Running Review 6: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, Part 6
My first real foray into organized approaches to story writing took the form of Paul Gulino's Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, which I stumbled on at my local library here in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Apparently some former English teacher was really into stage and screen writing, because though books on writing short stories and novels are rare in the English stacks there, books on theatre and screen hang off them like shield-backed katydids off wheat in a dry summer. Anyway, it was clear that the screenwriting business had its act together when it came to structure. So I was not surprised, but I was delighted, when Larry Brooks mentioned in Story Engineering that he was going to apply screenwriting insights to the writing of novels.
As you might expect, nowhere does the screenwriting approach come in more handy than when talking structure. Gulino divides a screenplay into eight sequences. This is an approach I've applied very profitably (artistically, not financially--yet) to writing short stories and have been using as I plan my first novel. Brook's approach seems to mesh very well with Gulino's.
Where Gulino has, as I mentioned, eight sequences divided into three acts, Brooks gives us eight milestones divided into four boxes. (Mixed metaphors are a passion, apparently.) Each box is a separate part of the story with its own specific mission vis-à-vis the story and neighbouring boxes. The following description is heavily edited and reorganized, but the words and sentences are all Brooks's (pp. 143-144, Locations 2249-2259).
Each phase of the experience empowers the one that follows.
- Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful.
- Everything in the second box is there to make the first box (where you invest the reader in the hero) useful by placing what the reader is now rooting for in jeopardy. The first box--or part--has to be written properly, and according to specific criteria, because the viability and success of the second box depend on it.
- Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level within a dramatic new context, because now, when done properly, we are in full rooting mode for the hero, who is acting differently, more courageously and brilliantly, than in box number two.
- Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension, and satisfaction.
The hero has a different experience, and acts differently, in each of the four boxes. It's called character arc, and it is story structure that helps you make sense of it.
That's good to know, but it's a bit vague. Fortunately, as always, Brooks antes up to the hype.
- Part 1, he says, is the Setup, in which the hero is an Orphan, future unknown, surviving the moment, without a mission, but carrying our empathy (even if we don't like him).
- Part 2 is the Response, in which the hero becomes a Wanderer, reacting somewhat uninformedly to the antagonistic force.
- Part 3 is the Attack, in which the hero becomes a Warrior, facing the antagonistic force aggressively and with better information, though still not fully informed or equipped for victory.
- Part 4 is the Resolution, in which the hero becomes a Martyr prepared to sacrifice himself to defeat the forces arrayed against him.
This is less vague, but more a wishlist than the blueprint Brooks promises when he talks about a story's beautiful architecture depending on its serviceable subset, structure. To really know what we're doing, we need the milestones, which he introduces in two stages, beginning with the Big Three:
- First Plot Point (life-changing influence of antagonistic force; transition from Orphan to Wanderer)
- Midpoint (shifting of context; transition from Wanderer to Warrior)
- Second Plot Point (final injection of new information; transition from Warrior to Martyr)
The First Plot Point, at the end of Part One, leads into Part Two. The Midpoint, at the end of Part Two, leads into Part Three. The Second Plot Point, at the end of Part Three, leads into Part Four. All very nicely straightforward and quite a bit more structural already, but still not enough. The full list of milestones (or tent poles, as Brooks also calls them) is as follows:
- Opening scene or sequence of scenes
- Hooking moment
- Setup inciting incident
- First Plot Point
- First Pinch Point
- Second Pinch Point
- Second Plot Point
These do not quite correspond to Gulino's eight sequences, but they fit in nicely. I'll compare, contrast and combine the two approaches another time. For now, I want to call special attention to the Pinch Points--scenes or sequences (sets of scenes) which focus on the antagonistic force or forces.
At the First Pinch Point...the reader needs to see the antagonistic force for herself. Not just hear it discussed or referenced, not just remembered … she needs to experience it through the eyes of the hero. Or at least the consequences of the opposing force as they affect the hero. Or, in some stories, an exposure to the antagonist is for the reader’s perception only, completely separated from the hero’s perception. While the reader sees what the hero is facing, he continues to respond to it, largely unaware.
(p. 201, Location 3176)
A reminder of the story’s main antagonistic force, called a pinch point, takes place squarely in the middle of Part 3. This is yet another demonstration of the nature, power, and very essence of the antagonistic force (this is actually the Second Pinch Point). And it’s more frightening and unwavering than ever. And like the hero, the antagonist has evolved, too. He’s learned how the hero is fighting back, he’s overcome his own weaknesses in pursuit of his own quest. This is how tension and pacing increases, because everybody’s picking up his game by this point.
(p. 198, Location 3125)
Gulino's paradigm starts off with what I call the Initial State (and he calls the protagonist's flow-of-life) and ends with what I call the Final State (a new flow-of-life). Brooks' Part 1 (Box 1) seems to include the same business of showing the protagonist before the action begins. Oddly, his description of Part 4 is not explicit about the ending. It doesn't even refer to a release of tension. I'm not too fussed about the discrepancy. My version of Gulino's sequence approach seems to be able to accommodate my version of Brooks' box-and-milestone approach. Between the two, I should have a very workable blueprint on which to build the structure on which to lay my architecture.
To be continued