By the Numbers

Because i’m a basically venal, shallow, irreparably damaged kind of guy, i spend a lot of time thinking about how much i’m not accomplishing, and about the pressures of real life cutting into my creative time, and about the ever-increasing length of the list of things i want to do but haven’t yet done. Also because i’m a basically venal, shallow, irreparably damaged kind of guy, i don’t put a lot of stock into the concept of taking stock of one’s life, and especially of the sense shared by many other people that specific prefabricated moments of life should be embraced as opportunities to look back, to ponder within, to shine one’s hopeful gaze on the future, blah blah fucking blah.

Thus: New Years’ resolutions? Not really my thing. Because it always seemed to me that making a lot of noise about what you’re going to do differently next year is really just an admission that you kind of fucked this year up, whoops and sorry about that, save game, restart, and try again.

But because i took some time out of the holiday today to clean up a few files, organize a couple of things for starting work again next week, and think about clearing out the hurricane “After” picture that is my office, i wound up thinking about last year and what it represented in terms of the amount of work that’s passed through my office and the hours i spend here. Because the truth of my life is that i do a lot of different things, and a big part of my thinking about how i’m not actually accomplishing anything comes from the fact that what i do accomplish comes in fits and starts, crammed in and around other obligations, other projects, other people asking, begging, and thankfully most often paying me to ride shotgun on their own creative accomplishments.

All the various disparate intellectual activities that make up my creative side combine to make up a kind of scattershot sense of what i’m actually doing at any given time. And thus: With a couple of hours to kill, i dug back through the actual archives of all the various and sundry things i’ve been working on since last January and figured out what they actually amount to.

Here’s my life and work for the past twelve months, reduced to numbers.

Nonfiction words edited (primarily RPG work, primarily for Wizards of the Coast): 130,100

Words story-edited (primarily screenplays this year): 581,800

Non-fiction words written (primarily story notes and analysis on the screenplays mentioned above): 97,900

Fiction words edited (about four-fifths my own): 453,100

Fiction written (from the eponymous novel anchoring A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales that started the year, through a half-dozen shorter pieces, to two new novels in progress): 177,200

Over the course of 2011, a grand total of 1,440,100 words (give or take) have passed through my brain in one direction or the other in a professional capacity.

Despite all my best efforts to admit it, that seems like an accomplishment.

In general, i think that we do what do. We balance our dreams and ambitions against the rigors of real life, we push back against what pressures we can, we keep our heads above water, add your own platitude here, et al. Overall, i’m pretty happy with who i am. I’m happy with what i do. But against my previous antipathy toward resolutions at this time of year, i realize that i have one i need to make.

No matter what happens to the numbers in the other categories, the numbers of words of fiction i write this year is going up. This past year was the first year in a long while that i managed a reasonable degree of confluence between the need to write and the time to write. That in and of itself is also an accomplishment.

And thus: By and large, i don’t think people need resolutions. We don’t need large and largely artificial reminders that we’ve failed to do the things we once set out to do; that we’ve failed to become who we once set out to be. We need gentle and ongoing reminders of all those things we do that move us forward in some way, and which lay the groundwork for all the movement that follows.


The Muse

The only chair in my office aside from the one I work at is a loveseat that sits in front of me, across from the desk. Nevertheless, whenever I sit down to write, it doesn’t take long before I inevitably feel the presence of someone just behind me, usually over my left shoulder. Standing before the bookcase where the reference works reside in lonely isolation these days, all of them remembering the halcyon days before the Internet when they had purpose.

Some people talk about the muse as something separate from story — an entity, a presence distinct from you and the work that helps to connect you to the work. My experience has always been different.

For me, the best moment attainable in the process of writing — the point at which you realize you’re actually writing, not just typing — is the moment when the characters take over. At some magical, unlooked for, unseekable point, you realize that the characters are the ones writing the story, and that you’re only along for the ride, transcribing what they say and do as fast as you possibly can. And when that doesn’t happen fast enough, I can feel those characters standing behind me, just over my left shoulder. Reminding me that I’m falling down on my commitment to bring their stories to life. Telling me how I should write those stories.

The moment when you understand that your characters are alive is the moment when story happens.

Some years ago, I was working on a feature screenplay — a small-town Canadian hockey homecoming story (yeah, I know, that old thing). The main character was a young lawyer who had grown up in the aforementioned small town, raised by his older brother after his parents died. After having left his hometown and abandoning both his brother and his girlfriend immediately after graduating high school, the character makes a forced return to the hometown and the erstwhile girlfriend after his older brother dies, an uncomfortable and emotional journey that’s the core of the script. This was a point dangerously early in my writing “career,” but the script was pretty good nonetheless, with some solid character story and some good emotion and a number of jokes that people other than me laughed at when they read it. But even as wrote the story, I had this nagging feeling that something was missing.

I did a second draft. I improved the character story, I made the one sex-comedy sequence I quite liked even funnier. Still something missing. I set the draft aside, then came back to read it with fresh eyes. Still missing. I went back to a couple of the better screenwriting books I relied on for guidance in those days. I broke the story down to beats, down to character arcs to try to figure out where it was coming up short. Nothing.

I did a third draft. I moved a few scenes around, cut this bit, added another bit. Still something missing, and by this point I was starting to freak out a little bit. Because even though I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, I had come to instinctively know that what was missing was something important. Something big. An emptiness at the heart of the story that I could feel but not see, but that made no sense given how closely I was looking.

Then just at the point when I was prepared to give up, when I was ready to let the script go even though I knew something was wrong, I was flipping through it doing a fast proof-read when I saw a thing I hadn’t noticed before. The thing that was missing — only it wasn’t actually missing from the story itself, which explained why I hadn’t been able to see it. Because with a certain amount of embarrassment, I realized that I’d never established how the main character’s parents had died. A stupid mistake. A bit of backstory glossed over because it had only ever been a minor setup to define the strength of the relationship between the brothers. An easy fix, a couple of lines of dialogue thrown in somewhere.

And then a revelation hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. With a feeling that I can only describe as akin to being kicked in the chest, I sat motionless at my desk and I realized — it wasn’t that I had forgotten to mention how the characters’ parents died. It wasn’t just a bit of missed backstory, a minor slip-up of plot.

The character was hiding that truth from me.

The truth of what happened to his parents was a thing buried deep within the character — a thing he never spoke of to anyone. A thing hidden at the very heart of who he was, and of why had left his small hometown immediately after graduating high school.

A thing that he had kept hidden even from me.

And I felt him standing behind me then. Watching me, seething with the same rage that had threaded through him since he was a boy, screaming at me to not do this thing, to not make him reveal this truth, to not force him look at this thing that haunted him.

I didn’t listen, and I added the one scene that the script was missing — the scene where the past and the present met and everything the character did, everything he had done, came together. The scene that completed the story, and which elevated it from the level of something that was simply pretty good to something built around a foundational emotional truth. And when it was done, both of he and I collapsed, and I held him and I let him weep on my shoulder like he wept in the pages of that new scene, and I swear by whatever passes for god in my life that I felt the pain in him as starkly as I’d ever felt it from any living person.

The moment when you understand that your characters are alive is the moment when story happens.

Someone is reading this over my shoulder, telling me impatiently that it’s done. Telling me I’ve spent long enough on blogging, and on answering emails, and on paperwork, and on editing an anthology, and on putting the finishing touches on the layout for my daughter’s first book. Reminding me that he’s got a story to tell.


On the Level

Part 9 of “The Language of Story”

This installment of our ongoing series is Based On Actual Events!!!

Not in the sense of it being ripped from the headlines or anything. Just in the sense that if you’re a writer, the following has already happened to you. And if you’re not yet a writer, listen carefully that you might learn from our cautionary tale…

(As with previous installments, we’re going to talk about screenwriting in this post, because film’s rigorous and relentless forward-moving narrative structure lends itself to useful analysis. In film, everything is scene based, and film scenes are easily demarked by movement in time or place. This same thing I’m about to talk about happens in prose fiction all the time as well, but because prose can be more fluid in its scene structure, it’s not always as obvious.)

You’re working on a story. For the purpose of general discussion, we’ll think about the specific context of working on a feature screenplay.

You’ve written a scene for your story and it doesn’t work. You’re not entirely sure why. You can’t put your finger on it but something’s wrong. A kind of dramatic flatness. A feeling that the scene just isn’t hitting with all the energy it should have.

So you rewrite the scene.

And you rewrite it.

And you rewrite it again, and again, and again. Each time you do so, you change this, you fix that, you workshop the other thing. You improve, you shorten, you expand, you focus, you hone — but as much work as you keep putting into the scene, nothing seems to be able to solve the unseen and indefinable problem.

And the reason for that is that the problem isn’t actually in the scene. The scene is fine. The scene might have been fine all along (notwithstanding that you should always feel a strong desire to keep bashing away at your writing in pursuit of making it better).

The problem with this not-working scene lies in how the scene fits into the sequence that it’s a part of.

Every story has a consistent dramatic structure. Setup, complications, resolution. Every sequence that builds that story has the same consistent structure. Setup, complications, resolution. That’s the pattern that your storyteller’s mind has understood almost since the day you were born, consuming story in ever-increasing amounts.

Every time you consume, you subconsciously look for that pattern. Setup, complications, resolution. Every time you write a story, you subconsciously seek that pattern. Setup, complications, resolution. However, because the process is subconscious, making the transition from understanding it to articulating it in the course of the writing is difficult.

When we read a book or watch a film and get a sense that the story is off, we don’t go, “Well, d’oh! Too many complication beats in that sequence!” We’re just aware of the vague feeling that something is off, that something isn’t right.

When we’re writing at the scene level, deep in the heart of the story, we don’t instinctively say, “Wait a minute… have I just made this sequence too short because I added another complication before that resolution scene?” We’re just aware of the feeling that something is off, that something isn’t right.

You’ve written a scene and it doesn’t work. But the problem is the scene’s place and function in the sequence — and in the extreme number of accidental and dead-easy ways in which we can mess up the structure of a sequence when we focus in on writing our stories at the scene level.

Maybe we’ve got a complication scene that’s accidentally wound up anchoring what should be the conclusion of a sequence. A complication scene is primarily about the tangling up of narrative threads, creating an increase in dramatic tension and conflict. In the resolution slot, which should be about tying up those threads, it feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve accidentally shifted a resolution scene earlier so that another complication now follows it, rather than the resolution feeding into a new setup narrative beat. Our sense of story tells us that the proper flow of action has been changed up somehow. It feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve jumped right into a complication scene that hasn’t been properly led into by a setup scene. Our sense of story tells us things are happening too fast, coming out of nowhere. It feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve run only one complication beat where the sequence demands two. The story feels rushed as a result. It feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve lost track of the sequence, letting it spin out to five complications and seven overall narrative beats, rather than the three to five beats that are always the goal. It feels wrong.

When faced with any of these scenarios, your storyteller’s mind flashes a bright red warning sign. Your storyteller’s mind knows that something’s wrong. But because the storyteller’s mind is all subconscious processing, it can’t always articulate what’s wrong. Your storyteller’s mind is the “Check Engine” light on a car, alerting you to the existence of some problem but cheerfully offering no real insight into what that problem might be. So you spend your time trying to fix a problem at the wrong level — reshaping the scene over and over again when it’s not the content of the scene that’s the problem.

The placement of the scene is the problem. The function of the scene is the problem.

Scenes create sequences, sequences create acts, acts create the story. The function and placement of dramatic beats within the larger whole is the language of story.

In the previous installment, we looked at this particular approach to laying down scenes, with its big, wide-open expanses of red question marks:

When we sense a problem with a scene and try to fix that problem by rewriting the scene, we’re focusing in on a paradigm of story that exists only at the scene level. We think of story only as a collection of unrelated red question marks. We remain vaguely aware that our story has act breaks, and that between each act, we have special scenes that spin the story off in a new direction (the transition from the resolution scene of one act to the setup of the next in our model). But in between those sparse anchor points, it’s all just a sludgy mass of dramatic moments shuffled into place by guesswork.

The classical approach to storytelling works on one level — the scenes that make up a story. In film storytelling, the scene-level composition of story is straightforward. But even in long-form prose fiction, story is still composed of the same sorts of narrative beats. First something happens, then something else happens. Prose fiction has a lot more flexibility in terms of where, when, and how those things happen, but the movement forward in the narrative still obeys this beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene pattern.

When we start out as writers, we almost always start out writing at the scene level. Sometimes this is the process of starting with a blank sheet of paper and just writing from the beginning and seeing how far we get. Sometimes it’s the process of working out the broad strokes of the story as a beat sheet or with index cards. But either way, we focus on the scene level of the story because that’s the level at which we actually write.

The scene level is all about the language of words. But when we’re working with the language of words, we lose sight of the language of story. When we’re writing at the scene level, we lose track of the structure that our scenes need to create.

Working the language of story is a matter of focusing on the scenes in the context of the overall structure that the scenes are a part of. Scenes build sequences, sequences build acts, acts build story. The same model we’ve been talking about all along can be viewed as a succession of levels from the top down.

When we’re in the middle of writing scenes, we focus on story from front to back. We don’t necessarily write a story in strictly linear order, starting at page one and plowing through to the end. (We’ll talk more a few installments from now on why you should never do this.) But focusing at the scene level always creates a sense of the story on a single plane — scene after scene, pushing from the beginning of the narrative to the end. This single plane is where we work when we’re writing scenes, employing the language of words.

Working with the language of story is about adopting a top-down approach for storytelling — “top down” meaning from the act level down to the scene level. We don’t just focus on movement from start to finish, left to right. We focus on moving up and down within the structure of the narrative at the same time. We think about our story as a collection of acts. We focus in on those acts, thinking about each one as a collection of sequences. We focus in on those sequences, thinking about each one as a collection of scenes.

Think about the idea of microscopic and macroscopic viewpoints, or about the telephoto and wide-angle settings on a camera’s zoom lens. We start out with the widest possible angle — we see our entire story laid out.

When we read a story, when we consume a story, this is how we interact with it. We focus on the story as a single unit of drama. We know that every story has a start and end, and we’re aware that a story has a shape of some sort and rising action and all those other things. But when we’re reading a book or watching a movie, we don’t consciously say, “Yowza! Nice rising action here!” We’re simply aware of the story and of how it makes us feel.

As readers, that works fine for us. But as writers, it’s not enough.

As writers, we need to zoom in a bit, so that we can see that what looked like a single cohesive story is actually composed of smaller parts — acts, all laid down in a cohesive structure. Setup, complications, resolution.

Zoom in some more. We can see more detail. Each of our acts is composed of sequences laid down in the same structure. Setup, complications, resolution.

Zoom in even more. We can see even finer detail now, noting that each of our sequences is composed of scenes and that the pattern of those scenes is a mirror image of the patterns above.

Exercise — Putting the Top Down

In the exercise from last time, we talked about how when you broke your sample film down to the scene level, you most likely ran into the problem of having some of your one-sentence sequence summaries break down into too many one-sentence scene summaries. We remember that the magic number of narrative beats we want in any part of our story is from three to five. Three to five acts in the story as a whole. (This is specific to feature film story. We’ll talk about how this translates for long-form prose fiction later on.) Three to five sequences in each act. Three to five scenes in each sequence.

What you discovered in the exercise — when the number of scenes didn’t automatically fit like it was supposed to — is exactly the same problem talked about at the beginning of this post. When we’re processing story at the scene level, sometimes things don’t fit. We end up with too many narrative beats or too few. We lose track of the overall structure that the scenes create.

And just as we talked about above, this problem can’t be fixed by trying to beat those scenes into shape. Rewriting a scene in a finished story is exactly the same process as rewriting the one-sentence scene summary in the exercise. And if you’ve got a sequence in your sample film breakdown that has six scenes in it, you can rewrite the one-sentence descriptions for those scenes until the end of time. They’re not going to magically turn into three to five scenes. The essential structural issue — too much story — is never going to change.

What needs to change is the structure of the sequence that the scenes are a part of. Because if you have six scenes all trying to crowd their way into a sequence, that sequence needs to become two sequences.

At each point when you reshape the structure of your story, you’re guided by the fundamental sense of structure that shapes every level of the story. Setup, complications, resolution. Because if you add an additional sequence description to address the problem of too many scenes, you’re not adding additional story. The sequence summary is simply an abstraction that “collects” the scenes on the level below it. Whether you divide them into one sequence or two, the scenes are the same. And so our understanding of structure reminds us that the problem with these particular scenes isn’t just one of placement and number — it’s one of function.

Our new shorter initial sequence can’t end with a complication. Likewise, the second new sequence can’t begin with a complication. If this is a story that we’re reading, this is the sense of the story that our storyteller’s mind has flagged for us. And it’s that understanding that we need to bring into play as writers to guide us in reshaping those two problem scenes as a resolution and a setup.

Our storyteller’s mind knows instinctively that six narrative beats is too much story. We sense this when the dramatic energy of those four complication scenes begins to flag. And simply rewriting those four complication scenes will never fix the problem — because the problem isn’t in the scenes.

Working with the language of story, we focus in on the different levels of our story. The problem of scenes not fitting together properly is fixed by zooming out. Pull back to look at the sequence level. Look at the sequence that’s problematic because it’s trying to break itself out to six scenes and rework that single narrative beat as two narrative beats. Your one-sentence description becomes two sentences, and each of these new sequences has plenty of space to break out as three scenes each.

Sometimes expanding sequences in this way leads to new problems. If our hypothetical sequence was originally one of five sequences in an act, then splitting it creates another issue — an act with six sequences. Same structural problem as before. Same sense from our storyteller’s mind that something’s wrong, that the story is flagging and dragging just a little bit. Same solution. Don’t start rewriting the sequences to try to make their count magically change — zoom out again, up to the next level. Look at the act structure as a means to fixing the problems at the sequence level, just as you focused in on the sequence level as a means to fixing problems as the scene level.

When we’re writing — when we’re engaging the language of words — we’re working exclusively at the scene level. But the language of story is about understanding that our story exists on different levels. We start at the top level — the story itself. We work down to the act level, then down to the sequence level, then down to the scene level, each time focusing in on smaller and smaller pieces of the overall narrative.


Free Fiction — Daeralf’s Rune

The novice conjurer Gydon dreams of one day being accepted to the ranks of the apprentices of Citadel Chenyra, the legendary school of sorcery. However, what not even her master knows is that an accident in the laboratory five years before has granted Gydon an edge in her studies — and an unlikely friend who will help her understand her true potential…

The free preview version of this story is no longer available. However, please check out the current Free Fiction Friday offering at the Insane Angel Studios site.


Marked Down!

A veritable ton of analysis continues to be made regarding the questions of ebook pricing and revenue, much of it presumably ramping up in advance of this year’s Kindle Fire Christmas, and what promises to be a tipping-point selling season for Amazon and the other major ebook retailers. Much of the discussion (as usual) talks about the race to the bottom, and the idea that unfettered competition and a wealth of books written by indie authors who don’t care that much about quality will inevitably force a 99¢ price point on all authors and publishers. For whatever it’s worth, i don’t favor a 99¢ price point for full-length novels and anthologies (though to be honest, the money i’d lose as an author stacked up against the money i’d save as a reader means i’d probably break even). However, there’s one point that always seems to get glossed over when people are talking about book pricing and the fate of an author’s ability to make a living.

The brand-new hardcopy, trade paperback, and mass-market paperback revenue stream for books has never been wholly representative of the way that a lot of people actually buy books. An awful lot of people buy books at a discount. They shop for bargains, they buy online. They look for the old hard-to-find books from authors they’ve just recently discovered. They use libraries to read first-run titles whose hardcover prices are rapidly approaching the point where booksellers will start asking for credit references.

Now, i don’t have hard and fast statistics, but i’m pretty comfortable saying that the used book market never approached the kind of dollar value that ebooks represent in the long term. Thus, i acknowledge that this point is mostly just allegory. But there’s one important distinction between the way books used to be cheap, and the way that ebooks are cheap now — the fact that cheap ebooks can still return money to the self-published writer. For whatever it’s worth, i’m a fan of the ebook pricing model championed by Dean Wesley Smith. But the thing to remember is that no matter what price point we choose as indie authors and no matter what rationale we use for that decision, we have the freedom to use pricing to appeal to the widest number of readers, and to make money while we do.

Here’s a confession. For the relatively long period of my life in which i was a starving student, every book i bought was either used or remaindered. Not because i was cheap in a general sense, or because i was a dick taking perverse pleasure in denying royalties to the authors i loved, but because that was literally and seriously the only way i could afford to buy books. In a completely coincidental way, a remarkable number of the used paperbacks that came into my possession in those years did so for the now-contentious price of a dollar a shot, gleaned from the dusty lower shelves of used bookstores and the anarchic tables of library and charity fund-raiser sales.

There’s a certain type of reader who will only ever buy books that are perceived to be a bargain. On some level, all writers want their work read by the largest number of people, so on some level, having cheap books out there is a good thing. However, no writer ever chooses to have his or her books remaindered. I would imagine that relatively few writers are in favor of people buying their books used at the expense of new books that go unsold. Because regardless of where they came from, none of those remaindered and used books i bought back in the day ever returned anything in the way of income to any of the writers who created them.

The relatively large number of ebooks i’ve bought for 99¢, or $1.99, or $2.99 in past months? Their writers chose those price points. Their writers are making money from me, and that’s not a bad thing.


“Trust Your Demon”

“Occasionally, there arises a writing situation where you see an alternative to what you are doing, a mad, wild gamble of a way for handling something, which may leave you looking stupid, ridiculous or brilliant — you just don't know which. You can play it safe there, too, and proceed along the route you'd mapped out for yourself. Or you can trust your personal demon who delivered that crazy idea in the first place.

Trust your demon.”

— Roger Zelazny


A Legacy of Dragons

Appendix S: The Dragonriders of Pern

I had no reason to think about this until today; no reason to remember it until i heard the news that legendary fantasist Anne McCaffrey had died Monday at the age of 85. What i’ve remembered is that the Dragonriders of Pern was the first real fantasy and speculative fiction i ever read.

I’d read SF before then, including Theodore Sturgeon and Robert A. Heinlein, but the worlds of those books were simply our world with a twist. I’d read fantasy before, starting with The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis in third grade, but those were nominally kids’ books. Tales. Fables. Amazing fables, to be sure, but the worlds that Lewis and Tolkien had crafted were worlds i likewise recognized, because they were familiar from the same archetypes that had long ago splintered off to create Snow White and The Black Cauldron. But it was only a year after Sturgeon and Lewis and Tolkien that at the age of 10, i saw a copy of Dragonflight at my local drugstore and felt myself sucked into the cover of that circa-1974 paperback edition.

Reading McCaffrey at age ten is not a thing i would necessarily recommend. I remember struggling at the outset to read Dragonflight. I remember feeling like i was missing about half of what was going on, particularly the politics, the sense of history, and oh, yeah, the hot dragon/human group-sex-at-a-distance motif. But even as i worked my through Dragonflight, a thing happened at the tender age of ten that set the bar for my love of fantasy for the rest of my life. The more things that i didn’t understand, the more determined i became to dig deep enough into Pern that i could make them real.

And so i did. And over the space of three-hundred-odd pages, i felt Pern come alive in my mind. I learned the ways of the Weyrs and their people. I felt the history of McCaffrey’s world slowly set its ageless impressions into me. I felt the trepidation of a people who craved peace so much that they forgot their deadliest enemies. I let the thread scare the ever-loving crap out me in the best mindless-fantasy-creature tradition. (I had seen the Steve McQueen version of The Blob shortly beforehand, which probably helped.) For the space of the summer it took me to read Dragonflight, I walked in Pern in a way that i had never walked in Narnia. I felt Pern like i wouldn’t feel Middle Earth until Lord of the Rings a half-dozen years later. I knew Pern like i’ve since come to know a hundred different F&SF realms, from Ringworld to the Sprawl, from Greyhawk to Westeros, in all the years since.

I haven’t read an Anne McCaffrey book in a long while now. As with the works of Frank Herbert and his overly loquacious offspring, the Pern books eventually ran on just a little too long for my taste, though i have no quibble with their quality or the love that McCaffrey clearly brought to bear on her continued exploration of her world. But even so, more than thirty years after Dragonflight called to me one afternoon from a drugstore bookshelf, this is the legacy that Anne McCaffrey has left me with — the idea that the best fantasy and speculative fiction is that which allows a reader to step into a real, living world, no matter how far that world’s most basic dramatic foundations are pushed by the imagination. Anne McCaffrey taught me some of my first lessons of character story, of the value of real dilemma and human emotion in fantasy, of the rules of storytelling that let us use our fantasy worlds to hold a mirror up to the fear and the pain and the pathos of the real world.

I replaced that longlost copy of Dragonflight today, and i’m sorry that didn’t happen sooner. I’m sorry it takes so long to remember these things.


“Absolute Prediction”

"Do you want an absolute prediction? Then you want only today, and you reject tomorrow. You are the ultimate conservative. You are trying to hold back movement in an infinitely changing universe. The verb 'to be' does make idiots of us all.”

— Frank Herbert


“A Roll Call of Dead Books”

“The current publishing scene is extremely good for the big, popular books. They sell them brilliantly, market them and all that. It is not good for the little books. And really valuable books have been allowed to go out of print. In the old days, the publishers knew that these difficult books, the books that appeal only to a minority, were very productive in the long run. Because they’re probably the books that will be read in the next generation. It’s heart-breaking how often I have to say when I’m giving talks, ‘This book is out of print. This book is out of print.’ It’s a roll call of dead books.”

– Doris Lessing


Free Fiction — Shadow to Shadow

Conry is thirteen and a priest’s son when the death of the matriarch Lady Jeslyn darkens his village like a summer dust storm. But when he discovers the connection between Lady Jeslyn’s death and the murder of Old Rhen, the druid whose passing now threatens drought, Conry finds himself facing a darkness beyond the reckoning of his faith — and a power that only he can destroy…

The free preview version of this story is no longer available. However, please check out the current Free Fiction Friday offering at the Insane Angel Studios site.


The House-Slaves are Revolting!

As is eventually the case with all great thinkers, Michael Stackpole is under attack for telling the truth.
The mistake critics are making is to focus on slavery as the ownership of the physical person—aka chattel slavery. More important than that is the ownership of that person’s future production. Slavery, while it is a human rights issue, is also an economic issue. Owning people does not benefit the owner unless he can derive value from their labor. While chattel slavery involves the ownership of the physical person, there are other forms of slavery which purchase a person’s labor. America, to a very great degree, was built on the backs of a second set of slaves: indentured servants or, as colonial sources like to call them, redemptioneers. Indentured servitude is internationally recognized as a form of slavery. 
Here’s how that system works. A person wants to come to the colonies for a chance at  economic bounty. They can’t afford the passage. So, they sign a contract with someone who will pay for their passage, and they promise to work the debt off. The redemptioneer might cut his deal with his future employer, or might have his contract sold from the shipper to someone in the colonies. The redemptioneer has sold his future to fund his present, commonly for a period of three to seven years.
This is what authors do when they accept a contract and advances which are accounted against his future output. An author is selling his labor to move him into a position of future bounty. 

Stackpole’s original post that inspired the furor is required reading for anyone calling himself or herself a writer, as is the Barry Eisler followup he cites in the current post. And while I have no hope of trying to make myself sound as insightful as either, the following thought did occur to me vis. Stackpole’s analogy and why he’s right to use it. 

The role and history of indentured servitude as an unnamed tier of slavery in the development of European North America remains vastly overlooked, and it’s an excellent way to expand the “house slave” allegory for those who still don’t get it (which, as Stackpole notes, probably includes a lot of people who simply didn’t read his original post). A quite-cool book I read a long while ago (The Redneck Manifesto, i think it was) made the point that objectively speaking, indentured servants were often worse off than chattel slaves, because the latter were property. At the end of the day, it was in a slave-owner’s best interests to keep his slaves healthy in the expectation of selling them or their children. However, the holder of an indentured servant’s contract would want to get as much labor as possible out of that servant before his term expired — even if that meant literally working him or her to death.

Obviously, the morality of slavery or indentured servitude isn't apropos of the morality of the publishing industry. But since that just as obviously wasn’t the point of either Stackpole’s original post or Barry Eisler’s post, the “house-slave” language remains entirely accurate. In a situation where a publisher “owns” a writer (for example, a long-term work-for-hire situation typified by newspaper writers), it’s in the publisher’s best interest to take care of that writer. That writer and his or her talent is the long-term investment that brings dividends to the publisher. Fiction writers, on the other hand, are indentured servants, and publishers will treat them like crap not necessarily because of indifference or ego — but because it makes no economic sense to do otherwise.



"I am certainly of opinion that genius can be acquired, or, in the alternative, that it is an almost universal possession. Its rarity may be attributed to the crushing influence of a corrupted society. It is rare to meet a youth without high ideals, generous thoughts, a sense of holiness, of his own importance, which, being interpreted, is, of his own identity with God. Three years in the world, and he is a bank clerk or even a government official. Only those who intuitively understand from early boyhood that they must stand out, and who have the incredible courage and endurance to do so in the face of all that tyranny, callousness, and the scorn of inferiors can do; only these arrive at manhood uncontaminated.”

— Aleister Crowley


By Crom

Appendix S: The Complete Chronicles of Conan

It’s hard to make adequate comment on a writer whose work created an entire genre and the larger creative industry that genre spawned. Conan the Barbarian means different things to different people, because the character exists in so many different versions — the original Robert E. Howard stories; the de Camp and Carter pastiches that expanded on Howard’s vision and popularity; the new generation of books that the original pastiches inspired; the Marvel comics that pushed sword-and-sorcery into the pop-culture mainstream; the Dark Horse comics that revitalized and revisualized the character; the 1982 film that first set Arnold Schwarzenegger on the path to pretending to be an actor. As a result, it’s entirely possible to “know” Conan without really knowing the original stories in their original forms — a problem that this weighty collection addresses nicely.

The Complete Chronicles of Conan pulls together all of the original Howard stories in their original forms (including those edited as a part of the Howard/de Camp/Carter paperback collections that cemented the character’s popularity). Unlike previous multi-part Conan collections, this book anthologizes the stories in the order Howard wrote and published them, rather than in chronological order according to the character’s history. This means a lot of jumping around through the different ages of the character (the first two Conan stories Howard published are actually two of the last pieces of the character’s life, both taking place when Conan is king of Aquilonia; the familiar thief, barbarian, slayer, et al came later in the canon). However, i prefer this arrangement because it shows off how Howard’s own understanding of Conan changed and grew over time. Though the later stories contain a few exceptions to the rule, most of Howard’s tales became even more engaging as his writing matured, the narrative and the character story reshaping itself into more complex and more satisfying forms.

Some of the Howard stories are better than others; some are more properly about the world than the character. (A surprise to a lot of people who read the Howard pieces for the first time is how often Conan appears only after other secondary characters have set the story up.) Many of the stories show their 30s pulp origins a little too strongly (most commonly with lines like “ ‘By the gods!’ Conan ejaculated.”). But taken all in all, the Howard canon creates a haunting and memorable mythology that stands the test of time, and which can’t help but make one wonder to what greater heights Robert E. Howard might have taken the character and the world of the Hyborian age if he’d had more time.


Not in the Cards

Part 8 of “The Language of Story”

From the Department of Random Transitions, let’s talk about index cards for a minute.

If you’ve ever done any reading about screenwriting, you’ve probably been exposed to index cards. Syd Field is big into index cards, so many of the screenwriting gurus that have followed him are, too. I’m not going to make this a crash course, but the idea is that when you’re writing your screenplay, you think about it as a collection of scenes.

(As with earlier posts, this installment focuses on screenplay, but the structural paradigms we’re exploring are equally as important for prose fiction. Talking about film and its relentlessly linear structure simply makes those paradigms easier to talk about.)

You summarize each scene on an index card in a few sentences, creating a stack of scenes that you can read through to see how they flow. You can use your index cards to figure out if you have too many scenes and which ones should be cut. You can figure out if a scene is missing. You can shuffle scenes around to see how doing so affects the story.

Here’s the problem, though.

Index cards do a good job of helping you think about story as a succession of scenes. Especially in screenwriting, that’s a necessary skill. But seeing your story as a succession of scenes doesn’t help you understand anything about how those scenes lock together to define the shape of the story.

Index cards as a paradigm for scene-level writing are easy to work with, whether you like to shuffle actual cards around on your desk, or if you use a word processor or a screenwriting program’s point-form outlining mode. However, as you’re shuffling your scenes around, your focus on the story as a continuum of scenes gives you absolutely no sense of what function all those scenes are performing within the story.

To understand why that’s a huge problem, let’s look just at one part of a hypothetical story — a single act comprising fifteen separate scenes. That’s fifteen index cards, on which you’ve written down a few sentences talking about what’s going on in the scene. But when you start shuffling those scenes around, you’re going to discover in a hurry that there’s a world of difference between this fifteen-scene section of story:

And this fifteen-scene section of story:

Simply by looking at the structure inherent in each of the above sections of story, we can instinctively feel the differences.

In the first story, the act consists of five sequences, each of which breaks down to three scenes. Those five sequences create a more complex overall storyline for the act, complete with the broad turnarounds of three complication sequences. However, within each turnaround, the scenes build and finish at a fast pace of three beats each. Though there are no hard and fast rules for this sort of thing, this structure would suit a thriller or an action film quite well. Lots of stuff going on, lots of quickly rising action resolving and spinning off into new action.

In the second story, the act consists of three sequences of five scenes each. Comedies and light romances often follow this sort of structure. The overall throughline of the act is straightforward (featuring just one big complication), but that relatively simple storyline incorporates a number of smaller twists and turns building slowly in order to work through it.

Based on their structure, it’s clear that these two stories have a very different feel and pacing. For each hypothetical act, you’ve got a perfect sense of the function of the scenes as they make up the larger sequences, which in turn make up the act. You understand the difference between what a setup scene, a complication scene, and a resolution scene do in the story, and that functionality guides the shaping of each scene, just as it guides the shaping of the sequences built by those scenes.

Now here’s what both those acts look like as index cards:

When you’re looking at a stack of scene notes set up as index cards or an outline document, it’s a safe bet that the very first scene needs to be a setup scene, just as you want to make sure that the last scene is resolution scene. But between those two points, you’re flying blind if you’re not maintaining a sense of the overall structure that the scenes are a part of.

Here’s the reason this should alarm you. The picture above is the normal way that most screenwriters make their first approach to shaping a story. No sense of the overall structure. Flying blind.

Looking at this small section of story (one act of a feature screenplay), we have fifteen narrative beats. Fifteen scenes. And absolutely no idea what structural function each of those scenes is accomplishing in the story. Because when we approach story this way, all we’re thinking about is scenes. We don’t think about the process of scenes building sequences, sequences building acts.

In screenwriting parlance, this kind of scene-level outline is often referred to as a “beat sheet” (especially in TV writing). But whether it’s called that or not, the approach of outlining a story by breaking it down scene by scene is almost universal for screenwriting.

To see why that’s a problem, let’s expand this small section. Remember from last time, we broke out a nominal full set of sixty-four scenes for a feature screenplay story. Here’s what our version looked like:

And here’s what a beat sheet or index card setup looks like. This is breaking out the story just at the scene level, with no thought given to the functions of those scenes within the larger structural framework of the story:

We know that our story has an act structure, for sure. We thus know that each act is going to start out with some sort of setup scene and finish with some sort of resolution scene. But in between those anchor points, we have absolutely no idea what function our scenes are meant to play within the overall structure of the story.

Last time, I joked about how relatively difficult it would be to accidentally swap the resolution act for the setup act in your story. By the same token, it’s not likely that you’re ever going to push the setup act into the middle of the story to accidentally run one of the complication acts first.

But it’s oh so very, very easy to start scrambling setup scenes with complication scenes if we’re not keeping track of which of those functions our scenes are serving. It’s dead easy to confuse complication scenes with resolution scenes, or to write a scene as more of a setup when it should be a complication, or to just lose whole sections of important structural story because we’ve lost track — or never bothered keeping track — of the structural paradigms that shape our story.

When we forget that the scenes on our index cards or beat sheet outline document are all meant to fulfill one of those most basic dramatic functions — setup, complication, resolution — it becomes far too easy to push a setup scene out of order, to move a complication into the wrong place, or to drop a resolution scene by accident.

When we forget about the structure of our story, it gets far too easy to lose sight of the rule of three to five narrative beats being the optimal pattern to deliver compelling story. And suddenly you’ve got a first act that consists of a setup scene and a resolution scene with fourteen complication scenes between them.

Exercise — The Sequence, the Scene… the Whole Damn Thing

Last session, we took another look at the earlier exercise of summarizing a recently-seen-and-remembered feature film in three to five sentences (which is to say, three to five acts), then breaking each of those acts down into three to five more sentences (representing three to five sequences per act).

When we did that exercise, we said not to dig deeper by focusing on the sequences and breaking each sequence down to scenes. That’s what we’re going to do now.

Look at each of the sequences as you summarized them for each act of the story. Focus in on the first of those sequences — act 1, sequence 1; the setup sequence of the setup act. Then break that sequence down into three to five sentences, each of which represents a scene in the film.

As with the most recent version of the exercise, don’t just think in terms of beginning, middles, and end when breaking each sequence down into its single-sentence scenes. Think about each of those scenes in terms of its function — setup, complications, resolution.

This last part of the exercise of breaking down an existing story from the act level to the scene level is nominally easier than breaking down the acts and the sequences. Because we all subconsciously parse film as a collection of scenes, it’s a relatively simple process to think about the film and have the recollection of a particular scene pop into your head. By contrast, trying to figure out where sequences begin and end is often more difficult.

However, it’s easy when doing this exercise to start coming up with too many scenes for a particular sequence — more than the three to five scenes than are allowed by our model. Three to five narrative beats is the optimal pattern for telling story, so each part of the story should break out as three to five parts. Three to five acts in the story as a whole, three to five sequences in each act, three to five scenes in each sequence. You might come up with five sentences easily enough, even as you’re aware that there’s an extra chunk of story you haven’t properly described in those five sentences.

Just for this exercise, don’t worry about those problems.

Betray the three-to-five sentence limitation if you need to. Don’t simply ignore the fact that you’ve got story missing. Write more than five (or fewer than three) scenes for a sequence if necessary, and don’t spend any time trying to fix it. We’ll be doing that next time.

Do you remember way, way back to the very first exercises in this series? We did some free scene writing, then promptly seemed to ignore that as we started digging into structural paradigms?

Here’s the reason we started out with that particular exercise.

Being able to write a compelling scene is never a sure thing, but the process of crafting a single scene is at least a straightforward one. You make choices in terms of description, characterization, and action. You think about characters and conflict. (We’ll talk a lot more about both those topics in upcoming installments.) You refine and rewrite until the scene is great. What makes a scene compelling when read in isolation is the language of words.

The purpose of those initial exercises was to demonstrate that by focusing only the scene itself, writing a scene is entirely within your creative grasp. The language of words is intuitive to a writer. Words are easy.

The dramatic function that each scene upholds in relation to the whole story is the language of story. Understanding this interplay of relationships — the place and function of scenes building sequences, sequences building acts, acts building the story as a whole — is what creates compelling story. It’s what makes a great film or novel draw you in and drag you on with it as the story pushes forward.

The difference between a great story and a mediocre story isn’t the quality of the writing. The quality of the writing can be first rate in a mediocre story. Looked at in isolation, each of the scenes in a mediocre story can be deftly crafted and beautifully written.

Crafting a collection of well-written scenes isn’t enough to create a great story. Those well-written scenes have to be assembled in a way that creates the shape of a great story. And there’s not just one single way to shape a great story. As we saw above, a fixed number of scenes can shape themselves into any number of different dramatic structures. And the problem is that when we write strictly at the scene level, diving into the story to sketch it out point by point, narrative beat by narrative beat, index card by index card, the shape of the dramatic structure is lost.

The language of story is hard.

Remember this from a minute ago?

If you’re a screenwriter and this looks vaguely familiar to you, it’s because this is Syd Field’s Paradigm-with-a-capital-P for writing screenplays. As we talked about earlier, Syd Field got an essential part of his own Paradigm wrong by calling what we’ve identified as Act 2 and Act 3 above as a single double-length Act 2. That’s not important, though.

What’s important is that most of the cookie-cutter approaches being preached by far too many screenwriting gurus and their books are built on this idea of having a few dramatic points nailed down, with a whole lot of empty space in between them. Have a setup here, have an inciting incident there, have a reversal on page 90 — and then for all the scenes around those points, just write some stuff down. You know, on your index cards.

The cookie-cutter approaches to crafting story amount to a whole lot of flying blind. You’ve got your acts, so that you can figure out the setups and the resolutions. But for each of those long swathes of story in between, the sense of structure is lost.

Even if each of those “?” scenes above is deftly crafted and well written, that means nothing as regards the larger and much more important question of “Is the story working?” When you start writing scenes without being cognizant of their place and function in the story, the story is lost.

NEXT: On the Level


Free Fiction — The Twilight Child

Noryan is the faithful squire of Braell, a knight of the people who wanders the countryside in search of wrongs to right and folk to defend. When a dark curse infects her, Braell begins to remember things that never happened, driven to undertake a quest she cannot name. But the more she must trust in Noryan to lead her, the greater the weight of the dark secret he hopes she never discovers…

The free preview version of this story is no longer available. However, please check out the current Free Fiction Friday offering at the Insane Angel Studios site.


The Future

In January of 1984, i was a third of the way into a BSc in computing science at Simon Fraser University and happily enmeshed in a world of command lines, MTS terminals, and the IBM PC taking over the world. Back home from the big city for a semester off, i was perusing a magazine rack at our local convenience store looking for the new Byte, when i saw something different instead. Macworld magazine number 1, with Steve Jobs on the cover showing off a computer like nothing i had ever seen before.

I had regretfully never owned an Apple II up to that point, largely because the small town i grew up in had no Apple dealer but did have a Radio Shack. (TRS-80 Model 1 über alles!) However, i knew what Apple was about, and i knew something about Steve Jobs from a bit of a profile in National Geographic of all places a couple of years earlier. Looking forward in time from that moment at the magazine rack, most likely with a large slushie in hand, it would be over a year before i actually saw a Mac. It would be two years before i had a chance to use one; three years before i was working with one; five years before i bought my first Mac Plus. But that winter of 1984, reading that first issue of Macworld cover to cover a half-dozen times, i knew that i had seen the future.

At the risk of seeming melodramatic, it would be hard to overestimate the impact that Steve Jobs has had on my life. At the points in that life when i was doing computer work, i could make pretty much any box running any OS sit up and dance. That appalling-unworkable-in-hindsight TRS-80. NewDos80 and CP/M. MS-DOS, Windows (version 3 on), the Atari ST — i ran ’em all and made them my bitch. I used to be able to write dBase code in my sleep. I could repair a temperamental hard drive controller just by hitting it with a steely gaze. People i hadn’t worked with in years used to phone me up at insane hours to get my opinion on buying new hardware. I was, in short, one of those “computer guys” — and in all my years of being a computer guy, nothing came close to the experience of working on the Mac.

My love of the Mac and my ability to make that platform sing as i had all other platforms before it got me firmly entrenched in the publishing industry, back at the point when magazines began the switch from phototypesetting to desktop publishing and my odd combination of traditional computer skills, writing ability, and design sense combined to make me the most employable person in the world for a brief, glorious time. For a long number of years, i managed to stay very comfortably on the leading edge of a philosophy of computing that Steve Jobs had envisioned and let loose on the world in 1984. Every word i’ve written since 1989 has been written on a Mac. Most of the words i wrote before then were subsequently rewritten on a Mac. Every map i’ve ever made, every book cover mockup, every home movie, every bit of half-assed audio and video editing — every bit of my own peculiar creative focus has been shaped and honed by the experience of what the Mac is. And even if you’re running Windows or Linux, as good as those systems are as compared to what they once were, trust me — you have no sense of the experience of what the Mac is.

Though their number is obviously always small, plenty of people have the unique combination of drive, genius, and opportunity that lets them change the world. I can name some of them; there are plenty of others whose contributions most of us remain blissfully unaware of. But Steve Jobs is one of a small handful of those people that i not only know, but of whom i can honestly say, each and every day:

“If not for what this guy did, i have no idea who i would be.”

In the commencement address he gave at Stanford University in 2005, Jobs said a number of things that should be listened to and reflected on. But this is the one that i’m thinking most about right now. Jobs said:
You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
In January of 1984, i had no reason to know or suspect that Macworld number 1 would mark a turning point in my life. But i felt it in my gut. Reading that issue cover to cover, recalling even now the names of the people in it telling the story of the Mac — Susan Kare, Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld, all the rest — with Steve Jobs pulling that story together to show what the future was going to look like. I felt a sense of destiny, life, karma, whatever. More than just inadvertently keeping me employed for a good number of years, more than giving me access to tools that let me be creative in the broadest, most easily accessible ways, back in 1984 when i was a comp sci undergrad a year or two away from getting stuck firmly in the status quo of systems work and SQL and everything that every other person with my ambition and skill set was stuck in — Steve Jobs let me see the future.

For that most of all, I’m going to miss Steve Jobs. But as much as i or any other lesser person possibly can, i’ll try to always keep that future in sight.


"The Gatekeepers are Dead"

I did a little post on Dune last week because i’ve been thinking a lot about Dune, in response to an email discussion with a frustrated writer of my passing acquaintance, talking about the pros and cons of the new world of publishing and the perils (as he sees them) of trying to self-publish intelligent, thoughtful, F&SF in a world where lowest-common denominator stories (again, as he sees them) are the only ones consistently getting notice.

Because there are a lot of people in the world far more eloquent on these topics than i, i was grateful to be able to point this writer in the direction of a new blog post from Michael Stackpole, who talks about this too-oft-circulated fear — that with any and every writer suddenly able to publish their work without the intervention and blessing of the gatekeepers, the works of good writers will inevitably be sucked down and drowned in the larger morass of dreck being published by hack writers.

Stackpole’s summary of the situation:
Here’s the problem with that question: It is utterly meaningless. People seem to believe that the morass situation is some how new and different because of the digital publishing boom. It’s not new—it’s old, ancient, unspeakably so. It’s the specter that’s haunted authors since before the Library at Alexandria burned down.
• • •
The gatekeepers were never very good at making sure books didn’t get lost in the morass. First off, if they were truly all about plucking gems from the slush piles, Harry Potter wouldn’t have bounced around like a pinball before it found a home outside the big six publishers. … [The gatekeepers] don’t even advocate for the books as much as authors do—when was the last time you saw a publishing house promote a book that did better than expected, trying to trigger more sales?
• • •
The goal, then, for authors is not to worry about how to avoid sinking in the morass. The goal is to produce enough high quality work that when you’re discovered, readers will want to read more.
• • •
Any writer who dwells on the question of sinking in the morass is really engaging in a very nasty and self-destructive form of procrastination. This writer uses the possibility that his work will sink to delay doing anything until he’s solved, or until he discovers a solution to, that conundrum. The problem there is, of course, that his refusal to write means he’s cutting himself off from the solution to the problem. Writing is too hard as it is to be sabotaging yourself. Writers write. Do that, do it well, and your audience will find you.
Reading those words (and commenting on the Facebook version of Stackpole’s post), i was reminded of a point that i’d made in the course of the discussion with the writer of my passing acquaintance. According to those who know about such things, Frank Herbert’s Dune was apparently rejected by twenty different publishers before finally seeing print.

That’s Dune. Not Harry Potter, about which arguments of quality versus popularity can certainly be made. Dune.

I personally cannot imagine the contemporary world of speculative fiction existing without Dune. Apparently, the gatekeepers at twenty different publishing companies could.

The gatekeepers are dead; long live the readers.


Arrakis… Desert Planet…

Appendix S: Dune

It’s hard to add anything to what’s been said about Frank Herbert’s Dune in the 45 years since it first appeared. Dune was already a classic when i read it in 1981, and unlike many SF books from the cusp of speculative fiction’s New Wave, its impact remains as timeless now as it did then. Herbert grounded his sprawling tale of imperial politics and ecological revolution in a character story worthy of Tolstoy, downplaying the nuts-and-bolts aspects of his milieu’s technology in a way that prevents Dune from seeming stale, even today.

As with many of the most seminal works of speculative fiction and fantasy, the most amazing thing about Dune is how close it came to never seeing print, having been passed over by twenty publishers before being initially picked up by a nonfiction small press. In the canon of F&SF, there are few books whose importance literally cannot be understated. Dune is one of those. Without it, the world of imaginative literature would not be the same.

I break with a lot of Herbert fans in my complete dispassion for the later Dune books, including the capstone of the original trilogy, Children of Dune. To anyone who hasn’t read the books, my recommendation is always to read Dune and Dune Messiah back to back as one continuous narrative, with the sequel bringing Herbert’s vision to a satisfying and heartbreaking end.


It’s Complicated

Part 7 of “The Language of Story”

A quick recap.

Aristotle tells us that all story is composed of parts.

We introduce Aristotle to recursion to discover that each of those Aristotelian parts of the story can be broken down into smaller parts.

We think about how those parts affect us as consumers of story depending on the pattern they create. We listen to the insight engendered by our storyteller’s mind. Two dramatic beats is too brief a pattern to encompass a compelling story; six beats is too long. Three to five beats is the magic number that creates the most effective pattern for crafting compelling story.

(In the last few installments, we’ve been talking mostly about film, but if your focus is prose fiction, please hang tough. All of this discussion is entirely relevant to prose fiction of any length. Talking about film just makes for an easy starting point.)

Having mangled Aristotle once, we’re going to do so again by messing around a bit with his terminology. Aristotle talked about story being composed of a beginning, a middle, and an end — but our response to that is a defiant shout-out that one single middle ain’t enough for us, old man. Because on the assumption that we don’t want our story to have more than one beginning or one end, our observation that three to five beats makes an optimal dramatic delivery system means we need one to three middles to fit in between our beginning and end.

So far so good.

But in thinking about our multiple middles, it’s easy to make a more profound observation about Aristotle’s analysis of drama in Poetics. Knowing that something is the beginning, or the first middle, or the second middle, or the end really only tells us where those parts occur. It doesn’t tell us anything about what those parts of the story are actually doing at their proscribed locations within the story.

Every bit of a story has a function. Every bit of a story has a place. And although there’s a relationship between place and function, function is ultimately most important.

An Aristotelian view of story structure does an adequate job of describing a story that already exists. But our purpose in rebuilding that view of structure is to come up with tools to help us shape stories that don’t exist yet. As such, our neo-Aristotelian model of story structure is all about function.

Standard act structure, as devised by the stage play writers who followed Aristotle, has already covered function. Using the standard terminology of stagecraft, Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end can be more usefully defined:

Every story has a setup, a complication, and a resolution.

This provides a much better context than “Beginning, Middle, End” for thinking about what’s going on in each part of a story. Borrowing from the standard analysis of dramatic storytelling, a setup beat establishes what’s going on — setting the scene, introducing the characters, et al. A complication beat takes what’s been previously introduced and mixes things up. It twists the story, pushing the dramatic arcs of the characters in unexpected directions by creating tension and conflict. The resolution beat settles and ties up that tension and conflict, putting things back on an even keel.

Easy. Except we mess it up by remembering that we’ve expanded Aristotle to incorporate the idea that three to five beats is the optimal pattern with which to create story.

When talking about feature film (again, just for the nonce), our expanded act structure of three to five dramatic beats breaks a screen story down into a setup, one to three complications, and a resolution.

Feeding our structure back into the neo-Aristotelian mechanic, we know that acts break down to sequences. Thus, each of the setup, complication, and resolution acts of our story can be deftly unwoven to reveal its own setup sequence, its one to three complication sequences, and its resolution sequence.

Likewise, we know that sequences can be broken down to scenes, so that each sequence above can be broken down to reveal its own setup scene, its one to three complication scenes, and its resolution scene.

Scenes become story beats, so that each of those scenes can be broken down to reveal its own setup story beat, one to three complication story beats, and a resolution story beat. (We include this for completeness, but as in the earlier installments, we’re mostly ignoring story beats for now.)

Now, this is all pretty straightforward. It’s all intuitive on many obvious levels, and it’s not like any of you are going “Oh, man! I just realized I was having a hard time with this story because I had the resolution at the front! Bad writer! Bad!”

Here’s why it’s important, though.

Setup, complications, and resolution are part of our neo-Aristotelian paradigm. As talked about above, we feed each part of the story into the Aristotle machine and chip off smaller parts, each a reflection of the structure above. Setup, complications, resolution.

Each part of the story has a function. Each act serves as the setup, one of the complications, or the resolution of the story as a whole.

Each sequence serves as the setup, one of the complications, or the resolution of one of the acts.

Each scene serves as the setup, one of the complications, or the resolution of one of the sequences.

From act level to scene level, every piece of the story serves as a functional component of that story — setting up, complicating, and resolving to push the story inexorably forward.

Exercise — Get Func[tion]y

Go back to the exercise from a couple of installments ago, in which you thought about a recently-seen-and-remembered feature film, summarized its story in three to five acts, then focused in on each of those acts to summarize them as three to five sequences. You can use the actual output of that exercise, or do it again for a different film if you like.

Whether you’re doing the exercise for a different film or using the output of the original exercise, in addition to looking at the sentences you used to describe each part of the story in their original context — as the beginning, the middles, and the end — think of each sentence in the expanded context of what function it serves in the story — setup, complications, resolution.

What you’ll likely find is that each sentence you crafted at the act level (summarizing the story in five sentences) automatically locks into functional place quite nicely. This makes sense given that you’re using this paradigm to analyze a story that someone else already wrote, rewrote, workshopped, got notes for, and rewrote again before it was actually made. Whatever the process by which the writer shaped and honed his or story, then had it honed again by actors, director, editor, and studio, its structure has been safely beaten into shape.

However, what you might also find is that at the sequence level, the sentences you wrote don’t automatically line up with that structural paradigm. The reason for this is simply that when you wrote those sentences, we hadn’t talked about any of that setup, complication, resolution stuff yet, so that you were only thinking in terms of beginning, middle, and end. And as you dig deeper into the story, it’s easier to lose track of the function of the parts of the story as you focus solely on their placement and position.

When you wrote your original sentences, you were focusing on the order of the dramatic beats in the story, not on the function of those dramatic beats.

Now that you are thinking in terms of setup, complication, and resolution, rewrite and refine the sequence breakdowns. As you do, think about how the feeling of each of your sentences changes in tone, even if only subtly.

If you’re like most people doing this exercise, thinking in terms of setup, complications, and resolution — the function of each part of the story — lets you focus and refine the story much more effectively than simply thinking in terms of where each part of the story falls.

When you’re thinking solely in terms of beginning, middle, and end, all you can really do is say, “Well, the beginning’s been running for a while now, so I guess the middle must start around here.”

When you’re thinking in terms of setup, complication, and resolution, you can say, “This section twists the story and raises the dramatic stakes. The complication starts here.”

As you did last time, work all the way through all your three to five acts, breaking each down to three to five sequences. Same drill as always — one properly formed sentence each.

(As before, please DON’T dig deeper and start breaking your sequences down to the scene level. We’ll tackle that next time.)

When you’re done, compare the revised version of your sequence beats to the original version. Which has more of a sense of narrative movement? Which has more energy and focus? Which does a better job of capturing the essence of the story?

Here’s a snapshot of a story as a whole, from the act level down to the scene level.

For the purpose of discussion, we’re looking above at a four-act feature film story, with each section breaking down to four smaller subsections all the way down. (There’s nothing special about this particular structure; it just makes it relatively easy to create the graphic. In particular, it’s important to remember that the number of narrative beats at any level is rarely this consistent. It’s always about a flexible structure of three to five narrative beats, determined by the demands of the story.)

The above story has four acts, each of which have four sequences, each of which have four scenes. That’s 4 x 4 x 4 = 64 scenes. There are no hard and fast rules for how many scenes a film should have (and the number of scenes can vary greatly depending on the type of story), but most references and screenwriting books will tell you that sixty-four scenes is very much in line for what you want in a 100- to 120-page feature script.

Scenes are important (especially in film, but also in prose fiction; a scene just has a slightly different definition in prose fiction). And in exploring the parameters of our neo-Aristotelian paradigm, we can see how to work from the top level of story down to the level of the scenes that ultimately make up our story. But that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

It’s good to understand the functional relationship of scenes to the story as a whole, by exploring the idea of how the structure of acts breaks down into a structure of sequences, which in turn breaks down into a structure of scenes. It’s important to be able to see the process in the opposite direction, where the structure of the scenes feeds into the structure of the sequences, which feeds into the structure of the acts, which creates the story as a whole.

It’s very bad to forget that functional relationship. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to forget it — and most of the problems we encounter as writers take root in the moments when we forget it.

We know and understand story innately, but that understanding is largely subconscious. We know and understand words innately, and that understanding is entirely conscious. And as with many things in life, our conscious focus can too easily shut down our subconscious understanding if we let it.

Learning how to maintain a conscious focus on narrative structure and the function of every individual part of a story is the secret to understanding the language of story.

NEXT: Not in the Cards


Know Your Victim

Author Ewan Morrison (on the Guardian website this past week) becomes the latest in a long line of people to sound the death knell for the book. However, he pushes farther than some to slather on a new layer of apocalyptic fervor, predicting not only the death of the book but the death of fiction and the collateral death of writing as a profession.
Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.
I’m tempted to want to link the hell out of this piece as a kind of “Know your enemy” parable, and to foment discussion on how amazingly worthless much of Morrison’s analysis of current media and the so-called “financial downturn in the digital industries” is. In the end, though, i’m forced to admit that i don’t actually think Morrison is the enemy. I think Morrison is a victim — specifically of the lack of faith in themselves and their work that plagues way too many writers, both established and aspiring. 

The thing that i find most disturbing in Morrison’s essay (aside from his verbatim and singular quoting of the MPAA on the effect of piracy on media, which alone demonstrates the narrowness of his focus and his lack of research) is the implicit idea in every one of his examples that the work of a creator/artist has no value outside what the publisher/producer will place on it. This is bullshit. It always has been bullshit. It always will be bullshit. The value of our work is defined wholly by its quality, its accessibility, and how much people fall in love with it. That’s always been the rule for writing, for music, for the other popular and consumer-focused arts. And as such, it’s the thing the publishers and producers have always had to control with an iron fist.

The new reality of writing takes that control away from the publishers and producers and puts it squarely into the hands of the creators. However, Morrison seems unwilling or unable to look at the full implications of those seismic shifts in the industry. The completely accurate observation that the new rules of publishing are going to destroy the old model of writers living off the advances for which they trade away their long-term control of a work is a no-brainer. However, Morrison then fails to acknowledge that there’s any potential value in writers taking back the long-term control of their work. In the end, his analysis isn’t crafting his conclusion. Morrison has already made his conclusion, and it’s crafted entirely on the fear and uncertainty that lets too many writers believe that that the control and blessing of a publisher is what grants legitimacy to writing. Faced with the destruction of the system that grants that legitimacy, Morrison crafted an analysis born of the fear of losing that legitimacy. To my mind, a better use of his time might be to think about why he’s afraid to believe in the legitimacy of himself — of his work, of writing in general — on its own terms.


The Captivation of Contrasts

Appendix S: Lyonesse (Suldrun’s Garden)

If Lord Dunsany had written Game of Thrones, the result might have been something like this often overlooked fantasy gem by F&SF legend Jack Vance. The setting is the Elder Isles, a magical realm that occupies the seas south of Dark-Ages Britain and Ireland. The story is built on a wonderfully fractious narrative that spins out between a half-dozen characters caught up in the political turmoil roiling the isles’ kingdoms.

In Lyonesse (the title of some editions; others are published as Suldrun’s Garden), the princess Suldrun rejects her father’s plans to marry her off for political gain, finding peace and solace in a lost garden. In Troicinet, the young prince Allais is comfortably out of the line of succession until his uncle dies, whereupon a jealous cousin tries to murder him and sets in motion a bittersweet tale of revenge and redemption. The people and the culture of the Elder Isles are beautifully brought to life by Vance’s almost-poetic prose, which moves seamlessly between the hard edges of epic fantasy and the winsome quality of the Elder Isles’ dark fairy-tale world. Mischievous fey, witches, trolls, and powerful sorcerers define the web of magic that weaves through the high-fantasy politics of Vance’s realm, and the result is stunning.

I know people who don’t care for this or the other books of Vance’s Lyonesse cycle (the followups are The Green Pearl and Madouc). Vance’s prose is nothing short of bewitching, but that magic demands a certain amount of like-mindedness on the reader’s part.
Something had changed. She felt as if she were seeing the garden for the first time, even though every detail, every tree and flower was familiar and dead. She looked about her in sadness for the lost vision of childhood. She saw evidence of neglect: harebells, anemones and violets growing modestly in the shadow had been challenged by insolent tufts of rank grass. Opposite, among the cypresses and olive trees, nettles had risen more proudly than the asphodel. The path she had so diligently paved with beach pebbles had been broken by rain.
Suldrun went slowly down to the old lime tree, under which she had passed many dreaming hours. The garden seemed smaller. Ordinary sunlight suffused the air, rather than the old enchantment which had gathered in this place alone, and surely the wild roses had given a richer fragrance when first she had entered the garden? At a crunch of footsteps she looked about to discover a breaming Brother Umphred. He wore a brown cassock tied with a black cord. The cowl hung down between his plump shoulders; his tonsured baldness shone pink.
Likewise, the story is dark and light by turns, and features more than a bit of medieval-style mayhem, murder, and rapine, and the presentation of such topics in an almost fairy tale-like morally neutral cadence can take some getting used to. But just as the best fairy tales walk the line between shock and beauty, dismay and hope, so too does Suldrun’s Garden captivate with its contrasts. Not all of Vance’s metaphorical garden and its counterpart fey landscape is flowers and light.

On a more mechanical level, Suldrun’s Garden is one of those books i often rail about as being less a complete story in its own right and more of a setup for the books to come. In this case, however, there’s enough story — by turns comic, tragic, and bittersweet in spades — to carry the book to a satisfying conclusion, even if that conclusion speaks less to closure for Suldrun’s story than to portents of what’s to come as a result (right down to a “What of Character X?” epilogue whose tone pushes dangerously close to tongue-in-cheek soap opera). In the end, though, Suldrun’s Garden is a great standalone introduction to Vance’s work and world, and a fascinating hybrid that shows off the power of epic tale-telling and the whimsy of fairy tale in equal measure.

Suldrun’s Garden has a permanent place on the shelves in Appendix S because Vance’s writing is never content to be one thing or the other. And by striving to be both, it manages to achieve a beauty that’s inordinately rare.