Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jonah and plot structure

I got to read the book of Jonah at this year's Holy Saturday services. It's a short book, maybe a five-minute read, even aloud, and it offers some some great insights into story structure.

The book is in four chapters. There's little or no ordinary world, and the story opens with the call to adventure.

God tells Jonah to go into Ninevah, "that great city," and prophesy. Jonah heads for Tarshish (Spain -- the end of the world), because he doesn't want to do it. Now there is a refusal of the call. In fact, in this story, he enters his special world -- the ocean voyage -- trying to avoid the adventure that's set out before him, and Act IIA (chapter 1 of the book) is what happens when he does that. (Note to self: if I ever want to have the character spend the first part of Act II trying to escape from the adventure, it can work.)

Well, that attempt to escape doesn't work, and the sailors end up having to toss Jonah overboard to save their own lives. In chapter 2, he gets swallowed by the "big fish" and has his "belly of the whale" experience.

In hero's journey and screenplay story structure, the "belly of the whale" is not the climax, but rather the midpoint. It's a place in the story where there's a change in context (Larry Brooks) -- a plot twist, the arrival of a new bit of information for the characters or the audience. In the belly of the whale, Jonah accepts his mission of going to Ninevah.

In hero's journey language (see Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey), it's the Ordeal , the place where the character meets death. It might have a near-death experience, a symbolic death, a death of dreams or of ambitions; the audience may be led to believe the character died. This point in Jonah's story has given the name for this point in the story.

Michael Hauge (Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds) relates the midpoint to the place where the protagonist loses his "identity," a false self or an incomplete version of the self. In Shrek, for example, Shrek's identity is the bravado that protects his inner vulnerability. At the midpoint Jonah accepts the fact that he is a prophet with a mission and begins actiing like it.

In chapter 3, Jonah goes to Ninevah, "that great city" and persuades the people to repent. The king calls on everybody to fast, including the the cattle, and repent from their wicked ways. Jonah's mission is successful, and he prevents them from being destroyed.

Jonah spends chapter 4 whining because God didn't actually destroy Ninevah (injured pride is the issue, it seems). He sits outside the city and asks to die. God makes a plant grow up to shelter him from the heat, and then the next morning the plant dies. Jonah complains again that he'd rather die than live under such conditions, and God replies that here's Jonah complaining about the death of a plant but not caring about the 120,000 people of Ninevah and (in a concluding line that stands out as both funny and profound) "also much cattle."

So chapter 3 contains the climax (though without the details that would make for suspenseful reading, in a modern sense), and chapter 4 is his return with the boon. Also in chapter 4, Jonah drifts back into his identity one last time, and God corrects him. The story doesn't say anything about his return to his home or what he brought with him, but the inclusion of this story in the Scriptures is itself proof of the boon -- which apparently includes the information that God loves all peoples and "even much cattle."

Now, the story of Jonah comes up literally constantly in the hymnography of the Church. Jonah's song in the belly of the whale is called for at every day's matins, and the hymnography refers incessantly to Jonah's "belly of the whale" experience as a parallel for Christ's death and resurrection.

Rabbit trail: If you want to know where Flannery O'Connor (The Complete Stories and Flannery O'Connor : Collected Works, among others) gets off having such bizarre and unorthodox characters as Christ figures, just take a look at Jonah. But back to the point.

Now, I don't want to go into, right here, how Christ's life is the prototype for the hero's journey, so let me just assert it and go on. But the Scriptures tell a number of hero's journeys. One is the story of mankind; another is the story of Christ himself. But here's the thing. For Christ's story (and maybe for man's story, too, but I'm not finished thinking about this), the death and resurrection are the midpoint, not the climax. The thing is, we don't know the climax. Beyond the indications from Scripture, we have only guesses and speculations about the harrowing of sheol, about breaking down the bars of death, about what Christ meant when he told the myrrhbearer not to touch him because he had not ascended to his father, about what the Ascension actually entailed.

But this isn't about the climax; it's about Jonah and the belly of the whale, and I'm done talking about that.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Word count, April 23

Word count Tuesday, zero, zip, zingo. Bad me!

Word count Wednesday, 1,000, bringing the book total to 14, 400. The added words were all in the same scene where the story went its own way Monday, and now I've "discovered" that my characters are distant relatives of characters in another book I'm working on. This is either a fictionally appropriate and literarily fun thing that will enrich both stories or a complete, dead-end rabbit trail. I think it may be the former; I feel it's likely the latter. I'll fix it later? Or I'll dump it all in disgust?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Words of wisdom

It's 6:45ish here in the land of sun and snow, where you have to ask whether that white stuff on the ground is the current form of spring shower (I blame global warming) or a drift of cherry blossoms -- anyway this would make great weather for my book, but it's fall, and Oregon fall is nothing like this -- but I'm meandering again --

Anyway, to begin again, it's 6:50ish Pacific Daylight Time, and I haven't started my daily word count (it's next up, really), but I have a word of wisdom from Patrick McLean of The Seanachai podcast. He, too, is working on a novel, and he observes that you have two good hours per day; the rest is paperwork.

He's a sparse podcaster -- having another life, which he details in the linked podcast. And if you like, I recommend his "Collections." And A Round on Werner is a story I haven't been able to delete from iTunes, because I listen to it every now and then for a slightly different take on the world.

I'll update with a word count later.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Word count, April 21

Word count as of Monday, April 21 -- 1,000 for the day, and 13,400 for the project. I took Sunday off, and I think a day off once a week will do me good.

It was a hard thousand words, and I almost quit for the day after 500. The story took off on its own, and my protagonist took an action I expected to happen after the halfway mark. I think I'll give it its head for the time being and see where it goes. I can always add more to Act IIA or shuffle the scenes around, if this gut-level impulse turns out to be a rabbit trail.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Word count, April 19

Word count as of Saturday, April 19 -- 1,125 for the day, and 12,300 for the project. I haven't made up my recent slackery, but progress continues.

A police interview gave an opportunity for backstory, but I haven't made nearly the deft use of it that Robert Penn Warren did. Still, as I keep reminding myself, I am exploring the territory; I am exploring the territory.

Weather symbolism entered, a placeholder, I hope, for something better, which I'll fix later.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Word count, April 18

Word count as of Friday, April 18 -- only 650 for the day, but past 11,000 for the project.

Very bad writing, which is still better than no writing. My protagonist crossed the threshold into the special world.

I need to know a lot more about murder prosecution. I've got to do some field trips to the Oregon Supreme Court to see murder trial transcripts and I need to pay a visit to the Office Indigent Defense, who are the state's public defenders.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Word count, progress update

At Christopher Vogler's workshop last weekend, he told about how he strengthened his resolve to finish his book, The Writer's Journey. It helped him, he said, to make the announcement outward -- to tell family and friends that he had decided to complete it -- and to make the announcement inward.

He compared the latter to shouting down a deep well in the center of himself, "I'm going to finish this book." He said that there are segments of the well that are out of alignment -- they are the places where we know why we don't want to, where we see what outcomes we fear, and so we don't necessarily get the message all along the well without some effort.

I've been working on my present project since last September. I've been futzing with the plot, mapping the second act so that I can get through the swamp, and I think I've reached a point where I can start the process of making a road through the journey.

I had written most of the first act -- the Ordinary World -- when I realized I needed to do some reworking, and I haven't been a complete slacker, only a partial one, and arguably going more or less along with it, though I might go a few days or even a week at times before getting back to it.

But I've decided to dive into that well. I've got 10K words written (counting what I've done this week), and if I write a thousand words a day, I should have a solid first draft in less than 90 days. A thousand words a day of first draft takes only about an hour or an hour and a half, because it require me to put my editor brain to sleep in the backseat and just write, write, write.

So I want to post progress reports on my mainstream women's fiction, to help me say accountable to myself and the world.

Monday -- 1,056 words
Tuesday -- 1,034 words
Wednesday -- 968 words
Thursday -- 150 words (I had work and stuff and didn't get to write until I was too tired to write)
Friday -- now has a 2,000-word goal.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A weekend with Christopher Vogler

I've been a fan of Christopher Vogler since, I don't know, the '90s, maybe. The second edition of his classic storytelling handbook, The Writers Journey, has been on my bookshelf for a long time. I had been thinking it was probably time to update, but wasn't sure.

I picked up a copy last week so that I could get it signed when he spoke to the Oregon Writers Colony annual spring conference at the Sylvia Beach Hotel and the Newport Performing Arts Center in Newport last weekend.

It's mostly the same handbook that it's been -- his streamlined approach to Joseph Campbell's popularizing of The Hero's Journey for storytellers of all kinds. He's been a screenplay consultant for Disney Studios and all around Hollywood, but the principles work for novels also.

He's also added sections on catharsis, polarity, how the body signals whether the story is working, and the importance of trusting the path.

I haven't read those sections yet, however, because I got to page xvii of the introduction and ran across a concept that has revolutionized my approach to my own novel in progress. Here's what it is. He describes the story as existing in four movements, and each movement has its own motivation and goal. For example, in Act I, the hero wants to escape his boring life. He crosses the threshold at the beginning of Act II, and now in Act IIA, he wants to become familiar with the new world. In Act IIB, he is trying to escape from the special world, and in Act III, he brings back the knowledge or the gift that he acquired there.

As I lay in bed thinking about how that applied to various plots, I realized I was describing Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

More to the point of my story, it also worked with All the King's Men, which I've been comparing everything to over the past few weeks. Jack Burden's motivation -- and very profoundly inner motivations at that -- go through a metamorphosis that fits that description very well. In fact, divided along that pattern, it works out to a sort of thesis-antithesis-synthesis -- which was exactly the insight I needed to get through the Second Act Swamp.

It's hard to get through to the new appendices in a book when one sentence in the introduction has you mulling the concept for a week. It's like getting a bag of all-day suckers for Halloween.

Anyway Christopher Vogler is an affable, supportive teacher, and he's talking about a return engagement in the summer of 2009.

And for another look at story structure -- same concepts, different terminology -- check out this workshop by Vogler's fellow Hollywood screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge, July 12-13. See you there.

Friday, April 04, 2008

What does my character want?

I don't think I'm the only novice novelist who has trouble coming up with where the character is at the beginning of the story and what she wants before she has the piano dropped on her head at the end of the first act.

My characters have been criticized (with justification) as being too passive. Readers have said that they had a hard time identifying with them -- a classic sign that their motivation is not clear enough.

I was mulling over this little problem today in light of my story in progress, currently called Murderer's Mom. I have a good set of problems for my protagonist (the "murderer's mom" of the title), but I'm having a hard time getting the events to fall into their structural inevitability. If my plot were a box, it would rattle.

And then I thought, how do you know what anybody really wants? Isn't it by what they do? The woman who works in the garden all the time wants, perhaps, to see her botannical design come to fruition, or else she wants the experience of the sun and damp and the smell of dirt on her hands. A man who wants to be a writer, writes. A woman who wants to live in an orderly dwelling might keep her house spotlessly clean, or perhaps spend all her time at the office, where she has control over her environment and the tasks that she needs to do. There are more possible manifestations than goals, but everybody wants something, and everybody's efforts to get it reveal what it is.

But more than that, and here's what gave me some new insights into my character's character, everybody who wants something, who makes choices to bring that something about, also shows it by not doing something else. The woman who works in her garden but doesn't keep her house very clean is saying something about what is and is not important to her. The man who has all the time in the world for his son but none for his daughter is saying something about his relationship with his son and with himself, as well as with his daughter. The man who turns down a well-paying job in order to become a cab driver is saying something about what he considers important and what he doesn't.

So here's my resolution. Every character worksheet (I have a dozen of them, and they are continually morphing) should have a line on it about what the character doesn't do and why.