Monday, December 5, 2011

How To Write a Book - Part 3: Structure

In Part 1, I talked about picking the right idea, magical egg whites, and the evils of the god-wizard hybrid Kronos-Voldemort. In Part 2, I talked about refining the idea, Dogniss Nevergreen, The Lost Hunger Symbol, and the secret power of Pop Tart Industries. Now, I'm going to discuss structure, story development, and probably whatever ridiculous thing occurs to me as I'm writing.

There are two basic approaches to story development: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down means that I lay things out according to some kind of system, like the three-act structure, or the Hero's Journey. I focus on plot. Characters become, in many ways, an outgrowth of plot needs. Here's a table showing a structural breakdown of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and The Hunter Chronicles:


Harry Potter
Percy Jackson
The Hunter Chronicles

Birds-Eye Kicker
Harry left on porch—the boy who lived.

None.
Phineas flees Exile with Sky.
Normal World
Harry lives in closet.
Percy at museum. School problems.
Trapping Phineas in the woods. Moving again.

Inciting Incident
Arrival of owls.
Fight with teacher.
Phineas is missing.

Turning Point
“You’re a wizard Harry.” Go to wizard school.
“You’re a demigod Percy.” Get to Camp Half Blood.
The Arkhon is about to break free. Find your uncle.

Rising Action
Diagon Alley. Missing stone.
Camp Half Blood. Missing lightning bolt.
Search for Phineas/keys. Solve riddles. Survive.

Point of No Return
Harry decides to stop the thief from getting the stone.
Quest to find bolt.
Sky decides to go with Hands to hunt the Gnomon.

Crisis
Traps take out Ron and Hermione, leaving Harry alone to face the thief.

Percy somehow has the bolt and Hades believes he stole it.
Fight with the Jack ends badly. All seems lost.
Climax
Harry gets the stone and fights Voldemort.

Percy fights Ares.
Sky outwits the Arkhon.
Denouement
Harry recovers. Lose ends are tied up.
Percy poisoned and recovers. Lose ends are tied up.
Sky recovers in hospital. Lose ends are tied up.

Now, a few notes:
  1. There are many ways to structure a story from the top-down. This is just one of them.
  2. The "Bird's Eye Kicker" is something I made up. When working in a third-person limited POV, it's often difficult to get at the larger context of a story. The "Bird's Eye Kicker" is one way to do this and usually takes the form of a prologue. It's a technique that launched the big story very quickly. Prologues have fallen out of vogue with some editors. Why? I have no idea. One reason I've seen is that prologues don't "start on the story," that somehow they're outside the bounds of a story. This seems ridiculous to me. Prologues create mystery, setup core questions, and most importantly give the bird's eye view of what is to follow. They can be an integral part of the story, if done well. To avoid the prologue stigma, some books, like Harry Potter, call their prologues "Chapter 1," but they are still prologues with a different POV than the rest of the book.
  3. Some curmudgeons will look at this breakdown and declare that these three books are, in essence, the same that they tell the same story. These nameless "theys" are confusing structure meta thinking with plot, or the content of the story. STRUCTURE IS NOT PLOT! Structure is a way to tell a story, an organizing principle. It's the "beginning, middle, and end" bit broken down in more detail. The content what happens within that structure is the plot. 
The top-down approach can lead to problems: shallow characters with unbelievable motivations, weak connections between events, and weak subplots. These things arise because characters are forced into situations to fill plot needs rather than having plot stem from character needs.

A bottom-up approach occurs when plot stems from character needs. In my experience, the bottom-up approach leads to better stories and richer characters, but takes much, much longer. The bottom-up approach starts with character. To get at character, I ask four questions:
  1. Who is this character?
  2. What do they want?
  3. How are they going to get it?
  4. What's stopping them from getting what they want?
These are the four main questions I ask, and I ask it for every character, not just the protagonist. This creates a complex relationship map. Whose goals are aligned? Whose aren't? How do they deal with conflict?

The most important question through all of this the one I ask over and over again is "why?" Why do they want this? Why would this stop them? Why don't they get along? The "why" question creates character depth. It creates back story that I can use to make a character real and a character's motivation significant and meaningful to the reader.

I chart a beginning, middle, and end for each character relationship. Then, I lay out these beginnings, middles, and ends within the story. It's like piecing together a giant puzzle, and the goals of the protagonist are like my corner pieces, showing me where to start. Who are they? What do they want?

Then, I look at my primary antagonist. The antagonist determines plot. If you're having a hard time figuring out your plot, look at it from the eyes of your antagonist. Your antagonist wants something and the protagonist is getting in their way. The story starts when the antagonist makes their first move (Ambrosia and the Wargarou hunt Phineas). The protagonist reacts (Sky searches for Phineas). The antagonist makes another move (shifts into a hunter to search for keys). The protagonist reacts (Sky tries to find keys first), and on and on until the protagonist takes the initiative, forces the antagonist to react, and saves the day.

Once you have the primary relationship mapped, move on to the next most important relationship and work it in (these are your subplots). This is where it gets tricky, and the more characters you have, the trickier it gets. The reason it's tricky is because you're trying to maximize conflict you want opposing goals. Conflict drives the story. Characters that always get along make for a boring story. At the same time, you've got to manage pacing and keep the story focused. You need to resolve some relationship conflict while, at the same time, weaving in new conflicts to keep things moving.

This requires scene layering, where multiple things are happening simultaneously. I have some scenes in The Hunter Chronicles: Return to Exile where the layering in six or seven layers deep. For example, in the Jack, Sky is searching for Phineas to save him, Crystal has her own reasons, the Jack is stirring, there's a wall that sets up the wall they have to get past later, T-Bone is injured (raising the stakes), the Wargarou is tracking them (which implies that Ursula is dead), and Crystal has spotted a Gnomon (which sets up the Epilogue). It's a busy sequence, but it's probably my favorite in the book.

Believe it or not, when I wrote The Hunter Chronicles: Return to Exile I used a bottom-up approach. The fact that I can lay it out in a top-down grid is coincidental. A top-down structural approach to development can be helpful when you outline the primary protagonist/antagonist plot, but only after you've done the bottom-up work. If you start with top-down, you will have a flat story quickly written that nobody wants to read.

That's it for today. I'll try to put more funny into the next one.

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