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  1. #1
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Architecture of Stories

    Before I became an aerospace software and systems engineer I earned a degree in film and TV production. The degree helped in several ways whenever I was forced to take management jobs, oddly enough. Screenwriting has a lot of overlap with task and project planning, for instance. It overlaps even more with novel writing, of course, and understanding screenplay architecture can help with both creating and critiquing novels.

    Screenwriters (and directors and editors) must learn to think in hierarchical terms. Several frames of film make up a "shot," a series of images captured by a camera from a particular point of view. Shots show some low-level act such as opening a door. Several shots make up a "scene," where several actors perform a higher-level act, such as bursting inside a house to arrest a criminal. Scenes have a definite beginning and ending in time and space, where the time scale might be in milliseconds or millennia and the space might stretch over a path inches or parsecs long.

    Several scenes make a "sequence" with some unifying scheme. In action-adventure films it might be: bad guys do bad things to a good guy's family, s/he discovers the atrocities (and so has an excuse to do bad things to bad guys), and begins a journey to find the bad guys.

    Finally, sequences make up an "act." Stage plays typically have three acts (with two intermissions). Hour-long TV shows might have a one-three minute "tease" act and three acts before the half-hour and three after, with possibly a one-three minute "tag" or (more usually) next-week "prevue." Screen-plays usually have a 20-30 minute "launch" act, three-seven "flight" acts of various lengths, and a 20-30 minute "landing" act. That last act usually begins with a "climax" sequence and ends with a "resolution" sequence.

    Sound pretty artificial? All art is artifice, but a skilled artist can smooth the edges to hide the joints. And make their customers apprehend their works as "organic" and alive and more than the sums of their parts.
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; December 20th, 2009 at 10:35 AM.

  2. #2
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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    Literary Architecture

    Laer, you are hitting a bull's eye. I've spent a fair amount of time in music, which follows a very similar architecture. Typically, a theme is played, then variations, then an interruptive theme, then a resolution which often hearkens back to the original theme. Even something as simple as a country & western song has a verse, another verse, a bridge (different tune), then a final verse that follows the tune of verse #1. Each verse has its own beginning, middle and end -- lyrically and musically.

    No rules, of course, have universal application; but after tens of thousands of years of storytelling, the guidelines you've outlined have been pretty well proven.

    The difference, of course, between schlock writing and fine writing is harder to codify. An individual writer's in-the-moment access to the characters' mental and emotional states, and the ability to fluently communicate those states to the reader, are uber-important -- but I don't know if that skill can be taught. It's the Holy Grail.

    --WB

  3. #3
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Thanks for the info Laer. Confirms something I read recently. Do you work with outlines on your novels similar to what you learned as a film maker?

  4. #4
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Architecture of Stories - part 2

    Every artist works differently, and may work differently on each work of art. Some writers may outline extensively, some may "discover" their story, some may do a combination of both. I (to answer tmso) am very much in that middle camp.

    Whichever approach we writers take, we are helped because we know the overall structure of stories. We have read, heard, and seen thousands of stories large, small, and in-between. The structural knowledge we have learned from them is buried deep in our subconscious, at the very least. It guides us subliminally when we create a story.

    A conscious knowledge of structure can be useful during creation, but it is especially useful when we critique our story. It helps make clear what parts of our story have come out lopsided or lumpy, and why. Then we can switch back to story creation and fix the problems.

    Screenplay story structure is useful to contemplate because we can see all parts of it on screen, or in scripts. Screenplays are more uniform than books and magazines. And screenplays are fairly short. Adapting a book to a film forces the writer to cut novel-length books to novella length. That means half of it must go, or much more if the book is quite long.

    (This can be agonizing for a screenwriter, who knows s/he can completely satisfy no one, especially those who love the book most - which may include hi/rself once s/he has gotten deep into the book. The one bright side is that moving visual media can show much in a short time. And the screenwriter needs only to give the barest description of setting and characters and actions and someone else will make them "real.")
    _________________________________________________
    The lowest levels of a film are frames and shots. In literary works it is sentences and paragraphs. From there up everything is same. The basic dramatic unit of a story is the scene, which can be collected into sequences, which can be collected into acts. But what is higher than that? The book. Sometimes the books are short and several can fit into a single bound volume. More often each conceptual book is also a physical book.

    Whichever, the highest level is the story. It may be made of one book (conceptual and physical), and that is the most frequent case. In SF and especially fantasy the story may be several books, most often a trilogy. (Publishers sometimes call separate books with a common background or character a trilogy, tetralogy, or whatever, even though each book is a distinct story which often can be read out of sequence.)

    Let's drop down the hierarchy to the act level. Many people say a story has a beginning, middle, and end. But this is stupid; it only describes the SEQUENCE of the parts. It does not describe the FUNCTION of the parts.
    _________________________________________________
    A better term for the beginning part is "set-up." But this is still too vague. I call it the "launch" (to SF people) or "departure" (perhaps on a quest, to fantasy people) or some other term. Whatever word I use, it implies a DECISION to seek a goal. The goal might be vague and negative ("away from this boring place") or vague and positive ("someplace where I'll be respected"). It can be physical, social, mental, or emotional or some combination of all four types or qualities of goals.

    Before the decision the main character or team of characters exists in a "balance" place. Cinderella is abused but safe from weather and hunger. Before the balance is the "backstory": how the main character came to the balance. Cinderella is the step-daughter of a widow.

    But if everything is in balance, why would the hero(ine) decide to do anything to change the situation?

    Because s/he receives information that gives the hope of changing the situation for the better. The boy/girl they loved once is back in town. A job has opened up that seems better than the boring one the protagonist has. Or the information awakens one's fear that the situation is about to change for the worse. The girl/boy next door who the protagonist secretly loves is leaving for college. The main character is about to be fired.

    This information is the "trigger" for the hero(ine) to act.

    The parts of the beginning don't have to be presented in a set order. Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion trilogy begins with Paks leaving home, and we learn something of her home and history a few pages later when she's being interviewed by the recruiting sergeant for the mercenary company Paks wants to join. (Home and history are also expanded several places further along in the story, including places where Paks gains different perspectives on them.)

    And what is the trigger for Pakse's running away from home? It is two events she has decided on perhaps years before: she has reached the age of majority, and the yearly recruiting squad has arrived in Three Firs near her home.
    _________________________________________________
    The middle part of a story is the longest. It involves repeatedly acting against obstacles along the path to the goal. And they may be of several kinds: physical, social, mental, or emotional or some combination of all four. (The more interesting stories, to me at least, includes several kinds of obstacles. Ulysses proved himself to be not only a great warrior but a smart one as well.)

    Each attempt on an obstacle has several parts: perceiving or imagining the obstacle, planning (perhaps very vaguely or reflexively) how to overcome the obstacle, acting, then succeeding or failing. If the attempt failed, the process is repeated: (better) studying the obstacle, (better) planning, etc.

    Your protagonist may have to make several attempts on each obstacle. After failing repeatedly s/he may decide to radically change hi/r path to the goal. Or even decide upon a different goal, perhaps a radically different rather than equivalent goal.

    Or a failure may turn out to be an opportunity, perhaps for the writer or for the protagonist. The captured warrior may encounter new obstacles. S/he may also discover treasures or learn useful skills.

    Finally the last obstacle is attempted. When the protagonist decides to make no more attempts the story is over. There may be several reasons for this final decision. The goal was reached. The goal has proven impossible to reach.

    Or the goal may not be desired any more. Perhaps the formerly geeky boy teen hero realizes that it is not the cheerleader he wants. His faithful female friend has helped him lose weight and bulk up, taught him how to dress well, how to converse easily with strangers, how to dance and flirt. He turns to look at her at the prom and, God, how beautiful she is! He holds out his hand. "Isn't this your favorite song?"
    _________________________________________________
    The decisive last victory or failure is the climax of the story. It separates the middle from the ending, where the protagonist returns to a new balance. It also begins the afterstory.

    Sometimes the ending is very brief. You might write it as a short summary, or hint at further happenings, or even just leave it up to your readers imagination. But sometimes the protagonist and hi/r friends and the setting become very appealing to your readers. Then it might please them to have a scene or two where your hero enjoys the fruits of hi/r labors.

    This is also the place to suggest further adventures your hero might have in the future. But you must be very careful not to undercut your reader's pleasurable feeling of completion. To disturb the new balance too soon.
    _________________________________________________
    Well, so she wasn't going to the Olympics after all. When she could leap tall buildings with a single bound there wasn't much fun in triple-somersault aerial dismounts.

    She sipped her drink and idly looked out at the other customers of the open-air restaurant. Hmm! Iced tea on a hot day!

    Now what could she do? Become a superhero? But where was she going to get hose that didn't unravel every time she beat up a gang? Where would she get a costume -- and why the Hell would she want one? How was she going to make rent money? How --?

    Well, no need to become a crime fighter right this instant. For one thing, that guy who'd just ordered (she tuned her super hearing down) beef bourguignon was kind of cute ....
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; December 31st, 2009 at 03:21 PM.

  5. #5
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Architecture of Stories - part 3

    (This part moved to a separate thread.)
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; December 31st, 2009 at 03:29 PM.

  6. #6
    In general, I go by this tested framework for telling a story:

    I. Introduce the characters and foreshadow the conflict

    II. Introduce the antagonist and put the protagonist in peril

    III. Give the protagonist a brief respite and an explanation of the conflict

    IV. Place the protagonist back into the thick of the action and give the antagonist the upper hand.

    V. Bring about a confrontation along with a moment of epiphany/revelation for the protagonist

    VI. Resolution, the time to tie up loose ends or set the stage for a sequel.

  7. #7
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    I'm in the write as I go camp. I get characters and situations, then start writing and the characters, if I've created workable ones, will lead me to what happens next. At some point, I have enough story to be able to see a bit ahead. I don't necessarily write to a point, but I get ideas about what's going on and make notes to keep things consistent during editing/revising/writing.

    In my WIR, midway through the first draft, things weren't working, so I cut 80 pages and started again from the point where things went awry. Same problem, cut 80 pages, and this time, changed the protag a bit, jettisoned a character, created another, and revamped a 3rd completely, and things flowed to 110,000 words bringing me to The End. Now I'm revising. If you ask me the structure of the story, I'd tell you I have no clue. But it reads well to me and 4 beta readers of the current version liked it and one of the first draft liked it, but thought the first half was too slow, which was what I changed for the second draft. So, I guess it ended up a complete story. One of these days, I'll write an outline for it. Have to finish revising first, though, so the outline will match the story I'll be submitting.

    Some of us are not analytical and can't plan or see structure. A friend of mine sees structure in all stories, hers and everyone else's. Some of us just work on instinct.

  8. #8
    LaerCarroll.com
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    The Primal Story

    Quote Originally Posted by ShellyS View Post
    I'm in the write as I go camp. I get characters and situations, then start writing and the characters, if I've created workable ones, will lead me to what happens next.
    ...
    Some of us are not analytical and can't plan or see structure.
    Perhaps you're trying to be too analytical. All you need remember is the most basic, primal structure - Someone Strives for Something.

    That's where your main character comes in. S/he must want something. What is it?

    It could be something specific, as in "Who Done It?" It could be vague - "How do I get through every day at school without the mean (popular, rich, beautiful) girls being mean to me?" In the first your character is going toward something, in the second away.

    Over time the something, the goal, may stay the same. Or it may change. Once the murderer is discovered, the detective may then want to prevent further murders - including one's own, if the bad guy/gal finds out hi/r identity has been discovered.

    What are the obstacles between your character and hi/r goal? What actions must s/he take to defeat the obstacles?

    That's the start of understanding any story: the most basic story of all. Everything else follows from that. Chances are you already know it, at least at the most primal level. The primal pattern holds for everything living, from protozoa to gods, and everything that mimics life.

  9. #9
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    Perhaps you're trying to be too analytical. All you need remember is the most basic, primal structure - Someone Strives for Something.

    That's where your main character comes in. S/he must want something. What is it?
    See, this is the very kind of question that stymied me and caused me to stop writing anything other than fanfic for 10 years. It was when I stopped trying to be analytical to any degree that I was freed and could start trying to write a novel again. I don't need to remember anything because that implies a conscious act, that of remembering. If it's in my backbrain, and I trust that it is, I don't have to worry about it. I might not structure a story according to some formula or the way you or others might structure it, but it works. A half dozen beta readers in total think it's a good story. Flat in places, a bit dull or wordy, perhaps, but as a story, it worked for them and since they're just people I know online, they have no reason to suck up to me.

    I have no idea what my characters want until I write them. Then, they tell me. They move the story forward and when it's wrong, they tell me by .... well, it's all instinctual. The prose feels wrong and it will stay wrong until I fix it so it feels right.

    I know I'm not the only person who writes this way and while we may be in the minority, we do exist and for us, advice to answer questions like that, or to outline ahead of the writing, or scores more things like that can block us.

    It could be something specific, as in "Who Done It?" It could be vague - "How do I get through every day at school without the mean (popular, rich, beautiful) girls being mean to me?" In the first your character is going toward something, in the second away.
    My characters want to tell me a story. I can't answer such questions about them until I write them. I can create their backgrounds, but I don't "know" them until I write them and bring them to life. And so much of their bios are tossed aside as I write them, and new, different things added.

    They "dictate" the story to me. And as I go, my backbrain starts filling in bits and pieces of backstory I hadn't known until then and plot points I now have to write down because my memory in middle-age isn't what it was when I was younger and I can no longer handle all the details in my head.

    So, for my WIR, the setting is Mars. The situation is the first presidential election campaign. There's been a cave-in. The cause of the cave-in will affect the election. That's what I started with. Characters came after that. After I designed the cities and drew maps. After I did the background info. Then I knew I needed investigators. And I wanted to use a version of a character I'd created for some fan fic stories, so I made him the protag and let him guide me. But the first version of him was wrong. He was too reactive, not enough of a self-starter. It took me two more tries to get him right. But once I did, he took me right to "the end."

    Over time the something, the goal, may stay the same. Or it may change. Once the murderer is discovered, the detective may then want to prevent further murders - including one's own, if the bad guy/gal finds out hi/r identity has been discovered.
    Way too specific for my brain to wrap around. That's one story to me. I can extrapolate for darned near everything except writing. Writing is ingrained in me. I just have to let the stories come out. Patricia Wrede said I seemed to be both an instinctual writer and an instinctual editor/reviser, and while I'm not fond of labels, those fit and made me feel a whole lot better about not being comfortable or able to answer such questions or putting things on those terms.

    What are the obstacles between your character and hi/r goal? What actions must s/he take to defeat the obstacles?
    That's why I write the story! To find out all those things and more. I can't know any of that until I write them. And sometimes, they change because they don't work for the story. If I had things in mind to start, I wouldn't be able to change them later. Not planning in advance makes me more flexible. One reason I can't outline. It's wrong, doesn't fit the characters when I write them and I either can't use it or I have to bend the characters to fit. It creates an emotional conflict in me. Plus, I get the feeling the story is written and I lose interest in it.

    That's the start of understanding any story: the most basic story of all. Everything else follows from that.
    Well, yeah, after the fact, but I don't care about after the fact. I care about before, when I have to write the story. I really don't care if I understand it or not. I want it to be readable, enjoyable, and to make people want to keep reading. BTW, I sucked at analyzing fiction in school, too. I passed because I got good at figuring out what I was supposed to say in those classes.

    So, for me, everything follows from having the right characters in the right situation.

    Chances are you already know it, at least at the most primal level. The primal pattern holds for everything living, from protozoa to gods, and everything that mimics life.
    Well, sure. The primal level is probably my backbrain, instinct, whatever. It doesn't make it any easier to deal with advice that I can't follow because unless I or people like me find a way to bring the backbrain consistently to the fore, it's just plain frustrating to try to analyze anything in a story. I tried doing it. It gave me headaches.

    I think it's important to explain this in hopes I can spare people wasted time, like the decade of frustration I suffered when I thought I could never be a pro writer because I couldn't write the way I was supposed to write or because what more experienced writers told me was the way to write, structure a story, etc. If I can spare someone that, if I can encourage them and help them realize that all that matters is finishing a story and making it readable, then I'm happy. We might still never be published. That can be a crapshoot. But at least we'll have finished a novel and an awful lot of aspiring pro writers can't say that.

  10. #10
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    There's a danger to analysis: "what you know subconsciously" and your conscious theories can clash. Now, in empirical science, when you find the system you're analysing does not behave according to your theory, you try to find out why. But if you're analysing things of human creation, you're prone to see the same unexpected deviations as flaws. Worst-case scenario: the very thing that makes your writing interesting is perceived as a flaw.

    When you say things like:

    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carrol
    Whichever approach we writers take, we are helped because we know the overall structure of stories. We have read, heard, and seen thousands of stories large, small, and in-between. The structural knowledge we have learned from them is buried deep in our subconscious, at the very least. It guides us subliminally when we create a story.

    A conscious knowledge of structure can be useful during creation, but it is especially useful when we critique our story. It helps make clear what parts of our story have come out lopsided or lumpy, and why. Then we can switch back to story creation and fix the problems.
    you're glossing over that very problem. If your "subconscious knowledge" and your "conscious theory" clashes, it's not always the "subconscious knowledge" that's at fault.

    "Conscious theories" often priviledge a certain element. So, for example, when you go on:

    Screenplay story structure is useful to contemplate because we can see all parts of it on screen, or in scripts. Screenplays are more uniform than books and magazines. And screenplays are fairly short. Adapting a book to a film forces the writer to cut novel-length books to novella length. That means half of it must go, or much more if the book is quite long.
    you're priviledging the visual and auditory. I might counter: if you find this type of exercise useful, why don't you write screenplays in the first place? The answer to that question might point you towards elements of writing that this process encourages you to neglect. (Or it might lead to write screen plays. Who knows?)

    Such priviledging of elements is the stuff of movements: realism, surrealism, dadaism, epic theatre, theatre of the absurd...

    Analysis is best when it's neutral; when it's telling you things like:

    Approach A can have effects a, b and c
    Approach B can have effects b, c and d
    Since A & B are similar in b and c, the decision we make depends on a or d, or the relative weighting of b and c, which have yet to investigate...

    But writing-advise doesn't normally work like this. It usually comes with a priviledging element.

    I agree that analysis can be helpful. But I have to amend that it depends on the writer, and that analysis can also be harmful - by directing attention to all the wrong spots (style rape), or to the right spots with too much intensity (system collapse).

    If you attempt analysis, you better make sure you're good at it (= it works for you - we're not after objective truths, here, though we'd still profit from acknowledging subjectivity in communication with others).

  11. #11
    Edited for submission Holbrook's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm View Post
    and that analysis can also be harmful -

    Very much so, as I have found to my cost recently. It sometimes kills the genie before he is out of the bottle.

  12. #12
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm View Post
    ...
    I agree that analysis can be helpful. But I have to amend that it depends on the writer, and that analysis can also be harmful - by directing attention to all the wrong spots (style rape), or to the right spots with too much intensity (system collapse).

    If you attempt analysis, you better make sure you're good at it (= it works for you - we're not after objective truths, here, though we'd still profit from acknowledging subjectivity in communication with others).
    Yeah, that's pretty much it. My one-time collaborator can see structure in every story, good structure and bad structure. She actually used to write screenplays and structured fiction that way. She was structuring the novel we were going to write together that way (health problems have caused her to stop writing). Screenplay structure is ingrained with her. It and her ability to see structure in writing is pretty much subconscious and conscious. It's simply the way her brain works and how she thinks. I could never do that and trying just irritated me and didn't make my writing any better.

    I'd tried to learn more about structure and to try to consciously work with it because I thought it would make me a better writer. It didn't. What helped me develop as a writer (and even I can see my improvement) was the old practice, practice, practice method and learning to trust myself. And I think gradually, some of that structure stuff got embedded in my subconsciousness. Where it belongs.

  13. #13
    aurea plectro goldhawk's Avatar
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    Hollywood is becoming too plot oriented. All stories can be divide into two categories: plot oriented and character oriented. Hollywood has become fascinated with plot to the decrement of character. I don't see Hollywood of today even considering a movie like Citizen Cain.

    Not all stories follow the conventional plot. Consider George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It has no protagonist or antagonist. Although it may eventually have a resolution, it may not have a climax. The best way to describe it is a series of inter-tangled subplots.

    An example of a character-oriented story is Hamlet. The plot is simple: should he kill the king or forgive him? But it takes him the entire play to decide (and in the end, he botches it).

    I would say the study of plot is more important if you like writing plot-oriented stories. If you like character-oriented ones, don't worry about the plot so much; concentrate on character.

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    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    While it may be true, Goldhawk, about Hollywood and screenplay plotting, the basic structure of the screenplay, divided into acts is probably still true. My friend follows Syd Field's Screenplay and applies that structure to fiction. She and I have had long discussions and, since she did have a TV episode produced that she wrote, I figure she does know what she's talking about, even if she doesn't write, anymore. I think I've absorbed some of it into my subconscious, so maybe that's part of my improvement as a writer. I just couldn't tell you what that structuring in my stories might be!

  15. #15
    aurea plectro goldhawk's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ShellyS View Post
    I just couldn't tell you what that structuring in my stories might be!
    In that case, I would say you are a character-oriented writer. What's more important, what your characters do or how they feel about it? As for your friend, she would be a plot-oriented writer.

    What I am saying is know your strengths and weakness. Go with your strengths but shore up your weakness. If your stories don't seem to have a strong plot, then ask yourself if you should put more emphases on character.

    There is nothing wrong with being either type of writer. Just do feel you are a failure if you don't write the same way as others.

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