One of the great struggles I have had in my writing has been coming to terms with structure. It may not be a universal indignation, but when my screenwriting partner first introduced me to some of the standard notions of screenplay structure, I rebelled. It was ridiculous, I thought. Like capturing lightning. Acts? Inciting Incidents? No, story flows free from the artist and takes whatever shape it wills.
Which can be true. Just not, generally, in stories that anybody likes.
So I’ve come around. Various screenwriting treatises, and my own experience, have showed me that structure isn’t a crutch for creating a story, but rather the natural condition by which a story is recognized. Put generally enough, a story is where something happens that matters. And to make something matter, it requires preconditions and consequences.
That’s a basic, if confusing, way of looking at it. One of the best explainers of the way story works is Dan Harmon, creator of Community (the greatest show currently on TV) and original proprietor of Channel 101, where funny things used to happen. Maybe they still do, I haven’t paid attention.
Dan Harmon wrote a series of articles to help people making TV shows for Channel 101 do something coherent: stories that would satisfy the definition of story, even if it only took 5 minutes to tell. His articles are currently on the Channel 101 Wiki:
101. Basic Structure
102. Boring Theory
104. Details (read this, if nothing else)
In these articles, Dan Harmon elucidates his distilled theory of story. It is also covered, quite briefly, in this article in Wired. Basically, story consists of 8 elements, which can be somewhat reductively termed:
An individual (or group) needs to make a change in their environment (or is confronted with a change), reacts, confronts it, finds their old way of doing things or being is inadequate to this confrontation, so either they must change themselves, or die.
Luke Skywalker seeks out adventure, and after his Aunt and Uncle are killed goes questing with Obi Wan Kenobi, and can only blow up death stars after he trusts up the force*. Scott Pilgrim is happy with his no-touching high school girlfriend, until he sees Ramona, and likes her better. Then he has to fight all sorts of evil exes, and it isn’t until he’s really honest, and not a little puss, that he can deserve anyone. Bob Parr longs for the days when he was Mr. Incredible, and sneaks around on his family to relive past glory. This puts them in mortal danger, until he is ready to acknowledge he needs them just as much as he does his love for superheroing.
*It is almost de rigeur that Star Wars is used as the example for story structure in manuals and articles. It works, because it hits all the major points right on (except for having a prologue sequence, where we don’t meet our protagonist/main character for a pretty long time) but it is also a detriment, since it can create the mindset that these story structure ideas only apply to “Star Wars”-like stories, which isn’t the case at all. So, this is the last time I will use Star Wars as an example**. Promise.
**Another note – this is NaNoWriMo. Shouldn’t I be using novels as my examples? No. Here’s why: Stephen King once noted, and I think he was right, that the least watched movie of his stories was probably seen by more people than read his most popular book. Now, this was before Night Flyer came out, but the point stands: the chance of you good people having seen a movie I mention is much greater than you having read a book that I have. Case in point: I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. So, Da Vinci Code examples mean little to me. I’m sticking to celluloid. And story structure is generally constant, transcending medium.
Basic. The things that make them the stories they are. NONE OF IT IS ENOUGH. But without these bare parts, the stories don’t really exist.
So, today, before I did my writing, I slapped up a circle on the dry erase board, stood, and thought. I filled it out mostly in order, though there is no reason to think that that’s any better than jumping around. In fact, filling out the end is probably helpful to figuring out the beginning – where your main character (who, by the way, does not NEED to be your protagonist – more on that later) ends up can tell you where he came from.
Dan Harmon argues that the circle is not an imposition on story, but rather, without these bare elements, you have something else. Not a story. This is what you need to make something that will satisfy an audience. Narrative. Cause and effect.
There’s a million other places to read about story structure. Vogler. McKee. Story Engineering by Brooks, which I mentioned yesterday, has the lion’s share of its content applying the concepts of screenwriting structure to novels, and we’ll definitely be revisiting more of his ideas. Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat books also figure highly in my structure considerations, particularly with his mostly really useful (except when it isn’t) beat sheet. But the simplest, and perhaps most useful tool for creating story (and that’s the point of these tools – not analysis, but making something new) is the Harmon Circle.
Here’s how I use it.
First, I take the circle and fill it out piece by piece. In “You”, I do not just write my main character’s name, but who he is. I say “Scott Pilgrim”, you get nothing. I say, “Scott Pilgrim, unemployed bass player who just started dating a high schooler” and you know something about this guy. Not “Woody”, but “Woody, a wooden cowboy doll and Andy’s favorite toy.”
I move down the circle. Need = what does this character have to change, or react to? Scott Pilgrim gets infatuated with Ramona Flowers. Woody’s happy home is disturbed by the encroachment of Buzz Lightyear.
On the circle for my current book, my main character, Malcolm Weeks (name subject to change) was rescued from a cult in his youth and has grown up to be an exit counselor, helping other people extricate themselves from the same situation. In the “Need” section, he is working on rescuing a young woman from out of the clutches of a cult leader he only knows as Woodman. So I know what my first “act” will consist of in terms of conflict.
Move down the rest of the circle, and fit in brief concepts that coordinate to the elements represented. Just enough detail that it demonstrates movement in the story. Just like the premise, the completed circle should be filled with seeds from which the details of the story can grow.
Tomorrow, we’ll brief on characters, then continue discussing outlining, including beat sheets, inciting incidents, and whether outlines, once written, are best ignored.
1683 words (2262 total.) Finished the first chapter. I’ll be discussing chapter length later (sneak preview: James Patterson did not invent short chapters. How’s that for insight?) as well as how I’m titling my chapters. And titles. Gosh, a lot goes into the creation of a book.
What I’m still missing is a complete outline, though I have my circle, and know now how my story will end, more or less. Spoilers: a lot of the stuff I dismissed out of hand yesterday in my premise work has wormed its way back into my story. But I’m still short on characters (I made a list today, which I’ll be talking about in the next couple of days.) And I’ve made the decision my main character is not the story’s protagonist, which makes everything more complicated.
Today’s Writing Soundtrack: Electric Wizard, We Live. Sludgy, devilish sludginess. With a touch of sludge on the side.