Writers are Artists, Too

A few years ago — five years ago now, I guess — I was very active on the deviantART website.

If you don’t know — and why would you, really, unless you’re an artist? — deviantART is MySpace or Facebook for artists. It provides a community and showplace for artists to display their work and, if they get lucky enough, receive feedback on their displays. Comments, however, can’t be moderated or controlled — anyone can say anything they’d like, not only to the artist, but to any commentator as well. (This is an issue, in my opinion, and something dA needs to look at modifying.)

Now, dA allows almost anything to be posted as "art" — things which could be considered masterpieces, or at least the work of modern masters — to borderline pornography, to children’s drawings (or worse) can all be uploaded. The medium isn’t very limited either. Raw Photoshop files can’t be uploaded, but they can when converted to PNG or JPG images. SWF files can be uploaded, too, and so can film clips (!) and short films in various movie formats. It’s wide open.

Among the many visual art pieces out there, of course, are photography and photo-manipulation pieces. Paintings done traditionally can be photographed and uploaded, or pieces created digitally can be converted and uploaded. And writers have their own creations there too.

There’s no problem with providing artists a way to get their stuff seen. But until recently, writers were treated as second class citizens in the art community.

I wrote about this extensively before. I don’t remember whether here or elsewhere, but for the most part, attention isn’t evenly divided among artists on art communities. The priority seemed to be hand-created artwork (whether traditional or digital), then photography and photo manipulations, and then any other visual art remaining. When all is said and done, writing and literature is at the bottom of the list.

Before I stopped actively posting on deviantART, things were being done to help level the playing field, but honestly, not much inroad has been made in that regard. For one thing, a lot of writing is ignored on art sites because people go there for…well, artwork. The problem lies, in my humble opinion, with the definition of "art" as a base.

Words are the most abstract form of art there is. Think about it. If I write the word "hand", your mind can visualize an actual hand. But that’s because you’ve been taught to associate that particular word with that particular object. It took training, practice, and a lot of positive encouragement for you to learn the letters H-A-N-D mean the five-digit appendage at the end of your arm. But the letters H-A-N-D don’t look anything like the thing they describe, and therefore, it’s not considered "art" — despite the fact it’s a series of lines which describe an object. Just like a drawing would, or a painting would, or a series of pixels might.

The art of language is so abstract, it might take several thousand words to describe what a single drawing, painting or photograph might render. It is, to borrow an analogy from the immortal Mr. Spock, akin to building sophisticated electronics with stone knives and bear skins. Yet, when the discussion of artists comes up, the writer is left out in general. Oh, great writers are discussed with similar tones, but honestly, they’re not often considered in discussions of art.

I suspect this is due to "art" being defined as visual creations of a less abstract nature. In general, we admire most images which closely represent the objects of which they are representative. That is, in Homer Simpson speak, things which "look like the things they look like." The more true the image is to the object it represents, the more we (typically) like it. But, even more abstract "visual art" — you know, paint blotches and swooshes all over a canvas and hung in the MOM in most major cities — finds more favor than the abstraction of words.

Literature, as a result, is classified on it’s own, separately from visual media.

Should it be?

Your voice matters to me. Tell me what YOU think.

-jdt-

Bad Advice for Writers

question-markI have a book on my tablet which is all about how to write the opening of your novel or story. The goal, of course, is to produce a hook which draws the reader in and gets them excited about your story right away.

It’s good advice. Except…it’s not.

See, the problem with a great hook is, you have to somehow follow that up with lots of other great hooks. You need a hook to get them into the story, then another to get them to the next act, and you need a great story question which is brought on by the inciting incident and/or first plot point, and you have to have a great hook halfway through the second act’s first half to hurl the reader on to the midpoint, which has to have a great hook to keep them going to the next hook…

One problem with advice like this is, in my not-so-expert view, that it causes writers to focus on a single aspect of their work. The author starts by decrying calling one’s manuscript a “piece” because the body of the work is a whole, not sections…and then proceeds to try and teach (as the writer has taught myriad students, so the claim states) writers to perfect…what?

The opening of the story, novel, book, story. A piece of it. Ironic, no? Of course, the author makes this point in the book, but the point is the same. The idea of focusing so intently on a single aspect of the story is a disastrous one, in my opinion. So many writers are still clawing like mewling piglets for the teat of the great Industry of Publishing and to lick the boots of the gatekeepers, this book finds broad audience still, even in our age of digital publishing and elimination of Gatekeepers and the Great Industry.

And that’s the second thing wrong with advice like this. It’s directed dead-on at the legacy publishing industry and their archaic “guidelines” and “rules” which, if you’ve paid any attention to the industry in the last 60 years, are completely subjective, capricious, arbitrary, and changing all the time. Just not as fast as the screw-job contracts they continue to trot out.

But for me, the same effort must go into each of the sections of the book, not just the opening. Yes, the opening is critical. The reader is going to stick with or toss aside the book based on what they initially see (provided, of course, you’ve enticed them to buy the thing in the first place with your description, cover, price point, and sample – which includes the beginning). The first few paragraphs or pages are critical. They can make or break the deal, I’m sure.

But the fact remains, if you write an outstanding opening, and the reader is hooked and buys the book, they will  discard it if the rest of the writing isn’t up to snuff. I’ve tossed aside physical and digital books because of lousy writing well into the work. I’m not unique. The problem of poor writing can’t – and I think shouldn’t – be masked by a great opening. If anything, that’s an even bigger betrayal of the reader’s trust.

But I am but one man with an opinion. What’s yours?

-jdt-

The Hero’s Journey Outline

You know how much I love story structure, right? I mean, if you can give me a template for how to put a story together, I’m all over it. Last time I talked about how Dramatica has added to my structural game by showing me how to incorporate throughlines and signposts in my work, melding them with my beloved Three Act Structure to fill in some of the gaps left in the method when planning a model.

Well, after I figured out how to make the story structure map work for me, I realized there was still plenty of room for error. I had long, long gaps between markers which left me with four basic parts to fill. While knowing the structure helped me put stuff where it belongs and told me what was missing, I didn’t have a sound method for filling in the long gaps. I had, in short, margin for error which I didn’t like.

So, I set out to see if there were more ways to do this. What I found was a reference to something called the Hero’s Journey. It goes by many names, but apparently Chris Vogler read a book by someone who’d studied myths and stories from around the world. He developed something he called “The Monomyth” or “Universal Story,” which essentially is the basic structure of every story ever told. From fairy tales to epic poems, Mother Goose to Doctor Seuss, War and Peace to Star Wars, all of ‘em used this map.

Initially, I was skeptical. Then I got hold of James Scott Bell’s masterful book, Plotting and Outlining, and he mentioned this Hero’s Journey method too. He also demonstrated how it fit directly into the Three Act Structure. And that, my  friends, turned the light on for me. I had to have it.

So I got it. And I made a template. Literally. A Microsoft Word template, more precisely, and while I worked away on my last novel, I took time to outline my next novel using this method.

My beloved wife and I sat down and read the description of each segment of the Hero’s Journey. Not all of them, of course, applied to me. Some I could leave out. This, Chris Vogler maintains, is the strength of it. Use what you need, discard what you don’t.

Turns out, it was pretty easy. The explanations were clear. Before we knew it, we had an entire book outlined with brief descriptions of each of the segments. I tucked that outline away, pleased as punch with it, and turned it recently. In fact, I revisited that outline because it’s time to write that book.

So I pulled it out, but I’ve really been on this Dramatica kick because of the depth it can bring to a story. Thinking about the throughlines and signposts, I decided to tuck this Hero’s Journey outline into the Dramatica theory methodology and see if I could amalgamate the two.

But there wasn’t any need. At least, not with this book. When I filled in the Dramatica template – yes,  literal template I’d made in Bryce’s amazing Text Tree program – I found the Story Goal, Signposts and Throughlines were already there. I just needed to identify them as such, and put them in place. I did that, but it was really just an exercise for me in translating one method to another.

Dramatica’s additional throughline thoughts will help me deepen the characters and bring out some of their traits, but honestly, it’s not necessary. The Hero’s Journey put everything in its place. I couldn’t have been more excited.

So now, I have multiple ways of breaking a story down, but from now on, I start with a Story Goal (duh!) and work through the Dramatic method, then move to the Hero’s Journey for the actual outline. And rather than do it in separate programs and moving them together, I’m going to do it all in Scrivener for Windows (probably), even though I have other writing software I’d like to use and try. (Scrivener’s organizational features are ideal for this, but Word 2010 or OneNote would do it too.)

So, I come up with a Story Goal. I determine the consequences of the Story Goal, then the requirements, the costs, dividends, forewarnings, preconditions, prerequisites, etc. Then develop the plot summary, and then put in the throughlines. Then plug it all into the Hero’s Journey template, and voila! I’m ready to write.

Or continue outlining. Which, you know, is sort of fun.

Thanks for following along. Hope you liked it as much as I did.

-JDT-

The Joy of Outlining II

So, last time I talked a bit out my new way of laying out story structure and plotting. It’s been fantastic.

The method I use enables me to follow a road map leading me along the path of my story. I know right where I need to put things, and I know when something’s missing. I also know what’s missing when it is. And so, with this tool in mind, I can go through the writing process fearlessly. I won’t get lost in details, I won’t have story arc problems, and I won’t have plot holes. Those things are all visible and addressed in the planning stages. I can write to the markers I’ve set out and be sure the story is the focus.

I also mentioned Dramatica theory. Here’s what Dramatica brought to the party for me:

Story Goal

Dramatica wasn’t the first to introduce the Story Goal idea, but I don’t know if I’d ever apprehended the idea before. Basically, it’s the story in a single statement. The Story Goal is what your characters are trying to accomplish, whether that’s an external goal of some kind or an internal one.

It’s a lot of fun to come up with the Story Goal, and once you have it, you can use other aspects of Dramatica theory to write the Plot Summary. The theory also provides some things to think about and add in to make the experience richer for the reader. It’s awesome.

Throughlines

For one thing, the idea of Throughlines helped a lot. For Dramatica theory, there are four Throughlines required. The four Throughlines are:

  • The Overall Throughline – The main story throughline. This is the structure of the overall story, the arc in the story which impacts the most characters and leads the characters along the path to the Story Goal.
  • The Main Character Throughline – The main character throughline parallels the overall throughline, but is entirely impacting the main character. It’s how the character either changes or chooses to remain the same in the course of the overall throughline.
  • The Impact Character Throughline – The Impact Character is the one with the greatest impact on the main character. This might be the antagonist, but in something like a romance, it’s generally the lover.
  • The Relationship Throughline – The relationship between the main and impact characters has its own story arc which defines, deepens and decides the final outcome of the relationship between the MC and IC.

One those four throughlines are in, the story you craft will be rich and rewarding. (Entertaining is up to you, the writer, of course. How skilled are you?) But there are more possible. If you have subplots, each of those will have its own throughline.

Signposts

Oh, the signposts! I love me some signposts. For Dramatica theory, the signposts are analogous to the milestones I’m so used to. With Dramatica, there are four such:

  • Signpost 1: The Inciting Incident. This is the event which sends the character off on the journey toward the Story Goal.
  • Signpost 2: The Complication. The second signpost is either a major victory for the main character, or a major defeat for the character, depending on how you want the book to turn out.
  • Signpost 3: The Climax. Don’t confuse “climax” with “end” – it’s not the same thing. This is the moment of greatest tension in the story, the moment when things are at the height. This is the story’s most tightly-wound point. But it’s not the end of the story.
  • Signpost 4: The Resolution. This is where the story resolves; the Story Goal is either achieved or not.

If the Story Goal is achieved, your story is called a “comedy” – which was a drama in which the protagonist is successful in his quest and the story has a happy ending. If the main character fails in the Story Goal, then your story is called a “tragedy”, which is a drama with an UNhappy ending. Nice, eh?

You know what else? Each of the throughlines has its own signposts, all four of ‘em. And so does each scene of the signposts themselves. Yep, you can subdivide this down to four throughlines of four markers each – sixteen markers total – which can be sub-subdivided into four signposts, giving you a total of something like 48 scenes. That’s the book, for the most part. (This varies, but 48-64 scenes in a book is about right.)

And that’s what Dramatica has added to my way of plotting and outlining. And I have to concede, while I hated Dramatica theory in previous attempts to write using it, I love it now. Next time, I’ll tell you how the Hero’s Journey fits in to all this.

Aren’t you excited?

-JDT-

The Joy of Outlining

Oh, I love outlining. Heck, I’ve become so enamored of outlining, I may never write again. I’ll just outline everything and see if anyone will buy those.

I now have an amalgamation of three different outlining/structure methods I’m using to plot and outline stories.

I’ve recently been exposed to yet another story structure theory, and like the Aristotelian Three Act Story Structure, it’s not a new idea. It’s just a more precise and granular formula for similar ideas. It’s called Dramatica theory, and it’s been around since something like 1993. Or was it 1983? I can’t recall.

Anyway, it was originally developed as a scriptwriting tool. And boy, is it ever a tool. See, novelists can learn a lot from screenwriters. And unlike screenwriters, we have the luxury of working our concepts fully to develop them. But screenwriters can teach us a lot about delivering impact, which means more bang for the buck in our stories, because we can work those ideas up and really paint a picture.

But I digress. Dramatica theory offers the idea of something called a Story Goal, which is the goal the protagonist is after. What the protagonist needs to accomplish in the story. And along with the goal, you end up working out what the consequences are of that goal. What happens if the protagonist fails? If they succeed? What’s required for them to reach the goal? What are the forewarnings, the indicators of imminent failure, along the way? What are the prerequisites, the preconditions, the costs and the dividends along the way?

I won’t bore you with details of all those things, but suffice to say, you can build a pretty rich and entertaining experience just filling in those things. The Dramatica theory also provides signposts along the story, which are similar to the milestones of my beloved modified Three Act Structure. The theory is, as I’ve said, very full and very full of art-speak, but I’ve adapted some things from it because they help build a better story.

So, I’ve taken those things in and have married them with my beloved Story Structure map, which is now even better defined because I use a Hero’s Journey template to layout my story. If you’re not familiar with a Hero’s Journey story model, be sure to check out Star Wars, which most famously used the model as its structure. Then again, almost everything at Disney since 1991 has been done this way, too, so if you’ve seen any of their movies – and I’d be willing to be that includes John Carter too – you’ve seen the model in action.

What’s the difference between the Hero’s Journey and the Three Act Structure? Nothing. Only granularity, as I’ve said. There are four parts and five milestones to the TAS; there are twelve phases to the Hero’s Journey. Breaking a story down that far really helps you develop a good appreciation for the things required to develop a full story.

How well does it work? I’ll talk about that next time.

-JDT-

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