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Posts Tagged ‘story logic

I had another idea come to me about my query synopsis a few days ago. I was looking over my most recent version after the latest rejection, thinking of sending it out again, but wondering if something wasn’t quite right with it. The first section dealt with the larger context in which the story took place, with the following sections detailing the actual story, but somehow it just wasn’t quite working. The transition seemed a little jarring.

So I wrote another section after the first, intending to make the transition a little smoother, but once I wrote it, I wondered why I was bothering to make the transition at all. Well, the main reason is because the situation is just that, a situation, pretty static. It’s the people in the situation who are doing the things that make the story go. And once those actions have been performed, one of the big reveals of the story is what effect they have on the situation, to resolve it, all unknowing to any of the actors involved.

In other words, only from the perspective of the situation, do the totality of the actions taken make complete sense. So to describe the story with no more than a few players involved, the obvious place to tell it from is the perspective of the situation. Which is, to some extent, the authorial point of view, and we all know how much I hate telling the story from that place, which may be why it took me so long to think of it. Not to mention the fact that it’s the reveal, you know? It’s the story.

So I wrote a synopsis in which the Situation was the main character. What were its goals? To achieve a resolution. Why did it want them? Because all stories naturally desire resolution, i.e., to be reduced to the least unstable state. these goals were so obvious they could be taken for granted. The question was really how, or to put it another way, what constitutes the least unstable state.

A lot of actions could reduce the instability of the story, for example, killing all the characters in chapter one, but that’s hardly a satisfying resolution, or the least unstable state. What constitutes a satisfying resolution depends on the type of story it is, which of course means that the type of story it is depends on the resolution that works best. In a badly done story, no resolution works best. A romance that has an unhappy ending, a comedy that leaves you confused. One might achieve a greater degree of satisfaction by recasting the story in a form which makes the most total sense. In The Producers, a failed historical drama becomes a wildly successful comedy. Ex Machina looks like some form of romance until it becomes a horror story.

(Which is not to say that a properly resolved story has no defects. i just watched a nice little romantic comedy called The Rewrite, which despite the ending managed to miss a number of opportunities for minor story arcs to be resolved, for several characters. But these were all subplots, not para- or coplots, so the story didn’t suffer badly from them.)

So the takeaway from all this is that in order to properly describe stories of the sort I seem to end up writing on a regular basis, I have to abandon the reveal, at least as far as the query letter is concerned. The real trick is to do it in such a way that the ending is still a surprise.

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I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.

What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.

Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.

They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)

It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.

I just wrote my very first synopsis. It’s my fourth novel, but I was never able to write a synopsis before this, so…yay, me!

Of course, this comes after a year of contemplating the damn story, writing and rewriting the damn query summary, or query hook, or mini-synopsis, or whatever the hell it’s called. Really, there should be a more unified vocabulary for this sort of thing. Or maybe there is and I’ve just outed myself as never having attended a writing symposium of any kind.

Anyway, after a good chunk of forever spent thinking and rewriting, I finally just sort of dashed off a query thing pretty quickly, which surprised me a bit. I found an agency that looked interesting, but their submissions page mentioned a synopsis, in addition to the query, and I’d never written one of those. But hey, I just wrote the query hook/pitch/middle/whatever, how hard could this be? Well, as it turned out, quite a bit harder.

First I wrote a pretty detailed precis of the story, 3000 words worth. Which could be what I needed. Or not. Some friends of mine on Facebook recommended a one-page approach, and that was a good deal trickier, even though I was pointed to a very nice little blog post on the subject. But even with a model to follow it still took me two days to get something I don’t hate.

The trickiest part, since it colors everything that follows, is the section called the inciting incident, which is the part of the story that sets the guy off from whatever life he’s got into the adventure to come. What is it, and what action does it incite? I confused myself by thinking that my hero had to be pursuing some epic goal, which he wasn’t. I thought maybe he had to want something grand and glorious, which he didn’t. The most epic adventures are those where the hero is just doing some little thing that he knows ought to be done, and then the consequences pile up.

So in my latest story, the hero isn’t trying to solve a murder, or save the world, even though he ends up doing both. When the police come and bring him to the murder scene, and start asking him questions, he is ashamed. He knows nothing about the man’s life. He feels guilty, and he wants to correct that. What took me days to figure out was that the initial motivation didn’t need to be epic, it just needed to be great enough to make him move. When good characters move, epic events follow.

Of course, something has to be epic, and somebody has to do those epic things, but I don’t think it has to be only or always the MC. (There’s probably no more epic moment in Star Wars than Ben stepping back and letting Vader strike.) I sometimes feel like my stories don’t have a plot so much as 2 or 3 co-plots, with some number of different characters each pursuing their own goals and their individual stories intersecting. My last three stories have been like that, so maybe it’s not an accident after all.

Pretty hard to synopsize, though.

I don’t usually write fanfics. I get all hung up sometimes about using someone else’s characters and making sure the voices sound right and all that stuff that applies to anyone monkeying around in someone else’s back yard. It’s possible they may like what you did with their flower beds, but then again…

I do take inspiration from other people’s work, usually negative.

  • ‘Why did they do that?’
  • ‘I could have done this better.’
  • ‘I’d rather the story went this way…’

Many times I take these ideas and use them to enhance my own stories. Not in any way that violates copyright, of course, but there’s no need to say where the idea came from or use names anyway. It’s the scenario that matters.

A fanfic is a different beast, and there are different types of fanfic. Many are enhancements of something, a story written to add corroborative detail to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Or it could be hairy and convincing, but not enough for the guy writing the fanfic. Some TV shows try to mirror their weekly schedule in the script, and fanfics are written to fill in the gaps. One fanfic author I especially like blithely ignores the romantic tension plot of our mutual favorite series and has the characters expressing their affection openly, if not explicitly.

What makes a fanfic work for me is whether or not the storyline of the original story needs to be changed to accommodate it, a technique known as retcon, for retroactive continuity. (I’ve read some novels that try to do the same thing, which to me is a sign of bad writing. We won’t even mention Highlander 2.) The less ‘retconning’ there is, the better the fanfic, at least to me. My respect for the logic flow of the original story sort of requires me to try to carry it forward into any fanfics I read, or write. A story that at least doesn’t contradict the original is minimally OK. If the logic flows into the fanfic, if the fanfic explains something in the original story using the story’s own logic (which I’ll call explanatory power), so much the better. (Of course the author of the fanfic may have a different idea of what that logic flow is than I do, in which case he’s wrong.) Clearly multiple fanfics can be written to extend or embellish any story at any point, and as long as they satisfy my criteria I’d say they were all equally good, qua fanfic. The actual writing may still suck.

I have so far written all of two fanfics, not counting the scenes in my books which were inspired by other stories. Those were scenes, not complete stories, and the characters were my own. I’ll give you points if you can tell me what the scenes are and what the inspirations were. Points are cheap.

My only reason so far for writing a fanfic is that I felt a complete or partial lack of closure to a story arc, i.e., the logic is incomplete. Incomplete logic annoys me in and of itself, which often means that the story itself bothers me, given how tied together the two are. My first fanfic was written solely to scratch an itch inflicted upon me by the TV series Chuck, back in season three, when a story arc that stretched for four episodes ended abruptly, without a happy resolution, or even a sad one. I suppose I could have lived with a sad one, but since I prefer happy endings that’s what my fanfic gave her, sort of. It’s on this site as Free Story #2, above. It was a short exercise for a minor character. No retcon involved, nor any explanatory power.

I just finished my second fanfic yesterday. Again it is for the series Chuck, one of the few TV shows to have characters that involved me enough that I would care enough about them to write a fanfic. The series just ended, and the final episode ends with a major plotline unresolved. The producers say this is to allow viewers to make up their own endings, but the more likely explanation is that they wanted a hook to hang a new series or movie possibility onto. Innocent that I am, this rather cynical second possibility did not even occur to me until after I’d plotted out the fanfic I wanted to tell, to resolve the plotline as I felt it ought to be resolved, i.e., no retconning, maximum explanatory power, and an HEA.

This was the fastest writing I’ve ever done, 7K words in three days, or about 9 pages a day. The characters were there and I knew them all and loved them. I believe they all act in character and sound right. I knew the story intimately, and even though the logic isn’t exactly the tightest in the world, there were certain conventions to be observed and standards to be upheld, and I think I did. It’s one of the few I’ve ever plotted out from beginning to end, or was able to. This story wanted to be written and it wanted to be written right now! (Plus I’m in the middle of another novel and job-hunting so I really don’t have a lot of time.)

I sent it out to a few beta-readers already, and I’m hoping to post it either tonight or tomorrow. If you like the show Chuck I hope you’ll check out my story and tell me what you think.  For other fanfics about all sorts of stories, not just TV, check out fanfiction.net. I’m sure there are others.

Remember, all authors love feedback. If you have a favorite author, write and tell him so. Tell his publisher so. The only way to keep the stuff you love available is to spread the love and spread the word.

By which I mean to say, that I am following a thread. It’s not a real thread, unfortunately, but a thread of logic, of coherence, and consistency. It is in short, a thread of story.

Lots of authors out there can tackle any piece of a story that comes their way, writing up little pieces of text that will, eventually, get put into the right order so the story is revealed, much like a picture puzzle. I am not one of those people. The writing experience for me is very simple: I start at some beginning (which, often as not, comes to me in a dream or a random comment, or some internal visualization) and I keep going until I get to the end.

There are upsides and downsides to thread-following, as there are to most things. The upside is that the maze becomes less of a maze. Random side alleys are less inviting, if they even get noticed. I’m not looking at them, I’m looking at my thread. I’ll go down a random side alley if the thread does. Which it often does. To a pantser, every alley is a random side alley.

But, not all side alleys are alleys I want to go down, even if the thread leads there. My latest WIP, Ghostkiller, has my MC currently working with a pair of homicide detectives investigating, well, a homicide. Another Ghostkiller. Which has lots of nasty ghostkiller-related consequences. And I don’t know much about homicide detective procedures anyway. I’m interested in the guy, not the job. Do I really want to go down that alley?

Fortunately, I don’t have to. Story logic is multi-branching, and there are threads all over the place. There are doubtless other threads I can follow which do not require me to know about police call-in procedures. I’m not a complete pantser, either, so I have some idea of which threads I want to follow and where they’re likely to go. If I’m done the job right, or got lucky, there’ll be a branch just up ahead. If there’s no branch, maybe I’ll do like the hero in Tron and make one. If I’m not lucky and I can’t just make it up, there was a branch just a little back there. If I’m really unlucky the last branch was quite a long time ago, and I’ve got some serious revising to do.

Which, curiously, is another benefit of thread-following. Dead ends and bad branches don’t hang around in the text, waiting to be excised in a furious burst of revision and second drafting. The current draft is the only draft. When editing time comes along there’s almost nothing left to do but the mechanical formatting and grammatical stuff. Of course I suppose I could just save that text and see if it makes sense somewhere else. That’s another weird thing about story logic, a scene that makes no sense from one direction can make perfect sense somewhere else. The manner in which you enter the alley dictates whether or not there’s an exit, and if so what kind.

But if you drop the thread you’re screwed, hunting around on hands and knees in the dark, groping about until you find it again. Which could take a while. If you’re like me you’ve got a bunch of threads at the same time, though, so if you can’t find one you can just spin off on a different thread-axis and work on a different story for a while. The threads are all connected, after all, by following one you may pick up the one you lost. Happens to me all the time. On the other hand, having multiple threads can be a problem if they all start calling at once.

I haven’t said anything about the main metaphor in this sea of troubles, the minotaur that lives in the maze. Which is only fair, I suppose. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, and have no idea what it could be. Do you?

I don’t know about you but I feel kind of funny about saying everything in a story. In part this is because the story logic gets in the way. If the story assumes that a given culture exists and has existed for a great long time, then it makes no sense to have the characters say things that explain that history and culture for the reader. This is the great problem of backstory and exposition in general, getting out all the history and structure of your world so the reader understands the context of their actions. Clearly this is work that has to be done, explicitly but not clumsily. As you already know.

In a slightly different vein, there are numerous cases in which details that lend a certain depth or flavor to the story need to be put in. These, being details, are small, often casual comments that have a basis in the story logic but are not contributory to the story itself. Depending on how different the world is from our own, there are either more or less of these little details, but never none. The funny thing is that this is more of a problem the closer this world is to our own. I noticed a while back, while reading a philosophical paper on abortion, strangely enough, that the further away you get with your hypothetical cases, i.e., the fictional world of the story, the more of these details there are. Which is not a good thing for philosophical papers (especially that one). For fantasy novels this actually simplifies things, since you can’t take any of these details as implied. You have to state them. Only when the world is very similar do we have the problem of having to tell our readers the things that normal people in this world would take for granted.

As an example, in my current WIP, Ghostkiller, the entire group of Ghostkillers all go by the last name of Smith (don’t ask me why, I haven’t figured out the reason for it yet, but I’m sure there’s a good one). So it follows (see the story logic element here?) that they would all refer to each other by first name. It further follows that not referring to someone by first name is a bit of a snub, while referring to someone who isn’t a Ghostkiller by first name is inclusive, i.e., a friendly act.

I have a lot more of these, as Ghostkiller is supposed to be set in a world very similar to ours, except for the ghosts and the killing of them. The problem is, how obvious are these things supposed to be to the reader? My preference is to let implication do its subtle work, and just use these elements without hitting the reader over the head to make him notice how clever I was. On the other hand, in several of my stories I’ve had it impressed upon me that I left too much to be implied, and had to add a lot of text to make it clearer what was going on.

Where do you draw the line?


Unbinding the Stone

A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

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St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

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Ghostkiller

Chasing His Own Tale

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Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

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Steampunk Santa

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Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

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Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

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