Tag Archives: craft theory

Defining literary structure

This is excerpted from my upcoming article in Game Wrap Magazine, volume 2– “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” about the tension between narrative design and player autonomy. I pulled this part out because it’s applies structure in all storytelling forms, not just larps.

One of the tools storytellers use to shape narrative is structure. Structure in this case refers to the design of the order, manner, and pacing of events making up the story and the relationships of those events to each other. Narrative is at its fundamental level about change— starting with a thesis, confronting it with its antithesis, and seeing the new synthesis that results. Structure is an important tool for storytellers to choose and arrange events in order to create, control, and facilitate that change.

In much of literature, structure falls into a traditional form. The circumstances are established in a setup, after which a triggering change, the inciting event, propels the protagonist into challenging new situations. As the protagonist struggles to achieve their goals in the face of unexpected obstacles, the tension of the situation is increased by the rising action and its addition of complications. Ultimately, the action builds to the highest point of confrontation, the climax, where the hero faces their greatest challenge, and the changes they have undergone are tested to see if they are sufficient to overcome. This point is usually the most intense action of the story. After this, the tension ratchets down as the consequences of the climax are unpacked, at least to some degree, in the falling action. Finally, we are left with the resolution, which tells us the new status quo, to contrast with the way things were in the beginning.

This pattern of structure is so prevalent in storytelling because of how well it presents conflict and response to conflict in order to prompt development, growth, and change. It offers a steady buildup of the level of challenge in a manner that increases tension and our investment in the stakes of the conflict — the more struggle a goal entails, the more important achieving it becomes — while eventually providing satisfaction by offering a resolution.

Beyond this simple ordering of events, it offers the storyteller the tools to figure out how and at what speed the events should occur in relation to each other to achieve the best effect. By using this framework as a guide, the storyteller can determine at what point of the emotional journey they would like their audience to have reached at any given moment. The teller can then decide how to shape each event in relation to the other events to achieve the desired effect. If the tension needs to go up, intense actions can occur all in quick succession. If the intensity is increasing too fast, the plot-driving moments can occur on a smaller scale, or be spaced farther apart. So the curation of the occurrence of events in the story allows for the best release of information, timing of events, and measured building of tension.

But the key part of that is that curation. To utilize structure to best effect, it requires design— intentional choices made in what events occur when, with specific desired effects in mind. For events to have the greatest impact on the course of the story and, the development of the characters, they can’t just happen in any order or in any relation to each other; story events don’t build properly upon one another or deliver their full effect when they occur in a completely uncontrolled way. For example, iIf you are unraveling a mystery, part of the appeal is acquiring each clue and encountering each complication in turn, with the opportunity to piece everything together and examine the picture step by step as it develops. If all the clues and secrets come together too immediately, the solution feels anticlimactic. If you are on a quest, the challenge of testing your mettle against obstacle and rising to the occasion to achieve your end is a huge part of the fun. If the ultimate prize is simply handed to you, the experience is short-circuited. Even if a character grows too much too easily, without any personal effort or cost, it feels cheap and unrealistic. Indeed, since goals become more important the harder you have to work for them, and easy achievements feel smaller than difficult ones, any resolution that comes too easily or too soon is going to feel less satisfying.

Toolbox theory of storytelling

In the last several years of my becoming more of a serious writer, I’ve developed a particular system to think about it. I’ve found that whenever approaching a craft, it helps my brain a lot to think of it in terms of a series of concepts with specific definitions associated with certain purposes. I believe that crucial to understanding how something is done well is simply to be able to identify all the inherent parts and what they’re doing in whatever piece you’re examining. And knowing how to put those concepts into practice effectively enables a person to perform the art well.

For instance, I’ve always believed the reason why the French approach to cooking became so pervasive is because they did so much to define the concepts in an identifiable way and systematized their functions. This enabled a commonly understood language, which allowed for discussion between practitioners to relate to each other, instructors to communicate ideas to students, and culinarians to analyze what they observed in practice. I find this defining of the various concepts and giving them corresponding names to be really useful in identifying and quantifying the practice of an art, so this is the approach I take in my work with writing– in analyzing it, in making it, and in teaching it.

Others may disagree, but I think when developing a piece of narrative art, the first thing to do is build the substance of it. This may be the result of my particular biases– I freely admit this is influenced by my personal conviction that storytelling is a highly-considered design process, and coming from a drama background the necessity of STRUCTURING a story always seems paramount –but I tend to believe you need to know what your story is going to be about and what’s going to happen in it before you should be worrying about how you’re going to depict it. In other words, I usually suggest with any writing, figure out the substance of WHAT you want to say before you figure out HOW you want to say it.

So to do this, I like to think of the elements of storytelling as a toolbox full of tools that have closely defined functions that can perform particular jobs. In understanding what those tools are, you can understand what you can use them for, and therefore have the best possible control over the resulting effect their utilization has on your story. Knowing what the province of that tool is allows you to ask the right questions that will lead you to the appropriate design choice.

Let’s take point of view as an example. Point of view can be divided, of course, into first person, second person, and third person point of view; we’re all familiar with those. “I am experiencing story,” versus “You are experiencing this story” versus “They are experiencing this story.” But how do we describe all the things point of view encompasses? To get really precise, I like to break it down into Perspective, Bias, and Filter, each with a definition that enables you to focus on a small aspects of the storytelling that POV can affect.

Perspective deals with the nature of the narrator’s identity, and all attendant features of what information they are physically able to take in. What is possible for them to know? What is possible for them to experience? The guy in the mailroom can’t know what happened in the company’s executive boardroom. The girl who doesn’t speak Spanish can’t tell you what the Spanish-speaking people around her are saying. A human being can’t know everything that ever happened in the whole world. So these people can’t tell us even if they wanted to. But the CEO, a native Spaniard, and an omnisicient narrator could. So the point of observation of that storyteller matters in what information is even possible for the reader to get.

Bias is what I use to describe how the narrator naturally interprets the information they take in. These are not their conscious views on the info, but the stuff that occurs to them automatically because of the assumptions that come from the way their experiences shaped them. A native earthling may compare the strange aliens to birds because that’s the closest frame of reference they have. An abuse victim may view any conflict at all as a potential danger. A novice horseman may interpret a horse’s violent reaction as a sign of aggression rather than fear. This colors their narration without their realizing it.

Filter, then, is what that narrator consciously chooses to mention or not mention. A person who suffered a trauma in the past may remember every moment but declare they don’t want to talk about it. A morally questionable person may leave out details of their actions so that their behavior doesn’t seem as repugnant. This shapes their narration because of their choices of what to say and what to leave out.

So, when you think about point of view being made up of what is possible to know, what is slanted about that knowledge, and what of that knowledge is presented or withheld, now you have more refines axes to consider how point of view is used in a given piece, and how you can make use of point of view in your own writing. Again, this level of precision prompts questions– what information do I need possible? In that case, what sort of narrator is in a position to provide it? That sort of thing.

I put this to the test recently, when I assigned a midterm in my literature class. I asked my students to choose one of three possible premises for a story, and then make a series of design choices as to how that story might play out in utilization of the various narrative tools we’d studied in the class. I found that a lot of them had much better ability to decide on meaningful storytelling choices because they knew what each tool’s function was. They could choose strong conflicts because they knew that conflict was supposed to provide a struggle for that character that was specifically challenging to the ways in which that character was currently deficient, and would have to grow and change in order to manage. They could choose effective settings because they knew setting provided context for the events based on time, location, and continuity of the universe. A lot of them who never thought they had the capacity to tell a story were better able to because the tool’s definitions let them ask the right questions– what would be the toughest thing for this character in particular? What did they need to develop in order to manage this challenge? Where were they going to end up once they’d grown that new strength? I took that as vindication that this approach works, not just as a working style and analytical process as it’s been for me, but also as an effective way to teach writing and literary analysis to people who don’t know how to do it.

The skill in imitation

One somewhat controversial thing I believe about writing is that it’s very good to be able to imitate other writers’ styles. Other writers and scholars thereof might disagree, failing to see any practical application for it, and protesting that it’s more important to refine and develop your own unique voice rather than trying to copy someone else’s. (You often hear that argument when people denigrate the writing of fan fiction.) But I maintain it’s not only good practice, it’s actually a skill worth having for its own sake.

Voice is an important aspect of writing, as it influences mood, feel, tone, and style. But I think an author shouldn’t necessarily be limited, or limit themselves, to only one. As nice and useful as it can be to have a signature style, I think it’s good to be able to adapt your writing to sound different for different pieces, or even for establishing different characters. If you don’t find some way to be flexible that way, you run the risk of making everything sound the same no matter the feel of the piece you may be going for– or worse, you make everything sound like you, which I find to be a sign of immature work. So imitating the sound of other writers’ styles and voices is an exercise in developing your flexibility. It requires you to stretch yourself beyond your natural impulses or current artistics strengths in order to create something that sounds like someone else’s work, which broadens the possibilities for what you’re capable of depicting. It gives you more control over the voice you give any one project, and enables a wider variety of feels and effects you can impart to your work.

This for me ties into the appeal of fan fiction. I know not everybody is this way, but both when I’m reading and writing fan fiction, I’m looking for more of the story I already love, with more of the things I love about it. So I’m drawn to pieces that stylistically capture the soul of the original. That also means that when I’m writing it myself, that’s what I’m shooting for– something that believably feels like it could be part of what’s canon. So I make a special effort to study and emulate the way the original material is written in my fic. The best job I ever did at this was with my piece for the BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure. I wrote basically a script for an additional episode of the series which, after the fashion of its idiosyncratic episode titling system, I called “San Tropez”. Cabin Pressure has a very specific, British style of humor with characters who have highly distinctive voices, and I worked very hard to capture them. If I may say so, I’m really proud of how good a job I did. I’ve gotten a number of comments from readers saying I nailed the style and voices exactly, and that it’s both funny and extremely in character.

But not only do I think it’s just good practice for increasing flexibility in other projects. I think it’s actually a useful skill in its own right. For collaborative projects, particularly ones that run for a while and have teams of writers, being able to fit in with the “house style” is essential. I have dreams of someday writing for television, and writers’ rooms have to have some degree of cohesion to make all the episodes feel consistent with each other. People tend to notice when the “voice” or “style” of a television show gets inconsistent or deviates from what is established, and reactions are usually disapproving. Sometimes it’s even at fault for what people describe as Seasonal Rot. In that case it would be a necessity for me to be able to adapt to a certain voice that may or may not naturally be mine.

So it’s more than just an amusing little “party trick” for writers of fan fiction. It’s actually a powerful developmental tool for a writer to expand their toolkit, and sometimes even demanded by a collaborative situation to keep the pieces all cohesive. So I like challenging myself to play in someone else’s sandbox every now and then.

A Theory of Costume Design class

I was thinking this week how much I would enjoy teaching a class about how to design costumes. Not a building or construction sort of class, but one where the focus was on the theory of how to come up with costuming that supports the narrative of whatever medium it is part of.

I would talk about the various ways costumes tell a story– how to use the color, shape, textures, and cultural signifiers to convey information. I’d go over how many media costume design is relevant in, from theater, to film and television, to animation, to roleplaying, to static photography, to graphic novels. I would discuss how differing media all have different practical requirements, such as how things on stage must read from far away, how a motion picture camera tends to flatten out some details while highlighting others, and in animation a costume has to deal with the demands of a moving image. I would talk about everything you’d have to consider when choosing costumes, both in the greater story as well the nature of the particular character, including personality, milieu, time period, class, taste, and position in the world. I’d go into the principles of period costuming, not just the historical knowledge you have to have, but the process of adaptation, to the needs of the project as well as the effect you want it to have on the audience. I’d mention how costumes have to work not just in isolation but with the other costumes, not to mention the other aspects of production design, and how that interaction works.

I can imagine the projects I’d assign. Pick an example of costume design that already exists and explain how it supports the narrative. Choose a dramatic work and come up with a design scheme for it, explaining the reasoning behind your choices. Choose a period of history and analyze the elements that are most emblematic of it, that must be captured in order to convey the feel. Adapt a historical costume and explain what choices you made in the adaptation. Final project: actually design a costume, pulling together whatever elements you need to convey your ideas, and then write about your process of deciding on each element.

It would be fun, and I would be good at that. I wonder if a school would ever let me do it. I don’t have a degree in it, but I’ve studied it a LOT on my own, and I have a lot of practical experience. I should keep my eyes open for any chance to pitch it to someone, be it a university I’m working for, or an adult education program, or anything like that.

Murder magnet

As a consumer and producer of adventure and mystery stories, there’s a certain trope that always gets on my nerves. When you’re doing case-based storytelling, when “working a case” provides the climactic structure, there needs to be some mechanism to bring the affair to the detective figure’s attention. There’s a certain way of handling that which really makes me roll my eyes– the one where too many of the mysteries arise because the detective just stumbles over them, usually because someone within their life sphere is the victim.

I know why so many writers use this. By making the victims of the crime at hand have some connection to the detective, the writer is able to crank the stakes up by means of the detective’s personal investment. It’s an easy way to create more interest in the case, by leveraging the interest the audience already has in the leads.

This annoys me for several reasons. First, I think it involves too much coincidence. How many investigation-worthy crimes can one person possibly have happen in their greater circle of acquaintance? It’s just not believable that intriguing mysteries just fall into their laps by happenstance all the time. And when the typical crime the detective tackles is murder, it becomes even more absurd. What is causing this ridiculously high murder rate? Is the detective just a death magnet, with every person even peripherally linked to them suddenly likely to meet a grisly premature end? Nobody would associate with that character or that character’s friends for fear for their life!

In my own work, I try to stay aware of this. The Mrs. Hawking stories work under a case system, but I mostly have clients come to her with their problems for her to solve. She may occasionally stumble over something, or go seeking it out, but it must be used sparingly. And I have to be extra careful if anything happens to people the leads know. That will properly utilize the impact of a case with personal connection to the heroes without wearing out the trope and pushing it past the bounds of believability.

The relative importance of tone

Tone tends to be very important to me when it comes to whether or not I can become absorbed in a given piece of media. By tone, I mean the overall feeling and vibe a piece gives off, plus the attitude they take towards their story or subject matter. Embracing the right tone for the right story is something I care very deeply about, and can make the difference between obtaining my buy-in to the tale you’re telling or shutting out my sympathy completely.

This can have an even more significant effect when I’m already invested in a property. For example, contributing to my notorious pickiness about fan fiction is that if I feel a fic has a tone that doesn’t fit properly with the original, I usually cannot get into it at all. I guess it doesn’t necessarily have to reproduce the same tone exactly, but unless it feels compatible, it just doesn’t work for me. Similarly, in a series, if later installments go too far off the tone, or embrace a tone that doesn’t gel with earlier ones, I get skeptical and put off.

Recently I experienced this most strongly (at least in the anticipation) of Guardians of the Galaxy. The Marvel movies have generally had a light tone that was not SO frivolous as to cut off drama, which I’ve always thought worked for them. When Guardians was announced, I was seriously doubting that it was going to work in context with the rest of the series. It pushed the boundaries of the silliness and weirdness allowed by the series, and I thought it was going to be really ATONAL, disrupting the vibe the world had established. I was surprised to find that Guardians worked, even with the tone shift, probably mostly because it wasn’t quite as exaggerated as I thought it would be, and because it existed at such a remove from the other stories, a literal galaxy away.

I am still doubtful of when the Guardians stuff bleeds into the already-established-on-Earth stuff. I still don’t quite buy the notion of Rocket Raccoon existing in the same universe as Jessica Jones. Though to be honest, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a fair bit darker than the films ever got, which is a tone shift of another kind. I guess when I get dramatically invested, I’m more likely to buy things getting a bit darker than getting sillier. That may just be my personal bias.

But it’s something to think about in my own work. It occurred me to that maybe my silly Woodhouse parody larp Woodplum House could be part of the Breaking History universe, except that it’s REALLY out there tonally from the rest, and that gave me pause. Again, it was weird thinking of that and Mrs. Hawking existing in the same world and theoretically being able to meet. Okay, I think she’s dead by the 1920s, but that’s beside the point. Hell, I’m even slightly worried about how the Hawking stories are going to take a slightly darker turn with the second trilogy. I don’t want to go all grimdark even so, and I don’t want to alienated people who liked the tone of the first set. I have to tell the story I have to tell– just as any writer does –but it’s one more of the many things to take into consideration when you’re taking on the challenge of serializing.

A work by any other name

I’ve always struggled with choosing titles for my written work. A lot rides on a title, so I have have standards for them that I’ve never been that good at meeting. They are the symbol of and the reference by which the work is known, so it should appropriate and worth to represent piece’s soul and quality.

A title needs many things. It must be easy to say and remember. It needs to sound good, with the right ring to be appealing. It can’t be too generic, or it won’t seem special to that story or stick in people’s minds. And it needs to really sum up the work it stands for, in a quick, catchy way. That’s a pretty tall order! Which is why I find it so challenging to come up with titles I’m satisfied with.

I tend to default to naming my stories after their protagonist. It’s often the easiest way to come up with a short, punchy, indicative title that sounds okay. I do choose pretty good character names, so at least they have a ring to them. “Mrs. Hawking,” for example. But they’re definitely on the obvious rather than the clever end of things.

The sort of titles that impress me most are those that use a non-literal idea that somehow represents the spirit of the story. Like, if you know what idea the title represents, you can see how that idea represents something important to the piece. The closest I’ve ever come to that sort of memetic title is “Base Instruments,” the name of Mrs. Hawking part three. A major theme of that story is people whose grandest ambitions and purposes demand perfection, but they are forced to confront the fact that human imperfections will always limit them. But, as Mrs. Hawking says, “Our instruments are base ones, but they are all God gives us for the task.”

Generally I’m not a fan of the “title drop” in the dialogue. It was supposedly a feature of the traditional “well-made” plays, like “Sometimes I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!” But I usually find it so awkward and self-conscious, like it grinds the story’s momentum to a halt as it takes you out of the flow. But I included that because most of my early readers didn’t see the title’s relevance without it, and I think that phrasing keeps it a bit more of a natural piece of dialogue than if I just reproduced the actual construction in the name.

I also tend to like titles with a slight note of irony, I find. It’s usually not obvious, but I like knowing that the ones I pick both represent the story and yet also hint at an important conflict in their inaccuracy, if you know what I mean. All the Mrs. Hawking titles have this. “Mrs. Hawking” is the protagonist’s name, but identifying her in terms of her marriage is in no way accurate to the person that she is. “Vivat Regina” is a patriotic expression means “Long live the queen,” but the hero of that story strongly disapproves of the queen and all she stands for. And as I said, “Base Instruments,” refers to human limitations compromising the perfection of enterprise, but still the people confronting this truth possess truly exquisite instruments nonetheless.

The best one I’ve ever come up with— as is often the case with this piece, I find —is in my opinion “Adonis.” Punchy, evocative, representative, mellifluous, recognizable, and with that delicious undertone of irony. Adonis refers to our protagonist Aidan, and yet it doesn’t— it refers to an artificial personality that was forced on him, one that he resents, and stands for the major problem of his life. That’s a lot to ask from a single word, and yet it achieves all that. It’s good enough that I have no idea what to call the subsequent installments of the story, because I don’t know what else could ever be as good.

Bernie also recently brought up the issue of titles not just for individual works but for series. They present an additional level of challenge, because they have to sum up an entire collection of stories. With my own, I tend to default to the title of the first work, referring to them as “the Mrs. Hawking series” or “the Adonis trilogy.” The only good one I’ve ever devised is “Breaking History,” the collective name I gave to everything within my greater historical fiction universe, which includes the Hawking stories, the collection around The Stand, and the greater Fairfield family.

Some random titles I admire, ignoring those named explicitly for their protagonist or for the obvious setting. Game of Thrones is excellent, definitely better than the series name, so I’m not surprised that the TV adaptation chose to go with that rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. Halo, for the video game, is one of the most exquisite titles I’ve ever encountered for any creative work ever. I do not like puns, however, which cuts out a huge chunk of possibilities. I haven’t watched Orphan Black, so I don’t know if it’s representative, but just on ring alone that’s fantastic. Boardwalk Empire is great. Lost is super punchy. I rarely like long titles, except as a joke about how long they are. Hark, a Vagrant!, the comic by Kate Beaton, I always loved for its specific bizarre awkwardness. So I can appreciate things outside my box. But I’m so particular about it, and the way they strike my ear can really influence my impression of the work.

The drafting process

The drafting process doesn’t come naturally to me, and as such, at times I find it frustrating. During my early development as a writer, I was extremely compelled to edit as I wrote, and if I couldn’t figure out just how I wanted to phrase something, I wouldn’t write it. That lead to nothing ever getting written, as that level of perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. It wasn’t until I started telling myself to just write SOMETHING, no matter how bad it was, no matter how far away from what I was envisioning, that I started actually making progress.

Of course, when you finally start working that way, you need to next confront the challenge that is the process of revising. This too did not come naturally to me. Most of the time, when I write something flawed I can tell that there’s something not right about it— though not always, never discount the value of other sets of eyes —but just couldn’t figure out how to do it properly instead. I am subjected to the feeling of “Well, if I knew what it was supposed to be, I would have written it that way the first time!” Which is of course an utter fallacy, but it’s one I have to work through.

The two ways I combat this are as follows. First I resign myself to the fact that the first draft is going to suck. I don’t shoot for “good” or “accurate” the first time around; I just shoot for finished. I get some semblance of a complete telling of my story. I chunk it down into small pieces; scenes are usually for me the most convenient. When that first very, very rough draft is finished, then I like to do a second pass, seeing if any easy or obvious fixes jump out at me. The result of that, which I continue to pick at, becomes draft two.

The second things is having friends come over to read the script and give opinions. That has been amazingly helpful for me. It gives me fresh perspectives, and allows me a little bit of critical distance that enables me to see what I wrote in a new way. That often gets me passed that “if I knew how it should be I would have written it that way the first time” feeling. I’m so lucky and grateful for friends who come over and do this for me; I owe them so much. I then do the next round of edits based on their comments. Often I have a reading of this third draft as well, and that second round of responses often leads to the more or less finalized version.

And now I’m writing about writing in order to procrastinate writing. That’s enough of that! Back to the work that got me thinking about this in the first place.

The tradeoff for plot

As a writer, plot is very important to me. I care about other things too, of course– character, voice, style, things like that –but I have a very hard time getting invested in a story unless "something interesting happens" in it.

It also happens to be part of the writing process I'm pretty good at. I have a lot of ability to figure out cool events to occur in my stories, and those stories make sense such that the reader can follow their progress, and they unfold at an appropriate rate of speed. Most of my stories have pretty dynamic, solidly-constructed plots. Good examples of this include The Tailor at Loring's End with its well-built mystery, as well as the way the action facilitates interpersonal stories in the Mrs. Hawking plays.

However, when you care about establishing plot in that degree, it takes a lot of time and work. You find yourself having to devote a lot of your story just to the ensuring that everything that needs to happen has time to happen. It puts a really high demand on utilizing moments for multiple purposes at once, such as to advance the plot AND reveal the character. That's very difficult. One thing I particularly struggle with is subtext, I tend to have much more direct conflicts of feelings and motives instead, so making a limited amount of text perform double-duty is very challenging for me. I need to get better at it.

I think of this because I'm currently doing the script edit for Puzzle House Blues, the musical I'm co-writing. After a fairly intensive restructuring of plot events in order to make the arcs work, we've gotten to a place where we're happy with the structure. But now the concern is to make sure there's enough character in there as well, that the audience can really tell who all these people are. It's challenging because a piece for theater performance for a modern audience needs to not exceed a two-hour runtime, and a certain large percentage of a musical must be devoted to the music. So I need to work on my skills at using every line economically– so nothing is sacrificed for plot or character.