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Book ends

The other day, I was talking to a friend about why I prefer romance (though I read in many genres). As always, the HEA came up. I won't get into that too much here because I've covered it in previous posts. The important thing to know about me as a reader is that if I'm going to invest my emotional energy in the characters, I want a payoff.

My friend said something like, “But I don't want to know how it'll end. I want to be surprised.”

I had no response, because the thing is that I do too. I never read the last chapter or the last page before I start a book. My favorite books are the ones that smack me upside the head with a surprise at the end. I don't even read the back cover blurb because I don't want any part of the story to be spoiled for me. (My apologies to the marketing department.)

Yet, I still want my happy ending. The thrill for me is in the struggle to get there. In how the characters overcome the obstacles in their way.

I said as much to my friend, but it didn't feel like enough. We moved on to other topics and ate our sandwiches.

But it nagged at me. And then I realized something. Romance is not the only genre that demands a certain type of ending. In other genres, their may be no romantic happy ending, but there's generally some kind of triumph.

I mean, really, how pissed would you be if you read a mystery and the PI or detective didn't solve the case? Even if he doesn't catch the killer in that book, he figures out who it is, or he finds the victim. And if he didn't, you'd probably never read that author's books again.

What about a thriller, like something by Vince Flynn or David Baldacci? The larger terrorist threat may remain when you close the book, but the day has been saved…at least until next time. Otherwise, what's the point in telling the story?

Think of movies. Would you want to watch Independence Day if the aliens won? What if Wesley didn't get the girl in Princess Bride? What if Matt Damon didn't outwit and evade the CIA in The Bourne Identity? Seriously, would you want your money back?

Even memoirs usually have an uplifting purpose. How the author overcame an addiction, recovered from a painful divorce, or learned to let go of childhood trauma, for example. Often, with some kind of win, positive outcome, or hope for the future.

I'm not saying my friend is wrong. How could she be? These are all just opinions. Hers and mine.

And yes, some people love the unexpected so much that they want the unhappy, dystopian, or ambiguous ending. I'm cool with that as long as I don't have to read it.

But popular fiction is popular precisely because it delivers what we expect. Authors who can do it in a unique or surprising way may find more than moderate success. But at the end of the day, they're adhering to the basic expectations of the genre in which they're writing.

As a reader, I demand it. What about you?

Taking a shortcut

A few months ago I read a good writing book called Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. In it, Bell advocates going through six books and writing a note card for every scene to describe its POV, location, type of scene, and purpose. Then when you're done (six months later), you periodically pull out the cards and flip through them, lay them out to see the flow, and so on.

The idea is that eventually an understanding of good story structure will bubble up from your subconscious. I don't doubt the efficacy of this exercise. Nor am I one to shirk a little homework. But in this case, I made it through about half a book before I gave up. Maybe if I'm having trouble sleeping sometime, I'll try again.

In the meantime, I'm going to try Larry Brooks' suggestion to do something very similar, but using movies. Good movies are built around the same structure principles as a well-written novel. So, it makes sense that we should be able to accomplish a similar exercise with a movie, and in much less time. Maybe three hours.

So, my plan next week is to analyze at least one movie. I'm putting it here to hold myself accountable. I'll post my results for discussion in a future installment.

If you're up to it after you read Larry's post, I'd love to hear how it went for you too. (No, the comma is not required before “too”.) 😉

Have a great weekend. Write on!

Structural integrity

I just finished Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks, and I think it's the book I've been looking for all along. We've discussed “pantsing” vs. “plotting” here several times before, but the best thing about Larry's book is that it gives you a structure to hang your work on, regardless of how you write.

There are other books out there that discuss structure, but I've bought several, and so far SSD is the first one to break structure down into easy-to-understand parts.

In my own book, Slow Burn, I had a beginning premise and a vague idea of where I was going with it, but nothing concrete. Every day it was a struggle to decide what came next.

Now enter story structure. I've used the metaphor of a cross-country journey to describe my writing process. It works even better with an understanding of structure. If you think of each milestone (opening hook, plot/twist/turning point 1, p/t/t point 2, etc.) as a waypoint on the route, you still leave a lot of room for creative endeavor, and change.

With a better understanding of each section of the book, I can decide if the ride for my characters between waypoints should be smooth, bumpy, uphill, a car chase, or what. If I understand what section of the book I'm in while writing, it's easier to determine what the purpose of each scene should be, and the types of actions my character should take.

Structure is not sexy, but it's very freeing. Think of building a house. Once you know that it won't collapse because you've created a sound design based on engineering principles, you're free to make it look like a spaceship, treehouse, giant shoe, or tract home.

I know there are authors out there who don't do this intentionally, but chances are if their books are on a shelf somewhere, they do it instinctively.

After reading SSD, I went back and looked at Slow Burn again. It turns out that I had most of the important milestones, and they were even largely in the correct spot. But it would have been so much easier to create that story with an intrinsic sense of the purpose of each section of the book.

My awesome CP has mentioned these concepts to me before, and I balked. Totally. Basically, because I didn't understand the purpose of the different milestones or sections of a story. You may have heard the phrase, “The confused mind says ‘no'”. That was me.

Now, my left-brain is happy about the logic of structure, and my right-brain has been popping out scene ideas all afternoon. Go figure.