Monday, 28 September 2009

Plot - theme or structure?

First, yet another apology. It seems that whenever I'm presumptuous enough to post that I'm going to write about something 'tomorrow', fate intervenes, and I get buried in extra work. Yet again it's taken me three weeks to dig myself out far enough to see daylight. In future, I'm going to simply say 'next time I'm going to...'.

So, not tomorrow, but three weeks later...

There are two ways of creating a plot - with almost any sort of story.

You can focus on the structure - that is, what happens in the story?

Or you can focus on the theme - what is the story about?

As a concrete example, consider the clasic Western 'High Noon'.

Structurally it's about a man who is systematically abandoned by all those on whose loyalty he has a right to depend, prior to his impending battle with a band of vengeful killers.

Thematically it's about a man's struggle to maintain his integrity and honour when surrounded by cowardice, hypocrisy and overwhelming temptation. He is an archetypal reluctant hero.

I suppose you can say that structure focuses on the events; theme focuses on how the participants feel about those events; or perhaps the actions they choose when faced with those events.

Now, you might say that the two are very much interdependent. You'd be absolutely right. A person can't be a hero, reluctant or otherwise, unless there is an occasion where heroism is called for.

There are only a limited number of themes available - such as:

  • Vengeance - (Gladiator)
  • The reluctant hero (High Noon)
  • Overcoming inner demons (My Beautiful Mind)
  • The tragic hero (Troy)
  • The family protector (The River Wild)
  • The coward transformed (Deliverance)
  • The tortoise and the hare (Die Hard)
When designing a story thematically, I suppose you would have to start by creating a protagonist with a flaw, and an antagonist, also with a flaw.

You can already tell that this story would be about the protagonist being able to accept help and advice, overcome his weakness and so defeat the antagonist - who of course, because of hubris was not able to overcome his, and so failed.

Structurally, you would start with an exciting idea - a protagonist who has a mortal falling out with his former best friend. They fight on a high, swaying bridge above a bottomless pit.

Synthesis of the two gives you the protagonist afraid of heights, who falls in love with his beautiful psychoanalyst and rescues her from his former best friend turned nemesis. She is of course at the far end of the bridge on which the two are fighting. The nemesis was in love with her till she fell for our hero. He spurned her offer of help overcoming his fear of hamsters.

At the height of the battle, our hero presses forward despite his profound acrophobia to rescue the woman he loves. He hurls his pet hamster at his nemesis, who recoils in horror, slips and plunges to his death. Boy and girl reunite, hero risks all to rescue beloved hamster from the lip of the abyss, and hand in hand in paw they walk into the sunset as the music swells...

OK, it's a silly example, but it illustrates my point. Theme and structure are different ways of looking at the same small, isolated sequence of events that makes up a piece of fiction. Both are still, and always will be, subordinate to the story.

Avoiding hubris myself, I'm simply going to say that next time, I'm going to examine plot structure in more detail.

Till then, enjoy!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Plot structure - Introduction

For as long as people have been telling stories, there has been a structure that works well. One that captivates the audience, hooks them, draws them into the world of the storyteller.

As far as I'm aware, that structure was first analysed and codified by Aristotle in his work 'The Poetics.' Of course, he was talking about epic oral poetry and Greek theatre, complete with chorus. Nonetheless, what worked for 100,000 years huddled round fires at night, worked for Ancient Greece, was followed by the Romans, the writers of Northern European epics such as as Beowulf, the Prose Edda and the Nibelungenlied and was obeyed by great writers of the Medieval and Elizabethan periods (Chretien de Troyes, Mallory, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson and others) is as relevant and important today as ever it was.

Don't forget, people have told stories as long as there have been people. The idea of reading stories has only been around for some 500 years. Watching them at the talkies or on the telescreen has only been around for a century.

What I'm saying is that what worked for millennia worked for a reason. It satisfied some basic human need. Technology may have evolved, but the human brain has not kept pace. What worked when the sabre-toothed tiger roared outside and mammoths roamed the plains still works.

We call this the Aristotelian structure.

Aristotle's six most important elements of any drama were:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Theme
  4. Dialogue
  5. Music
  6. Spectacle

This list still works marvellously for films, though sadly, Hollywood seems to have reversed the order in recent decades. Special effects do not make a great movie no matter what the movie moguls think.

You might also notice that music is on the list - important for Greek drama, crucial in films.

OK, if we're talking about writing books, you can ignore music.

Spectacle for books is what the reader envisions as he or she reads your prose.

Tomorrow, I'm going to write about the two ways of creating (or analysing) any decent plot. In later posts, I'll go through every other element on the list with the exception of music.


Sunday, 6 September 2009

Ideas - where do they come from?

OK, after a slightly longer than expected absence, due to family stuff, I'm back with the next installment. By the way, I do apologise most humbly for the delay.

Ideas and where do they come from?

I suppose that's the one question that we all face if ever we mention that we write.

"Where do you get your ideas from?"

So where do they come from?

A few concrete examples. My first film script (it's available if anyone wants to buy it for the going rate - hint, hint) was about eco-terrorism masking corporate greed, and it came about from reading an article on dams in Idaho and the potato farming that had been made possible by these dams. This was an article in National Geographic, and I was reading it in the dentist's waiting room. The rest of the plot was elaborated in thirty minutes of semi-inebriated conversation with a script-writing friend of mine, Dr. Roger Cottrell, a few days later. Just a few concrete (no pun intended) facts and then the 'what if' moment.

My third novel (no, it's not finished yet, just the first draft) was loosely based on the premise - 'what if man-made global warming is a reality? What if Governments and corporations were aware what they were doing? What if they were doing it deliberately? Who would benefit? What if the beneficiaries weren't human?'

Add a few facts and figures, and a degree of inventiveness and you have the idea from which the plot develops.

My second film script was based on an article in one of the broadsheet newspapers, commenting on the increasing divide between urban and rural communities. I thought 'what if you take this to its logical conclusion?'

You would have totally separated communities living entirely dissimilar lives, with the chattering urbanites being blissfully unaware of their complete dependence on the rural society. Throw in a few other semi-related facts and stir. Voila! You have a plot.

You can see from the examples I've given, that my ideas come from events or facts in the real world, twisted by my warped imagination into some sort of demonised offspring. Add in a few other facts, similarly distorted, and you have an idea.

The 'what if?' bit is crucial. Take Event A, as reported by e.g. the BBC. What if it were totally false? What would be the consequences? OK, what if someone stood to gain from a widespread belief in this event? How would they organise it? Who would notice what they were doing? Who would try to stop them? Then stick the story thirty years in the future when - unrelated fact - all cars apart from emergency services were electric, state owned and driven by computer. Add in an elevated concern for health and safety, risk avoidance and litigation, exaggerated to extreme levels. (I know, that bit is already true, but bear with me.) What sort of society would we have? What would be the likely outcomes? And you have the basis for a story.

So, today's homework: choose your own event of interest, extrapolate thirty (or fifty or a hundred) years, add in two unrelated facts of your choice, and then (this is the fun bit) open a bottle of your favourite tipple, sit back, kick off the shoes, loosen the tie, ignore the dog and just ... speculate.

When it comes to facts, related or otherwise, I'm lucky. I have the sort of memory that stores immense quantities of information. OK, 95% of it is completely useless, but the remaining 5% - oh yes.


I've read other writers who say their ideas come from watching people in the street, or a chance conversation overheard on a bus or ...

Fine, whatever works for them. I store up observations and snippets of conversation to give authenticity to dialogue or description, but my ideas are always generated by events or facts.

Or at least, by articles that claim to relate events and facts. I don't actually believe much I read in newspapers or hear on TV, but if it's interesting, the authenticity quotient doesn't matter.

Finally, I would like to quote an answer that Stephen King gave when asked, on a chat show, where his ideas came from. He said the usual things we always say, but was then asked, 'But why do you always write horror and darkness?'

To which he replied, 'What makes you think I have a choice?'

Tomorrow I'm going to start a series of articles on plot structure - typical Aristotelian plot structure that is. A technique that has worked well for story tellers for the last 10,000 years.