Thursday, February 04, 2010

Stardust and Inciting Incidents

Just to warn those who read this blog purely for Scrivener-related news: this post is only tangential to Scrivener, as it’s about my own fumbling attempts at writing (for which I use Scrivener, obviously), so you can safely tune out if you don’t like reading self-indulgent prattle.

One of the reasons I created Scrivener in the first place was that, over the years, in the process of attempting to write a novel I had written a lot of scenes, snippets and ideas but had no idea how they all fitted together into anything like a coherent whole. Rather naively, I believed that if I kept plugging away at writing down those ideas and scenes, one day something would magically “click”, and in my Eureka moment I would suddenly just know how everything I had written so far fitted together into a tightly interwoven whole that would win me the Booker Prize for sure.

As I say - naive; as though by working on the parts the whole would somehow assemble itself without much conscious effort on my part. Nowadays I understand that this would be the same as attempting to come up with a writing program by building a corkboard, an outliner, a word processor, and so on, and then hoping that how they all fitted together would just come to me while I was pondering the curious blue hair of the old lady sitting in front of me on the bus. Suffice to say, that’s not how I designed Scrivener. Sure, there were some small things I knew I wanted in Scrivener beforehand, but it took a lot of design to figure out how it all fitted together. (The defunct Scrivener Gold, an early beta of Scrivener, didn’t fit together. It had four separate interfaces for doing different things. In fact, I wrote a whole series of blog posts about my quest to work out a decent integrated interface. And Scrivener 2.0 integrates some of the features that don’t work so well together in 1.0. In other words, that design has taken years and is still ongoing.)

When, after a decade of halted attempts at finding what I was really writing about, that hoped-for Eureka moment still hadn’t come, I started thinking that maybe I would be able to figure out how everything fitted together if only I could get a good overview of everything. I wanted an easy way of assigning a synopsis to each of my ideas and scenes; I wanted to be able to move these synopses around as a way of moving the underlying text around; I wanted to be able to see the whole, the parts, or just an overview, and to work with each. I’ve covered the conception of Scrivener in depth before, but what I’m saying here is that I thought that by getting an overview of the whole I would start seeing how everything fitted together. Well, Scrivener has been around several years now, and although I have certainly got much further along in my projects since having Scrivener, I still end up stumbling at this point: where is it going? How does this fit together?

You’re probably ahead of me: just because you wrote it and used the same character names doesn’t mean it’s part of the same story. I wanted to pour everything into one story - the only problem being that I had no story.

Part of the problem is that over the years I’ve grown attached to some pieces of writing I’ve done that really don’t belong anywhere. Now, I’ve been very lucky in that developing Scrivener has brought me into contact with professional, published authors who have been very generous with their time and advice. (Yes, my dialogue with some users goes something like this: Author: “Hey, thanks for Scrivener. Just started using it for my new book and it’s really useful.” Me: “Great! Wait, you’re a published author?” Author: “Er, yes…” Me: “Tell me everything you know about the masonic secrets of writing a novel! Help!”) I used to be terrified of published authors, as in terms of what they have achieved they represent everything I hope for, so I’ve always put the very notion of a published author up on a pedestal, but it turns out that they’re human beings who use e-mail and are often really, really nice. Who’d have thunk it? And pretty much all of the authors whose time I have stolen have told me this in one form or another: KILL YOUR DARLINGS. It’s old advice, they say, and it’s really difficult to follow, but it’s good, sage advice. It’s taken me a long time to accept it, but they are of course right. I may be attached to all those passages of purple prose I wrote in my twenties, but really, if I’m just trying to find a place to slot them in so I can use them somewhere, I’m not really thinking about what this particular story needs, am I? And I’m certainly not writing. If anything, I’m avoiding it by trying to reuse old stuff. For instance, there’s one passage I wrote years and years ago about a girl being born in the hour when the clocks go back, when BST becomes GMT again. I was really proud of that passage. It had all these phrases that at the time I considered dead clever, such as “edited from the spool of time by the scissoring of clock hands” and others you’d probably laugh at. Even after the birth of my first child six years ago I clung to it, despite now knowing that its description - and my younger self’s understanding - of birth was woefully inaccurate. From that passage you would have thought that birth was something like a scene from Alien. Oh, and for years I was desperate to find a use for this sentence: “The precipitation precipitated his capitulation.” Oscar Wilde eat your heart out. Hell, I might still use that one, actually. Anyway, my point is simply this: I was going at everything backwards; “arse-about-tit” in the proverbial phrase. I was trying to construct a story out of parts that had been written randomly with no story in mind. Imagine a painter folding up the canvas into tiny squares, painting something that appealed to him or her on each segment, and then unfolding it and trying to figure out what the hell sort of picture could be painted around the edges to make sense of a ten-foot pillbox, a bonsai tree, Medusa in a tutu and a purple duck. Same thing.

Like many would-be-writers-but-probably-won’t-bes, one of my fondest pastimes is procrastination. Indeed, some have pointed out that I have taken procrastination to whole new levels - I decided that before I could write The Novel, I had to spend several years writing The Software in which to write it. (For the record, this blog post is itself procrastination.) And one of my favourite forms of procrastination is reading books about writing. (As any wannabe-writer knows, this is priceless - you can trick yourself into believing that you are furthering your writing efforts even though you really know that you are doing exactly the opposite because you are reading a book on writing instead of, y’know, actually writing.) For the longest time I rejected all ideas about structure, narratology, acts, and so on; and I was - and still am, if to a slightly lesser extent - sceptical of any approach to writing that tries to give you a formula. Still, in my desperation I’ve recently been a little more open to taking on board ideas about approaching structure, and I have found some things particularly useful. For instance, I found Jeffrey Alan Schechter’s assertion that in most stories the protagonist goes through four stages of character development (orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr) particularly insightful. It sounds like one of those rigid paint-by-numbers formulas until you realise that all he is really saying is that a protagonist changes over the course of a story - he or she starts off in need of something and ends up having to make sacrifices to get it after all the easy options have been exhausted. The four archetypes are just a way of hammering into your head that you need to think about how your character is changing over the course of the story, and you can see them operating in the character arc of almost any movie or story. (Jeffrey, incidentally, is the guy behind Contour from Mariner Software, and there is a lot of other great stuff in his Contour theory.) But I’ve also been more open to the things you get told just must be in a story, whereas before my fingers were placed firmly in my ears as I sang, “La, la, formula-la-la-la-la, not listening.” And the one thing that everyone agrees on is this:

There must be an inciting incident.

Well, duh. That’s just a posh way of saying, “Something has to happen,” right? Except, I think I only recently realised how little importance I had attached to perhaps the most crucial part of working out my story. In his superb On Writing, Stephen King says that most of his books start with a “What if?” situation and then he writes the book to find out what happens as a natural outcome of that initial premise. And despite having read that, and despite all those authors I’ve hounded having told me that they usually start from something similar - whether they plan every little detail before they write or just make it up as they go along - I seem to have stumbled through years of failed writing attempts thinking, “I’ll worry about that later; if I just start with these characters and this location, something’s bound to happen…” Unsurprisingly, the things that tended to happen were all a bit jumbled and didn’t go anywhere. Then, I recently came across this site:

http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com

It’s the blog of American suspense and horror writer Alexandra Sokoloff. There’s absolutely loads on there - she used to be a Hollywood screenwriter, so a lot of it is about using screenwriting methods in writing fiction. One thing I found really useful, though, was her suggestion - which she repeats again and again - that if you’re stuck with a story, watch several of your favourite films and read several of your favourite books in your genre, breaking them down and making lists of very specific things. For instance, you might break down the structure of each one - she suggests using the eight-sequence structure such as the one described by Chris Soth and some other Hollywood screenwriters. Or you might just be looking at how the romance subplot is handled, or how plants and payoffs work - whatever it is you’re stuck on. Her main point, I think, is that if you’re going to use any sort of formula, it should be one that you work out on your own, based on your own favourite stories - because presumably they are what made you want to write stories in the first place. Now, these suggestions appealed no end to the procrastinator in me - not only do I get to read books (and websites) about writing and tell myself I’m working, but now I get to watch movies too (notebook in hand, of course). Brilliant! So I tried her suggestion.

At this point, you may be reading this and thinking, “Wow, you really are the most useless wannabe novelist I have ever come across. Just get on with it already!” I wholeheartedly agree. Although I would ask you, why are you reading this and not writing yourself, huh? Huh? So if you’re not thinking that and are instead one of the pitiful creatures like me who will try anything to help you get past three chapters before giving up in despair, you may find this useful. (Did I mention that you get to watch movies and pretend you’re working? Genius.) I got a lot out of it. For a start, I found that identifying the structure in the films and books I liked best made me less afraid of structure as a concept. A couple of authors have told me that although they would hate to outline their whole novel, they use sort of “stepping stones” - that is, they have something like ten or twenty sentences or questions written down that guide them along as they write the story; rough markers that give them something to head for. Actually looking for these markers (set-pieces, I suppose) in stories I liked, and thinking about how the rest of the story built towards them, was something I found really helpful. Everyone knows that if you want to write you have to be a reader first, but normally when I read I’m not thinking about how it all fits together - I’m just getting sucked into the story. Stepping back and looking at certain specific elements as I read or watched (rather from memory) was an eye-opener. Which brings me back to…

The inciting incident.

Everything I watched and read that I loved had a really well-crafted inciting incident. I say “crafted” because I doubt the writers were as lazy as I hoped to be and had the inciting incident fall wholesale out of the sky into their laps. Oh, I bet some of the inciting incidents came to them out of nowhere, but then they surely must have crafted them to do a lot more work. The one that struck me as absolutely brilliant in its elegance, though, was the one in Stardust (film or book). I’m not normally a fan of fantasy or anything even vaguely romantic, but hey, the film has Claire Danes and Robert de Niro in it… Actually, I love the film. Don’t get me wrong, Neil Gaiman’s book is great, but Stardust the film gives me the same great warm-inside feeling as The Princess Bride. Hmm, I probably shouldn’t be admitting to any of this in public. Whether you like the film or not, though, its inciting incident is perfect in that one single event kicks off the main plot and every subplot, putting into place all of the conflicts that will drive the narrative through to its conclusion. Namely:

The dying King of Stormhold, having several sons remaining alive, which is against tradition (they are supposed to kill each other), throws the “power of Stormhold” - a gem on a necklace - out of the window and declares that the first male heir to retrieve it will take his place as king. This being a fairy tale, the stone soars into space and hits a star, which plummets down to earth. Three witches witness the star’s fall, as does Tristan, the protagonist, who in trying to woo the uppity Victoria declares that he will retrieve it for her in return for a kiss. (If you haven’t seen the film, this all sounds rather sickly, I know - trust me, it’s a fun story. I mean, it includes Robert de Niro doing the can-can in a dress.) The star hits the ground over in the faery kingdom of Stormhold - and it’s a beautiful girl; turns out stars in this world can take the form of people. So, with that one action - the throwing of the stone - everything is set up: Tristan is going to travel into the faery kingdom to fetch the star, and we know he is going to find a girl, not a lump of stone - and we already hope that he ditches Victoria for the star; the King’s sons are now out on a quest to find the stone, which the star possesses, and we have seen that one of them in particular is murderous; and we soon learn that the three witches want to cut out the star’s heart because eating it will restore their youth.

You may not like the story itself, but I hope you’ll at least agree that this is a great inciting incident in the way it sets everything in motion. It made me realise how little I’d thought about the inciting incident in my own novel; in fact, it made me realise that I had several small, not-particularly-exciting inciting incidents that were only vaguely connected and that this was one of the big reasons why the various subplots I had been working on didn’t seem to gel very well. So, in light of this, I’ve gone back to the drawing board and am now looking at my various plot threads and working backwards to see how they could all have been fired off by the same inciting incident rather than different ones. I printed off the synopses of a lot of my ideas (yes, Scrivener 2.0 supports the printing of synopsis index cards) and am going through them with a fresh eye. It’s made me realise that I have too many What Ifs for one story, and by thinking more carefully about the inciting incident I’m actually starting to see which plot threads and characters just don’t belong in this particular story, no matter how much I like them. It’s hard, but I’m determined to kill my darlings.

And it’s still a bit arse-about-tit, I admit, but at least it feels like progress.


P.S. While I’m at it, I’ll just put in a plug for a couple of Scrivener-using authors who regularly touch on various aspects of writing on their own blogs:

http://www.davidhewson.com - David’s book The Blue Demon is out tomorrow and is the first book he wrote from start to finish in Scrivener (even though his books adorn shelves all over the world, it still took this one two years to get from final draft to publication, apparently).

http://www.neil-cross.com/wordcount - Neil’s past couple of books have been written in Scrivener and he is now documenting the process of writing his next on his “wordcount” blog.

(I’m sure both would be appalled to read the above and realise that, despite the great advice they have handed out to others and to me personally over the past couple of years, I am still a fumbling simpleton when it comes to my own writing.)

4 Comments:

Blogger Jeffrey Alan Schechter said...

Thanks for the kind mention of Contour. I'm glad you're finding the archetypes idea useful. You'll be happy to know that I'm using Scrivener to write my book "My Story Can Beat Up Your Story!" But then again, seeing how structure plays such a big role in the book, perhaps you'll be mortified.

2:02 am  
Blogger kayembi said...

Hi Jeffrey,

Wow, that's brilliant you're using Scrivener - I had no idea! I'm more than pleased because that's a book I intend to buy (I read about it on your blog). And as for being mortified - not at all, my apologies if it came across that way. I really like the Contour theory, mainly because it isn't rigid paint-by-numbers stuff and instead just forces you to think about yes/no tension points and explicitly says that the guide with more specific plot points is just that - a guide whose components may or may not appear and which may not necessarily come in the order you give. But it's the orphan/wanderer/warrior/martyr insight that I *really* love. I was sceptical until I realised that it applied to almost everything I was watching, including indie movies such as Moon, District 9 and even period pieces such as Room with a View. I'm finding the premise formula, three areas of conflict and four questions really useful ways of breaking down just what my story is about, too.

Oh, and your contour-at-the-movies blog is fantastic, by the way.

Thanks again,
Keith

10:21 am  
Blogger Fernand Pajot said...

I feel the same in many domains, you have to say to yourself:
Just do it!

until you actually do it!

6:29 pm  
Blogger Professor Tom said...

You'll be happy to know that you procrastinated writing your novel by writing 3053 words about writing instead. Even so, I enjoyed the bit about the orphan/wander/warrior/martyr insight. That's exactly the structure of The Foundling by Linda K. Hayner.

Thanks for the read!

4:04 am  

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