Tag Archives: linear plotting

Attacking Story

Okay, yeah. I admit I’m old-fashioned. I’m traditional. I’m a writing technician in that I’ve spent my entire career studying how stories and plots are constructed for best dramatic effect. So today I’m going to address a writing issue that has been troubling me for quite a while.

There’s a current trend cycling through commercial fiction that is reflective of a larger societal trend:  call it deconstruction.

I’m not even sure it’s an actual word. I looked up “deconstruct” in my Webster’s Collegiate edition, and it wasn’t there. I didn’t bother to search for it in my unabridged dictionary because I’m beginning to suspect that deconstruct is one of those trendy let’s-use-a-word-contrary-to-its-correct-usage verbal hijinks so popular now. (E.g. the hot fashion for turning nouns into verbs, as in “Let’s movie” or “We summered in Bermuda” or “You have disrespected me” or “I gifted a book to my friend,” or “Chef Daniel intends to deconstruct an omelet and serve it with a fig reduction.”

Dictionary.com says that “to deconstruct” (verb) is a back formation of the noun “deconstruction.”

Aha! A modern corruption of a perfectly good word.

To deconstruct means the opposite of construct or build. Therefore, to deconstruct means to destroy, to tear apart. So why can’t we say destroy these days if that’s what we mean? Methinks the word might be too harsh for politically correct/sensitive ears. But I don’t like wrapping meanings in phony words and euphemisms.

When we deconstruct a recipe, we tear it down, tear it apart, destroy it, alter it into a different form.

When we deconstruct a fairy tale, we’re doing the same thing.

When we deconstruct classic plot structure, we’re destroying it.

Very au courant, as the French would say. So current, so cool, so trendy, so fashionable to take story design and pull it apart as a sadistic child pulls the back legs off a grasshopper. What’s left? A feeble, mutilated creature that can no longer properly function.

Ah, but I’m assured by those who claim to be in the publishing know that linear plot is “out,” and nonlinear storylines are “in.” So what does that mean?

As I said, I’ve been puzzling over it for quite some time–ever since a haughty young editor rejected one of my book manuscripts for being too linear. And while I quickly figured out what she meant, I have been shaking my head ever since as I watch writers and editors scurrying ever farther down the road to plot anarchy.

I’m told that youngsters these days are not linear thinkers. They are web thinkers. That sounded almost impressive at first, until I realized that someone who cannot think logically cannot think well. So when someone grabs a bit of information here and there in no particular order and synthesizes it into a conclusion–or assumption–hey, presto! Isn’t the modern brain so clever?

Well . . . maybe.

However, I believe the cleverness is perhaps bogus and this whole movement of new storytelling is but a rather fiendish mask for the same old phony ineptitude whereby clumsy writers fail to present plot skillfully to an audience.

Let me give you specific examples.

Over the weekend, my local PBS station aired two programs back to back. One was an episode of the popular hit Sherlock, and the other was a historical drama, Victoria.

Sherlock has grabbed and intrigued audiences by deconstructing Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and spinning bits and pieces of them into a frenetic, wildly over-the-top version that is seldom fully comprehensible. When this series first began, I thought it clever in how it adapted the old storylines to modern-day settings, using text messaging instead of telegrams, etc., but it quickly spun out of control and has pushed the boundaries of plausibility ever since.

This particular evening, the show was as webbish and nonlinear as it’s possible to be. It zigzagged among hallucinations, memories, present, past, future, oops, no that was a dream, and whirled from fragment to fragment like a dervish.

I have come to realize that it’s not really necessary to sit down and watch such programs with my full attention because they aren’t designed for that. Instead, the swirling bits and pieces of nearly random scenes and fragmental character encounters are intended for distracted audiences to grab like catching fluffy bits of cottonwood fuzz floating on the summer breezes.

And ever since I stopped even trying to follow a Sherlock episode closely, stopped suspending disbelief, stopped caring deeply or empathizing with the characters, it has made no significant difference in my comprehension. I find there’s no reward to sitting down and concentrating hard or watching the same episode about three times to finally “get” what it is all about. And I needn’t worry about coming in ten minutes late because I can always gain the gist of it on the fly. (The gist being next to nothing at all.)

Perhaps that is the “genius” of this style of writing, this construction of story montage. Perhaps its anarchy and madness perfectly fit the needs of audiences with scant time or short attention spans.

When Sherlock ended, I then watched a segment of Victoria. I had no high expectations for it, but I intended to garner some meager appreciation of the sets and costumes.

To my astonishment, the episode was linear, logical, plotted along classic, archetypal plot patterns, and dramatically sound. I was surprised, then pleased, then delighted. I relaxed into the mood of the show, enjoyed the sets, empathized with the beleaguered young queen, and immersed myself thoroughly in this story world. I didn’t have to strain to be clever. I didn’t have to blink in confusion. I was never lost.

I don’t know who wrote it, but my hat is off to that individual or writing team.

Because–huzzah!–someone out there still knows how to construct a story that’s plausible and pleasurable to watch.

So I made up my mind that I’m no longer going to give way to this editorial nonsense, let alone cater to it. Good story is linear. It doesn’t have to be destroyed to be clever. It can be rendered less predictable by strategic ordering of scenes, jumping forward and folding back, judicious flashbacks, and viewpoint changes, but it doesn’t have to be a hot mess whipped into a mind-blowing froth.

I would far, far better read–or watch–a story that’s so skillful I forget I’m separate. I want a story that flows so logically, so effortlessly that I can lose myself inside the story world. I want a story that touches me emotionally. That is why I read. That is why I watch films.

Not to think, how clever this is. Or, look at that special effect! How was that done? But instead  to become the central character, to live through the moment, to vicariously be a part of the unfolding drama.

Chaos in fiction is a lie. It is hooey. It is a cheat to its audience, no matter how trendy it might be. I will continue to build stories, not destroy their proven structure for a fad.

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Jump Forward, Fold Back

Linear plotting may be straightforward and designed for readers to follow easily, but that doesn’t mean it has to plod or be predictable.

Hooks and plot twists serve to jazz up a story and hold off monotony.

One variant of the hook technique is known as the jump forward, fold back strategy. It can be used to open a book chapter partway through a story. It can be used in the middle of a short story to keep readers slightly off-balance and intrigued.

Generally, it’s most often employed after the protagonist has planned what he or she will do next. Okay, Reader thinks. This is what we’re going to do next.

Except that when the page is turned, Reader finds herself jumped ahead of the planned event with the characters already involved in what follows it. Then there is a foldback that summarizes what was jumped over.

This technique injects a little excitement into a story event where something important to the characters is going to occur, but it lacks enough conflict to be dramatized into an actual scene.

Let’s draw an example from romance author Betty Neels, one of Harlequin’s most successful authors, who wrote well into her 90s. Often in these “sweet romance” stories, the waif-heroine will be offered an outing or a date with the handsome, rich hero. It’s built up with much anticipation. The heroine has to plan the outfit she’ll wear, and she usually worries a little about how the date will turn out. Directly after this build-up, Ms. Neels jumps forward with a transition sentence such as …

“Late that night, Heroine climbed into bed and thought over the evening. It had been more special than she’d ever dreamed possible. The restaurant was … ” And then the high points of the lobster thermidor gourmet meal, the dancing, etc. are mulled over in the heroine’s thoughts.

Another variant of this technique is when the event that’s jumped over is both dramatic and vital to the development of the story. In such an instance, the fold back becomes a flashback delivered in full scene/sequel structure. In novels, it’s useful in the middle to convey backstory and explain character motivation by dramatizing some key points of conflict between the protagonist and another major character. Televised soap operas also employ this method.

It can also be used to open a story at an exciting point and then deal with what led up to it.

An example would be this week’s episode of the television program CASTLE. Generally, CASTLE is one of the better-written shows on television. Aside from the little injections of humor, a deftly handled romantic subplot that’s broken the so-called MOONLIGHTING Curse, and engaging characters, the show is worth being studied for the way its scripts are written.

Last night’s teaser opened with a night-shot. A huge building fire roars in the background. Firemen, cops, and paramedics are standing around helplessly. Beckett is on the phone with tears in her eyes, telling the pregnant wife of a fellow officer that “something’s happened.”

Then the story rolls back twelve hours and brings us up to speed on the case and the investigation.

This was a brilliant plotting strategy, given that the crime of arson this time overshadows the crime of murder. And the best way to effectively convey arson isn’t by showing a ruined ash heap but by showing fire engulfing a building.

Jumping forward and folding back is simple enough to use. It works effectively, yet it’s not confusing. Just make sure that you work out your plotline in a straightforward, linear, step-by-step fashion for your own understanding. Pick the slowest spot in your story and jump over it, making sure that you then inform or show the reader what initially seemed to be skipped.

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Plot Extinction

Since the days of antiquity, since before the alphabet and written literature, story plots in western civilization have been linear in design.

Meaning, they have a beginning, a middle, and an ending whereby the hero struggles against forces of antagonism, nearly fails, but prevails through sacrifice and heroism. The hero is changed by the experience, and as a result, the closing lines of the story point to this individual living a better life in future.

This basic template is founded on the structure of mythological tales. We respond to it as instinctively as we do anything that starts with “Once upon a time …”

However, in the last decade the linear plot has fallen out of fashion. Editors sometimes reject it in favor of a nonlinear storyline. Writers are told that readers are now web-thinkers (and we ain’t talking spiders).

A while back, I lost what would have been a very lucrative book deal because I was offering a story that was “too linear.” At first, I tried to make rocket science out of this new plotting concept. Then I figured out that all editors want are multiple viewpoints, cross-cutting, and lots of flashbacks mixed with a blistering-fast pace.

Not so revolutionary, after all. Thriller writers have been employing strategic viewpoint shifts and cross-cutting between subplots for years.

However, the trendy push is to employ these web-like plots to all genres, especially those for young readers. So far, fine.

But what I’ve been noticing lately is a more disturbing result of this trend–in plots that are increasingly frenetic and chaotic. They’re fast. They jump about with forward progress counter-balanced with flashbacks. They feature a lot of characters, sometimes to the point of making it difficult to tell who exactly is the protagonist. At their best, they’re lively, engaging, intriguing, and complex. At their worst–and I’m seeing more and more of the worst–they’re impossible to follow, confusing, and boring.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a novel–the latest in a long-running and fairly successful series. In this author’s books, the characters and their backstories are emphasized over the plots, which are simple and small in scope. That’s perfectly fine. Sometimes I enjoy a book that’s more character-driven. But this particular novel had no plot. It featured instead a situation: a reunion of characters. The characters could barely speak to each other without us flowing into reverse for long flashbacks culled from past novels. The novel was short, but it took me forever to finish it.

Normally I would toss it aside with a shrug, chalking it up to a writer temporarily out of ideas who had to meet a contractual deadline.

Except that recently I read another novel that rambled around. It was a genre book, not mainstream at all. It should have had a plot. But it couldn’t seem to get going. Reading it was like trying to drive with a clutch for the first time. Jerky starts. Lurching stops. Stalled.

Normally I would say, new writer lacking in experience. But it wasn’t. This author has written many novels.

Television is on a similar trajectory, perhaps even more so than novels. Once upon a time, a TV show was episodic, meaning each weekly episode served a complete story. It had a beginning, middle, and end. The problem was resolved; the star saved the day; we knew that on the following week there would be a new story problem and new guest stars to see.

Of course, TV–in a rather odd development–now moves along a novel-type structure with each weekly segment of the show contributing to a continuing storyline. The entire season comprises the story arc. If you miss an episode of these dramas–let’s call it instead a weekly chapter–you’re in trouble. Still, that’s what DVDs are for. You can settle down with your popcorn in your living room and watch the entire season in one weekend marathon.

But even TV’s grip on plot is slipping more and more as it attempts to juggle the novel structure of linked weekly installments with the trend of web-like plots.

In September 2013, I sat down in excited anticipation to watch the season opener of PERSON OF INTEREST. Normally this is a well-written, intriguing show. The flashbacks feeding backstory on various characters takes some getting used to, but generally it goes well.

Not the season opener. I couldn’t follow it. Was I experiencing the onset of senile dementia? Or was I trying to watch a mish-mash of too much cross-cutting and references to past events from prior seasons? It’s TV. I shouldn’t have to work that hard to watch an episode. I shouldn’t have to have watched every second of multiple seasons in order to follow the plot. Granted, if I had done so I might have gotten all the nuances written into the script, but I should be able to click on, understand the gist of the story, and reach the closing credits without saying, “Huh?”

Okay, it’s supposed to be intelligent and complex. But this season has been a mix of shows that made sense and were very satisfying and shows that made me say, “Huh?”

I couldn’t help but compare it to another popular program, BURN NOTICE. Splashy, colorful, action-driven. A lot of plots and subplots woven through the seasons. However, I could miss half of a season, click on and pick up easily. The episodes made sense, even if I didn’t recognize a new character that had been on for several weeks during my absence.

Over this weekend, I came across a Dr. Who episode. It began with a great hook. The sets and costumes were a marvelous steampunk montage. Alien lizard girls in Victorian dresses–YES! The modern Dr. Who shows have better budgets, better set design, and better makeup departments than the low-budget versions of the past. Woo-hoo!I thought. Let’s watch this!

What I saw began well, shoved great concepts at me, and failed to deliver. The script hopped here and there among the characters, tried to handle more characters and subplots than the writer evidently could manage, cross-cut with all the reckless abandon of a drunken driver veering down a highway, and grew increasingly chaotic, fast-paced, and pointless. By the finish, I’d moved on from “Huh?” to “Who cares?”

Now, if someone wanted to defend this program, he might mutter to me about my having seen only the conclusion of that particular plot segment. Doesn’t matter. I should still be able to follow the story.

I’ll contrast it with another modern Dr. Who episode that I saw a couple of years ago. Different doctor as the star. It, too, was the concluding episode of a plot segment. The setting was Venice and some girls’ school where all the young maidens were vampires. Evil aliens were about to conquer Earth. (The Whosians out there will probably recognize this one.) In three minutes–I was up to speed. I could follow the story, and I didn’t have to strain to do it. The script made sense. It clearly wrapped up all the threads in the storyline. It served a satisfying conclusion with the little trademark twist of the program. Terrific and fun.

So what’s my point besides a rant about how plotting is falling into the decay of anarchy?

Plotting is falling victim to anarchy.

It doesn’t have to, of course. But writers have to stand fast against sloppy plotting, weak storylines, and the mistaken notion that chaos equals complexity, that speedy pace alone guarantees reader/viewer involvement, and that giving all the characters equal attention delivers satisfaction.

Methods of storytelling evolve with changing times. But the linear plot works well, if you’ll let it. Complexity is desirable, if we don’t unleash it like kudzu and let it smother the forward progress of the story.

Balance and control. Managing the story so that it unfolds quickly and unpredictably, intriguing our audience while holding them enthralled. That’s a writer’s job. That’s a writer’s responsibility. Trends come and go, but effective story design has to be preserved … and delivered to our readers.

Maybe I’m just an alarmist, paranoid enough to see the fall of civilization based on a few badly written books and teleplays. And maybe I’m an individual who grew up reading every novel I could get my hands on, watching television written by people trained in the old studio systems to deliver solid plots week after week. I’m not satisfied with the drivel of reality shows and book plots that crumble like cupcakes baked without eggs. I want more than that, and so should you.

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Dramatic Strategy I

In its simplest, most basic structure, plot is an alternating construction of scene + sequel + scene + sequel + scene + etc. The two dramatic units dovetail closely together and will keep the story action advancing in a plausible and exciting way from start to finish.

However, that kind of plot can become too linear, too predictable. Consequently, it can become boring.

So writers should draw on other techniques to enhance and enrich their stories.

We have at our disposal, a number of these strategies, including:

*big versus small scenes

*variant ordering of scenes and sequels

*subplots

*flashbacks

*plotting for character

*multiple points of view

You can change up your plot structure by using only one of these possible strategies, or–depending on the type of story you’re writing–you can employ them all.

We’ll deal with them separately in the posts to come.

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Where Are We Going?

In my last post, I commented on disconnected or random conflict and the problems it can cause a writer.

I don’t mean the kind of story where seemingly unrelated problems arise, but then at midpoint begin to fall into place and connect, leading to discovery of the true villain’s identity.

I mean the kind of episodic, disjointed sort of story that rambles around without a true central antagonist at work and depends on shock or mayhem to propel the plot instead of cause-and-effect.  Imagine the events of THE WIZARD OF OZ transpiring without the Wicked Witch.

My writing students are gravitating more toward this awkward plot structure.  I find it increasingly difficult to correct.  What is the root of this problem?  I can find several things that, in combination, are affecting how story is perceived.  Is it an evolution or an erosion?

1) The invention of the World Wide Web.

2) Video games

3) Role-playing games

4) Book series that are open-ended

None of these four factors is negative or undesirable; however, their prevalence helps generate a different audience expectation than perhaps some writers have dealt with before.

Recently, while having dinner with another author, I expressed frustration in getting my students to understand cause-and-effect plotting.

“That’s because you’re a linear thinker,” my friend said. “Your students are web thinkers.”

It explained a lot. I am indeed a linear writer. I grew up reading linear stories–meaning plots that move from a beginning point through a progression of tougher obstacles to an objective.  Every action compels a reaction to occur, and the story advances with logic underlying its emotions and conflict.

I was trained to be linear.  My writing craft is founded on cause-and-effect principles.  Characters in my stories may be puzzled or baffled for a while, but they sort things out.  No one is acting without a reason, whether or not those motivations are apparent to the protagonist at any given time.

The last time my agent shopped a prospective book synopsis around for me, one publishing house rejected it because it was “too linear.”

Of course, the project sold to someone else.  But that particular rejection has haunted me since.  Initially, I didn’t understand what it meant.  My agent was likewise baffled.  Yet since then, I’ve come to suspect that the fiction world is being assaulted by a quiet revolution.

Not the self-publishing versus legacy publishing debate currently raging among authors.

But instead one that speaks to the very heart of what story is and how to present it to readers.  Is anyone paying attention to this?  Is this issue the tiny leak that’s going to eventually crumble the whole dam?

Linear story is based on a construction that dates back to antiquity, to the very first stories ever told.  It pits protagonist against antagonist in a step-by-step, cause-and-effect progression of attempts and partial failures until the story’s climax, where sacrifice, risk, and heroic action lead to victory . . . or defeat.  At its best, this type of story is engrossing and cathartic.

Non-linear stories, however, aren’t concerned with an arc of change for the protagonist. There may or may not be a central antagonist.  Events are random problems to be solved that may or may not lead in any particular direction.  Sacrifice doesn’t often occur, or it happens to anyone but the protagonist.  Poetic justice is ignored.  The characters rush from here to there.  They encounter danger and solve problems, and if they ricochet long enough there’s an outcome of sorts.

As an example, let’s consider a series of teen thrillers by Alexander Gordon Smith that begins with a novel called LOCKDOWN: ESCAPE FROM FURNACE. 

It’s fast, creepy, and shocking.  It deals with a boy who’s framed for a brutal murder, tried and convicted, and incarcerated in a horrifying prison.  There’s just enough linear structure to hold this story loosely together.  The rest of it careens from one shock or problem to the next.  There’s a hint of an unseen antagonist, but the shadow force is so vague and nebulous that the story can’t hinge on it.  The ending is left open.  The protagonist doesn’t change significantly.  Readers are supposed to read the next volume and the next, hoping–presumably–to eventually get answers.

LOCKDOWN serves process-oriented readers, those who are entranced by the grim story world and are so determined not to reach an end to this experience that they’re willing to be cheated by the story’s last page. 

Compare Smith’s tale to THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan.  In this wildly popular YA story, the construction is definitely linear. 

The protagonist is a dyslexic boy named Percy, who discovers he’s the son of his human mother and one of the Greek gods of antiquity.  Percy and his companions go on a quest to recover the stolen lightning bolt of Zeus.  They constantly encounter traps and obstacles, but their unknown antagonist’s hand is clearly working against them.  Eventually, Percy identifies the villain and confronts him.  Percy also discovers the identity of his father.  And although this book is the first of a series, its plot is resolved.  Percy goes through a significant arc of change.  He fulfills the story role of hero through his sacrificial and courageous actions.  This story serves results-oriented readers, those who expect a definitive outcome to Percy’s adventure.  These readers may wish for another story about Percy, but they’ll continue because they’ve received a solid, rewarding reading experience.  Their time spent in this story world has been worthwhile, and Riordan hasn’t used tricks and shock just to keep them there.

I try to comfort myself with the economic outcomes of these two books.  Riordan’s classically designed story has–so far–outsold Smith’s shocker.  I’m glad, but not because I’m out to disparage Smith’s work. I read LOCKDOWN: ESCAPE FROM FURNACE with curiosity and got a certain amount of entertainment value from it.  But it must always been seen for the type of book it is and not presented as a model of writing that should be emulated. 

No, I’m glad for Riordan’s success because it shows that an audience will still respond–and respond well–to the linear, classically designed story.

However, I think it’s unwise to be complacent.  If we’re going to preserve cause-and-effect tales as the foundation of modern fiction–of all fiction–then we’re going to have to fight for this construction and stand diligently for its defense.

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