Monday, March 16, 2009

A Story is a Promise


It seems like there was a long hard slog through the whole Aristotlean thing, learning the basics of story and screenwriting technique, but suddenly after switching over to dramatic (theatrical) techniques things have taken a (ahem) dramatic leap forward.

I've run across the best writing about writing I've seen yet, on the site Linked above. Bill Johnson's whole concept is that a story is a promise, and you must deliver on that promise in a way that's satisfying to the reader or viewer. I've read a few of the essays, and so far each one is excellent. But the best thing I've found there is called Question, Answer, Question. I hope Bill doesn't mind if I post a bit of that essay here (with a link to the rest of it):

Bringing the Dead to Life

Notes on Twilight

by Bill Johnson

I'm always curious when a book becomes a phenomena. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, is such a novel. So I bought it to see how the story 'works' to draw in its audience. In these notes I'll begin by breaking down the novel's opening preface line by line.

First line,

I'd never given much thought to how I would die--though I'd had reason enough in the last few months--but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

This is pure drama, which I define as an anticipation of an outcome. There are many dramatic questions here.

Why did the narrator have reasons to imagine his or her death?
What kind of death is the narrator facing, that he or she couldn't have imagined it?
What situation does the narrator find him or herself in?
Where is the narrator?
To get the answer to these questions, the reader has to read the next sentence. That is the prime responsibility of the first sentence of a novel, that a reader be compelled to read a second sentence. That's why this kind of mysterious first sentence is often seen in popular novels. A first sentence that is not compelling becomes a first step in a reader disengaging from a novel. I teach that it's three steps and the reader is gone.

There's a difference between a dramatic question and a question. 'Would I die today?' is a question, but it's not a dramatic question like the first sentence above. When I try and teach some writers the art of a good opening line with dramatic questions, some people respond by framing ordinary sentences as questions.

Second paragraph, second sentence,

I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

This begins to suggest a place, 'the long room,' while raising the question, why a long room? Where is this room? It also raises the question, who is the hunter? Why does the hunter look 'pleasantly' at the narrator who, based on the first sentence, would appear to be facing death from the hunter? Or not. To get the answer to that question, the reader has to read the third sentence.

These two sentences have set up a process I call question, answer, question. The first sentence raises questions, the second sentence begins to answer those questions (who or what is threatening the narrator with death), while the answer to the question (the hunter is threatending the narrator) simply raises another question, who is the hunter?

This question, answer, question process creates an on-going hold on the attention of readers, and also creates forward movement that pulls the reader ahead. When the opening to an unpublished novel lacks this process, the sentences are often a collection of details describing a time, place, or character. Such statements operate as statements: this is what so-and-so looks like; this is what this place looks like. The risk is that such statements lack drama -- there's no anticipation of an outcome. There can be an anticipation of an outcome based on the appearance of a character, but when there's not, the opening pages of a story can be the weakest writing in an unpublished novel.

A literary agent or editor reading the above two lines would be immediately aware that this is a novel written by a storyteller.

Third paragraph,

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

Many more questions here; more 'pull' on the reader.
Why is the narrator ready to die in place of someone else?
What makes that noble?
Why is it important to the narrator that this noble act 'count for something?'
What has the narrator done in life that he or she needs to balance the scales?
Fourth paragraph,

I knew that if I'd never gone to Forks, I wouldn't be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn't bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

This begins to answer the question, where is this story happening (Forks), but that answer raises another question, where is Forks? Why did the narrator go to Forks? Why does the narrator not regret the decision, which could lead to his or her death? How did this journey to Forks become this grand fulfillment of a dream for the narrator?

Last sentence of preface,

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.

Click here to read the entire essay - ok, I posted most of it above, but there's still a little more left!!

This concept of question, answer, question has explained something to me. I'm a huge fan of the show Breaking Bad, as well as a few of the other recent character driven cable shows (Saving Grace especially). There's something extra compelling about these shows... once you start watching it's hard to stop, and they only seem to follow basic Aristotlean structure to a very limited extent. I knew it was something about the characters that drove these shows, but I couldn't figure out how they did it.

The question, answer, question technique answers a big part of that question. As I was watching Breaking Bad last night I could see it in action. Little revelations fed out sparingly as the show progresses, enough to answer a previously-posed question, but always raising new ones, until the end. Well ok, scratch that... at the end they leave a big question hanging to make you want to watch the next episode. The process creates a dramatic throughline that draws a viewer all the way through the story while keeping their interest riveted. It's also a perfect example of a show that's character driven but with plenty of action. Too often the term character driven means quiet and internal, with little to no action, but Breaking Bad proves it needn't be like that.

Breaking Bad is a perfect example of this technique. If you want to examine how it's done, download an episode or 2 from the iTunes store for $1.99 (or Netflix it, whatever) and watch with a critical eye. It helps to watch twice... the first time you tend to get sucked in and just enjoy the ride... the second time you can spot the tricks and techniques better.


a guy in a gorilla suit said...

Wow. First: Thanks for the article and the really useful links.
The 'question-answer' reminds me very much about the 'call-response' pattern in Blues, which can be tracked back (somehow) to field workers and the 'field hollers'. You find this often in blues lyrics: A question/statement at the beginning, then a modified version of it, and then a kind of answer/response/explanaition. Example: "(statement) Now, I'm the drunken hearted man and sin was the cause of it all.
(modified) I'm a drunken hearted man, and sin was the cause of it all.
(answer/response/explanation) And the day that you get weak for no-good women, that's the day that you bound to fall." (Robert Johnson, 1937). I think I have something to ponder now...

Darkmatters said...

Wow, thank you so much for sharing that Michael!!

I've been listening to a lot of music (classic rock) and thinking about how it can relate to the principles of writing for a film or story.

I guess it goes to show the truth of an old saying I've heard a few times:

"When you're deeply into one thing, you're into all things".

a guy in a gorilla suit said...

"When you're deeply into one thing, you're into all things". There should be people walking around with this line tatooed (hm... maybe I... no. If I get a tatoo it must bes somthing like 'That Guy !' or '667 - Neighbour of the beast'...) But back to topic:
After a very long break, after playing guitar a few hours every day and ginving lessons and then not touching my instrument (her namee is... well, that's another story to tell...) for a year and then after years now starting again: I found out, why I started playing music: Telling stories.
Blues is a very story- and cahracter-driven music. Whole stories, a lot of 'reading between the lines', and always depending upon the person who tells the story (as always I guess...)
And then there is the quest for listeners - which is another chapter.

'Why do people tell stories ?'

About music: I listen to Blues, recently some Jazz, in between Black Metal and classical music, and I love the music of Hank Williams sen. And what brings it all together: I don't care what you might call it - I am listening/waiting to heart and soul in music. And art. Every kind. Do something passionatly, and you will find your listeners. I guess, Ikarus was also very passionated... hard way to tell, which way to go... Maybe it'S the old 'don't overdose' story...

I have something (more) for pondering now...

Thanks for everything and all the best. Until then. Michael.

Darkmatters said...

Icarus.... maybe the moral there is 'be passionate, but don't be stupid'? Or it's 'listen to your parents'....

You're a storyteller... it's written in everything you... um... write.

It doesn't come as naturally to me, but I hope I can learn it (or bring out what's already in me waiting to be awakened perhaps?). Other storytellers I know from the message board -- bRYEnd Prosser, Trikfx, and a certain Thomas Heiss -- a neighbor to the north-west of your country. Nick Hilligoss of course is also a great storyteller, but with the people I mentioned, it comes out in everything they say, as if they breathe story naturally. It seems to be their native means of communication, as it is yours.

a guy in a gorilla suit said...

'Hear my train a-coming' - there is something on the way, Mr. Strider. You invoke it. Thank you so very very much.

Cheers. Your's sincerly, Michael.

Hermanos Encinas said...

Nice blog Mike,

I hope oyu would like own:

Good Luck and Stop-Moving!

bRYEnd_of_the_schtick said...

(^ blushes : causing a skin rash to act up.
(^ moi.french for moo ahh.

speaking of music driven stories: