Friday, December 19, 2008
Brenton Tomlinson raised an excellent point that I think I’ll address sooner rather than later. Like, now.
Is there a danger of overdoing this structure and analysis work?
Can you overwork your outline, or try to do just too damn much – try to force every one of these concepts in? Or spend so much time on outlining and reworking your structure that you never get to the actual writing?
Yes, of course you can. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is almost always a problem for creative people. You have to be fairly obsessed to succeed at anything, and obsession feeds on itself. There’s a point at which obsessive outlining, or obsessive anything, can become counterproductive. You have to know that tendency in yourself and stop yourself when you feel yourself becoming hung up.
The bottom line of all this method is just one thing: teach yourself how to write the kinds of stories that YOU love, that work for YOU, by analyzing the books and films that turn you on, and figuring out what those storytellers are doing to create the effects they do.
That’s really the main thing I’m trying to show you, here, and then I’m throwing in a lot of general structure information and technique that I’ve learned from theater and film and novel writing.
But I also hope that you’re not JUST outlining or JUST doing index cards, and I think I’d better reiterate this point - now, and in future posts. When you’re brainstorming on your story outline and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. ALWAYS write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.
Ideally you’re working on three or four piles of material, or tracks, at once.
- The index cards you’re brainstorming and arranging on your structure grid.
- - A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to you as you’re outlining, and that you can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.
- - An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that you’re compiling as you order your index cards on the structure grid.
- - a collage book of visual images that you’re pulling from magazines that give you the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of your story.
In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that work.
At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. I was telling an interviewer this week that because I come from theater, I think of the first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will FINISH a book or a script.
Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.
Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.
But that’s MY process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “panster” – you write best by the seat of your pants. In which case the methods I’ve been talking about have probably made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here! ;)
Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pansters have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.
But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.
I also thought I’d restate a completely different point about this story structure series. People who are finding these posts might wonder why I’m spending the bulk of my time analyzing films when I’m talking mostly to authors. Good question.
The thing is, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X ray of a story. You have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story and so it’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.
So it’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel.
And realistically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of those film techniques can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.
And one more thing. I’ve decided I want to illustrate these techniques by breaking down some films and books step-by-step, start to finish, pointing out how the filmmakers and authors are using particular techniques. So I’m taking suggestions of books and films to use. I’d especially like to collect some examples that were effective books AND films (like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and MYSTIC RIVER). Let me know, in comments or privately!
Questions of the day – are you a plotter or pantser? What are your process quirks?
Previous articles on story structure:
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Screenwriting - The Craft
What's Your Premise?
Elements of Act One
Elements of Act Two
Elements of Act Two, Part 2
Elements of Act Three, Part 1
Elements of Act Three, Part 2
What Makes a Great Climax?
Visual Storytelling Part 1
Visual Storytelling Part 2
Fairy Tale Structure and the List