Thursday, January 26, 2012

English and French Scenes and Beats: learning to see your story's mechanical and innate rhythms


Editor or agent says your story is good but "wanders"

Abundant notes scrawled in the margin saying "why is this here?" "Cut way back" or "Move somewhere else." You can see the point of the notes but haven't a clue how to comply without screwing things up.

You've been very careful about viewpoint and you know you wrote it all in limited viewpoint, either single viewpoint throughout or one viewpoint at a time, but several editors—especially the more careless ones who don't seem to be able to remember character names or events—are telling you that you need to learn to write in viewpoint.

You notice yourself that you seem to be spending too much time on setups and you've had to repeat some of them multiple times (a cab ride across town that happens because your hero needs to meet with two people who live far apart, an EVA to replace the Astrocrevulator for the fourth time, Nellie walking her dog hoping to meet Allen, Allen crouching in the parking lot trying to get up the nerve to rescue that poor abused dog from Nellie), and you're sure many of them are unnecessary.

Editor or agent (or sometimes critique group if they're astute) is complaining that everything in the story always goes on a little too long and seems to just trail off.


For some reason you're not responding to or controlling scene and beat structure. Probably the great majority of people with this problem never learned how to read scene and beat structure at all, which is a bit like having learned to play an instrument and read notes without being told what those two little numbers at the beginning of the score mean, or studying ballroom dance without anybody ever teaching you to count beats or listen for resolutions.

Many other problems are fixable once you get the basic skill of perceiving the scene and beat structure, so we'll be back to this many times in the weeks to come, but the symptoms I describe above are directly caused by not seeing it.

 Sometimes people  just never learned scene and beat structure (it's not there in most fiction writing courses), sometimes they have learned an inadequate version (accompanied by exhortations to do it better), and many times if the teacher is a "natural" who has that structure in the bones, the teacher may sense that it is an issue but feel helpless about explaining it.

In every art there are mechanical rhythms and innate rhythms, and much of the micro-scale interest and excitement comes from the interaction between the two. A mechanical rhythm is a simple, mark-outable pattern that could be produced by a machine (like a metronome):
•the kind of beat you get from a drum machine
•the alternation of light and dark bands as your eye scans outward from the initial focus of a painting
•the act structure of a conventional movie
•the structure of a knock knock joke, a "how many X does it take to change a light bulb?" joke, or a "yo mama so [adjective]" joke are obvious, but also the innumerable jokes with three successive sexual encounters [the first two are alike to establish the pattern, the third varies].
•narrative diagonal eye travel in many photographs and paintings; the eye is first drawn to something attention-getting like an odd facial expression or interaction, then moves outward to the thing that explains it.
•the fitting of a base step to the music (like a novice learning to fox trot, as left-step-close-right-step-close, and then swing as dig-step,dig-step, l-o-n-g step).
•the alternation of question shot, speaker shot, reaction shot, speaker shot in documentary interviews.
•all those metric terms in poetics like dactylic trimeter (the first, second, and fifth line of a limerick) or anapestic tetrameter (the rhythm of The Night Before Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas), or iambic pentameter (Shakespearean blank verse).

So those are mechanical rhythms in the sense that they are rules a robot could impose. But purely mechanical rhythm is dull; it would be like tangoing to a metronome, never changing the setting on a drum machine, having the hero's partner always killed at 22:38 in cop movies, or what Samuel Johnson was satirizing when he ad libbed the metrically perfect (and deliberately dreadful) verse:

I put my hat upon my head
And went into the strand.
There I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

If mechanical rhythm were all there is to art, we'd be better off dancing to clocks, watching randomly placed webcams, reading the plot summaries in TV guide, and listening to tones from a random number generator. Luckily, though, subject material has innate rhythm—things that need to be drawn out or shortened, places where the emotional or intellectual content forces a push-back against the mechanical rhythm. Alfred Hitchcock knew the tension between innate and mechanical rhythm as well as any director ever did, which is why Psycho abruptly restarts after the shower scene. Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours LP might be the best illustration you could find of mechanical/innate rhythmic tension—listen to how he gracefully contrasts the emotional sense of the (apparently trite) lyrics to the (apparently) mechanical rhythm of the orchestra (apparently because Nelson Riddle is doing some amazing stuff there too), and suddenly the trite and clichéd lights up into the universal and timeless.

Mechanical/innate rhythm tension is a major component of what ballroom dancers call musicality, the way each couple puts together a distinct phrase that matches and comments on the phrase in the music.
Finding the right balance is what makes Hamlet's suicide soliloquy such a crazy bugger for an actor to cope with; metrically you could score that first line as

to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUEStion,

five evenly distributed stresses (with that little on-hanging syllable at the end), ba DUMP ba DUMP ba DUMP ba DUMP ba DUMP-uh,

but while the meaning is perfectly clear, it's not very interesting.

Several alternate scores are possible. What if the idea of dying is more emotionally loaded for Hamlet than the idea of living, either because he longs for death or because he is horrified by it?* Then what if the words expressing the idea of death were turned into the harsh drum-roll of a triplet? Of course then you'd need to slip in another stress (because the triplet would combine two stresses, and you need to keep the five stresses to a line rule going mechanically). Then you'd be looking at:

ba DUMP ba DUMP-DI-DUMP. DUMP ba ba DUMP-uh,

To BE or NOT-TO-BE. THAT is the QUES-tion.

Or you could slow the beginning down into pounding spondees and pack the unstresses into the end:

DUMP DUMP, ba DUMP-diddy, ba DUMP ba DUMP-uh.

TO BE, or NOT to be, that IS the QUESTION.

and that slower innate rhythm might suggest less passion and more contemplation. Is Hamlet a thoughty guy driven to violent action, or a violent, passionate man wracked by doubt? The adjustment of innate to mechanical rhythm in that single line (and then in many others) will express that, and that's one reason actors spend a lot of time walking in circles and reciting the same phrases to themselves over and over, and directors and actors sometimes engage in screaming matches over the stress on a single word.**

Even the humble knock knock joke can apply an innate rhythm against its mechanical rhythm to become more funny***; when one of my stepsons was much younger, he was fond of this one:
"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"The annoying cow who interrupts."
"The annoying—"
"—cow who int—"

Fiction, despite the extraordinarily strenuous efforts by people I won't mention here, is an art, and it's got that mechanical and innate rhythm dialog like anything else. So today's tool is a way of marking out the mechanical rhythm and then seeing what the innate rhythm is doing with and to it. (And if there is no innate rhythm, your story will be "predictable"—i.e. what a musician means by "square," a poet by "sing-songy," and nearly everyone means by "dull.")

Prescription: Mark out the rhythmic units of the work to find the mechanical rhythm. Title them to find the innate rhythm. Systematically decide either to put the two rhythms into resonance or contrast at each point.

First some terms I learned mostly in my training as a theatrical director, have used to mark up dozens of scripts, and have applied to most of my own novels and nearly every book I've doctored over the years. I realize some of them are confusing, especially the frequent use of scene to mean different things, but I have preferred to use inherited terms as much as possible, rather than coin new ones and make matters that much more confusing.

Writing "in scene" versus "in narrative summary": scene is experienced by the reader as the "happening" or "shown" part of the book; narrative summary as the "explained" or "told" part.**** For example: Harry burst in and shot them before they could get out of bed, is narrative summary. Scene would be more like:
She sighed and curled against Nathan. A slight sound made her look up. She saw the doorknob turning. "My god, it's Harry—" As she tried to sit up, the door swung wide, revealing Harry with his gun. Before she could say Don't! there was a terrible roar, and she felt Nathan fall back beside her. She felt the scream forming in her throat, but then there was a roar, a red blur, and nothingness.

English scene: An English scene is a block of text entirely in scene—it begins and ends at marked scene/chapter/part breaks or at the beginning or end of narrative summary. By its nature it will be continuous in time, may be continuous in action, and might be continuous in other regards like characters present, location, etc.

French scene: A block of text within an English scene in which the important cast is continuous; it begins/ends with exits or entrances of significant characters. (Maids, waiters, random yeomen, etc. are often not important enough to break a French scene, but might be; it's your call).

Expansion on the above: English Scene and French Scene are actually printer's terms.
English plays were printed with each scene identified by physical locations and times:
Scene 1: The vicar's garden, St. Swithin's Day, about teatime.
Scene 2: the same, four hours later.
Scene 3: Amelia's dungeon, morning of the following Christmas, just before dawn.
French plays were always printed with each scene identified by a list of who was on stage:
Scene 1: Vicar, Dobbins, Girl Scout 1, Girl Scout 2
Then when the Girl Scouts leave, we have
Scene 2: Vicar, Dobbins
until Amelia comes in with two nonspeaking policemen and Inspector Borderline:
Scene 3: Vicar, Mr. Dobbins, Amelia, Borderline, policemen
and once the cops take the Vicar away, we finally have
Scene 4: Dobbins, Borderline, Amelia
and those 4 French scenes might all fit within English Scene 1.*****

Meanwhile, back at the definitions:

Beat (in theatre textbooks you may see this called "director's beat" because there are several other kinds): the interval within a scene in which one action or motivation is paramount.

Beat title. A single sentence describing the most important thing that happens in the beat.

Core beat. The beat in which the most important thing that happens in the French scene actually happens. "Most important" is decided by you, the artist.

Now, it's possible to have one French scene be a single beat—a character enters and does something for a reason, end of scene. And obviously you can have an English scene with only one French scene—there are just no exits and entrances. But the more common situation is that people will go in and out during one English scene, creating more French scenes, and that people will frequently do more than one thing during one French scene. So the logical numbering system is
English Scene #.French Scene #.Beat #
For example, in narrative summary, one day at the zoo, Timmy and his mother are watching the tiger, talking about how sad it is that Daddy has been dead for a year, when a handsome zookeeper approaches and talks to Timmy about the tiger as an obvious way to try to pick up Mommy, except suddenly Uncle Ned (Daddy's dead brother) rushes up and gets into a fight with the handsome zookeeper, which Mommy and Timmy flee, and then it's revealed that the zookeeper is in a conspiracy with Uncle Ned. Half an hour later, Mommy assures Timmy that Uncle Ned is just a crazy asshole.

So that's two English scenes—it all happens at the tiger pit at the zoo, continuously, then moves to McDonalds a little later. That's four French scenes (caused by 3 entrances/exits). And that's several beats per French scene. This would be the numbering (which is very easy to do on an Excel spreadsheet, by the way):

1.1.1. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 1, Beat 1) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Timmy and Mommy. Timmy and Mommy talk about how it's been a year since Daddy died

1.2.1. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 2, Beat 1) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Timmy, Mommy, Mr. Handsome. Mr. Handsome, the zookeeper, introduces himself and offers to talk about the tigers

1.2.2. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 2, Beat 2) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Timmy, Mommy, Mr. Handsome. Mr. Handsome transparently hits on Mommy

1.3.1. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 3, Beat 1) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Timmy, Mommy, Mr. Handsome, Uncle Ned. Uncle Ned arrives suddenly and accuses Mr. Handsome of being up to no good

1.3.2. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 3, Beat 2) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Timmy, Mommy, Mr. Handsome, Uncle Ned. Uncle Ned assaults Mr. Handsome.

1.3.3. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 3, Beat 3) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Timmy, Mommy, Mr. Handsome, Uncle Ned. Uncle Ned and Mr. Handsome slug it out

1.3.4. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 3, Beat 4) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Timmy, Mommy, Mr. Handsome, Uncle Ned. Timmy and Mommy flee.

1.4.1. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 4, Beat 1) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Uncle Ned and Mr. Handsome. Uncle Ned and Mr. Handsome instantly stop fighting and make sure neither of them is injured

1.4.2. (that is, English Scene 1, French Scene 4, Beat 2) Place/Time: Tiger pit at the zoo, Wednesday morning. Characters: Uncle Ned and Mr. Handsome. Uncle Ned and Mr. Handsome agree that Phase I has gone very well.

2.1.1. (that is, English Scene 2, French Scene 1, Beat 1) Place/Time: McDonalds, half an hour later. Characters: Timmy and Mommy. Mommy reassures Timmy that Uncle Ned is just a crazy sonofabitch.

Don't number blocks of narrative summary as you find them; just mark them. Sometimes—I have this problem often—narrative summary is disguised as expository dialogue, and you may decide to just mark it "Narrative Summary: Uncle Ned's Backstory" rather than "Uncle Ned and Mr. Handsome talk about how Daddy prevented them from carrying out their plot to rob Fort Knox, and had to be killed." But if all it is, is explaining things to the reader, it is narrative summary, and should be labeled as such.

Those beat titles, the one-sentence summaries of each beat, are where you will find the innate rhythm. If you need more than one sentence to say the single most important thing that happens in a beat, your beat is too big or too unfocused; split it. This doesn't mean that no more than one thing should be happening in a beat—see my notes about single duty scenes on that—but a man who is juggling bowling pins on a unicycle while escaping from the Nazis and remembering his mother is probably doing one of those things more than any of the others at any given instant, and that is the action that should be there as the beat title.

Narrative summary sections should get a one-sentence or one-phrase summary too—"Milton's hobbies include skydiving," "How the Confederacy conquered Cuba," "Basic procedure in forensic entomology."

Put all beat titles in the active voice; it will save you a ton of time and rethinking.

Now, sort of a checklist:

Look at the grammatical subjects of the beat titles—who is doing what in what beats?
•Is the subject of every sentence the same thing for a while, then something else for a while, etc? That's telling you what character we need to follow—possibly by making her/him the viewpoint, possibly by focusing the narrator's attention there. So … is that who you're following? Are they getting the most attention? (Surprisingly often in new writers, they are not).
•Do the grammatical subjects alternate? That is, do they form a pattern like:
Tom demands that Nellie explain why she did it
Nellie books passage to Qatar
Tom makes plans to pursue her to Qatar
Nellie talks to her mother …
and on and on and on …
Alternating subjects can be good or bad, but they happen for a reason, and you need to know what that reason is. Are you cutting back and forth too much, so that what really ought to happen is recombination into different sequences of beats (perhaps spread across different English and French scenes)? Or are we watching a fight from both sides, and is that how we should see it? Big hint: interesting fights in stories are generally one-sided till a final reversal, so if the sides are winning about evenly, and in alternation, think seriously about giving all the wins till a final big reversal to one side or the other. And note "fight" does not have to mean broken furniture, flying plates, and baseball bats; two paraplegics in adjoining beds can have a hell of a good fight from a story standpoint. Or is the alternation caused by a building convergence—you're cutting back and forth between the man finishing a dull day in the office, and his boss making the decision to fire him? Convergences can be effective, but also very tricky. Do you want that or not?
•Is a minor character the grammatical subject through a whole long sequence? You've just discovered a new major character who may need to be rounded out.
•Conversely, does the grammatical subject change a lot and irregularly? Could beats be rewritten or reassigned so that a smaller number of characters directly caused more of the events in the book?

Look at the main verb of each beat title.
              •Does it involve change? conspires, hits, kisses, approaches, recruits, mollifies—those all involve change. Those are almost always good.
              •Is it static? tells, enjoys, explains—those are static. They can be all right but they are spots where your narrative may flag.
              •Is it entirely internal to the viewpoint character's mind? contemplates, remembers, considers, reflects  This is a special case of static verbs in the beat title, and you should consider either finding something more interesting to have happen, or just zooming through it in narrative summary. (Here's a place where telling beats hell out of showing). Or of course just ditch it.

Look at the structure of each French scene.
•Do the beats increase in tension, interest, dramatic value, humor (if it's funny), or intensify in the overall mood (if there is one?) Can they be rearranged to do so?
•Is there a dud beat that kills the effect of the French scene, and can it be moved, replaced, or omitted?
•Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't, but always check to see if the last sentence of the last beat in a French scene can be a good "curtain line" (i.e. something that dramatically nails the point of both the beat and the scene). Readers tend to pay more attention to entries and exits, so what you say here is apt to be remembered; don't waste the opportunity if there is any potential use for it.
•Also see if the first paragraph or so of the first beat in a French scene has potential to start things off with a bang, literally or figuratively.
•Do the beginning and ending beats in a French scene have direct bearing on why people came in or went out? If not, can they be made to do so? It helps a great deal if characters appear to be entering and leaving for their own reasons, rather than the author's.
•Identify a core beat in each French scene, and place it for dramatic effect. A core beat is the exact beat in which the single most important event of the French scene happens. Assuming the French scene has multiple beats, there are basically three places to put the core beat: beginning, middle, and end of the French scene.
                  ===> Put the core beat at the beginning if the French scene is basically about people dealing with the aftermath—accepting, grieving, rejoicing, scheming, somehow responding
to the event in the core beat.
===> Put the core beat in the middle if the French scene is one of reversal or dramatic change; the early beats prepare us for the change, and the late beats show us that the change has happened.
===> Put the core beat at the end, paradoxically, for either resolutions or cliffhangers; if the most important thing about this French scene is that it either ends a major sequence of events, or that something much bigger is to follow it, that core beat should be at the end to signal either.
                           As a quickie example, suppose the title of the core beat is Bill beats Nancy to death
. If the French scene is about the grief and rage of her friends and family, the core beat goes first; if it's about how everything in the community changes because of that murder, that core beat goes in the middle; if it's the shocking end to a sequence of events, or if the next major scene will be about the manhunt for Bill, then Bill beats Nancy to death should be the last beat in that French scene.

Check the structure of French scenes within the English scenes
              •Is any character being made to come in and go out repeatedly? That almost always looks like an author improvising or temporizing. "Sorry," said Lady Garrulous, "I must leave the room or you will never be able to gossip about me. I shall be back when you begin discussing Lord Credulous and his marital difficulties." If the French scenes can be moved or switched so that people come and go just once, that's generally a good idea—but don't blow the dramatic structure for it. Instead:
              •If there are many French scenes, consider breaking the English scene into some smaller English scenes.
              •Considerations about placing a core French scene within the English scene, exactly parallel to those of placing a beat within a French scene, might or might not apply; look to see if they do.
              •Estimate the time credibility of the English scene. Just jot down about how long each French scene would take in real life and add them up; if you notice that people are having early morning breakfast for nine hours, adjust.

When you have finished modifying the English/French/beat structure, redraft accordingly. The process is time consuming, hard work, a miserable job all around—and can absolutely transform a novel if pursued rigorously and seriously.

An example:
The following is a beat and scene summary of about the first quarter of a novel I book doctored many years ago, very heavily search-and-replaced to conceal everything about it, because the author went on to revise it in light of the discussion we had about this analysis, it sold, and it went on to modest sales and is now out of print. You would truly not recognize it from what it was before.
If you're wondering whether my original description of the beats was this brutal: yes, at the publisher's request. The author had many darlings to murder and needed motivating.

1.1.1 Fort Heroic, Province of Dirtbag. Reign of the Old Emperor. Aabli, Commotion. Aabli meets his father, General Commotion, who is on his way to the front to fight against Chief Extra Noble, of the Noblesavages, up in the Poverty Range, and is taken along.
2.1.1 Joyful City. The present from which Aabli views past events. Aabli, Bari, Caggy, Duxo. Aabli natters on about the circumstances of his birth to his now very old friends, who apparently never heard it before.
2.1.2 Joyful City. The present from which Aabli views past events. Aabli, Bari, Caggy, Duxo. Aabli natters on about what a smart guy his teacher, Braino, was, and then philosophizes at random.
2.1.3 Joyful City. The present from which Aabli views past events. Aabli, Bari, Caggy, Duxo. In an after dinner speech, Aabli recounts the entire history of the last three emperors.
3.1.1 Province of Dirtbag, the Poverty Range, a few weeks after 1.1.1. Aabli, Caggy, bunch of natives. Noblesavage rebels sack the camp after defeating Commotion, and capture Aabli.
3.1.2 Province of Dirtbag, the Poverty Range, immediately after the last scene. Aabli, Caggy, bunch of natives. Noblesavage rebels dispose of Aabli and Bari as prisoners.
4.1.1 Fort Heroic, Imperial provincial capital of Dirtbag, immediately after. Aabli, Bari. Aabli looks out the window as he rides in a carriage through newly-captured Fort Heroic.
(from here on the location doesn't change much and the French scenes are sort of obvious, so I'll omit that in the interest of readability; you may want to do something similar in your own work)
4.1.2. The Noblesavages put Aabli and Bari into a cell in the Torture House of Fort Heroic.
4.2.1. Aabli discovers former Governor Pompous Windbag is in the next cell.
4.2.2. Pompous Windbag talks for six straight hours and gives the entire recent history so the readers will know who Chief Extra Noble is.
4.2.3 Pompous Windbag tells how he was captured by Chief Extra Noble and how the Emperor's Own Guard were massacred.
4.2.4. Pompous Windbag explains that they are hostages
5.1.1. It is dull in the Torture House.
5.1.2. Pompous Windbag decides to teach fighting to Aabli.
6.1.1 Pompous Windbag teaches Aabli swordsmanship.
NARRATIVE SUMMARY Chief Extra Noble pays several cordial visits.
7.1.1 Aabli is summoned to meet Chief Extra Noble.
8.1.1 Aabli meets Chief Extra Noble.
8.1.2 Aabli meets Chief Extra Noble's children, Minniehottie and Duxo.
9.1.1. Aabli confides to Bari that he has a crush on Minniehottie
9.1.2. Aabli is invited to spend time with Chief Extra Noble's kids.
10.1.1. Minniehottie treats Aabli with disdain.
10.1.2. Aabli clashes with Minniehottie and Duxo on the subject of Joyful City.
10.1.3 Aabli slugs Duxo.
10.2.1. Chief Extra Noble comes in and breaks up the fight
10.2.2 Chief Extra Noble explains his ideas to Aabli, who is instantly converted.
10.2.3. Aabli patches things up and becomes instant close, good friends with Duxo and Minniehottie.
11.1.1. Aabli lies to Bari and Pompous Windbag about the conflict with Chief Extra Noble's children.
NARRATIVE SUMMARY Chief Extra Noble has a powerful dream of Aabli.
12.1.1 The fortune teller freaks out when she reads Aabli's Tarot, and seems to be god-possessed.
12.1.2. Chief Extra Noble interprets the prophecy to mean Aabli will be good luck to him.
13.1.1. Aabli tells Bari and Pompous Windbag about Chief Extra Noble's dream, the fortuneteller, and Chief Extra Noble's interpretation.
NARRATIVE SUMMARY Aabli becomes more a member of Chief Extra Noble's family and gets to go out and see things more often.
14.1.1 The New Emperor appoints Chief Extra Noble as Governor of Dirtbag.
15.1.1 Aabli is politically betrothed to Minniehottie.
15.1.2 Chief Extra Noble explains, and explains, and explains the politics.
15.2.3. Minniehottie tells Aabli she's glad about the deal because she loves him.
NARRATIVE SUMMARY Wedding customs and engagement.
 16.1.1. Pompous Windbag and Aabli say goodbye.
17.1.1 Aabli moves in with Chief Extra Noble's family.
18.1.1. Aabli and Duxo watch the parade and think about being generals someday.
19.1.1. Bari gives his gift to Aabli.
19.2.1 Aabli receives his sword from Chief Extra Noble.
19.3.1 Aabli meets Minniehottie officially, in her betrothal clothes.
19.3.2 Aabli and the others watch an absolutely enormous number of games and diversions.
19.4.1 A rider brings word: the New Emperor has invaded Dirtbag.

Now, what did I note from all this?
Aabli is the subject of most beat titles.
Whenever Aabli is not the subject, it's some older adult with a dull verb like "explains" or "tells". Those beats are ripe to be replaced by very brief narrative summary.
Far too many main verbs were meets, is, explains, tells, etc. Since Aabli is a politically important child in prison, consider multiple viewpoints so that characters who are doing more can be the focus of the action in these areas.
French scene numbers are fairly low, and most English scenes only have one French scene; that means there are hardly any exits and entrances. The combination of attention getting events and continuous flow would be enhanced if more French scenes were packed into some of the English scenes.
English scene 10 is the most important part of the story emotionally. Its first French scene has a great core beat at the end(10.1.3) and its second French scene has a great core beat at the beginning (10.2.1), two interesting structures to put against each other. Right here, the writer was really showing what she could do.
English scene 19 has a tedious rhythm of single-duty French scenes and beats; one thing happens, then one thing happens, then one thing happens. This is a shame because that last beat in 19.4.1 is a great shocker.
English/French scene 12.1 needs at least one more beat to show the change of Aabli's status is real and permanent.
Throw out English scene 2 entirely.
English/French scene 4.2 is where the boys realize their situation, so 4.2.4 should be made a more dramatic core beat, and the other beats kept brief to get to it ASAP.

The writer, for the most part, took my prescription; the book was eventually published. Again, these analyses are a terrible amount of work—but perhaps you feel your book is worth it.

* or most interestingly, both.
** One of the reasons.
*** marginally
**** beginning fiction writers don't understand this difference, and mix narrative summary with scene. Since they don't have much in the way of fiction chops yet, they then often resort to narrative summary because it looks easier. But scene tends to be what we remember best and what readers enjoy most, so nearly every beginner needs to be driven away from narrative summary and toward scene. This is where the "show don't tell" rule comes from. In fact showing/telling is a complicated balance with immense artistic implications—once you know what you're doing. Fitzgerald, Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Steinbeck, Ian Rankin, James M. Cain, Heinlein, and William Gibson all often use narrative summary where they could use scene, and they are right very nearly every time.  While you are learning, though, "show don't tell" is a rule like "play it the way it is on the sheet music," "come out of every block with a punch or a kick from your back hand or leg," or "do the speed limit in the rightmost lane where people aren't turning or entering." I.e. it will mostly keep you out of trouble and allow you to sort of have the experience.

*****The reason for the difference was severalfold: for centuries French dramas tended to be written to occur as continuous action in a single place, so there weren't many changes of place or time to record in scene breaks. Also, in general French scripts were used much more extensively by actors than read for pleasure. For rehearsal planning, the main issue is usually which actors to call, and French scenes make that very easy for the regisseur. On the other hand, the English plays had a somewhat larger reading public, which didn't really care about which actors should show up, and the tradition handed down from Shakespeare was of frequent changes of scene, so that information was much more important.

Friday, January 20, 2012

When you can't finish a book because the characters have taken over

The book is acquiring new characters and scenes at a furious rate. You're a bit surprised but very pleased that you can keep track of them all.
The outline vanished in a cloud of "more stuff that has to happen first" ages ago.
In fact, you quietly fear you might never get to the first major incident in the outline. But you know that if you ever do it will be the best scene ever.
You are secretly worried because there are so many things later on in your outline that your characters, as you now understand them, would never do.
You cannot talk about your book at lengths of less than an hour, and you are beginning to like your characters better than your real friends, mainly because your characters do not roll their eyes at each other and desperately try to flee when they see you coming.
If you have a contract, you're desperately late on it. If you have an agent but no contract, your agent keeps asking when s/he can show some things around, and you keep sending more stuff but asking him/her not to show it yet.
Your agent or editor has insisted that you bundle up everything you have and hand it over to the book doctor, before you are found either starved to death or crushed under a pile of manuscript pages. (This is how I've gotten all five clients like this).
If you belong to a critique group, two or three members are obsessed in a positive way with your ongoing work and seem to be hanging on the edge of their seats for more of it. The rest of them quit three months ago, and have formed another group somewhere else.
You really, really love to say "My characters took over my story."
Diagnosis: Your characters are eating your book.
Theoretically a book could grow out of control along any axis that takes time and space to express, and there's no reason why, for example, a plot couldn't become centuries worth of complicated, or descriptions could not run on for many pages about dinner forks or Grand Forks. But realistically, what tends to run out of control is character development. Any fictional character, no matter how thoroughly described, is of course much smaller than any real life person, no matter how dull, but this does not stop a certain kind of writer from trying to invent it all and tell it all. Since characterization is a skill that borders on or supports art (the way that fingering a clarinet is a skill but music is an art), some people who become very good at it then get lost in it.
This happens more often than we realize, because writers who never get a contract (and perhaps never even submit) sometimes write quite literally millions of words about a world of their imagining—mostly about the people of their imagining. In the old days when typewriters walked the earth, after these writers died, it would often be destroyed by embarrassed relatives, sometimes after being shown to an English professor at a local college, who would look at the huge heap of paper, turn over a few pages, and then say something as noncommittal as possible.
Nowadays people fill up their hard drives, and when the computer is sold off or given away as part of the estate, bzzp. Thirty years and four million words about the epic love affair between Prince Turpentine, Lady Spatula, and how it shook the House of Miniscule-Testicles until ancient Oregano itself fell. (those words are pronounced terpen-TEEN, spa-TYOO-lah, mee-NEE-skew-lay-TEST-a-kleez, and Orra-GAH-noh, respectively). Out on the curb in a garbage bag, preserved in a box in a favorite niece's closet, dispatched to bit heaven, or resting in peace on disks that no current machine can read.
And here's the sad bit: it doesn't have to be that way. Works with characters that overgrow like that generally have something fabulously wonderful at the core; they're more or less like fruit trees that put out too much foliage and want to sprawl into bushes, i.e. all you need do is administer some pruning and some training (which, in fruit trees, means tying them to posts to shape how they grow; I will admit that while I have trained a couple of apple trees to hold their limbs up, and a peach tree to stand straight, I have never gotten any of them to fetch or sit.)
That phrase "My characters took over" is the giveaway. Creating and elaborating interesting characters is a trick, albeit one that even gifted professionals have to practice lifelong. Not everyone can do it, though it may be as common a latent ability as singing, cooking, drawing, or shooting baskets—fewer people try, so it's hard to say how common the ability actually is. In any case, there are large numbers of writers who can make up a dozen people before breakfast and have them all badly over detailed before a midmorning snack.
Abundant character invention is not an ability to disparage; it's about as useful to a fiction writer as perfect pitch is to a violinist, flawless isolations are to a dancer, or perfect situational awareness is to a shortstop. But there are violinists who become so hung up on tone that they play notes but not music, dancers who are so busy showing you their isolations that you miss the dance, and shortstops who see the potential for a triple play and confuse hell out of every other player when all that's needed is to just throw the lead runner out.
Abundant character invention is a gift that needs to be harnessed and trained to do a writer any good, and as a book doctor, now and then, I've been called in to harness it. The process should be much more like taking a dog to a good modern obedience school than like old-fashioned brutal horse breaking, and it can do damage if done wrong, but it's absolutely necessary for people with a big talent.
I should add that it usually seems to make the writer much happier once it is harnessed. Too-abundant too-assertive characters who run away with every story cause frustrated writers in the long run, though I'll freely admit I wouldn't know. I don't have that gift very often, and controlling it is the least of my worries in my own work. (I tend to need to go the other way; strangely enough the same tools that will restrain you, oh hypercreative person, will very often boost me, the hypocreative.)
Warning: possible false diagnosis
As always, defend your work and try to achieve your purposes. If you're unhappy that you never finish and you've got one unfinished novel, more than a decade in progress, that is much longer than some completed tetralogies, if you feel like you love writing but you never get anything written, if the thought of finishing makes you feel like you're betraying your best friends, then this is the prescription for you. If you agree with your editor, critiquers, or agent that this sonofabitch is out of control and eating your life and career, apply the prescription below liberally.
But if you're acting in response to editorial or agently critiques, do be aware that in our movie-influenced world, there are some editors and agents out there who are brain-locked on super-simplified stories that have just one round character and a supporting cast of cardboard, centered on one and only one plot problem—essentially people who have absorbed too much Syd Field without Field's leavening of humanity, nuance, and sensitivity.
Sadly, some critique groups that pride themselves on being a roomful of wannabe-hacks may also urge you to give people more action and less entertainment, cloaking it in talk of pleasing the market and being professional.*
The tricks I discuss in the prescription can be used to turn a rich, complex, rewarding novel that someone might read across a week of winter nights into one of those light, thin, and fastnovelettes that are left on airliner seats at the end of the flight; if you are getting a vibe that's what they're asking for, fuck being professional about it. Fight for your novel's breathing room; don't let anyone intimidate you into killing it on the operating table.  That work is what will remain of you long after you are gone; it is worth a tantrum to save it.
Prescription: Take control of the flat-to-round dial and use it for your purposes.
The distinction between flat and round characters is usually attributed to E.M. Forster. The crude version of the distinction is from the reader's viewpoint:
Flat characters , to the reader, are essentially human scenery, like the people they pay to walk around and be the crowd in movies—messengers, waiters, old codgers who say kindly wise stuff and are not heard from again, beat cops who secure crime scenes, virgins who finally put out just in time to be eaten by the monster, etc.
Round characters, to the reader, are those who must feel real for the book to work—protagonists of plot and major subplots, characters of influence, some contributors to atmosphere, important people in any conflicted back story.
Readers often notice that some characters go from flat to round; "the bicycle messenger" in one scene, by the end of the book, becomes Rod Upreit, who is the sole support of his twin kid sisters, and dreams of quitting his second job as a skyscraper window-washer to race mountain bikes professionally, as he confided to the heroine during the time they were trapped in the elevator before he figured out how to extricate them, and can therefore be depended upon to deliver that message or die trying (and rescue her himself when her cowardly boyfriend wimps out).**
Almost any reader knows that whenever the book needs a round character, and you deliver a flat one, scenes with that character will be clichéd, lifeless, and perhaps unbelievable.
For some reason, it is less apparent to readers and critics that when the book needs a flat character and you write a round one, the focus in scenes with that character will go to pieces and the scenes will be much too slow and run far over length.
Excessive roundness will begin to multiply because undesirable roundness creates space for more undesirable roundness: when the waiter gets a back story, the café owner who hired her does too. Now they both interact with the cook, who needs a back story to fit in, and meanwhile, while they are all dropping bits of their back stories artfully into their expository conversation about the two big guys at Table 14, Louie and Rocco, who were supposed to be having breakfast before going to toss the heroine out a twentieth-floor window, are waiting on their pork chops, fried eggs, and grits, which now require explanation (Rocco was originally Braxton Bragg Stumpwater from Alabama, but when he met Louie "the Socket Wrench" Staccato in the army, he realized he'd always wanted to be a mobster like in the movies, so they became partners but Louie never liked his mother's cooking and has acquired Rocco's tastes, and they are saving up for one more big score so they can get married in Hawaii … that covered the time while they were waiting for breakfast, now here comes Inga with the Southern Special Breakfast #2 (which the cook cooks in honor of Mama, who taught him to cook), finally, after dealing with the cook's little crying jag (brought on by the way the pork chop smell reminds him of Mama), but of course since Inga is now round and so are Rocco and Louie, it's just so tempting to have them interact a little bit … and WHEN THE HELL IS THE POOR HEROINE GETTING THROWN OUT OF THAT WINDOW? A lady should not have to wait all day***).
From a writer's standpoint, here's a rule to start from (you can mix it up once you get the hang of playing it square, but stay danceable -- know what you're playing and help people follow it):
In most fiction, each character should be as round as is needed for the intended overall effect.
In more literary**** fiction, every character should be one or two increments more round than needed, but only that much. (masterful example: anything by John Irving).
In more action-oriented fiction****, characters should be one increment less rounded than you would expect, and the flatness should be masked with a pretense of roundness.
Now, how do you achieve or control different degrees of roundness?
Roundness is multi-valued and multi-dimensional. This makes sense metaphorically; after all, segments in a one-dimensional line by definition can't be round relative to each other, and single points have no shape. As a writer and editor, I find it useful to think of character roundness as the degree of change in one or more dimensions in the course of the story as told.
Degree of change is a sort of lumpy scale. Obviously a character who is exactly the same the last time we see him/her as s/he was the first time has zero change. But as Rust Hills explains beautifully, there is a kind of four part rising scale of change:
lowest: character shift as plot device (the mean character turns kind so that the main character can get her way)
higher: character shift driven by plot (for example, the character is hopeful at the beginning, and then when things turn out badly, is disappointed)
higher still: character change driven by plot (the character is fundamentally altered so that we sense they'll never be quite the same, by events in the plot)
highest: character change for the character's own purposes (the character sees a need to become someone new or different in order to fulfill a higher value, and chooses to make that change, either failing or succeeding)
Each degree of change could happen along any of the dimensions of character.
What do I mean by dimensions? Scales on which you can compare things having to do with character, just as age, weight, race, hotness, preppiness, odor, elegance, humility, temperature, mass, and credulousness are all scales on which you could compare people.  Swiping slightly from Aristotle, the Elizabethans, Bergson, Hoffer, Rorty, and a lot of people I don't realize I'm swiping from, here are ten dimensions in which a character can change in the course of a story:
Action. A pacifist kills someone (spoiler: High Noon), a person who never lies does for a higher purpose (The Crucible, Les Miserables), a miserable skunk of a person does one kind act on his deathbed (King Lear), a guy who sticks his neck out for nobody acts for a higher purpose (Casablanca, Star Wars), "Hey, I may be a crook but I'm an American crook" (the movie of The Rocketeer).
Motivation. A prostitute falls for a customer, a crooked lawyer stands up for justice, a guy who just wanted to be cool has to become magnificent. Despicable Me. The original The Longest Yard. Maupassant's "Clothes Make the Man." At least half of Lawrence Block's stories about Keller, the anomic hit man with a little bit of a heart.
Image/first impression. The elegant lady in the evening gown smells like old socks and picks her nose. The grunge kid cleans up into a tux. Brilliant example that rounds all the otherwise flat characters at one point or another: Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns, in which every character we're primed to see as a one-dimensional conventionalist foil for Murray suddenly drops the mask and is all too human, forcing us to consider that Murray's approach to life, charming as it appears, may not be the right one. I used this very consciously with Gratz in Tales of the Madman Underground.
Beliefs, specific/particular. One character believes something about another and then changes his or her mind, and the belief is revelatory of possibilities in the character we hadn't seen before. Hannah's apparent closed-mindedness collapses across the course of Angels in America, which reveals her to be a much more round character than she seems in that first conversation with Joe; Deckard thinks his partner is merely a competent cop in Blade Runner until at the end Deckard sees how much compassion and depth has been there all along. At the roundest end of the scale, the most revelatory changes in specific beliefs are ones about the self—Educating Rita, Great Expectations, Gone With the Wind, Lord Jim, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, the first Rocky, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the novel; it's less apparent in the movie).
Beliefs, universal and philosophic. Religious and political conversions, changes in philosophic outlook, and all that. I'm not a fan of these but many writers use them. King of Hearts, Waiting for Lefty, Eight Million Ways To Die, A Christmas Carol, This Gun For Hire.
Diction. As people get rounder they begin to talk differently. Born Yesterday is the classic example of this, along with My Cousin Vinnie and Norma Rae and Pretty in Pink. Pygmalion/My Fair Lady is pretty much about it. One very clever reviewer noticed, but couldn't figure out why, Karl slung fewer fucks into his sentences toward the end of Tales of the Madman Underground.***** And part of the fun I'm having with the Daybreak books is the collapse of bureaucratic routine/operational language that dominates people's speech (after all most of them are bureaucrats, military officers, and cops) at the beginning of Directive 51, and the gradual re-emergence of individuality of diction as the modern world collapses into the romantic world of the interwar pulps. ******

Role tension, revealed. Role tension is essentially the Wrong Man Plot. Shakespeare loved this one: drop a thoughtful brooder into a revenge tragedy, motivate the monstrous villain with love. So did Rafael Sabatini, whose one plot was the honest man forced into a life of crime, and of course Alfred Hitchcock. Almost every unlikely-detective story rests on role tension—Miss Marple, Father Brown, and all the rest. David Brin did it splendidly in The Postman and Kevin Costner screwed that up by not maintaining it in the movie; played for laughs in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Idiocracy, and overtly mocked (affectionately) in Tangled. Begin with a character who looks like one thing, and let us gradually learn s/he's something else. There's a math nerd joke, usually told as happening in a bar near a high-level college: a bunch of male math nerds are drinking together and one of them is crushing intensely on the beautiful waitress, but grumbling that it could never work because, look at her, anyone that pretty must have the IQ of a young flatworm. While he's in the bathroom, his friends slip the waitress ten bucks to answer "What is the integral of f(x) with respect to x?" [Where f(x) is one of those things that math nerds just tend to know because it comes up a lot, but most of the rest of us would be clueless; I've heard a dozen functions used in various versions of this]. When the returned friend is then goaded into trying the question on the waitress, she gives the answer they told her, but adds "… plus a constant!" Which is actually more correct, simultaneously revealing that she knows integral calculus and that she is the only actual rounded character in the joke.
Role tension, accepted or denied. In Bewitched Bunny, Bugs sees what the wicked witch is plotting, and shouts, "This looks like a job for the Masked Avenger!" Then, in a conversational tone, he adds, "… but since he's not around, I guess I'll have to take care of it myself." He's accepted his role tension: this isn't his kind of job but someone has to do it. Toward the end of the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy (Kristy Swanson) realizes that she just isn't the slayer that Donald Sutherland has been trying to train, because, frankly, she's dim, flighty, incurably shallow, and just wants to be a popular high school girl. But she can't give up slaying vampires—someone has to do it—so instead, she tackles the job using, as she explains, "My infallible fashion sense." Which, indeed, turns out to work. That's role tension denied; since she can't be the slayer they were expecting, she'll be the slayer she can be. Whether role tension is accepted or denied, it rounds a character, and this can be done progressively; the character comes to realize that who s/he is doesn't fit with what s/he has to do, and either just deals, does it in a different and more compatible way, or in rare cases walks away.
Back story. Be very careful with this because it is far too often the site on which excessive rounding begins to grow, leading to characters taking over the story, but in moderation—especially if most of it can be implied—it can provide a little rounding quickly. In countless World War Two adventures on screen and page, one of the intrepid Allied volunteers, asked why he's undertaking some foolhardy mission, says something like, "My brother was on the Arizona/at Bataan/in Nanking." In the film of The Wizard of Oz, the Soldier with the Green Whiskers lets Dorothy into the Emerald City because "I had an Aunt Em myself once." In Susan Glaspell's Trifles, after they find the dead canary and begin to construct what must have led to the murder, one of the women recalls the boy who killed her kitten when she was a little girl. The trick is inverted at the end of Camelot, when Arthur asks the kid who has stowed away to enlist in the final battle whether his father was a knight of the Round Table, or his mother was rescued by one of them, or perhaps their village saved, and it turns out that the boy has been won over entirely by the stories and legends, with no personal experience at all.
Notice that that's the way to do it: brief allusions at the right time. Not-yet-ready-for-the-book-doctor fiction, the sort of thing that actually requires the book mortician, is riddled with people who suddenly reveal that they were raped, abducted by aliens, raised by wolves, the last survivor after the explosion of HMS Convenient, or whatever. It can happen in a moment: Inigo Montoya's last line before killing the six-fingered man, "I want my father back, you son of a bitch," retells his whole back story and makes him a great deal rounder in a few seconds.
Awareness of the situation. Sometimes a background character leaps into roundedness just by showing that while standing around, they've been thinking. In Lawrence of Arabia, the guard who has been standing by while the general hears Lawrence's incredible report suddenly turns to the impassive guard and asks, "Have you been listening to this?" "Yes, sir." "And what did you think?" "I think it's bloody marvelous, sir!" The tears on the lady in waiting as the princess is being led off to her death, the muttered "Watch yourself" from the formerly impassive servant—or conversely the unseen elbow to the kidney thrown by the prison guard—all give us a sense that we know these people.
There could be ten or twenty more dimensions possible, but here's the trick I imposed on the clients, which seems to work:
In most genre fiction, including commercial mainstream:
maximally rounded characters -- who should be the most important -- will exhibit large changes, something like the third or fourth degree, in about two or three dimensions that are not critical for the plot.
Important secondary characters will exhibit change in about one or at most two dimensions not critical for the plot.
Named minor roles should exhibit change only in dimensions that are involved with the plot (but might show one more dimension in which they don't change).
Outright spear carriers should have no dimension that isn't plot critical, and usually remain static in that.
In literary fiction, increase all the settings by one or two; that is, let the number of non-plot dimensions go up to five or so, let many characters go up to the third degree of change and a few more go to the fourth, etc.
In action-adventure stuff, rather than doing actual rounding, fake it or paint it on (the way we paint trompe l'oeil shadows on stage scenery to make things on flat canvas look real). Conan Doyle was a master of this in one way: Sherlock Holmes had a dozen affectations that hinted at a past, any of which could be dragged out at any time, but in fact there was almost no change in them and they tended to belong to a single dimension, affectations. Ian Fleming took a different approach: every few books he'd give Bond a more interesting girlfriend or friendship, sometimes let things linger for a further book or two, and then slaughter the important secondary to motivate Bond to stay his same old icy-killer self. He looked more rounded because those events had been drawn in around him.
You can be quite systematic or mostly random about this, but if you over-invent, it's a way to prune back (and if like me you under-invent, it's a checklist for expansion). Start by making a list of significant characters, and rank them by how much you want them to be the focus of the book; ties are not only permitted but encouraged, especially at lower levels (please don't spend any time deciding whether the choir director who is hurled from a high window in Chapter 4 is a more or less round character than the pizza driver who is blown apart by the bomb under the doormat in Chapter 8). List an appropriate number of non-plot critical dimensions for each, and decide whether the degree of change in that dimension should be zero (a character who talks funny should talk just as funny throughout), one (the highly skilled assassin is a female impersonator, so all the security forces are off the track), etc. on up to four (e.g. the way so many Christopher Fry heroes decide that since they need to be around to take care of some moral duty, they'll have to give up their inclination to suicide).
Then keep only the things that are on the list. Sob, if you must, as you cut large and paste small.  You may have to spend a long time mining them out, but don't worry about that; the few torn and bloody gobbets you have left will be raw, naked, crude, with great gaping holes—and a million miles closer to publishable.
*If you just recognized your critique group in that sentence, get out now. As Mortimer remarked to Edward II, Veta portam infligere in fundamentum tuum.
**If any of you just said to yourselves, "I'd read that," you will have to write it yourself. Get going.
*** While she's waiting, Rod brings his twin kid sisters around to meet the nice lady who paid for their ballet lessons …

**** Yes, the distinction between literary and action-oriented is a matter of fashion, and fashions do change over time. But as Oscar Wilde pointed out, fashion is critical to life because  it is arbitrary and trivial; our response to it is an expression of our most freely chosen self. The current fashion is that works that aspire to a literary reputation will contain less violent action, and works that aim to entertain with violent action will be less self-consciously literary, exceptions and peculiarities like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard stipulated. To participate in any discourse, one should follow fashions enough to know when one is breaking them, and break them in ways that communicate something of value to people who need to hear it. Sadly, this does mean that artistically-minded people who aspire to write high art about down and dirty violence have a tough row to hoe right now. Also, I don't wear my hoop skirt to PTA meetings. If I ever do want to comment on the uptightness of the PTA by cross-dressing, it will be vital to pick something with some elegant, stylish, relevant to the offense I intend to give, and dignified for me even if it is a calculated insult to them.
***** If you're suddenly saying, So why did he? you could get the same answer by asking Louis Armstrong why he played jazz.
****** In the sense of "a tale of adventure in a strange world of danger and exaggerated effects," not in the sense of "love story." This seems to be an unfamiliar sense of the word to a lot of people nowadays, which I guess is why people miss the joke in the subtitle of Tales of the Madman Underground.