Omg, I totally forgot that it's V Day. So much for "Remember, remember."
Meanwhile, I didn't end up going to a movie this afternoon, but it looks like I might be going tonight. So I might as well post what I've got now:
Since it's NaNo time, and since I'm actually using some of these techniques myself, it seemed like as good a time as any to pick up with the third installment of the writer's block thing I was doing in July. Yes, it's November now. Y'all should know by now how badly I suck at finishing things.
Part of the reason I didn't write this up at the time is that I had a lot of grandiose ideas that I couldn't quite organize or articulate. (Oh, the ironing.) I think what I have to admit up front here is that I'm so incredibly not qualified to teach a class in Structure of the Narrative, which is what my original idea resembled. I should just say, very simply, that there are two approaches to looking at narrative structure when you get stuck, and they are this:
1) What has to happen
There are certain things that have to happen in a narrative, unless you're working on a twentieth-century Tristram Shandy, in which case I don't know why you're fooling with any of my advice at all. If you're simply trying to tell a satisfying story (as stated in the first installment: "If you can engage the reader and tell a good story, you can--and should--worry about the polish and the profundity, but you can worry about it later"), certain things are going to have to happen, much the way that a ball thrown into the air is going to have to come back down. At its most basic--and I forget who said this--a character has to want something, "even if it's just a glass of water." I'm sure there are ways to write a story about a character who wants nothing, but it's going to be damn hard to build a plot around that, although Kafka's The Trial is a fairly good example, if I recall correctly, of a story about a man who goes through the motions of a trial and yet does not commit a crime, is not interrogated, cannot read law books, does not get an effective advocate, and does not get any solace from a priest right before his execution. In other words, it's a story that takes place entirely in non-actions. There are plenty of ways you can subvert the narrative on a far more experimental level than what I'm talking about here--but here, in this section, we're going to assume that certain things do have to happen, and that a character does have to want something.
So the character has to want something. S/he has to grow or change in some way by the end of the story. There's often a threshold to cross: a point where you, as the reader, journey vicariously with that character into a world you're not familiar with, whether it's a future dystopia or the Mafia in New Jersey or a posh English country house. There's often a mentor: someone who knows more than the protagonist (also, by proxy, you) who will explain things and help the protagonist along. There are allies; there are enemies. If there is a mystery, you are going to have to solve it, and before you solve it, you are going to have to provide misdirection and some false suspects. If you're writing something with a romantic relationship, you're going to have to resolve that. If you're writing fantasy and there's some kind of a quest (and if you follow Joseph Campbell, everything is a quest), you're going to have to reach the end of that. So if you're stuck, particularly early on in your story, sit down and ask yourself what has to happen. This is why I frequently end up writing the end of the story first; it's like deciding where you're going on vacation before you actually sit down and map out the route. If you're spending a week in Florence, you are probably going to need to book a flight. If you're not sure where you're going with your story--and I wish I could be more specific here, but I don't, after all, have your story in front of me--you need to sit down and figure out what you're going to end up having to do.
To that end, sometimes I consult things like the Hero's Journey (I know this is the Dread Wikipedia, but I really like the simple thoroughness of the outline here. A few non-Wiki pages: Hero's Journey screenwriting worksheets for sale [for the win!], The Start of the Hero's Journey ["We never imagined that more than 9000 people would create their own work here"] and Your Heroic Journey.com) or even the tarot cycle to look at the way narratives often pan out. (The Dread Wikipedia articles on tarot incorporate text from A. E. Waite's Pictorial Key to the Tarot.) The tarot thing is often fun when you're blocked: try to map your characters and/or events to different cards in the Major Arcana. The Fool is your protagonist at the beginning of the story (in the sense that s/he is beginning a journey, not in the sense that s/he's stupid), and The World is the end of the story, where all the parts have come together to make a whole. The thing is, beyond those two cards, it's important to really consider the meanings of the cards and not just slot in the most obvious answers; Death doesn't have to be a literal death, and so on. When I did this for Black Ribbon a few weeks ago, I ended up with some surprising insights into the series as a whole. One of the things that surprised me most was that Rose Hannah ended up fitting Strength the best, and I ended up using the imagery of the card in a way that fit with the story as I'd already planned it, but brought forward an idea I hadn't developed as much as I could have. Another surprise was the character I ended up choosing for The Star, which added an entirely new dimension to the plot. I'm not even saying that every story will fit into a tarot cycle, but it's worth taking a look and seeing if any new ideas or insights pop up. I'm sure there are tons of other cycles or structures you can use to spark ideas, so feel free to mention any that you use in the comments.
2) What could happen
Ideally, you will sit down and try to figure out what has to happen, and you will be pleasantly surprised. Often, however, using the same-old same-old formulas will produce--gasp!--a formulaic story. This is when you break out the What Ifs, but what you'll have to get past first is the idea that if you imagine it, it is fixed, unchangeable fact. I have this problem sometimes--I get afraid to play with possibilities because it's like if I've thought it, I've made it happen, and I can't go back and undo it. Which is ridiculous--you can imagine, you can even write out, a hundred different variations of your story, and you can toss or erase or delete all of them and then some. Don't be afraid to imagine scary things, is what I'm saying.
It can help to go through the first point, What Has to Happen, and lay an entirely formulaic and unsurprising version of your storyline. Because what you then have is something you can challenge, point by point: what if that character died? In fact, what if the hero doesn't make it? What if someone gets pregnant? What if someone pregnant has a miscarriage instead? What if someone gets mugged, right there in the middle of the story? What if someone's house burns down? What if two characters who don't seem to have much in common actually hook up? What if you think about it, and you actually kind of like the idea, and you keep them together? What if you have two characters in Tru Wuv and you break them up instead? What if you have a mystery and you don't solve it? (Your readers will probably throw things at you, but this is, in fact, the reason Picnic at Hanging Rock is so haunting and enduring.) And then there's the unthinkable: what if your narrator was the villain the whole time? Agatha Christie beat us to this one, but it gives you an idea of the things you can try if you get up the nerve. In the end, if you go back and look at What Has to Happen and decide that you would like to buck the formula, you have now gone from "I don't know what's going to happen" to "I know what's not going to happen," which is more than you had before.
Speaking of inflicting trauma on your characters mid-story, one of the best examples of story disruption--ever--has got to be Psycho, which seems to start out as a psychological thriller about a woman who runs off with her boss's money and then, suddenly, dies of completely unrelated causes in the middle of the story, leaving everyone she left behind to figure out what the hell happened. Which leads us to the most important question of all, the follow-up to all the others: How does that affect the other characters? Because they won't all feel the same way about it. If someone gets pregnant, someone's going to be happy for her but I guarantee you that, if this were real life, someone would be jealous or secretly pissed about it. If someone dies, someone will grieve, but someone else may feel secretly relieved, or even glad. If you go with the theory that "no man is an island"--unless that's a concept you'd rather write about--but rather part of an ecosystem of characters, you can actually pick out a single event in your story you want to change and you can then watch the ripple effect it causes across the rest of the story. And here's the thing: if you don't like what you end up with? You can scrap it and start over. I keep having to remind myself of this every time I get wary of letting a new idea play out. It's not going to ruin the story, you know. You're not etching it in stone; you're just letting it play out and seeing what happens. A quicker version of this, in fact, is to imagine opposite outcomes if you get stuck. There's a part in my story where someone's going to find out something and naturally he's going to be upset and probably angry and... I kind of... don't really know what to do with him then. I need to get him back as an ally of the character who "betrayed" him, but I don't know how. What if he's actually relieved when he finds out? In this case, because it would let him off the hook for something he had promised to do. I honestly had not considered this until right now, writing this. I'm still not sure it'll work, but now I at least have two approaches to that part of the story to choose from.
This is, of course, for the drafting phase of your story. Obviously, changing directions midstream is going to wreak havoc on the overall consistency of your story, but that's okay for now. Again, this is why I believe in planning ahead--not locking things down so thoroughly and completely that there's no point in writing the story, but having a reasonably vague idea of what's going to happen and how characters are going to react, so that I can go back to the beginning and start weaving in some context for things that happen later. (If you're drafting and you suddenly decide that Y is going to turn out to be the killer instead of X, well, you're going to have to go back and make sure your previous chapters can support that idea.) Once you've figured out what has to happen--or how you'd like to subvert that formula--you can start to think about the way everything works together thematically and the kind of tone you're going to need to take. I was struggling for a while with the end of my NaNo story, in that the final scene as I had written it had kind of an arch tone to it, but the climactic scenes preceding that got more and more tragic as I decided to kill off various characters. Once you've figured out how everything's going to play out, you may realize that the story needs a more sober tone than you had anticipated--or a lighter tone, for that matter. But that kind of revision (literally, re-vision) can be saved for a rewrite, so long as you get where you're going in the first place.
Rx for Writer's Block, Part 3
Omg, I totally forgot that it's V Day. So much for "Remember, remember."