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.

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