The Inside Story

Title: Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc

Author: Dara Marks

Genre: Writing Guide

Length: 327 pages

Read: Oct 22 – Nov 3, 2011

Summary: Best book I’ve read on character arcs.

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I’ve been finishing up my fourth (and hopefully final) draft on my new book Untimed. In discussing the previous draft with one of my writer friends he recommended this book on writing. It’s aimed at screenwriters, but while the mediums are different, there are a lot of commonalities — stories are still stories.

The Inside Story deals with character and structure, and the relationship between these and theme. I’ve read a lot of books on writing in general and story structure in particular, and this is certainly the best on the subject of the transformational arc. It has certain overlapping information with Save the Cat (reviewed here) — but the style is radically different and more serious.

Inside Story focuses very clearly and with no bullshit on the basics of film structure. The A Story forms the external plot, the B story the internal challenge of the protagonist (usually hindered by a fatal flaw in opposition of the story theme) and the C story is contains the relationship challenges required to solve the internal conflicts, and then change enough to overcome the external ones. This book walks through each stage of the arc both in the abstract and specific, using three consistent film examples (Romancing the StoneLethal Weapon, and Ordinary People).

It’s clear after reading this that the deficit in many films is a lack of proper arc and thematic development. Sometimes even good (but not great) films forget this key component. Speed is a good example. It’s a well executed and watchable film, but it fails to really have any arc or theme. Unless you consider “Jack must stop the bomber” to be a theme. There’s no development. Jack stops the bomber by way of guts, determination, and cleverness — all of which he possesses at the start of the film. He really doesn’t have to learn any lesson. The film gets by by way of excellent execution and casting. Lethal Weapon, however, is a character driven (even if intense) action film. No one remembers the specifics of the drug dealer plot. They remember Mel Gibson and Danny Glover‘s characters. And they remember them because they actually have problems they learn to overcome (which incidentally also helps them stop the bad guys).

So how does all of this apply to my novel? Or so I asked myself as I read. Untimed does have a fairly clean three act structure. It does have a character who needs to change in order to overcome his antagonist. C story solves B story solves A story. But on the other hand, I didn’t conceive of the book originally with a clear “theme” in mind, the protagonists issues are not structurally in opposition to this theme (what theme I have, organically grown), and the intensity of suffering is muted by a sometimes light tone. Does this matter? Perhaps less in a novel. Even less in an action novel. Even less in a series book. It’s perhaps this neat and packaged arc that makes so many great films difficult to sequel. If the character has already changed, it’s hard to make him change again. All too often the studio/writers attempt to regress the protagonist in a sequel, to undo and then redo the conflicts that made the first film great (Die Hard 2!). The best sequels, films like Terminator 2 or Aliens, change up the formula and give the character something new to overcome. Still, it’s really really hard to do this three times. Can anyone even think of a stand alone movie where the third installment is great? And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t count, even if it is the best of the eight films.

In fact, this leads me to the interesting observation that not only do individual Harry Potter books have very weak arcs, but even the entire series doesn’t cover much emotional transformation. How is Harry (or Ron or Hermione) terribly different at the end of book 1? Even at book 7? I mean as people, not in terms of circumstance, which is only the A story. The answer is “not very different.” Yeah, they grow up a bit, but there is no fundamental quality that they gain which isn’t present in book 1. Still, these are good books. Some of them are even great books (like the first and third). So go figure.

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Untimed – Off for Line Editing

Yesterday, I finished my fourth (more like 3 1/2) major draft of my new novel, Untimed, bundled it up, and shipped it out to my editor for line editing. This was a relatively quick and easy draft (about ten days), although it still took the usual three passes/reads. I concentrated on beefing up conflict. Every book has its trouble spots. In Untimed, these are the couple chapters following the Act 1-2 break and likewise those surrounding the Act 2-3 break (plus in earlier drafts, the ending — but that’s been resolved since the second draft).

The early Second Act has the problem of needing to up the stakes without being too flaccid or redundant. In the first and second drafts it had problems with being divergent to the main storyline, of basically doubling down on the action that occurs at the end of the first act. 1+1 does not equal 2. With the third draft I rewrote it completely, but here in the fourth, my editors had suggested a superficially minor reordering of the action. While textually small, pulling a couple reveals earlier had some great effects on the dynamic between the two leads, basically, giving them more divergent agendas for several chapters. Conflict is good in fiction. In real life we go to a lot of effort to minimize it. When writing, you want to squeeze every ounce of fight out of the story.

The Third Act break just plain needed more fighting (the personal, not the physical kind). I ramped it up again. Still, I wonder if I couldn’t use a bit more of “the whiff of death” but I Untimed is fairly light and I didn’t want to somber it up. Anyway, it read pretty well in my read through.

I’ve also been banging my head a bit with the issue of character arc, but I’ll have more to say on that in a day or so.

Now off to work on other things while I wait for the line edit to come back.

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Dreaming Along

I’m plugging away on my “after the gap” read of The Darkening Dream. At the 60% point, so I should hopefully be done by the end of the week. There’s only one scene I need to go back to and give a bit of a rewrite. It’s one that’s always been a bit problematic, where a character tells a bit of a story about a previous encounter with the undead, and while it’s only 800 words (it used to be 3,000 in the first draft) it’s told in dialog. That’s always awkward, and it’s the only place in the book where a happening longer than a couple sentences is dialoged out. I even have to use that long dialog paragraph leave off the terminal curly brace thing. Over the two years since I first wrote the scene, I’ve rewritten it perhaps five different ways. As dialog, as flashback, with sarcastic interrupts, without. It was once a creepy, but over long episode, but now after so much trimming it just lacks punch.

I’ll have to revisit after I get to the end of this pass.

And I finally adjusted to past tense again (only took 20,000 words!). It’ll be interesting to see if my head whiplashes so badly when I flip back to Untimed (hopefully soon). I’m due my third draft notes any day now.

Moving through The Darkening Dream I find it paced like a roller coaster. Literally. Including the slow initial tick tick ascent to the top of the first hill (which crests at about at the 20% mark). The pacing is mirrored by the chapter length and the progression of time. In the first quarter, several weeks pass for the characters and on average the chapters are longer and more linear. Then at the top of the hill, I start to slide in the point of view of first one and the other villain. With that, the chapter length halves and the action is compressed into a small number of hectic and deadly days. Like most stories with a lot of violence, if one actually had to endure the narrative in real life, one would probably drop dead of exhaustion. TVs 24 being the ultimate example.

On a slightly different note, I switched the name on my ghetto cover (my home-brew one on the right, placeholder until I commission a real one) back to “Andy” as opposed to “Andrew.” I keep debating this. At some level it feels slightly odd to be in my 40s, a husband, and a father and not have dropped my nickname. But I just never have, and on the plus side all my SEO points at Andy, not Andrew. The later is what the Gas Company calls me.

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Vocal Whiplash

I started a new read through and edit on my first novel, The Darkening Dream yesterday. I’m waiting for feedback on my newer book and wanted to cleanup the first one so I’ll have it ready to be proofread for possible self-publishing. This is the first time I’ve looked at it in eight months (I’ve been working on Untimed) and the difference in voice is flogging my brain.

It’s weird and not a little disturbing to read your “older” work. I started TDD in January 2008, writing the first draft of what’s now the opening twenty percent (before heavy alterations). I stopped (because of work and the birth of my son) and picked up in fall of 2009. Although I’ve done about a zillion (more like ten) drafts, traces of this oldest style remain in these early sections. And boy has my literary voice changed since then. Most dramatically, I no longer detail out as much of the action and setting. Nowadays, I concentrate on sketching and implying important points, choosing my scenes less to block through the whole action than to paint in important moments. These old sections have been heavily trimmed down, edited and reworked, but they are still organized in a stodgier more sequential fashion.

And the beginning of my story is tricky, introducing a period world with a large cast of period characters. I’ve several times restructured the start of TDD, including one late attempt this year to write a number of alternate starts. But I have never found a way to replace the measured build up I currently have with a more hook driven start like Untimed has. It’s easier to start that way. Oh well, live and learn.

The biggest shocker, however, is how difficult it is getting used to past tense again. TDD is written in the normal third person past limited, where different chapters focus on different characters. There is no omniscient narrator but the implied narrator shifts from chapter to chapter. Untimed is first person present. Single narrator obviously. I’ve really grown to love the immediate quality of the present tense. One also gets to ditch most the “hads” used to indicate the past perfect. In past tense, you might say, “He went to the store,” or to indicate prior time “Earlier, he had gone to the store.” In present you’d likewise use “He goes to the store” and “He went to the store.” The normal past tense takes over for the past perfect, and it’s a much cleaner tense.

The first mini-scene of TDD is as follows:

As services drew to an end, Sarah peered around the curtain separating the men from the women. Mama shot her a look, but she had to be sure she could reach the door without Papa seeing her. After what he’d done, she couldn’t face him right now. There he was, head bobbing in the sea of skullcaps and beards. She’d be long gone before he extracted himself.

“Mama,” she whispered, “can you handle supper if I go to Anne’s?” Probably last night’s dinner debacle had been Mama’s idea, but they’d never seen eye to eye on the subject. Papa, on the other hand, was supposed to be on her side.

Mama’s shoulders stiffened, but she nodded.

The end of the afternoon service signaled Sarah’s chance. She squeezed her mother’s hand, gathered her heavy skirts, and fled.

As an experiment, I rewrote this in present tense, a fairly straightforward change:

As services draw to an end, Sarah peers around the curtain separating the men from the women. Mama shoots her a look, but she has to be sure she can reach the door without Papa seeing her. After what he did, she can’t face him right now. There he is, head bobbing in the sea of skullcaps and beards. She’ll be long gone before he extracts himself.

“Mama,” she whispers, “can you handle supper if I go to Anne’s?” Probably last night’s dinner debacle was Mama’s idea, but they never saw eye to eye on the subject. Papa, on the other hand, is supposed to be on her side.

Mama’s shoulders stiffen, but she nods.

The end of the afternoon service signals Sarah’s chance. She squeezes her mother’s hand, gathers her heavy skirts, and flees.

Which do you guys like? I suspect that past tense is more appropriate to this story, being conventional and also given the setting in 1913. But I’ve grown so fond of the present tense that I can’t judge anymore.

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Plotter vs. Pantser

The Plotter

This is one of those eternal writer questions, getting into the heart of the creative process. For those of you who don’t know, a “plotter” is someone who plots out (outlines) their entire story before writing it and a “pantser” is at the opposite extreme, starting with an idea or a character and just going for it, like a daydream. Of course, everything between exists as well, it’s an analog space. And for what it’s worth, writers, including myself, love to talk about this.

Given that I’m more hard core, workaholic, and over-organized than nearly everyone I know (and having gone to MIT that includes a lot of anal folks) I would have assumed I was a plotter.

But when I got into it a couple years ago by starting to write The Darkening Dream, I found I totally prefer to just go with it. I do need to plot a chapter or two ahead as I can’t write the scenes until I see in my head what’s going to happen, but after I finished revising my first novel (and there was a lot of revision) I decided to try to plot the whole second. This resulted in about two months of fairly unproductive head banging. Then, with only a lame first act plotted, I started writing and it veered onto a different course anyway. The characters and the situation seem to dictate what happens. Often you can’t tell in plotting which secondary characters will be the coolest, etc.

The Pantser

But certainly the pantser approach requires plenty of revision. I always have to go back and examine the motivations of the characters after the first draft and map  more of the formal dramatic arc onto the story in the second and third drafts. Pantsing also leads to Second Act Problems (what doesn’t?). I think that’s just the way it goes. It would be very difficult in the first draft to do the kind of “setup and payoff” that good stories have. A great example of this is the film Back to the Future which undoubtedly had umpteen drafts and where every little reference at the start of the film is a setup that tests and then pays off for one of the characters. Case in point where George McFly gives in to Biff about the car. Then back in 1955 he does it as young George, but by the end of the film, with Marty‘s help he has the backbone to be in charge in the revised 1985. This is formulaic but satisfying and artfully crafted in a way that takes multiple passes. Still, I think you can start any which way that works for you. Sometimes getting the draft finished is the most important thing. Then you can step back and look at what needs changing.

Personally I find the two different modes: plotting vs. just writing, to use different sides of the brain, and therefore useful to stagger. I can only handle a few days of plotting before I need the release of getting it out there. There really isn’t any rush in writing as good as just pounding out a great scene that’s already gelled in your head, and it’s even better when the scene and characters take on a life of their own and bring something novel to the process. Looking back on it, I realize that as a computer programmer I took this same exact alternating approach (between designing the algorithm and just coding) and that the rush and rhythm were nearly identical.

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Weekend Draft

I just finished the rough cut of the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed. Just in time too to get out of town.

This weekend will be quiet and post free. I’m off to Vegas with the Foodie Club for some more high end gluttony. Namely Twist by Pierre Gagnaire and  É by José Andrés (my review of the comparable Saam here).  You can expect detailed coverage when I get back.

For more on the revision process, see this recent post.

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Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Genre: Pop Science-Fiction

Length: 384 pages

Read: September 13-18, 2011

Summary: 10: buy book 20: read book 30: goto 10

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I read this after two different friends recommended it in the same week. Wow! If you’re one of my (presumably) many readers who love video games. Go buy and read it. This is pretty much the ultimate classic video games novel! And I should know, having been born in 1970, the perfect time to experience the full rise of video games and modern pop culture (inaugurated May 25, 1977). I was so enamored of computers in general and these little beasties in particular that I went and made (and sold) thirteen of them professionally.

But back to Ready Player One. It’s a first person narrative set in a roughly 2040 dystopia where the world has basically gone to shit and most people live inside a gigantic virtual reality video game. It’s creator has died and left his vast fortune to the winner of an elaborate easter egg hunt (think Atari Adventure Easter Egg crossed with the Great Stork Derby). This whole world and contest centers around an obsessive love of all things pop-culture and 80s, particularly films, comics, and most importantly, video games.

In practice the novel is an old school adventure set mostly in virtual reality. But it contains an astounding number of well placed and deeply woven 80s pop-culture references. For me, they were continual fun. I got 99% of them, including some damn obscure ones. I’ve played every game described in the book (except for Dungeons of Daggorath — never had a TRS-80 — but it looks like Wizardry), seen every movie, heard nearly every song, etc. I don’t know how this book will read for someone a lot younger who isn’t up on all this old school geekery, but I sure enjoyed it.

The story is great fun too. The protagonist is likable and all that. It’s not a long book but races along. There are a few second act jitters (the “romantic” period between the first and second keys), but I blew through them fast enough. The prose is workmanlike but unglamorous and there are some cheesy or cringeworthy moments. They don’t distract from the fun. The last third in particular was awesomely rad with numerous 1337 epic moments. When the protagonist faces off against an unstoppable Mechagodzilla avatar and invokes a two-minute Ultraman powerup I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As Science-Fiction the book is a bit mixed. Mr. Cline manages to deftly describe what must to the novice be a bewildering array of virtual reality technologies and concepts. He’s fairly unusual in actually specifying some of the interface elements in his world and he does a credible job with all of this. Nothing stood out as particularly bogus, but was based on decent extrapolation. There are some elements, however, which still exist in his 30-years-from-now future that are already on the way out. Hard drives in “bulky laptops” for example. One only has to look at the iPad and the Macbook Air to see that writing on the wall. Again, I must point out that these minor quibbles do not detract from the book’s extreme fun factor.

Cline is uncannily knowledgable about his video games (and again, I should know), but there is a curious oddity in the biography of the central Bill Gates crossed with Richard Garriot character. He is described as releasing his first hit game (for the TRS-80) in 1987 in plastic baggies. Besides wondering if any TRS-80 game had much cultural impact (Read my own Apple II guy origin story here!), the date is totally off. If he was talking about 1982 that would have been fine. But by 1987 the TRS-80 had gone the way of Allosaurus and plastic baggies hadn’t been seen in years. My first game, Math Jam, was released in baggies in 1984 and that was way late for them. 1987 featured games like Zelda II, Contra, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, and Leisure Suit Larry. All of these are well after the era venerated in the book. This small, but important, error is odd in a book so otherwise accurate. I can only assume that the author (and his character), living in the middle of the country, existed in some kind of five-year offset time-warp 🙂

On a deeper level, the novel toys with one of my favorite futurist topics: Will we all get sucked into the computer? I actually think the answer is yes, but that it’s unlikely to happen via 90s envisioned visors and immersion suits (like in Ready Player One). I think we probably will have retina-painting laser visors/glasses at some point. Then neural implants. But the real big deal is when our brains are digitized and uploaded into the Matrix. Muhaha. I’m actually serious, if flip. Eventually it will happen. If not this century then the next. I just hope I make it to the cutoff so I can evade bony old Mr. Grim and upgrade.

In conclusion, I have to agree with the back cover quotes of some other authors I like:

John Scalzi: “A nerdgasm… imagine that Dungeons & Dragons & an ’80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Patrick Rothfuss: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.”

So if you have even the least enthusiasm for video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture, or just plain fun. Go read this book!

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PS. If you are 5-10 (or more) years younger than me (born 1970) and have (or do) read this book. Tell me in the comments what you think of it. I’m really curious how those who didn’t live it see it.

I couldn’t resist.