"A story is a Swiss watch timed to a beating heart." One of my favorite sayings about storytelling, and it relates to the aspects of writing that are mechanical as opposed to those that embrace chaos. (And yes, the heartbeat is not some metronome--it flutters around rhythmically, which is one of the reasons that exercise that includes variation is healthiest and most productive:
Well, I had originally intended this saying as a metaphor, but it's delightful to know that I was technically accurate as well. Well...the truth is that even when it comes to the mechanistic aspects of story, once you learn the basics you create art by adjusting and sliding those basics around to manipulate emotions, theme, and meaning. Oh, and rhythm and tempo.
But after a conversation with one of my favorite students yesterday, I thought I would emphasize one aspect (knowing that this student will read this: yes! I mean YOU!): by the end of the first act, you need to have established place, characters, tone and the basic dilemma your character needs to solve by the end of the piece.
Now, the "first act" is of course an artificial construct, but so long as you remember that, it is useful. Generally, that "first act climax" appears about 20-30% of the way into your story. In it, you meet the lead character, introduce the status quo in his world, and then throw him out of balance. The story then cannot conclude until the balance, or a new balance, is restored to his inner and outer world. I personally like stories where the balance is dynamic, where after great trial your character will rise to a new level of integration and understanding. But the higher you want them to go, the deeper the depth of pain and despair they have to go through before they get there, which means that the problem you whack them with has to be their worst nightmare.
1) "What is the worst thing that can happen, and how could it turn into the very best?" Or:
2) "What is the best thing that could happen, and how could it turn into the very worst?"
1) Casablanca. Rick's old love walks into his cafe, ripping his guts out. But by the end, he will come to understand himself, his woman, and his place in the world with exquisite clarity, and embrace his true destiny.
2) Chinatown. Jake Gittes finds an opportunity to bring down one of the "big boys" he has fought against his entire career. But by the end, his own hubris and ego will have destroyed everyone who trusted him, and his own false self image.
1) Again and again in my own life, disasters have been opportunities to grow. I recall my brother Patric Young's expression when things get tough: "thank you God, for giving me another chance to find out who I really am."
2) Early in my career, I was given opportunities for which I was not yet prepared. My ego swelled, but it was definitely a "pride goeth before a fall" and the defeat was crushing.
However...(and have you already intuited the joke?) life is in cycles. A story may be "and they lived happily ever after." But life is up and down and up and down...moving through or along different levels of performance and existence, either up or down the scale of integration and experience. With fiction, you can simulate this by showing different aspects of a character's life: some up, some down. If you want a powerfully positive feeling, you simply coordinate "ups" for their relationship, self-image and external circumstances all at the same time. A powerful down? Simultaneous crash-and-burn in multiple arenas.
But that all has to be set up with that first act climax. This cannot quite be taught, but it can be learned. Your best bet is to look at a dozen of your favorite movies or books, classics, and ask yourself what is the world-shattering event that takes place about 20% of the way into the story. Then ask yourself what is the emotional charge at the climax. Study the relation between them, and come up with your own theory about how it works. Test that theory in your writing, and note the reactions from your readers.
And in your own life: note cycles of up and down and up in career, relationships, and physical health. Journal about what you observe. The connections between what you see in life, and in fiction, will mostly twine together on an unconscious level. But it will be critical to developing your own theories and approaches...to both fantasy and fact.
Friday, October 19, 2012
Posted by Steven Barnes at 5:18 AM