Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our Story Begins Ten Years Ago...

            For those who came in late...
            So we’re in the middle of a big discussion/lecture/infodump about story structure.  To be more exact, the different types of story structure, because there are several of them and they all serve a different purpose.  If you missed me blabbing about linear structure last week, you might want to jump back and read that first.  Or maybe re-read it as sort of a refresher before we dive into this week’s little rant.
            Speaking of which...
            Now I want to talk about narrative structure.  Remember how I said linear structure is how the characters experience the story?  The narrative structure is how the author decides to tell the story.  It’s the manner and style and order I choose for how things will unfold.  A flashback is part of the narrative structure, as are flashforwards, prologues, epilogues, and “our story begins ten years ago...”  If you studied (or over-studied) this sort of stuff in college, your professor may have tossed out the term syuzhet. 
            One more note before I dive in.  Within my story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of this little rant, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about me, the writer, and the choices I make. Because I’m God when it comes to this story, and the narrator doesn’t do or say anything I don’t want them to.
            That being said...  here we go.
            In a good number of stories, the linear structure and narrative structure are identical.  Things start with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, and conclude on Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, and very common.  My book, The Fold, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.  Same with Autumn Christian’s We Are Wormwood, Dan Abnett’s The Warmaster, or Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male.  These books may shift point of view or format, but they still follow a pretty straightforward linear narrative.
            We don’t need to talk about this type of narrative too much because... well, we already did.  When my narrative matches my linear structure, any possible narrative issues will also be linear ones.  And we discussed those last week.
            There are just as many stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences. In other instances, the story might split between multiple timeframes. Or the story may be broken up into numerous sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to how they all line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there).  My own Ex-Heroes series employs numerous flashbacks, all in their own linear order.  So does F. Paul Wilson’s latest, The God Gene.  In his “Vicious Circuit” novels, Robert Brockway splits almost every other chapter between present day and the events of forty-odd years ago.
            Narrative structure involves more than just switching around my story elements, though.  It’s not just something I can do off the cuff in an attempt to look trendy.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind. 
            Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I tell you about is what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to acknowledge that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who stole the painting, then roll the story back to Monday where everyone was a witnesses and saw the thief’s face.  If they knew then, they have to know now.  If I have Yakko act surprised to find a dog in his house on Friday and then have the narrative jump to him adopting the dog from a shelter on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are kinda stupid, overly-simple examples, yeah, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff around in clever ways, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy problem to avoid, it just requires a little time and work.
            The second thing to keep in mind when experimenting with narrative structure is... why?  Why am I breaking up my story instead of telling it in order?  Sure, all that non-linear stuff is edgy and bold, but... what’s the point of it in my story?  Why am I starting ten years ago instead of today?  Why do I have that flashback at that point?  How is the narrative improved by shaping it this way?
            Now, these may sound like silly questions, and I’m sure many artsy folks would sweep them aside with a dry laugh.  But they really deserve some serious thought. I talked a little while ago about how when my reader knows things can greatly affect the type of story I want to tell.  By rearranging the linear order, I’m changing when people learn things.
            And if this new narrative form doesn’t change when people learn things... again, what’s the point?
            The  third and final issue with having different narrative and linear structures is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I mentioned last time that we all try to put things in linear order because it’s natural for us. It’s pretty much an automatic function of our brains.  This flashback took place before that one.  That’s a flash forward.  This flashback’s showing us something we saw earlier, but from a different point of view.
            The catch here is that I chop my narrative up too much, people are going to spend less time reading my story and more time... well, deciphering it.  My readers will hit the seventh flashback and they’ll try to figure out how it relates to the last six.  And as they have to put more and more effort into reorganizing the story (instead of getting immersed in said story), it’s going to break the flow.  If I keep piling on flashbacks and flash-forwards, and parallel stories... that flow’s going to stay broken.  Shattered even.
            And when I break the flow, that’s when people set my book aside to go watch YouTube videos.  No, it doesn’t matter how many clever phrases or perfect words I have.  People can’t get invested in my story if they can’t figure out what my story is.  And if they can’t get invested... that’s it.
            Y’see, Timmy, narrative structure can be overdone if I’m not careful.  This is something that can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, but for someone just picking it up... this might be a bit of a  pile.  Maybe even a steaming one.
            That’s narrative structure.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure. Perhaps even more important, it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I’ll try to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine to (hopefully) form a powerful dramatic structure.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Getting Our Story Straight

            Running a little late this week.  Again.  Crazy busy these past few days.  Craig DiLouie was here in southern California, so we hung out for a day. Then there was Valentine’s Day.  And if you haven’t seen Black Panther yet I highly recommend it.  Fantastic movie.
            Oh, plus a couple of outlines for new projects, too...
            Anyway...
            This past week at the Writers Coffeehouse I babbled on about different forms of structure and how they work together.  I haven’t really gone into that here in a couple of years, so I figured now might be a good time.  While it’s all fresh in my mind.
            Fair warning—this is kind of a sprawling topic so it’s going to spread out over the next two posts as well as this one.  I also may use a few terms in ways of which your MFA writing professor would not approve.  But I’ll do my best to be clear, despite all that.
            Speaking of professors...
            Structure is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot when we’re talking about writing.  Sometimes in a generic sense, like that last sentence, other times in much more specific ways. You may have heard gurus talk about narrative structure, dramatic structure, three-act structure, or maybe even four- and five-act structure (if you’ve been dabbling with screenwriting a bit).
            An important thing to be clear about before we go too far—all of these are very different things.  I think this is why people get confused about structure sometimes.  A lot of things fall into this general category, and while some of them are vital to the storytelling process... some aren’t.  And it doesn’t help when “expert” gurus try to conflate them.  I read an article once where one guy was trying to use the five-act structure of television shows to demonstrate that three-act structure was an obsolete form (ProTip--it’s not).
            When we talk about structure, we’re talking about the underlying framework of a story.  The skeletal system, or maybe the nervous system, depending on how you want to look at it.  And, just like with anatomy (or architecture or programming) there can be more than one underlying system. And they all work together to make a functioning person. Or house.  Or story.
            It’s key to note that all these systems (or structures) are not the same. Sometimes things will overlap and serve multiple purposes. Sometimes they won’t. And, as I mentioned above, just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’ll work in my story.
            Okay.  Got all that?
            Good.  Get ready to take a few notes
           The three main structures in a story, for our purposes these next few weeks, are linear structure, narrative structure, and dramatic structure.  They all interact and work with each other.  Just like with anatomy, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself.  So it’s important that I have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
            The one we’re going to deal with this week is linear structure.  Simply put, it’s how my characters experience the story.  There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula.  Another term you may have heard for this is continuity.  Thursday leads to Friday which leads to Saturday.  Breakfast, coffee break, lunch, dinner.  Birth, childhood, college years, adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
            There’s a simple reason linear structure is so important.  Almost all of us are experts with it.  That’s because linear order is how we experience things all the time, every day.  We notice when effect comes before cause, even if the story gives them to us out of order.  A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline.  When detectives break down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order the events actually happened in.  If I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. 
            A good way to test the linear structure of my story (a method I’ve mentioned before) is to arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and other devices in chronological order.  My story should still make logical sense like this, even if it's lost some dramatic weight this way (more on that later).  If my story elements don’t work like this (if effect comes before cause, or if people know things before they learn them), it means I’ve messed up my linear structure.
            Now, I want to mention a specific example where linear structure gets messed up a lot-- time travel.
            In a time travel story, it’s very likely there’ll be multiple linear structures.  My time traveler might be experiencing Thursday, Friday, then Wednesday, and then Thursday again.  They’re still experiencing four days in a row, though—even if their friends and coworkers are only having three. And their three are Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.
            I mentioned this diagram at the Coffeehouse on Sunday. It’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—Jack Harkness and the Doctor himself.  I’ve marked a few key, mutual events in their lives.
            Jack’s life is pretty straightforward, for our purposes here.  A is when young Jack first meets the Ninth Doctor and decides to travel with him for a while.  B is when he later encounters the Tenth Doctor and Martha.  C is when they all briefly meet again a year or so later to stop Davros and the Daleks.  They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life.  And E is when the Doctor’s there for Jack’s death at the ripe old age of twenty billion or so (mild spoilers, sorry). 
            That’s a pretty normal, linear timeline.  Young to old.  The one most of us have (just slightly exaggerated in his case).
            Now... look at the Doctor’s.  This is the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around (more on this next week).  He travels in time, though, so he meets Jack in kind of an odd order.  First time for him isn’t the first time for Jack, and vice-versa.  But it’s still a logical, linear order for the Doctor—he’s living his own timeline, A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack.  A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
            Make sense?
           Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I decide to tell things in, the characters are experiencing the story in linear order.  If halfway through my book one of my character flashes back to what happened a week ago, this isn’t new information for him or her—it happened a week ago.  So all of their actions and reactions up until that flashback should take that information into account.
            It sounds pretty straightforward and it really is.  Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blab about over the next few weeks because it’s logical and objective.  But, alas, people still mess it up all the time.  And the mistakes are usually because of... narrative structure.
            But we’ll talk about that next week.
            Until then, go write.