Pausing in the Woods to Notice Moss Didn't Get the Memo / Structure, or Wandering Through the Woods
About growing only on the north sides of trees, that is. While I stood there, I had a thought on the language of drama.
I write for children. Mostly.
Pausing in the Woods to Notice Moss Didn't Get the Memo:
About growing only on the north sides of trees, that is. While I stood there, I had a thought on the language of drama.
I write for children. Mostly.
And even when I’m not writing for children, my inclinations don’t run toward writing about anybody “packing” unless it’s the little old ladies in the senior citizens’ exercise class. When I first read other writers’ thoughts on writing, I tended to think they were talking about films starring Bruce Willis and Nicholas Cage, films with big action scenes featuring lots of broken glass. A lot of the wording seemed inflammatory: nothing was a problem, everything was a crisis.
But in fact, the dramatic story of two elderly people dealing with Alzheimers, the breathtaking story of young lovers separated or fighting to be in love in a war torn country or through an illness that will separate them, the heartbreaking story of a single mother with breast cancer and two children is not less riveting, and no less deserving of powerful language as you are urged toward creating tension for your readers. To avoid melodrama, you simply have to give your reader all that you know of the desire to remember each other well, or to be together, or to survive to raise your children. You don’t have to make the language inflammatory. You simply have to tap into the real feeling of the situation. I’m not recommending detailed descriptions of emotion, I’m recommending small details of the daily battle your character is engaged in. Trust the reader to experience the emotion.
The dilemmas of powerlessness and not knowing, for instance, are common enough to you and I, but they are a child’s daily path. The emotions of such dilemmas are primal: disorientation, insecurity, uncertainty, loss of self esteem, jealousy, hatred, grief, adoration in response to any kindness, rejection, apathy, hostility, fear, need, love withheld, shame. The resulting actions are often ill considered, irrational, and too often understandable: cheating, revenge, theft, slander, betrayal, cruelty, even murder.
My husband took theater into prisons for thirty years, and ran writing and acting workshops in a prison for children. He met several young murderers of adults and as they told their story, stuttering, or rocking back and forth, shaking from head to toe, he learned that when the adult world failed to right a wrong, children were sometimes forced to take matters into their own hands.
Children want to read about somebody with a bigger problem than they are facing, just as do you and I. Sometimes that leads to sensational stories, occasionally in every sense of the word. Myself, I read in several genres, rarely books culled from bestseller lists, and the book of choice could only be described as giving me the feeling, right from the first page, that I’ll be in good hands. That feeling, I’ve come to know over the years, is delivered by story told within a solid structure.
Structure, or Wandering Through the Woods:
Once begun on a story, probably by the time I’m five pages in, I’m making a distinction between plot and story, STORY AND STRUCTURE.
I think of plot as the rollercoaster ride of the story, as individual as my character, and tied to that character irretrievably. The villain in Despicable Me is not going to have the same plot as the villain in 101 Dalmations. The heroine in Enchanted will not live out the same plot as the heroine in Sleeping Beauty, although both stories have a witch with a basket of apples, both heroines will need to be awakened with a kiss.
If plot is the rollercoaster, then structure is the track that supports the rollercoaster, and while there are several structures, those several are largely built on the same guidelines, story to story, character to character, plot to plot, conflict to conflict. Structure is not story, it’s not plot; it’s Legos. Plug this one in here, then the next one and the next, and the next goes, well, next.
Structure is simple, when you realize it isn’t plot. Once I’m five pages into story and have begun to know my characters, their situation, their time and place, structure is not so much something I impose on the story as it is something the story is building from as it goes along.
There are several approaches to take.
For a while there, Joseph Campbell’s work on myth and the archetypal model we use to build our tender little psyches was being offered to screenwriters as a great model to follow to build our meaningful stories. This was fine; it’s through the process of story that we come to know who we are. I’d read The Power of Myth years before. The model has a lot to offer.
It’s not so much that writers were to model their characters after an archetype. The writing books I came across talked more about the parts of story drawing out an aspect of a protagonist’s personality at different archetypal stages. Twelve stages, which made sense to me, as you’ll see as we go on, if only I could get all twelve archetypes fixed firmly in my mind.
But I found the characters in my story had donned strait jackets, they moved like robots. They were unable to build up into a realistic character, they couldn’t achieve independence from the archetype.
Worse, the story I tried to write from this model became sort of arthritic. There were no smooth gradual movements from event to event. It often seemed the story was being pushed in a direction it wouldn’t have taken naturally, even if the archetypal elements might have arisen there too.
I might have learned to use this model with practice, but I have a feeling that, for me, it would always be like walking in wellies, clump clump clump.
This isn’t to be interpreted as a failure in Joseph Campbell’s work, or in any interpretation of his work; I failed to leap from the most apparent insights to putting a character on the page. Possibly because I wasn’t writing testoterone-driven heroic journeys. It was a relief to find Carol Pearson’s book, The Hero Within. She chose four overarching types, the Orphan, the Wanderer, the Warrior and the Martyr, the last of which I’ve renamed for myself, the Realized Character or Realized Soul.
Yes, martyr is easier to type, but the term carries so much baggage, the page gets heavy. Like the Warrior, the Martyr has a lot of positive attributes, we just rarely acknowledge them. I was able to friendly up with the Warrior, but the Martyr needed a new label before I could get cozy with her.
Pearson recommends using these archetypes to name the four parts of three act structure. It offers an embodiment of experience that is less demanding than Campbell’s, roomier, more manageable, and is clearly applicable to story.
To get a handle on working with the archetypes, I made a practice of dissecting any book I’d read and enjoyed to see how this way of looking at them might apply. Or not. (Often not, since I read very few testoterone-driven heroic journeys. This is not said to belitttle those books but to point out that other kinds of stories are just as valid.)
Here’s how the four archetypes work in the novel Save Queen of Sheba by Louise Moeri. Written in 1981, I’m pretty sure the author wasn’t thinking of making parts of her story follow an archetypal pattern. She was working with a sense of the rhythm of story.
Don’t get me wrong, I like having screenplay books as a reference, I learned a lot from them. But Moeri’s book helps to prove the premise that what we perceive to be good narratives follow a given pattern that tells the story in the structural order in which we want to hear it: how things were, what happened to change that, the way the people involved did this, this, and then that, and how it all turned out for the best.
Or not so much the best, but it turned out this way.
Save Queen of Sheba opens at the awakening of twelve-year-old King David, survivor of an Indian attack in the 1800’s expansion westward. He finds his six-year-old sister has survived too. They’ve been separated from their parents, but he knows the route the wagon train was taking and he has hopes of finding his way to them.
This is an interesting opening because it makes use of the character who is in danger from the first page. Much of children’s work obeys the convention that we see a little of life before, as in, life before we found the lost dog. Life before we had to deal with the substitute teacher. Life before Mom went to the hospital. This isn’t a bad convention, it orients the reader and the inciting incident (finding the dog, going to class, Mom breaking her leg) follows quickly.
Moeri’s opening on the inciting incident, where character change begins, means she had to find an interesting way to give the reader a little backstory, and since a linear story’s beginning wouldn’t have been exactly fascinating, this was an excellent choice. The young reader reads through a brief flashback in anticipation of what’s to come.
The first part (Orphan) told us of the situation these two children are in, and how they got there. The older brother is injured but taking responsibility for their survival. He’s walking them away from the attack site, in hopes he’s following the wagon train’s route, even though there’s not much of a chance they’ll catch up. He keeps his hopes up, though, and bolsters his sister’s.
The first break, a turning point, is signaled when they find a horse. The protagonist’s life is turned around. “We got a chance.”
The second part (Wanderer) is reaction to the difficulties of dealing with a six-year-old and the demands of feeding themselves and managing their horse. Part two ends when his wound becomes infected (a turning point), and they are stalled by a stream until the boy recovers enough to move on. Called the midpoint in screenwriting books, this is the first acknowledgment of progress being made. The line: They were on their way.
To clarify, the midpoint is a turning point, although it’s usually quieter than the ones generally labeled the 1st (before the midpoint) and 2nd (after the midpoint). Oftentimes in film the midpoint is the place for contemplation, or the big love scene (where characters who previously hated each other realize they love each other and from there they go on to face other obstacles together—pretty much the pattern King David and Queen of Sheba are acting out, minus the romance), or a learning experience, a revelation. At midpoint, characters face those things that make them uncomfortable or afraid.
The third part (Warrior) is the difficulty of finding the wagon tracks, finding shelter in a rainstorm, his little sister’s intransigence, and finally, her disappearance. Part three ends when unexpected consequences occur, or other story lines and complications previously established create more difficulties. Forcing the protagonist to change tactics. This turning point is often characterized by a major defeat—a character dies, an anticipated win is lost, and so on. The line: Queen of Sheba was gone.
During the fourth part (Realized) he questions his every decision, that of striking out in hopes of finding the rest of the train, that of taking Queen of Sheba with him, even looking for her now, because the delay makes it unlikely that either one of them will survive. It seems that all is lost. Then, he comes across his sister, and to get her back, he has another confrontation with an Indian woman and a child about his sister’s age. He raises his gun. The woman threatens his sister with a knife, and he makes the first move toward a wary agreement, lowering his gun.
He and his sister continue on their journey, weakened and hungry, until the horse alerts him to other people in the area. He tries to leave his sister for a minute, to see if he has to defend them again, and a search party rides over the hill, their father among the men.
Vwa-la. Four parts.
Should you care to try this method of dissecting a work, know that I generally try to work with the hardcover of a book, to maintain consistency in this process. But sometimes the paperback is the one you can get your hands on.
Paperbacks are often shorter than the hardcover, not because there are fewer words (as a child told a librarian friend of mine was why she always chooses to read the paperbacks), but in the interest of creating a less expensive product. It strikes me that it might also lend the analyzing reader the happy feeling of covering the territory more quickly so that’s something to consider.
I divided Moeri’s book into four parts using its page numbers. For the sake of argument, let’s look at both the Dutton hardcover and the Avon Camelot paperback, 116 pages and 92 pages respectively.
The hardcover broke into parts at pages 29, 58, 87, and finished at 116. This was a clean breakup of 29 pages per part. Many of the end of chapter pages had only few lines of text, so it was nice that it broke so well, it served our purposes perfectly.
In Save Queen of Sheba, the paperback didn’t break into four parts perfectly, but it didn’t confuse the issue. The breaks came at 23, 46, 72, and finished at 92. The perfect breaks would have come in at 23, 46, and 69 (3X23=69) and 92. Take a look.
In both books, the breaks came at the same point in the narrative. The end of chapter four, the end of chapter eight, and the end of chapter 12, finishing at the end of chapter 17.
To clarify, as you try this on your own, you don’t always find the same number of chapters in each part. And sometimes a writer will tend to get that first turning point a little closer to the beginning of the story and place the last turning point closer to the end. That will make the second and third parts longer. That’s fine too. But for purposes of writing the four parts, just plan on making them all about the same length. It will help to pace your story correctly.
When I was first trying to find a pattern that showed up consistently from book to book, I summarized chapters and clustered them according to the event the reader was following, or put a sticky note to show where events began and ended—whatever would show me a clear movement from one part of the narrative to the next.
Now I have more clarity in this method. I make a little spreadsheet on a ledger tablet, noting chapters, or characters I’m following, on the side, then lining events up under action, reaction, or change. There are no particularly right or wrong tactics here. You’ll see what matters to you, and that’s all that counts for now.
Once I had gone through dozens of books this way, I looked for patterns. Simple patterns:
The number of events before each turning point. Or in other words, in each part.
Whether each event appeared to take up the same amount of space as another or whether there might be two or three events in one part, but only one lengthier, more significant event in another part.
Things are worse here, x number of pages; things are better now, x number of pages—that was one of the best ones. It made me pay attention to the flow of emotions, and to the contrasting values of each scene (quiet vs. high action, interior setting vs. exterior, talking while moving vs. talking while sitting, everybody’s clear about what’s happening vs. there’s somebody who doesn’t quite get it, secrets are developing vs. secrets are being revealed).
Watching my husband teach acting taught me to watch for who has the upper hand at any given moment. This makes sense when you’re reading about a rivalry, or following an action adventure story, of course, but it was equally interesting to follow the course of the same tide in a family or friendship story. When the power baton is passed back and forth, the story is moved forward.