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.

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