Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Missing Third Act

In Stephen King’s 'From a Buick 8' our narrator Sandy concludes a near 400-page narrative with the observation; “It’d never make a play, would it? There’s no third act.” I had cause to remember this line and dig out my copy of 'Buick 8' to check it this week.
Here’s why I did:

work very much in progress

On two pages of my scuffed and scruffy note-book there, I reckon I’ve got the bulk of the plot of my next project. But if you cast your eye over to the far right, and the rather ameteurish image allows you discern it, you’ll see the disappointingly empty column marked ‘Act 3’. I’ve helpfully scattered myself a few bullet points as you can see, but that’s it. As Sandy noted himself, there’s no third act.
So; what to do? I could sit patiently and let this finale sneak up on me over the next few days - hell, even weeks if it takes that long. Hang fire on the writing, keep editing the other WIP, keep chipping away at the to-be-read YA stockpile safe in the knowledge that sometime, somewhere in the stillness the third act will offer itself up.
Or I could start writing. Take the scenes however I want to take them; see what emerges as the whole thing unspools and hope that forward movement, momentum, energy carry me through. Let’s face it there’s a year’s worth of work on those two pages even as they stand. I can dream up an ending while I write, yes?
It’s the first time I’ve tried to plot this way. James Scott Bell’s much-referenced (at least amongst my Twitter gang) 'Plot and Structure' was the source of this method of planning. I’ve got acts, I've got scenes, I've got narrative strands running in parallel... We’re in prison for the first two acts – there’s Inkbarrow the spy, whose story I explored in that previous post, 'Lost Property', then there's Lacey Eppington, that old archetype the chimney-sweep-girl-dressed-as-boy-seeking-to-avenge-the-incarceration-of-her-father character. There’s a gang of prison hoodlums called the Jupiter Hand, a mysterious oriental benefactor, and Kiteman the religious zealot.
It all builds nicely to... an empty third column. Perhaps I should return to 'Buick 8' for inspiration. Sandy utters those memorable lines on page 397. The book ends just 70 pages later, King having provided the third act in some considerable style. Act three, 73 pages. Now that’s a finale.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Helpless Witness Part One

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Deathtrap Dungeon. Forest of Doom, City of Thieves – if any of these off-the-peg fantasy titles are ringing a bell it’s because you remember Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series which ran from 1982 through 59 titles up until 1995. Each was, as the cover claimed; “a Fighting Fantasy gamebook in which YOU are the hero!” For those of you unaware of this phenomenon (get to the back of the class) – they were stories in which the reader made choices and determined the plot, along the lines of; “If you want to open the door, turn to page 250. If you want to run away, turn to page 135.” It was full interactivity in a book! A fully flexible and responsive narrative arc; the future of storytelling! I recall wondering as a witless 12 year old whether I’d ever go back to choiceless, linear narratives again.

Very soon however, I found I’d pretty much mined the seam. I began playing these games in a certain way as I’m sure did every other geeky child of the 70s and 80s did – no dice rolls to determine whether I survived a battle with a monster; always keep a surreptitious finger at your last page in case your choice was a bad one; and if you die, skip back to where your choices began to go wrong, and pick it up from there.

Interactivity, I quickly found, came with its own set of drawbacks.

And I was reminded of this discovery when recently reading an interview with Jason Vandenburghe, a games designer and programmer, in Edge magazine. It was a sobering discussion that has a lot to say about the nature of narrative, drama and character generally, I think.

Here’s the gist.

Vandenburghe was one of a team of programmers working on a game conversion of Chris Carter’s seminal TV show The X Files. The game clocked up a million in sales but was a flawed piece of work, and Vandenburghe’s assessment of its failings is interesting.

It was composed, essentially, of a series of pre-shot film clips featuring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and the rest of the cast: no expense spared. It worked like this; the player made choices and the game reassembled these filmed clips to tell the story. You essentially got to build your own episode of The X Files depending upon your responses to key events and your code-breaking and deductive skills.

Here’s the interesting thing.“Working on The X Files” says Vandenburghe, “proved to me that interactivity and drama directly oppose each other. That was a devastating realisation. Drama is all about being a helpless witness to events. The moment you give the viewer agency, the emotional spectrum shifts from tension to curiosity.”

And so it did with those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks all those years ago. Tension became curiosity. As a youngster, without really knowing why, I judged the experience to be ultimately lacking because I wasn’t a ‘helpless witness to events’. Perhaps then, the more helpless we make a reader feel, the more tension and drama we generate. I’ve a half-memory of Aristotle saying as much regarding Greek tragedy.

It’s not often a blog post starts with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and ends with Aristotle, my friends – and probably with good reason. 

Sunday, 3 April 2011

There Goes the Fear

Picture this: a bitter night in January, and outside the hospital, it’s lashing it down as usual. I was reading a ghost story. This particular tale was a novella written by an author who already had two weighty bestsellers to their name. It was one of those books whose design and layout felt good. I was spending a lot of time in waiting rooms, corridors, shabby canteens – so this volume was going to be my companion for a few days, and I was looking forward to it.
It was a first person narrative. I mention this because I often find myself pondering the extent to which a first person narrator should deliberately compromise the quality of the writing. I’ve argued before now, for example, that Robert Harris’ thriller The Ghost is deliberately sparse and workmanlike in its style precisely because the narrator is a ghost-writer. He’s no great novelist – even though Harris is. When he’s on form.
Anyway, the guy narrating this ghostly tale to me was no accomplished writer either, so that might go some way to explaining the prose on offer. But when he hears a ghostly voice call him through a snowstorm, he reports:
“My heart skipped a beat.”
One chapter later, his heart skips a beat again, when he assailed by more spooky events. The precise sentence is repeated. And in a chapter towards the end of the book –
“A shiver ran down my spine.”
I don’t consider myself to be pedantic or picky when it comes to matters of style. But surely resorting to cliché so speedily compromises the potential power of the tale.
Here’s a thought experiment we can try together. Visualise the last time you had that genuine lurch of terror you get when something threatens you. Imagine it. Now; where, biologically speaking, does fear breed? It’s not the spine, I can offer that much. Neither is it, in my experience, the back of the neck – and it won’t surprise you to learn that the hairs do indeed rise on the back of our narrator’s neck at one point.
The power of fear is that it’s something animalistic and instinctive inside us buried way down in the DNA; something tribal, pre-civilised, that fight/flight dynamic which has kept us alive. That’s what a ghost story needs to convey. By choosing cliché, we deny the real power of fear and we tame it; civilise it – wrap it in something comfortingly familiar.
So I missed out on my chilling winter’s ghost story this January – I picked a dud. Where to start in my search for a replacement? I want a writer who can really scare their protagonist – and in turn me, not someone for whom a shivery spine is a sufficient indicator of terror.
Suggestions gratefully recieved.