Antenna (antennapedia) wrote,

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Confrontation and complication

Today Mr Pedia and I have been talking about plot. And conflict. And complication. A digressive discussion follows.

"The only good plot is a delayed fuck," said Louis B. Mayer, allegedly.

"That's not a plot. That's a hook," says Mr Pedia. Aka, a way of building tension in the reader / viewer.

Comedies end with a marriage aka the delayed fuck. Tragedies end with a eulogy, but can have the boinklaging in the middle.

Another famous plot is the Joseph W. Campbell "hero's journey", which is the reason why Dumbledore's death was a surprise to exactly no one. And Obi-Wan Kenobi's death. And... oh, never mind.

Heinlein, in an article in "Of worlds beyond" (discussed in Alexei Panshin's Heinlein in dimension, which is in our ridiculous home library), said he thinks there are only three plots: boy meets girl, the little tailor, and the man who learned better. "The little tailor" plot is "man succeeds or fails spectacularly". Then after discussing craft some more, he says that work habits are the single most important factor in a writer's success. And I'm going to agree with that.

I found Panshin's discussion of Heinlein's plot problems interesting and helpful with my own current plot problems. And I do hate Heinlein in general. One wonders what Panshin actually makes of him; check his discussion of Heinlein's descriptive style in a section with examples from Vance, Bradbury, and Sturgeon. Subtly insulting, I think. I adore Jack Vance so. "The moon moth" is ... imagine me waving my hands in helpless admiration. Sturgeon, "Microcosmic god", also so good. Bradbury, eh, a bit overheated and pulpy and vague and proto-New Wave-y, but ya know, can't argue with "The Veldt".

But I digress.

Plotting problems.

I think I'm doing okay at the basic descriptive writing shit. Given the task of writing a specific scene, I can get the characters in there, get the reader sucked into the fictional dream, put the characters in motion, and keep the reader's attention where I want it. Not that I'm perfect, just that I'm adequate at that task for my current needs. I'm struggling more with other stuff.

Which plot? I think I've got "the man who learned better" sort of in motion. Dunno if it fits. Sincerely believe it doesn't have to fit. Sincerely believe that Mayer was onto something. Viz: payoffs are more rewarding if they're difficult to achieve. The longer the audience spends vibrating in anxiety about whether the hero is ever gonna get to nail the heroine, the happier they are when it finally happens. Please refer to the moment in It happened one night when the blanket falls. When does that happen? Exactly.

This holds true in the small as well as for the major character goals.

Some day I will actually internalize this lesson and it will be reflected in my actual writing. Mr Pedia says, perceptively, that everything a reader feels when reading, a writer feels when writing. Only about ten times as much. And it's prolonged, because writing takes a while. So torturing one's characters, or holding off those rewards, is agonizing for the writer. And thus, Mr Pedia says kindly, my troubles are explained.

I did not throw anything at him.

Mr Pedia, a fan of basic craft, suggests that I give myself a dose of Hollywood three-act structure, with standard conflict and complication techniques.

You are no doubt already deeply familiar with this structure. I describe it anyway because really I'm talking to myself because you stopped reading long ago, and at this point I'm writing just to get my brain straightened out. Um, right. Where was I?

act 1: setup
status quo depicted
problem introduced
hero attempts solution to problem
action rising to confrontation/mini-mini-climax
problem complicated by solution, or turns out to be different from hero's original understanding
stakes raised
act 2: confrontation & complication
hero attempts to solve problem as newly understood
action rising to confrontation/mini-climax
confrontation further complicates the problem
stakes raised
hero is as far from desired endpoint as possible
act 3: resolution
true nature of problem/enemy understood
character change for hero
action rising urgently to climax and final resolution

If you don't like my idiosyncratic summary, try this one. It's even more idiosyncratic, and it has Lego sharks. Or try the wikipedia summary of Syd Field's 3-act structure, which has no sharks of any kind.

The Hollywood three-act structure is easy to mock. My long-suffering friends are used to me announcing during a movie "and it's the end of act two!" And it makes me howl every time in the South Park movie when you see the Mole's watch reading "Third Act: the ticking clock". I've always pointed to "Back to the future" as an example of the pure, perfect, parsimonious Hollywood script. It also has a literal ticking clock in its third act. A giant one. Heh. But mock it all you like; it works darn well as a structure for a typical 90-minute movie. Not the only possible structure, obviously. Let us learn from it what we can before we fling it back to the screenwriters who are making way more money from their writing than we are. Cough.

The part Mr Pedia wants me to pay attention to is the complication & stakes raising bit. The hero must get it wrong: solve the wrong problem, or encounter a unforeseen consequence of his/her chosen solution, or otherwise make things worse. This is technique on a level that I can apply somewhat cold-bloodedly.

So I have been thinking about the N-LBS in those terms today. Though actually I think the experimentation will find its first expression in the shorter bodyart!Buffy story. Shorter length means it's less stuff to manage, less overwhelming. I have been starting to feel out of control of the novel-length thing just because of sheer size.

Work. This writing thing is a lot of work. Remind me again why I volunteered to do it. Oh, right, it's because of my giant ego.
Tags: analysis, writing

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