I had some great things happen this past weekend!
For one, my kids watched The Terminator with me, one of my all-time favorite movies! (Bad time travel theory, though. *Sigh*)
Second, I had another FANTASTIC writing weekend!
If you’re not a writer, this is going to be boring and long, so you might want to jump ship now before your head explodes, or whatever happens to people who are uninterested in a topic but keep forcing it down for some reason.
So, my great event was: I got another story outline hammered into rough shape over the weekend!
I’ve told you all how hard I’ve been working on reviving my first online manuscript, which at the time I titled Ghost Hunters (because I either didn’t know or didn’t care that a TV show existed with the same name, I don’t recall which). But it had some major issues and weaknesses, and the more I learned about story architecture and planning, the more I realized what I had wasn’t so much a manuscript as an online serial. Which was met with some great enthusiasm from faithful readers.
(As an aside, I met a couple of good friends through this story, and I have a lot of affection for the story, probably because of that.)
Being unwilling to toss the thing aside, I have, from time to time since November 2007 when I finally finished it, revisited this thing and done some “editing” (read: “language clean-up and adverb stomping), but I never addressed the story structure. The reason is, I didn’t know diddly-squat about story structure, so I couldn’t fix it even though I knew it needed something. When I lost all my “hard work” (thousands of line edits, basically) due to a thumb drive failure in 2008, I gave up. It was too daunting a task to restart the process and I just didn’t have the heart. I set it aside for a long time, but couldn’t ever get it completely out of my head. (Lots of reasons for that, but I’ll spare you.)
In 2009, one of the people I met through this story — my buddy Bryce – introduced me to The Story Fixer, Larry Brooks’s website. Larry teaches workshops, writes books, and teaches authors how to apply movie script principles of story structure and architecture to novels and stories. I was hooked! I threw myself into learning as much as I could without investing money (we were living on unemployment at the time) about story structure and architecture. I began to live and breathe the concepts. I can dissect a movie blindfolded now, and so can my kids (they’re so awesome).
But that didn’t do much to fix my languishing manuscript. Poor JD, my protagonist, and his friends were aging on my PC’s drive without much help or hope. I managed to salvage the thing from one PC to the next, and never lost it, and I believe there are reasons for that. (Again, I’ll spare you.) But I still couldn’t get over how daunting the task was of rewriting the story. I really wanted to fix it, not rewrite it.
A few months ago, I picked up James Scott Bell’s book called Plot and Structure, and in it he gave a brief diagram of how something called The Hero’s Journey meshed into the standard Three-Act story structure. “Hero’s Journey?” I said, and loving spouse said, “What?” I didn’t answer. I was enraptured. I spent the next several weeks researching this Hero’s Journey idea, and what I found intrigued me.
I found the Hero’s Journey to be a story structure, conceived by Chris Vogler and based on Joseph Cambell’s work in a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which Mr. Campbell posits the idea of a “monomyth” — a universal story underlying most mythology, fairy tales, literature and fables. I wasn’t interested in Campbell’s work, so much, but because I was working now (this was into 2011 at this point), I bought a book by Vogler called The Writer’s Journey, which details the Hero’s Journey model of story structure.
I fell head over heels in love. I found my fix for Ghost Hunters! At long last, a structure which included all the necessary components, but was broken into finer steps so I could fit my existing pieces into place and figure out which (small) portions might be missing! This would make reworking the story a BREEZE!
Only…I didn’t do it. I was heavily invested into Scales of Justice, my latest novel, and because I didn’t have time to work on it, Ghost Hunters languished some more.
When I finally finished Scales, nine months after starting it, I had a new software love (Scrivener), a new story structure method (my love and I hammered out the initial outline for my next book with the Hero’s Journey model), and a new story planning love (Dramatica). With the outline for my next novel worked up (we took the Dramatica principles to it after we ran it through the Hero’s Journey structure), I had a few choices.
- Write the new novel I just outlined while it was fresh and exciting in my mind
- Write a new outline for other novels I’ve got ideas for but haven’t fully plotted yet
- Write a new outline for Ghost Hunters and do the same process with it as I did for my newest novel – Hero’s Journey structure then Dramatica
Trouble is, it wasn’t that easy. At all. In fact, it turned out to be a real bear.
When I tried to fit the story into the Hero’s Journey model, I found there were tremendous gaps, and no clear correlations for which part went where. I couldn’t use the old standard Four-Part structure for the same reason. There’s too much missing. I wrote the thing completely by the seat of my pants and as an online serial — basically, the structure was so out of whack I couldn’t figure out how to fix it, even with all these great tools.
My loving wife to the rescue. In bolts of brilliance, she looked over what we had for tools and set aside her bias against Dramatica. (We bought a piece of software years and years ago called Dramatica DreamKit, and we hated its guts. It was bossy, demanding and we didn’t get it. Probably still wouldn’t, but we don’t need it either. That set my wife against anything called “Dramatica”, so when I started crowing about this a couple of weeks ago, you should’ve seen the look on her face.)
Dramatica provides something called “throughlines”, but it provides a lot more than that. I’ve only scratched the surface of the process, and probably won’t dive too deeply, but I have to give credit where it’s due — I found a Dramatica-based outline method which utilizes counter-balanced plot element pairs to produce a plot summary (which assumes you’ve already got a novel idea and general story, if not a plot).
I discovered, in that process, the story I had actually had a Dramatica principle already built-in. The concept of Symptom-Response/Problem-Resolution is what I used for my story from the start, though I had no idea what I was doing then. Basically, the protagonist sees a symptom and believes it’s the problem, so he responds to that by trying to resolve what he perceives is the problem, only to discover the actual problem later and then work to resolve it as the story’s goal or purpose.
Notice that? Symptom-Response (two parts)/Problem-Solution (two more parts). Sound familiar? It did to me, and I almost fell out of my chair when I saw it. But I still didn’t have a way to fix the story — I only discovered it’s general direction.
So I slammed my head against this brick wall for more than a week but no solution presented itself. I tried as hard as I could to marry the Hero’s Journey, Four-Part and Dramatica methods into a single outline format I could use going forward, because of the great success it provided on my last outline. What I missed but my beloved caught is, we weren’t constructing a story by outline, we were deconstructing one by outline.
She opened a Word document which has all the information about the Dramatica principles I use and she bent over her desk for thirty seconds while cooking, pointed at the screen and said, “We should start there. That will give us an indication of what we have to look at next, so let’s start there.”
At that point, my head exploded.
I almost fell at her feet and kissed them. I couldn’t believe it. In less than a minute of examining the problem, she diagnosed all of it. And so, Sunday afternoon we started down the path of applying the Dramatica principles to it, and came to the decision to abandon use of the Hero’s Journey. It simply was too broad, in the same way the Four-Part story structure was too broad. It didn’t define enough events for me to hook the story’s existing scenes to. Dramatica provided those by using it’s throughlines. While the general story architecture theory indicated there were lots of elements missing, it couldn’t do anything to show me how to find them and put them in place.
Dramatica found the pieces which did exist, pointed out where the story lacked some pieces and where they should go, and provided a solution via its principles for repairing the story. Tonight, and probably for the next several nights, I’ll be hammering out the details of the story’s new outline, and porting the bits of the story which can be salvaged over to it. When I’m finished, I’ll know exactly what to write, where to write it, and when I’ve completed that process, my old, beloved story Ghost Hunters (it’s got a new name now which suits it better) will have new life.
It will be scarier, more intense emotionally, and if I’m lucky and skilled enough, not lose any of the humor so many loved about it. I hope.
Wish me luck!
And thanks, love. You really made this happen. I couldn’t have done it without you…but then, that’s true of most things these days, isn’t it?