of a castle, and the shadow assassinates King Renly, Stannis’ younger brother who is also claiming the throne.
As Stannis pushes forward to claim the Iron Throne and is presented with increasingly bigger challenges, why doesn’t Melisandre just birth another shadow to take out his enemies? After using powerful blood magic the first time around, she’s reduced to performing rites that may or may not have an effect on Stannis’ enemies and their campaigns for the Iron Throne. Why? If Melisandre has that much power, why can’t she use it again?
In “The Wheel of Time,” another sprawling fantasy series, protagonist Rand al’Thor is the ‘Dragon Reborn,’ a prophesied hero who will save humanity from some Sauron-esque ultimate baddie. Theoretically, Rand is by far the most powerful wielded of “the power,” a magical force. But on a practical level, there are two things holding him back: 1) He struggles to control it, and 2) The more he uses it, the closer he inches toward insanity. The author makes it clear that no male user of the power can get away with using it for long before going completely mad — and because they are capable of wielding enormous power, people are terrified of male magic users because they can literally rip cities apart and kill people by the thousands when they lose their minds.
Those are well-defined rules for magic, whereas the rules are not well defined in Game of Thrones — one of the few flaws in an otherwise masterful story.
Slightly off topic, I realize, but important for genre writing nonetheless. It’s a lot like the pitfalls in science fiction involving the appearance of new, incredible tech of unknown provenance that helps the heroes save the day.
Thanks for this week’s basic training. Your posts have definitely primed my own process and now I have questions…
After Shawn’s last post (Big Idea), I’ve distilled my non-fiction book’s theme to a four word phrase. This was unbelievably helpful and created a natural center of gravity for the project. Now I see the possibilities for a series with variations expanding and exploring different aspects of the theme.
So…how do you know when to play small with a Big Idea and package it all into a single, stand alone book, or instead roadmap the entire series before writing the first installment?
All feedback is appreciated. Thanks.
It depends on what kind of non-fiction book it is, Julie. If it’s a narrative, it still has to be self-contained, and if it’s non-fiction you should have a better idea of the narrative arc than if you were writing fiction. After all, you’re not making it up, the material is already there.
But there are also lots of examples of non-fiction books that were originally meant as stand-alone titles and were later expanded. Have you ever read “A Street Cat Named Bob?” It’s a simple story about a homeless recovering heroin addict who finally gets an apartment, but his life still feels empty until one day an injured orange tabby cat shows up on his doorstep. The book is about how adopting the cat — and having someone else to take care of — helped this man put his life back together, and eventually how he became a quasi-celebrity while busking in London because he always had this incredibly docile and friendly cat sitting on his shoulder.
A smart literary agent gave the man, James Bowen, a book deal, and the rest is history. It was an international best seller. But since then they’ve published a follow-up book, a children’s book based on the cat Bob, and a fiction book imagining Bob’s experiences as a street cat before he was adopted by James.
I mention that because the first book was a stand alone with no plans for a sequel until the book proves enormously popular. So even if you decide to go ahead with a single book, you can always expand out later. It’s a good problem to have!
Great perspective, Nik. It helped. Good to know about narrative POV. Will keep that in mind. Thanks!
Steve, I’m not sure I agree with your diagnosis of lazy/scared. If this book was birthed from that dream you had about flying along the cliffs, then I think the issue might have been infatuation with the thrill of the creative process. A writer can ride the wave of inspiration with its attendant rush but at some point it comes crashing down. The writer then realizes that they didn’t use the power of the initial wave to build a bridge, and a bridge is what’s needed to carry a story. If my hypothesis is correct, then it’s pretty amazing that you rode that wave as long as you did and there must be real fuel in that story for you.
Once I attended the Austin Heart of Film festival and heard one of the screenwriters of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Chris Matheson or Ed Solomon) speak on a panel. This was post the release of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. The author said something like, “The problem with the creative process is that it is so enjoyable–even when you’re laying an egg, it feels good.”
Also, I’ve been pondering last week’s comment regarding writing seven days a week. You know your process and your work ethic, I just wonder if a rest on the seventh day might have offered some creative refreshment and a clearer eye when you came back to the work the following day.
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