Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ranty McRanterson wants the middle

Lately I’ve been reading more stories than I’d like where a huge chunk of development isn’t there. What the author has included is lovely and draws me in, and then WHAMMO! We’re at the end. Wait a minute! Where did the middle go?

If there’s a great set up and engaging characters, of course I’m going to be interested in what their troubles are, which usually comes up in the beginning of a novel. And since I’m generally reading romance, the ending needs to have the men together, whether it’s for a week or a month or a lifetime. But if the journey from set up to ending is truncated into a few paragraphs, or worse, completely missing, I’m going to notice that out loud, and you can bet I will count off for it.

Because if I’m promised a story and I get half a story, plus or minus a bunch of sex, I will be annoyed. If I wanted nothing but sex, I’d read porn. If I wanted an excuse for a story plus a bunch of sex, I’d read erotica. If you offer me romance, the story better be in there.

Scriptwriters go off the three act structure, and it’s basic framework . We’ve all seen hundreds of shows and movies using it. We’ve read hundreds of books that have it, and we’ve read others that do not. It’s not the only way to tell a story, but it has the basic elements of beginning, middle, and end. We’ve come to expect that in good storytelling.

Here’s what screenwriters use for three act structure:

It’s not an accident that Act Two is twice as long as the beginning and the end—that’s where all the interesting floundering around happens. What they have marked as plot points one and two are where reversals happen—something that keeps the characters from getting what they want. For the complete discussion, look here.

Another way to look at storytelling is A) that which creates a problem and B) that which solves it. Then you can have a bit at the end where everyone’s happy and we all go AW!

A lot of writers mistake that happy chunk at the end for the solution to the problem. No, it’s not. It’s sweet, and probably lots more fun to write than all that troublesome stuff in the middle about how they got to the happy part. And it’s probably a lot easier to skip over that troublesome development stuff or smoosh it into a tiny space. But that’s where the story is.

That could bring us back to the three act structure, labeled differently.

So all that Aw! stuff is the tail of the falling action. And it all has a lot more meaning if there’s been some sort of connection from the introduction. Otherwise there’s a great big gap from where it started. And if we don’t know what’s in that gap, what matters at the end besides some sexytimes? And that’s really just parts rubbing together unless we’ve had a chance to really get to know the characters and see what they’re up against and how they solve it.

The parts of a story that make us gasp and bleed with the characters lie between the introduction and the falling action. If there’s a “black moment” when everything seems stacked against our guys, we care that they turn it around. If we hear about it later, or never hear about it at all, then why do we care? Why should we care?

Because then it’s just a couple of possibly interesting characters having sex or sweet kisses/fade to black. And that may be okay for erotica, but it’s not okay for romance.

I think that the Aw! section of the ending has the emotional height right about at the C or the T in “falling action” in the above graph. So if the story never takes us to the heights, we don’t come plummeting downward from the momentum of the rest of the story. We get only so high, not much past the first red dot, and then sort of slide down the rest of the way. The same Aw! ending would have much more oomph for being propelled by the rest of the story.

Some writers let the story take them where it will and impose some sort of order on it after they see what they’ve got. This works fine for someone who’s internalized the need for the complications and the crisis, and not so well for the writers who’d like to skip over that messy junk. The messy junk is where the story lies.

And if that part isn’t there, it’s a story that has this kind of flaw:

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