Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Truby on Plotting

As I mentioned before, I’ve been slowly working my way through Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY. I’ve always had a reputation for obsessive preplanning and control, but let me tell you, this guy makes me look like a blithe free spirit.

He breaks story structure down into twenty-two steps. According to Truby, these twenty-two steps “show you how to create an organic plot, regardless of the length or genre of your story. They are also the key set of tools for rewriting.” Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Well, don’t run out and buy the book just for this section, because there really isn’t anything earthbreaking here. Like most writing instructors—whether we’re talking screenwriting or novel writing—Truby leans heavily on identifying your character’s need, desire, and weakness, which are revealed right up front, and the moment of self-revelation and moral decision, which of course come at the end. This progression represents the “journey” your hero will take. Truby actually argues for coming up with the self-revelation first, and working backward to decide on your hero’s weakness, need, and desire. Thus, the writer starts with the endpoint and the beginning; with this framework in place, everything else is just in fill (more on that, later).

I’m still wrestling with this approach. I think that in the best stories, one can definitely see this framework—weakness, need, desire, final self-revelation and moral decision. The thing is, I’m not sure that the BEST stories are actually created this deliberately. The whole process seems so forced and artificial, that one suspects it must surely show (as it often does). Then again, that could simply be the result of inexpert handling. Perhaps in the hands of a true master, the result really does seem organic and natural. What do you think?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Six Unspectacular Quirks Meme

I plan to talk more about screenwriting techniques soon. In the meantime, Sphinx Ink has tagged me for a meme. Here are the rules:

Link the person who tagged you.
Mention the rules in your blog.
Tell about six unspectacular quirks of yours.

Okay, here it goes...

1. I’m a health food fanatic. Not only am I a vegetarian, but I scrupulously avoid a long list of “poisons,” including partially-hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, dairy products that aren’t from antibiotic- and rBGH-free cows, artificial sweeteners, etc, etc, etc. In other words, I'm a real pain to invite to dinner. Which is a pity, because...

2. I hate to cook. It’s not that I’m a bad cook, I just really, really HATE TO COOK. If my family were a part of the Fast Food Nation, this wouldn’t be a problem. But since we’re all health food nuts, I have to cook. And I hate it.

3. I lust after big old houses. I love graceful old trimwork, mellow hardwood floors, and idiosyncratic nooks and crannies. I love wrap-around porches, screen porches, porch swings, turret rooms, spreading live oaks, and dusty old attics full of forgotten treasures. I’ve always wanted to live in a big old house. The last time I lived in a big old house, I was six.

4. I’m a planning freak. I constantly make lists, figure out how I’m going to do things, the order in which I’m going to do things, etc. Steve says I spend more time making lists than doing what needs to be done, but I think that’s an exaggeration.

5. I loathe crowds, noise, TVs or talk radio programs playing in the background, using the telephone, driving a car—far too many things that are an inescapable part of our modern lifestyle.

6. I’m a sucker for cats—which is why I have six of them. I also love birds, squirrels, butterflies, dragonflies, and lizards, which is why my (organic) garden is overrun with critters, and my cats stay inside.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig!

My youngest arrived home from her first year at college yesterday, thanks to big sis who flew down and drove her home. She's feeling much better, and so is her mother, now that's she here and I can take care of her.

Who’d have thought you could get all this stuff in a littlve itty bitty VW? The question is, where is it going to go now?

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Story with Two Legs

Mark Truby’s THE ANATOMY OF STORY has, I am told, become the new Bible of screenwriting. I’ve been slowly winding my way through it for some weeks now. This is not a fast, easy-to-grasp read. He devotes vast chunks of his book to topics like Moral Dilemmas, and Symbol Webs, which tend to give me squirming flashbacks to my college English class. (The only “B” I ever got in eight years at university was in Freshman Creative Writing. I kid you not.) But the section I’m reading now, on Plot Types, has much meatier stuff.

Truby sees a story as moving toward its character’s desire on what he calls two “legs”: acting and learning. Basically, a story is about how a character takes action to get what he wants, and the new information he learns about better ways to get it. As a result of the new information he acquires, he makes a decision and undertakes a new course of action.

Some story forms highlight one of those “legs” over the other. Myths and action stories focus on, well, action, while mysteries and romances tend to highlight learning. Truby identifies a number of different plot types emphasizing one or the other of these “legs,” including the Journey Plot, the Three Unities Plot, the Reveals Plot, the Antiplot, the Genre Plot, and the Multistrand Plot.

Ever since THE HERO’S JOURNEY became popular a few years ago, there has been a tendency—especially among romance writers—to try to jam every plot into the mythic journey form. I’ve always though that was stretching the myth form to the breaking point, although, obviously, that approach works for some authors. Because in the end, these are all simply mental constructions we use to make our job a little easier.

As I work my way through Truby, I’ll be talking about his ideas some more. This week I’ve been focusing on 1) getting my youngest home from her Florida college alive (she spent all of Wednesday in the Emergency Room); 2) getting the main bathroom remodeling finished (not going to happen before the youngest comes home from college); and 3) getting the new C.S. Graham website up (a long process only just begun).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More from the Movies

A newer approach to screenwriting calls for breaking a film down into eight 15-minute sequences—or, to transfer the idea to a 400-page book, into eight 50-page sequences. At the end of each sequence comes a mini-climatic scene, some kind of twist, reversal, or “Aha” moment that flips the action into the next sequence. These eight sequences are still grouped into the three acts—in other words, the first two sequences are Act One, then next four sequences are Act Two, and the final two sequences are Act Three.

What’s nice about this approach? Well, breaking your story into eight segments is a great way to get a handle on it. And the need to have a climax at the end of each segment keeps the story from becoming too linear.

One of the points Alex Sokoloff made when we were talking to her at the Jubilee Jambalaya is that a story resonates with particular effectiveness when the climatic scene at the end of Act One asks a question that isn’t answered until the end of Act Two. For instance, in Silence of the Lambs, the end of Act One asks the question, Will Hannibal help Clarissa catch the serial killer? At the end of Act Two, when Hannibal escapes, we realize the answer to that question is, No. He won’t; Clarissa will have to draw on all Hannibal has taught her in order to catch the killer and save the girl herself. (Incidentally, this is a frequent construction: The hero thinks he has help, then at the end of Act Two discovers he doesn’t; it’s at this point that the hero and the audience realize that in Act Three, the hero will need to accomplish his objective all on his own.) Notice this Act Two question is slightly different from the overall story question: Will Clarissa catch the serial killer in time to save the girl?

The climatic scene at the end of Act Two is also a good point for your protagonist to have his or her moment of revelation. This is frequently the point at which the protagonist discovers/acknowledges his inner “need” (as opposed to his acknowledged “want”). But then, not all stories have this need/want dichotomy; it’s far more common in literary works and women’s fiction, for instance, than in mysteries or thrillers, especially series.

If you’re not tired of this yet, I have some more screenwriting points I’d like to ponder. And I have some good news: The massmarket edition of WHAT ANGELS FEAR has sold out and it going back to press for a hefty second printing. Sales have been up considerably over the last six months, since the publication of WHY MERMAIDS SING. Let’s up it continues!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Writing Through Disruptions

Up until two days ago, this was our hall bathroom. There were only two rooms in our entire house not damaged by Katrina: this bath and Steve’s office. If anyone had asked my preferences, the hall bath was the one room Katrina could have utterly destroyed with my blessings—it was pitifully in need of a drastic overhaul. But of course, things never happen that way.

Needless to say, we’ve had a lot of other priorities in the last two and a half years. But renovating the main bath has suddenly become a necessity. Why? Well, the bath was broken into two very small, awkward spaces, with little room to maneuver. And that has suddenly become an issue because as soon as we can arrange it, my mother will be moving in with us.

My mother is ninety now (and no, I’m not a senior citizen; my mom had me very late in life), and we’ve finally had to admit that she can’t continue living alone. She’s still surprisingly spry and agile for her age, but I know that might not always be the case. The time to renovate the bath is now, before she moves in.

There’s going to be a lot of other juggling involved. Steve’s office will become my mom’s bedroom (which means new flooring and a new paint job—I did say it was the other room not hit by Katrina, didn’t I?). Sam’s bedroom will become Steve’s office. Sam is going to be moving into my mom’s house. And then there is the whole musical cats issue—my mom has a cat, Sam has a cat, Steve has three cats, I have two cats…yikes, this would be a lot easier with less cats!

In the meantime, I’m still struggling with the rewrite of THE DEADLIGHT CONNECTION—which has somehow managed to add a hundred extra pages into the manuscript. And I promise I’ll be posting more on applying screenwriting techniques to novel writing. Soon. Inshallah.