I found a few of my “Swift as Mercury” columns that used to run over at Scryptic Studios, this nifty website for comic book writers. Drew Melbourne invited me to do a column, and then the site folded. Go ahead and blame me for it if you want.
SWIFT AS MERCURY
#4 – Prufrock Had That, at Least
File under: Visions & Revisions
Sung each to each in the mermaid voices of:
Mighty Mighty Bosstones – “So Many Ways”
Right — I’ve slept about two hours, I’m eating Altoids for breakfast, and I’m locked in a sub-basement of Rockefeller Center with seven gallons of scotch, vodka, and rye, so this should be interesting.
Just another typical day at work. No, seriously. It’s all in the telling, innit?
Continuing from our thoughts on marrying disparate ideas to produce beautiful mutant progeny, let’s talk about drafts.
Writing, I’ve said before, is a kind of shamanism. Most writers are familiar with the magic moment when the story, the universe takes the reins, and the story turns out to be true. I genuinely mean that the world tosses information needed to complete the story at you, without even seeking it. It bubbles up in front of your eyes and under your ears.
It doesn’t matter of this is real, or if the brain, fired up to find connections, is imposing meaning on life. It matters that it works, and that we treat it as real. As long as it’s working, who cares what the source is? Believe what you want, or better yet, believe nothing, and lose nothing when the truth disagrees with you.
At any rate, it beats finding the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich.
We’ve compared writing to a confidence game, and that’s going to be our operating model until someone writes in to refute it. You give the reader a premise (usually many premises), and you can take it back anyway you choose, but with this understanding:
You will the premise back from them at some point, in an engaging manner, be it intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, or whatever else fits its presentation. Relieving them of the concept must be worth the burden of holding it so long. Really, you exchange the premise for a compromise.
Most Hollywood movies, and thereby, most books and mainstream comics, which hold out hope of turning into licen$ed film properties, use the three-act structure. Blah blah, look it up if you don’t know it. The popular college shorthand for Georgie “Porkchops” Hegel and his famous dialectic theory of everything is the “thesis/antithesis/synthesis” model.
Though this is actually “Typhoid” Johann Fichte’s model, rather than Hegel’s. After last week’s Nietzsche bout, I’m developing an awkward tendency to cite philosophers that influenced German nationalism. Next time, I’ll have to get some space by employing a metaphysical dross-dealer like Richard Bach (take a moment to enjoy his Wikipedia entry and ask yourself if the line about sledding and weariness was written by a vandal, a disgruntled neighbor, or Bach himself).
Anyway, Fichte’s triad of equal and opposite reactions is only right maybe a quarter of the time in real life, but it works quite well for fiction, thanks. It’s dramatic, it’s focused, and it’s simple. No wonder producers love it! If you could net millions popping out farts like Epic Movie, you’d be leery of challenging your audience, too.
Shakespeare worked in five acts: setting up a great dilemma in the first act, and then pitching opportunities for things to go right or wrong before veering in the opposite direction for a conclusion. That fellow understood the power of showing audiences what could have been. And guess what? Each act takes the original concept, and introduces a new wrinkle both on it and the developments of the other acts.
There’s a reason Shakespeare tells his audience upfront what’s going to happen to Romeo & Juliet. He doesn’t want them to operate under the false expectation of a happy ending and feel justifiably cheated. Then he goes and makes sure the plot is served by their deaths, which so crush their parents that they have no more will to fight. Now their love is enshrined by the good work it engenders, terminating the feud and saving their families from the total destruction both had pledged to achieve.
Unless my college professor was lying to me (entirely possible), TS Eliot wrote that literary criticism informs not only future criticism based on it, but previous criticism that underlies it. It’s sort of a four-dimensional apprehension of work in its actuality, each facet seen from all sides. When you’re really nailing your acts, that’s what you achieve with your story.
The same is true of chapters, which are usually synchronized to acts or scenes, but can easily be an additional layer based on a structural, thematic, aesthetic or epistemological patterns of an entirely different level than plot. Think of it like a map. Some boundaries are natural, like a river or a cliff. People incorporate them into their artificial delineations of states and nations, but not every border will be a natural formation. Sometimes it’s necessary to pick the one measured and planned.
You’re under no stipulations of structure, of course. If you want to get really experimental, you may lose touch with narrative altogether and create a sort of ambient hypertext like Ulysses. Caveat: then no one will love you except professors and Marcel Proust.
Four times out of five, when an act ends, something should be different from when it started. It’s like a leg of a marathon. Granted, it will be useful to you to recover from or prepare for the adjacent chapter if you want to blow off tension or build up pressure. That happens often enough. There may be other reasons that serve your purpose, like getting to know the characters and building affection or understanding of them. That’s still a change that suits your goal. Plot may get the lion’s share of control over what happens, but it’s still in service to the ultimate effect of your story. Sometimes you need to kick it out, and build some scenes, lay out charm, create feelings that draw people into the story so they’re not just watching it.
Whatever you do, you can’t take somebody on a 120-page journey (pretty lengthy for comics, the size of your average graphic novel these days) and have them end up in the same place they started from. Unless…say, are you writing a serial?
Even then, there should be some reward for the viewers’ attentions, some development whereby the hero doesn’t achieve his goal, but does gain a new tool for the next attempt. You can also end with the poor lad or lass even further from the objective than at the start, because if the story is going to continue, hey, great, this just means even more tension. A serial is almost by default an epic; the question is whether it has the good sense and taste to end at the right point. If you don’t have the guts to do that, here are three options:
1) Find a new challenge that justifies the protagonist’s place at the forefront
2) Boot the character whose tale has concluded to the background and let a former supporting cast member. Have the limelight
3) Phone it in while you enjoy the gains of your slapshod storytelling. I don’t recommend this one, but for many people, there’s nothing wrong with it in the light of the steady income it brings.
In the Silver Age, DC was having Superman passively pound through villains that wouldn’t intimidate Aquaman, crushing a crisis in 6 pages with Kryptonian omnipotence. Stan Lee, however, was dropping that loser Spider-Man into poorer, lonelier circumstances, no matter how great his sacrifice and victory to stop the Vulture from taking over the world’s supply of Polident seemed to earn him. When, oh, when, readers wondered, would puny Parker catch a break?
Which one would you come back and read next month?
Right, and that’s what happened. Unfortunately, Spidey’s hard-times became as much of a handicap to holding readers’ attention as Superman’s omnipotence (too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart, as W.B. Yeats once said, though probably thinking of something loftier than a battle with Paste Pot Pete). So things got better for the web-spinner, hooray! Progress! (Of course, it wasn’t the same Spider-Man that achieved popularity, and it was the beginning of the end, since no one wants to see a nice guy go from loser to winner to loser again…but leave that thought for another day.)
Despite appearances, the story’s ending doesn’t proceed from its beginning. Beginnings are tailored to the endings. This is why you sometimes get told to write the ending first, so you know where things are heading. I don’t think that’s necessary, but…the ending is usually where you state your final conclusion. It’s the proof of whatever you’ve discovered in your story. If you write that first, even to change it later, you have just established your findings.
Then you write your beginning, which is the thesis statement. Writing is like Intelligent Design Theory: you pick your conclusion, tailor the thesis to it, and then cherrypick all the information that build your theory’s case.
Sure, you might write a kick-ass beginning with no idea what, if anything, is going to happen. No reason not to write it down if it occurs to you.
Drafts? I’ve happened onto a few of those. What I usually deal in though, is a polymorphous amoeba, perpetually creating and abandoning feet until it’s crossed the finish line. I either have many indistinct drafts, or one, big four-dimensional one, depending on your philosophy. Revisions, tinker. Really only one draft modified to a new beast. Occasionally, You do whatever works for you in that particular moment. Alan Moore wrote Watchmen pretty much in one take; James Joyce modified A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man so many times it’s amazing it made it to print (having made it into the fireplace previously).
I mentioned a story called She’s Famous Now in the last column. Nice boy pines for high school crush, boy gets opportunity to win high school crush, boy wins girl via unsavory methods, boy’s conscience and genuine love lead him to confess his sins…boy loses girl.
That ending just doesn’t fit. Why? Because our initial premise is about a boy trying to win the heart of a girl he can’t possibly get, and implicit in that premise is a promise to the audience that, YES, he WILL and here’s the amazing story of how he did it. Moreover, he is a Nice Boy, and so there’s a silent endorsement of nicety as the path to virtue.
Plus, love is a wonderful drug that boggles a heart in steep ways. Love will permit (or mask and minimize) a whole lot of awful revelations about a person in order to hold onto that mighty feeling.
And anyway, it’s a downer. But really, the key reason, above the happy ending, above the reality of the thing, is it was given us to that surely a boy who would dare buck his station in life…surely if this story is worth telling it’s because that boy, in spite of appearances, has some shot at his goal?
Just as the proverbial gun on the mantle must be used at some point in the play, the questions raised by your inciting event, point of attack and introductory conflict must all, by their resolution, prove to hold some value that made them worth asking in the first place. If the answers to those questions is the obvious conclusion, you haven’t done your job. You’ve simply exploded the reality you’re seeking to contain in the box of fiction.
Very few stories can sell the potential of their premise without acquiring the maguffin. It’s quite a trick, and it’s why Rocky won the Oscar in a year packed with great films.
So what do we do? We certainly don’t have to have to have a happy ending, but the ending we WILL reveal must be implicit in our initial conflict. Cluing the audience in after the terms have been established, even for the bulk of the piece, may foreshadow the ending, but it won’t deliver it in an acceptable manner. Audiences are smart even when they’re stupid, and they’ll be aware that something fundamental was unresolved, or worse, irresolved. You might entertain them enough to get forgiven, but you won’t make that lifelong dent in their brains of a well-told tale. You haven’t rendered the kind of story that lives on after you’re dead.
Now excuse me, I have to go see if rye and Altoids mix.