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THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NARRATIVE, PART II
7) The road winds ever on.
Then there are the really long stories. These tend to have the picaresque, episodic, or epic structures.
Picaresque is a series of events which are unconnected to one another, and in which each event does not have any effect on following events. Picture the classic episodic television shows of the era leading up to Hill Street Blues, where at the end of each episode a cosmis reset button has been pushed. The characters do not develop, and previous events are never referred to again. There’s a quality of this as well in certain types of series novels–events are totally resolved at the end of each one, and all change is external to the protagonist. You can read them in any order, basically: think of the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books.
The episodic structure is one where each individual story contributes to an ongoing narrative arc, but is complete in itself. Sometimes they escalate in tension as a season progresses, functioning as sort of macro-scale rising and falling action in a larger three-act structure (Buffy: the Vampire Slayer************), and sometimes they just lead one into the next (the aforementioned Hill Street Blues).
The epic form is exemplified by shows like The Wire or Heat or Game of Thrones. They are, essentially, soap operas. Same structure. Same techniques. It’s what we use in those multi-volume epic fantasies, too.
The long running soap opera is the modern equivalent of the newspaper serial or comic book or radio drama, and all of those are progenitors of epic fantasy as we know it today. They’re all addictive as hell. One part of this is because of long-spun plot lines that we come to care about–mysteries we want to know the answers to–and another part is because we become incredibly invested in the characters over time***********.
A story told in western 3 (or 5) act structure has one long peak with a series of quick up-and-down ticks in tension (rising and falling action, always trending upwards to the climax).
But the plot cycle in an epic fantasy or soap opera or serial is a series of overlapping sine waves*******. (One for each character or plot thread.) Each peak in each sine wave is one of those three-act structure peaks in miniature. They overlap, ideally, so that one narrative’s tension is rising while another is reaching a denouement.
This is also why the damned things are so hard to end, by the way. You get into a rhythm, and used to spinning out long plot threads and thematic lines and hooks to carry you from one arc into the next. So the story, after a while, has a momentum. A natural tendency to propagate itself.
Shifting from “middle” to “end” is brutal when you’ve gotten into that habit.
8) Fichtean Curves
Well, that’s the exposition handled. Let’s talk about three-act structure for reals, and how you build your machine.
Here’s a picture of what it looks like:
Three-act structure is the basic modern structure for the goal-oriented plot. In essence, the character has a goal and meets a series of challenges or obstacles of increasing difficulty in order to achieve that goal. The first act is generally introduction, demonstrating what’s at stake, establishing characters and getting the wheels started turning. By the end of the first act, we generally expect a reversal–also called a turning point–where something happens that will change the protagonist’s life forever no matter how they react happens.
Basically, this is where you break something. And generally, the earlier in the narrative that something changes, the better.
At the two-thirds point (this marks the end of the middle of the narrative, or the end of the second act) we find the second turning point–where the conflict has escalated to the point where it looks as if there’s no way the protagonists can prevail. (A really interesting and well-developed antagonist and/or villain–they’re not the same thing exactly–is very useful for this, but that’s a different lecture.)
But the protagonist perserveres, and eventually reaches an ultimate conflict–the climax–and then proceeds to a resolution through the heroic action of said protagonist.
A funny thing about three-act structure. It’s a complete natural for trilogies, and one of the best examples of how it works when it works well is the original Star Wars films.
A New Hope (I will never be able to type that without flinching, which tells you pretty precisely how old I am), while it’s a complete three-act story in itself, is also the first act of the larger story. It’s climax (the destruction of the Death Star) also serves as a turning point for Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie. (Even though Chewie doesn’t get a medal, and yes, I am still bitter.)
The Empire Strikes Back is also a complete story in itself (people complain about the middles of trilogies often because the writer neglects to structure the escalating action so it has an arc, and then it just kind of sits there–this movie passes that test better than most.) whose climax also serves as the second turning point (sometimes known as the Darkest Hour) where Han is frozen and kidnapped, Luke is maimed, terrible secrets are revealed, Vader finds out about Leia, and it seems as if all is hopeless.
The Return of the Jedi serves as the third act, leading up the biggest climax, the bossfight, and the putative antagonist’s crisis of conscience that leads to the victory. (I say putative antagonist because it’s my contention that there’s a good case for Vader as the protag, but that’s a different argument.)
9) Okay, so how do I build this machine?
First you assemble your bits.
You need a character in a situation with a problem.
That character must want something. (This is incredibly important, and not merely to drive the plot. A character who wants something is a character with whom the reader instantaneously connects. We talk a lot about “audience identification” and “likable protagonists” and while it’s nice if you can get it, in my experience a far more necessary thing is audience engagement. Katniss isn’t particularly likable to many people (hell, for me, part of her charm is that she’s snappish and opinionated), but boy does she engage.
So. Identify your protagonist. Identify their situation. Provide them with a problem–the bigger and more immediate, the better, but anything will do to start. You can (and will) always escalate later.
Now figure out what they want, and also what they need. These things should be in conflict with each other–what they want, in other words, should not be what’s good for them. The difference can be subtle, and one thing can be a precondition for the other–or they can be directly opposed, which gives us a great opportunity for character growth.
The reason for this is because where we get theme, in a three-act story, is from the conflict between want and need.
Now, that thing your protag wants? You wave it under your character’s nose. Let her get a real good sniff. And then you take it away from her. (This is also referred to as “the inciting incident.”)
I’ve said for years that one of the most important tools a novelist can have in a story is a character who runs toward the sound of gunfire. (We all have that friend, right? The one that can’t go around mud? When you can, make your protagonist that guy. He’ll make his own fun.)
But if you’ve just stolen your protag’s emotional and physical security, well, he’ll bloody well move heaven and earth to go and get it, won’t he?
You also have the option of giving your character some sort of flaw that they must overcome in the third act (as part of their heroic action at the climax) in order to complete the victory condition of the story. This needs to be handled very lightly. Because the result when it doesn’t work out is dire.
Once you have those things, you have everything you need to tell a story. And the best part is, the end is implied in the beginning. You’ve set up the problem you have to solve.
Now the problem that remains is to find an interesting way to complicate and then solve it.
10) Now, you may say this sounds formulaic.
That would be because it is a formula. If not used advisedly, it will indeed produce a formulaic result.
And part of the trick here is that while you often know where you will end, you can have a lot of fun with the path you take to get there. I am not alone among writers in having taken an unpublishable early novel, kept the beginning and the denouement almost unchanged, ripped out the majority of the second and third act, replaced it with something better, and produced a much better book.
Don’t be afraid to throw out ideas and look for better ones.
When this formula is it’s used well, after all, the result is Casablanca.
We have our protag, Rick Blaine. We have the thing he wants: initially, it’s to be left alone. “I stick my neck out for nobody.” This want eventually evolves into wanting Ilsa Lund back. But neither of those things is what Rick needs. What he needs is to get his mojo back; to become a man again.
Rick won’t run towards the gunfire. He has to be dragged. (This is actually his character flaw: he’s lost his courage.)
So we present him with the inciting incidents–we take away his alone. He comes into custody of the Macguffin–the thing everyone in the story wants to get their hands on–and his lost love, the person who broke him, comes back into his orbit.
But there’s a complication. She’s married. And her husband is both a hero and a wanted man. (There’s Nazis. The villain in this movie, Strasser, is actually not very interesting–far more intriguing is another antagonist, Renault, who is a Vichy French chief of police.) Ilsa’s husband complicates things further by using Rick’s bar as a staging ground to foment anti-German feeling.
At this point, it’s just a matter of setting up action and reaction, each move building on the next, each character acting in the interest of their own goals and within the limitations of their design. It’s exactly like writing a fight scene or a conversation in macro–action, reaction, ripost, reaction–raising the stakes slightly each time.
At the end–the climax point, we resolve it by bringing Rick’s (evolved) want (Ilsa) into direct conflict with the need that he has now come to recognize–that he will not be himself again unless he fights the Germans. He overcomes his learned cowardice and fights the Germans. He sends Ilsa off with her husband; Renault experiences a crisis of conscience and comes to Rick’s rescue; and the two of them make a pact to help the resistance.
This is a satisfying ending because it offers catharsis in the form of narrative justice. Rick must sacrifice something (his desire for Ilsa) in order to make himself whole and also to do the right thing on a larger scale. (Ilsa has a parallel plot arc, where she too must choose to do the right thing–stay with her husband–over going with Rick. Ilsa’s husband’s crisis comes earlier in the plot, when he urges Rick to save Ilsa and is willing to sacrifice himself to make it happen.)
A satisfying ending for this structure, in other words, is usually one that requires some sort of sacrifice or compromise to get there, and which always requires some growth. (With one exception, explored below.)
None of these choices are easy, but they are ethical, and they exhibit the growth of the characters. Casablanca is a heroic narrative.
(SEE NEXT ROCK)