Five Books about Narrative Structure (And a Final Caveat About their Usage)

So last week, when my post about Hellboy II was doing the rounds of the social medias, my friend Brendan dropped past and said, more or less, “I wish I knew one percent of what you know about plotting.”

Now Brendan is one of those guys who is both intensely smart and incredibly nice, so when he says stuff like that, my response tends to be something along the lines of “Well, shit, Brendan, that’s easy. Pretty much all I know, I picked up from reading a handful of books. I can put together a reading list, if you want.”

Hence we have another blog post featuring a list of books, this time focused on the subject of plotting and writing, although it occurred to me that the most useful thing in terms of understanding the structure wasn’t reading the books.

No, what really forced me to get my head around it was tutoring a scriptwriting class taught by Marcus Waters at Griffith which was basically thirteen weeks of hammering the three-act cinematic structure into students heads, with examples. Having to explain concepts to a bunch of other people who have paid good money to learn tends to really focus your energy, and it’s one of the reasons I still do things like the Trashy Tuesday Writing School posts.

And applying it to your own work is a whole ‘nother thing entirely (Marcus was the first writer I ever met who was horrified that I didn’t plan things out before I wrote them; he came out of film and TV, so he assumed that every writer had the equivalent of a synopsis or treatment for their projects).

For those who are interested, I’ve included links to the Australian Writer’s Marketplace (for books we sell through work), Booktopia (for Australian purchases) and Amazon (for those in the US)

THE FIVE BOOKS

THE WRITERS JOURNEY, CHRISTOPHER VOGLER (Booktopia/Amazon)

I’ve heard this book described as “The Hero of a Thousand Faces for Dummies,” but realistically that’s all that writers really need. It looks at the hero cycle and archetypal characters from Joseph Campbell’s theories of myth and faerie tale, applies them to Hollywood movies, and basically keeps things focused on the stuff writers want to know instead of going into tangents about cultural theory.

Incidentally, you can pretty much read this book and map it’s structure, beat-for-beat, onto the first Star Wars movie (original series, before George Lucas messed with it), due to Lucas’ interest in Campbell’s work and representing the hero cycle in film.

SAVE THE CAT, BLAKE SNYDER (Booktopia/Amazon)

Put together by the writer and script doctor behind such classics as Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot, this book prompted a moderately interesting article about why every Hollywood movie looks the same these days over on Slate.com. It promises a formula, broken down over forty scenes, that will allow for a successful film script and breaks down the major beats you need to hit along the way.

This works pretty closely with the structure outlined in The Writer’s Journey, but there’s a lot of really subtle differences in the way it names and conceptualises certain scenes. And, like The Writer’s Journey, its a book that a lot of writers mock and decry, ’cause the formula it presents seems so rigid and unrelenting (and ’cause it’s responsible for many mediocre films). I’m sympathetic tot his – more than you’d assume, given the way I talk about structure – and I’d suggest sticking with me until we hit the caveat at the end of the post before giving in to the urge to roll your eyes.

THE WEEKEND NOVELIST, ROBERT RAY (Booktopia/Amazon)

There are two versions of this book. The first edition, with a garish yellow cover, is probably the stronger version to my mind, as the second edition has been partially re-written after Ray teamed with Bret Norris and produced any number of similar works. Not that the second edition is bad – we sell it through work, and it’s still one of the books I strongly recommend to people – but it’s approach is different and the focus on structure a little diluted.

That said, Ray’s Weekend plan takes the screenwriting approach to structure and breaks it down into week-by-week assignments that allow you to start putting together the key scenes in your book before sitting down and writing the filler. It’s also full of a bunch of little writer tricks which are useful to know.

I should note that I’ve never actually done the full, week-by-week exercise pattern suggested in either version of the book; I just read it in one hit, internalised the stuff I wanted to know, and keep both editions around as a resource in case I want them.

THE WEEKEND NOVELIST REWRITES THE NOVEL, ROBERT RAY (Booktopia/Amazon)

This isn’t as solid a book as the first edition of The Weekend Novelist, largely because it commits the sin of giving you advice and then constructing a magical narrative in which a fictional writer applies said advice and completely transforms his life (TM).  I tend to find this kind of shit irritating, which is a pity ’cause there’s all sorts of structural tricks here which are really useful. The advice on associating characters with objects, for example, is something I’ve applied in a couple of instances; ditto its method of breaking down novel length structures into main plot (which is actually a spine of a dozen or so scenes) and complications created by subplots (everything else).

Again, I’ve never actually taken the week-by-week process that the book advocates; I just come in, grab what I need out of it, and get out again.

ABOUT WRITING: SEVEN ESSAYS, FOUR LETTERS, & FIVE INTERVIEWS, SAMUEL R. DELANY (Booktopia/Amazon)

These five books are really presented in the order I’d read them. Writers Journey and Save the Cat introduce the basic concepts of structure in a prescriptive form; The Weekend Novelist books will flesh those concepts out with some minutia. Then you read Samuel R. Delany and he blows your mind. If the first four books give you a foundation, this is the book where you start to ask questions about how that foundation works and why.

I can quote you the most useful piece of advice, structurally speaking, in the entire book, but it’s actually two lines out of almost 800 pages of thoughts about the way fiction works, so take that into account.

As far as I can see, talent has two sides. The first side is the absorption of a series of complex models – models for the sentence, models for narrative scenes, and models for various larger literary structures.

Which brings us to the second side of talent. The second side is the ability to submit to those models. Many people find such submission frightening. At the order, even from inside them, “Do this – and let the model control the way you do it,” they become terrified – that they’ll fail, fall on their face, or look stupid.

Be aware that About Writing is a big, dense book. It’s not interested in giving advice to beginners – it’s interested in really sitting down and looking at the minutia of writing as Delany sees it, and given that Delany is a fiercely smart guy with a lot of strong opinions, there’s a pretty good chance your head will start hurting somewhere along the line.

Here’s a warning: The first time I read this book there was a little piece of throw-away advice that made so much sense to me that I couldn’t ignore it, but it was so antithetical to the way I wrote that it effectively gave me writers block for about two months.

THE FINAL CAVEAT

When I first learned how to cook, I followed recipes religiously. I cut precisely; I measured things out; I used every ingredient at exactly the right level, ’cause I figured that’s how recipes worked. Follow the instructions, get a satisfying product.

And truthfully, that was necessary for me. I left home knowing how to make exactly three meals: poached eggs; miniature pizzas on Sao crackers; and poorly boiled pasta with a bottle of pasta sauce poured over the top. I didn’t have the instincts that came from spending time in the kitchen, figuring out what flavours worked together or what might be missing from a sauce.

Over the years, though, I grew confident enough to deviate from recipes and experiment. I’d throw in new ingredients, judge quantities by instincts, and generally learned to trust my sense of smell and my taste buds over the black-and-white instructions printed in a book. I committed some recipes to memory and made them on instinct, trusting in the things that had become habit. I got to know my kitchen and the associated tools to really let go and play, which often resulted in better food than the times when I religiously followed the rules.

When it didn’t, I always had the recipe to fall back on and figure out where things went astray.

Learning cinematic structure and applying it to fiction works exactly the same way. When you’re starting out, having a rigidly defined structure is useful because it keeps you from making a mess. It may not result in a gourmet meal, but the step-by-step instructions keep you from getting lost or creating something inedible.

Eventually, though, the structure is something you just know. You focus on it when you’re trying to figure out why something isn’t going right, or if you’re trying to figure out whether you need another scene before your midpoint or things are ready to go.

And you spend a lot of time improvising, playing around with the basic formula, ’cause that’s what experienced writers do. Once the instincts are there, you only go back to the strict interpretations of the structure when you’ve got that feeling things have gone wrong, and you use it as the black box when figuring out why your stories crashed.

Structures aren’t a straight-jacket; they’re a tool. And they’re at their best when they’re treated as such.

Leave a Reply