Friday, June 8, 2012

How to Plot a Novel 3

In the last couple of consecutive posts, I've covered material on how to create plots for novels and movies. Why put information about book plotting in a blog dedicated to applied improv and behavior science? Several reasons. Firstly, because it's fun. But also because this process tells us a huge amount about how people learn and interact. Furthermore, it tells us about how they justify their own actions to themselves.

Not only do people respond to stories that have the specific shape we've been discussing, they also build stories in their own minds the same way. Even if the events that occur in a person's life don't really resemble nice, clean learning experiences, they will deform those events in memory until they do. In other words, the structure of story not only reflects the way that we like to hear about the experiences of others, it also reflects the way in which those experiences are stored. This is perhaps not surprising, but it's highly useful to understand. Knowing how people create self-narrative enables you to more clearly see where they're recalling the truth, and when they've screened it from themselves.

In any case, let's press on as there is still plenty more to say about plotting novels that I haven't yet covered. Last time, I outlined the sixteen steps that map the human learning experience onto story structure. I also suggested that this pattern was a pretty tight fit for Hero's Journey story patterns that other researchers have already identified.

To demonstrate that, here's a mapping to the story steps from The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler:

1A (Surprise/Steady State): Ordinary World
1B (Surprise/Stimulus): Call to Adventure
1C (Surprise/Response): Refusal of the Call
1D (Surprise/Consequence): Refusal of the Call
2A (Coincidence/Steady State): Meeting the Mentor
2B (Coincidence/Stimulus): Meeting the Mentor
2C (Coincidence/Response): Crossing the Threshold
2D (Coincidence/Consequence): Tests, Allies and Enemies
3A (Pattern/Steady State): Approach to the Innermost Cave
3B (Pattern/Stimulus): Ordeal
3C (Pattern/Response): Ordeal
3D (Pattern/Consequence): Reward
4A (Application/Steady State): The Road Back
4B (Application/Stimulus): Resurrection
4C (Application/Response): Resurrection
4D (Application/Consequence): Return with the Elixir

Some research onto Vogler's book, or even just a scan of the Wikipedia page will hopefully give you a perspective on the pattern I'm describing.

There are three important things we can take away from this equivalence. Let's deal with each of them in turn.

The first thing we notice about the mapping above is that it's not one-to-one. Vogler, and Joseph Campbell--the guy whose work he developed, didn't see sixteen steps. Why not? Because some of these steps happen quickly. When you're analyzing stories by looking at dozens of examples from history, its easy to see the commonalities but harder to see the purpose. However, the extra steps are always there. So, when I mentioned last time that there was about one novel chapter per step in the process, you have to take that idea with a pinch of salt. Some of your steps, particularly the early ones, may take only a page, while others will be stretched out over whole chapters.

The Story Middle (The Yellow Brick Road)
Both the Vogler pattern and the one I've outlined are missing something--the all important middle of the story in which character development happens. Vogler compresses this with the section titled 'Tests Allies and Enemies', because the consequence of the second major event in the book corresponds to the hero entering their new world and having a sequence of experiences.

In reality, this part of a well-told story is usually a sequence of mini-adventures, each of which introduces a major character or motif that will be important in the rest of the narrative. Each mini-adventure generally takes the same Steady-State/Stimulus/Response/Consequence pattern. This is also the part of a story that's often compressed in a movie with a montage, so that we can see character relationships building over time.

For a nicely plotted novel, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the right number of mini-adventures is usually three. That gives the reader enough information to build a pattern of what the new world is about, without being in danger of feeling redundant. Hence the existence of scarecrows, tin men and lions.

Vogler's sections include terminology such as 'the mentor', referring to story archetypes--an aspect of storytelling just as important as the linear steps I've outlined here. Though this feature of stories might seem unrelated to the process of plotting, it's not. The use of archetypes is directly connected to how a story plays out, a symmetry that we make extensive use of in improv in the Vanilla Six Hander play format I explained in a previous post.

In short, there's a close correlation between the characters that appear in the story and the learning steps that the story represents. This is because, as I mentioned in the last post, everything in a story is a symbol, whether it's a prop, a style of writing, or a choice of lighting. And characters are the most important symbols of all.

This critical relationship between plot and character explodes the notion of 'character-driven' or 'plot-driven' stories, and reveals that really good stories require both. In the next post in this sequence, I'll try to explain more about how that relationship works.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How to Plot A Novel 2

Last time, started explaining how to plot a novel, using techniques combined from improvisation, neuroscience and machine learning to make it awesome. We got as far as building a outline for a protagonist, and creating a basic 'plot-triangle' of the events that would take place in the story: a beginning, a lowest point, and an ending. Now it's time to fold in some of the story structure we've explored in recent posts.

Broadly speaking, your story will comprise of four major steps. For those who follow this blog, these should be familiar by now:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Successful application of pattern.

However, for longer stories, we need to dig a little deeper and look at how these steps work. Each step represents a learning experience, and in a novel or a movie, those learning experiences can be stretched out over many scenes. So let's introduce some extra structure about what a learning experience looks like. In fact, I'm going to propose that each of these major steps is comprised of four smaller steps:
A: Steady State.
B: Stimulus.
C: Response.
D: Consequence.

It's easy to see how this works if you consider the process of training a pet. There's Scruffy, sitting on the floor. He's in his Steady State. You hold up a treat and tell him to roll over--that's Stimulus. He leaps up and down in excitement about the treat. That's his Response. As a result, you don't give him the treat and he's disappointed. That's the Consequence. Give Scruffy enough cues, and enough opportunities, and gradually he'll learn a new pattern, though it might take him more than four times.

This pattern of four substeps is identical in learning whether we're talking about pets, robots or people. And it shows up all the time in stories. This means that we can divide our story, at least at first, into sixteen little steps--four little steps for each big one.

Now we can pin the events from our plot-triangle onto the slots in the sixteen steps. The start of the story fits in 1A. The end of the story, unsurprisingly, fits in 4D, and the lowest point goes at 3D. You're now in a good place to start filling in the rest of the slots in the basic pattern.

To make filling it in a little easier, we can focus on the ways in which the four major steps are different. The first big step (Surprise), should feature a novel event that the hero tries to process as if it were part of his ordinary world. He does what we all do when faced with the unknown--he tries to fit it into some preconceived model. As a result, his life gets a little worse.

The second big step involves the same problem coming back to trouble our protagonist in another guise, only this time it's more serious, because it wasn't dealt with properly last time. This forces the protagonist to adopt a new behavior they haven't used before. In many novels, this corresponds to visiting a new place, or entering a different slice of society. However, despite the fact that the hero uses new behavior, he still doesn't solve matters because this is the first time he's tried a new behavior. His change is external, not internal.

The third big step involves the protagonist facing his problem under the changed circumstances caused by his new behavior. This time the problem is huge, but because the hero is ready to adapt this time, he learns from it even though it hurts.

By the time we reach the fourth big step, the hero is already different. He's gone to an unhappy place and come back with new tools. This time when the problem shows up, he's ready for it, inside and out. Consequently, he aces the problem and walks away the victor.

Here's a small demonstration story I often use to make the point:
1A: There's a guy sitting under a tree reading a book.
1B: Something hits him on the back of the head, a small rock perhaps.
1C: He looks around, confused, but sees nothing.
1D: He shrugs, and goes back to his book.
2A: He's just getting back into the story again...
2B: When he's hit on the back of the head again, this time harder.
2C: He jumps to his feet and looks around, but once again sees nothing.
2D: Annoyed, he goes back to his book.
3A: The guy is on edge. Now he can't focus on the story.
3B: There's a faint rustle, and then he's hit on the head again, even harder.
3C: The guy leaps up quick, and notices a monkey darting back among the branches of the tree, grinning to itself.
3D: The guy nods in understanding, looks around the base of the tree and finds a large stick.
4A: Our hero pretends to read, the stick ready in his hands.
4B: He hears the rustle sound again, and spies motion from the corner of his eye.
4C: As the monkey readies to throw, our hero leaps up and whacks the branch where the monkey sits.
4D: The monkey falls from the tree, hits its head, drops the nuts it carries and runs off yelping. The man returns to his book, this time with a supply of tasty nuts to eat.

In an novel, each one of these steps usually corresponds to about a chapter. For those interested, I recommend looking at the Wikipedia page for The Writer's Journey. It should start to become clear how these learning-science derived steps match up to the more traditional ones.

Of course, the process doesn't end there. For a start, the attentive will have noticed that some of these steps take a lot longer than others in most stories. And something in the middle seems to be missing. For instance, try to map this pattern onto a movie like The Wizard of Oz, and the yellow brick road will be missing, which is a pretty critical component. In the next post in this sequence, I'll talk about the significance of the steps, and provide some more concrete examples.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to Plot A Novel

A friend of mine, the excellent, and highly impressive, Robert Strong, is leading a team in the Forty-Eight Hour Film Project this weekend. To make such a film come off, participants need to be able to take a theme that they have no prior information about and derive a strong screenplay for it within a matter of hours.

Sound impossible? It's not. You don't need hours. I have helped people craft novels that are far more complicated than the average film. It usually takes about thirty minutes. At the end of that time they have a compelling heroic story arc, the seeds of well-developed characters, and an understanding of what needs to happen in every chapter.

How do you do it? I'm going to show you. But first, a warning.

This approach doesn't work for every kind of novel, or every kind of film. It's a formula, and what makes stories great is the extent to which they deviate from formula. This approach is not a cure-all. If it were, we'd be able to punch some buttons on a script-writing machine and awesome text would pop out.

Having said this, though, there are a lot of smug, uninformed people who will tell you that there is no such thing as a good story that follows formula, and that's why this kind of approach is limited. That's just dead wrong. In fact, it's worse than wrong. It's counterproductive and deluded. Good stories have shared structure because they reflect the processes of human cognition as I've outlined in the last few posts. Stories that don't pay attention to how human minds work aren't respecting their audiences. Consequently, they're generally, objectively, bad.

Sure, there are a plenty of people with letters after their name who will tell you that there are literary-theoretic reasons why what I'm saying cannot possibly be true. They'll point at some dense, opaque books that they claim to love and say that their excellence comes from their complete freshness, and absence of predictability. However, the steamroller of science touches everyone eventually, from priests to philosophers to artists. Storytelling is just as amenable to researched investigation as the origins of life.

Phase One: Story Profile
Your starting point is this: Do you have a message, an environment, or a character you want to write about?
In a well-constructed story, these elements reflect each other.
  • If you're starting with a message, ask yourself what kind of person would have the hardest trouble learning the lesson that your message represents. 
  • If you're starting with a character, ask yourself what their greatest flaw is, and therefore what kind of character-change you want them to undergo. That gives you your message.
  • In both cases, look for the kind of environment that would make your character as uncomfortable as possible, and make learning his or her lesson inevitable.
  • On the other hand, if you're starting with an environment, ask what's special about it. Then ask who'd have the greatest amount of trouble in a setting like that. And use that to build your protagonist. 
One thing to note about your choice of the environment is this. Everything in it, every prop, interior, light-level and weather choice is a symbol. So is every character your protagonist meets. Each choice about exterior environment and the challenges it presents should map onto the transition the hero is making internally. It's the interior change that's the important one.

The same relation also holds in the opposite direction. If there's an important part of your character's inner life that doesn't have an externalized symbol somewhere that you can use to aid storytelling, your story isn't going to turn out as strong as it could be. (Note, symbols can be as subtle as shades of blue. You don't have to beat the audience over the head with them.)

After a little thinking here, you should be able to think up a simple one sentence description for a protagonist, a setting, and a message. The lesson your protagonist learns is going to be a reflection of their heroic flaw, and every good protagonist needs a flaw. Otherwise, they're usually boring. When thinking about your hero's flaw, ask whether the flaw is a reflection of your character's motivation and personality. A good flaw reflects a deep-seated behavior that can be overcome. Also ask whether your flaw enables your audience to see themselves reflected in your character, or whether his attributes will be alienating to them.

Example good flaws: won't stand up for himself, perfectionist, incapable of opening up to others, etc.

Example bad flaws: a limp, vulnerability to a special food, a memory impairment, kills people, etc.

Now ask yourself how you want your protagonist to end up at the end of the story. What's their end point? In a classic heroic arc, the end point should communicate to the audience that the protagonist has a better life now, because he's changed.

Then ask what's the worst thing that could happen to them in the setting you've chosen, and given their flaw. What experience would force them to change and learn their lesson?

Once you've thought of a worst point, put it aside and ask yourself the same question again, because the first thing you thought of almost certainly isn't bad enough. Keep iterating on this until you're making yourself laugh and wince about how bad your protagonist is going to feel. Only stop when you find yourself saying: 'I don't want this story to be that dark'.

Given an ending and a worst point, now ask yourself where your protagonist starts off. Try to find an initial setting for your protagonist that have the following properties:
  • The starting point is often not the setting in which your story will unfold. If the settings are physically the same, your character will have to experience a change in emotional or social condition instead of a physical one. (Try to establish the physical, emotional and social features of your starting place regardless of what story you want to tell.)
  • The protagonist should be uncomfortable but lacking enough momentum or power to change things. Try to think of ways to show that in the initial setting. 
  • The starting point should enable the protagonist out of their ordinary world very quickly when your story starts moving. Hence, the protagonist should somehow be situated at the edge of their normal world, whether physically or otherwise. There should be mechanisms already latent in your starting place that make it easy for them to be pushed out. 
  • For a classic heroic story arc, the protagonist's starting place should be less good, from their perspective, than the place they end up.
  • Your initial setting will usually be populated with support characters who are going to be incidental at best in most of the narrative that follows. Make sure that those characters can help you efficiently depict what the protagonist's life is like. 
Here's your checklist for the things you should have at the end of this phase:
  • A one-line description of who your protagonist is.
  • A setting for your story to play out in.
  • A message that underscores your character's personal transformation.
  • A heroic flaw for your protagonist.
  • An end point for your character's story.
  • A worst point for your story.
  • A starting point for your story from which it's easy to kick off the hero's personal journey. 
That's probably enough for this post. I'll outline some more phases next time.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why B+ is Better than A

In my last post, I talked about the power of the number three in understanding human frustration. This time, I'd like to talk about the power of the value three quarters in human learning.

This whole ad-hoc sequence of posts kicked off with the statement that great comedy sketches tended to have a specific structure because they closely reflected how the human brain acquires new rules about the world. We went on to talk about how understanding this pattern could help people do any number of wonderful things, from writing better software to avoiding nuclear war.

For reference, the structure looks like this:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Subversion of pattern

What I didn't mention is that the same pattern also crops up in education research, and for the same reason. Recent psychology research has shown that kids who get the right answer about seventy-five percent of the time learn fastest. This result was first noticed, I think, by the amazing George Polya, author of How to Solve It, who saw that scores of around seven out of ten corresponded to healthy progress in math education. (When I find decent links to more books or papers on this, I'll add them. Good links are proving elusive.)

I'd believe that the reason for this is simple. When you're learning and you get the right answer three times in a row, your brain gets to imprint a successful new rule. Your brain sends out a little hormonal pulse of 'I win!' into your system and your confidence goes up. This puts you in the right frame of mind for wanting to demolish the next problem that you receive. Furthermore, the sense of steadily attained mastery of a problem, coupled with cues that suggest that mastery isn't yet complete, spur the learner onward. This is why the most successful computer games feature a sequence of steadily increasing obstacles.

Go too high above the seventy-five percent success ate and your brain starts tuning out. You become confident of your ability to solve the problems you're being set, and this is actually likely to make you more defensive when you get one wrong. Hence, your rate of learning goes down. Similarly, go too far below seventy-five percent and your brain isn't seeing frequent enough instances of success to be able to identify new rules. Learning feels like too much of a struggle.

It's not hard to see how using this effect can help teachers and trainers maximize their impact. By making sure your students are sitting in that sweet spot, you can get them to absorb content at their maximum possible rate. However, when you're training a large number of people together, you usually don't have the luxury of pacing the content differently for each participant. This is where you have to get clever.

One of the tools you can use springs from using using this cognitive effect in another guise: storytelling. As I've alluded to the, four-step pattern for comedy sketches applies equally well to Greek legends or the structure of most Hollywood blockbuster movies. Screenwriters have been playing around with cognition-based story patterns for years, thanks to Joseph Campbell and those who've expanded on his work.

However, in the case of your average novel, movie, or awesome fireside tale, the structure is slightly different. Now it goes like this:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Successful application of pattern.

These are the four core steps of Campbell's monomyth (which also forms the basis of good Vanilla Six-Hander plays, by the way.)  Though the steps are a little buried in the structure Campbell describes, they're not too hard to see.

A careful trainer can use this. One way is to create parables that have learning content. You deliver them up until the point at which the protagonist figures out what step he needs to take to win the day, but you don't tell your particpants what that step is. At that point you throw a question open to your students and let them figure out the hero's solution together.

This helps because a good story will create audience empathy. Your students will be sharing the experience, and will hopefully share in the feeling of success that comes with solving the problem. Thus, even if everyone isn't learning at quite the same rate, they all get the benefit of feeling about seventy-five percent correct, and share a sense of ownership of the solution. If you're really being clever, you put a sting in the tail of the story that reveals that the participants don't know everything yet.

There's lot's more to say on this subject, of course. In the next post in this sequence, I'll try to show you how you can use the four-step story pattern to plot out that novel you've been meaning to write.