For the record - I did work on Sunday. I wrote out a simple outline of Part One based on the eighteen-page version, mostly turning each paragraph into a sentence so I can easily restructure while keeping an idea of how it all flows together. I didn't post my usual update because my son woke up an hour and a half into writing and I was never able to get back to it. Since then, I've been trying to get this website to work. It only kind of works right now, but I guess I can say we're up and running. You type the thing into the thing, and you get here so... yes. Working.
That said, I said that I wanted to make this website more of a production blog than the social media platform (by which I mean Facebook because how do you twitter) allows, and since I'm deep into laying the foundation of and structuring the narrative, I thought I'd use my first SpookyCorps.com post to talk a little bit about how I've approached writing this story.
One rainy morning when I was eighteen years old, I woke up, got out of bed, walked to the computer and started writing a story that was in my head. I hadn't dreamed it, I just knew it. A guy was going to come face to face with woman who had broken into his apartment. She would turn out to be a vampire. It would be gritty and moody, and not flashy at all. I got to the end, did one quick review, and called it written. The last time I read it I thought it was pretty okay for something that just came to me.
But I don't know the last time I read it. It's probably terrible. An eighteen year-old's vampire story? No. You gotta be kiddin' me.That anecdote has nothing to do with the way I approach constructing a narrative.
And yes, I know what you're thinking. "But Daniel, you're the one who told us that anecdote right after you said you were going to talk about how you write your stupid stories!"
Well I've got one question for you. How long are you going to keep throwing that in my face? Huh?
I guess that was two questions.
Okay folks, calm down. Let's get serious. I'm a very important man. I write things. But HOW?
This post is actually going to explain how I've written not only Spooky Corps, but just about every story I've written, excluding the angsty vampire short story from my teen years.
It's all about structure. Story structure is like a machine, or a math problem, or a piece of music. It's a system of rules that, if followed, creates a product of the method, and that product is a narrative. It might not be interesting. It might not be moving or exciting or thought-provoking, but it will be a story that does what it's supposed to do.
First thing about structure: this is obvious, and we've all heard it before, but you have to have a beginning, middle, and end. Right? Boom boom boom. So first you have to have an idea to begin with: Let's say our brilliant idea for a story is that a guy named Guy wants a Thing. This is compelling stuff. Next, we'll need a middle - this is where our protagonist strives to achieve his goals and runs into conflict. Let's say there's a guy named Other Guy, and he has the Thing that Guy wants. Then you need to resolve that conflict one way or another - win or lose - in your ending. Let's make this ending a happy one and say that Guy gets the Thing from the Other Guy. Yippee.
Kinda boring, but it's a story. As it is here, this is a story we could tell in a three panel comic strip. So assuming we want to write a comic book (or a movie, or a novel, or an episode of television, or a ballad) what's it take to flesh this idea out and make a more involved story?
I'll tell you what it's going to take - a beginning that has a beginning, middle, and end, a middle with a beginning, middle, and end, and an ending with a beginning, middle, and end.
Wow, that sentence is the worst eyesore on the Internet, I'm sure of it. But... Please don't offer challenges to that claim.
As you can see, story structure is like a fractal. You can keep looking smaller and smaller, but the shape is always the same. So, let's revamp the rough sketch and make an outline. We need nine little chunks of three part stories that build together to make a whole which is true to our original idea. Let's see...
- Beginning! The Guy loses his house; The Thing can provide a new house; Now the Guy wants the Thing. - Middle! The Other Guy is a jerk; Other Guy was also responsible for Guy losing his house!; Other Guy stole the Thing. - END!! Guy finds out Other Guy is reaaal jerk. Guy launches plan to ensnare Other Guy. Plan works, Guy gets the Thing.
Yes, that sounds like a story. I decided the Other Guy is a bad guy, because stories with good guys against bad guys are selling well these days. So he not only has the Thing that Guy wants, he stole the thing. But even with this incredible depth, why does it feel just like the generic template that every other one-star story follows? Why does it have no pizazz?
Well, it turns out it helps if you're characters are more detailed than "Guy, who is a good guy" and "Other Guy, who is a bad guy." Here's another obvious piece of advice: People like to relate to stories. They like to see humans doing and reacting to things, and they like to think "I am like that," or "I aspire to be like that," or "I'm glad that's not me," because that's what we do with real people and real stories.
So who is this guy? What makes him who he is? What does he spend his time doing? It doesn't have to be a job, but let's just use that for the sake of simplicity. Does he haul trash? Sit on the senate? Yeah, sure, let's go with that. His "house" is his seat in politics. Alright. That's this guy.
Now, do you know what characters need besides job duties? Personal desires.
Not just one desire - we already know from the fact that this is a story that the character will desire something. He's not going to walk around all apathetic just getting pushed around by the wind (unless you're writing your first mumblecore movie, in which case you're probably on the right track). But it can add depth to the character if we realize over the course of the story that he has a subconscious desire as well.
So if his conscious desire in this story is the Thing, which we'll say is the votes he needs to keep his seat- his subconscious desire might be to get out of the game and spend his later years with his family.
The fact that his conscious and subconscious desires oppose each other could be its own source of conflict in the story, allowing us to see the character presented with choices and allow his decisions to reveal things about himself - perhaps even to himself - as well as move the plot forward.
Now we have a character. Let's name him Gary. You can think about these things with Other Guy
So we've got a structured plot, a character with a self identity and desires. Now what? Ah heck, let's go all out and add another layer. Since I want this to be a longer story, I'm going to add a subplot - another story thread that we spend less time with, but which gives a greater meaning to the events or the main characters. I'm of the personally belief that practically everything which does not directly serve the main idea is at least a minor subplot, in that whatever is presented in the story - whether it's the whole piece, a theme, an act or sequence of scenes, a minor character who appears several times, or even a bit of dialogue - can and usually should have its own beginning, middle, and end. Fractals, I say!
But let's just focus on one major subplot for now. Hopefully we can use this to explore an idea or interest that's been knocking around our heads for a while. Let's start searching. Who does Gary know? We established with his subconscious desire that he has a family which is... well, at least subconsciously important to him. How can we make it interesting? Does he have an estranged family member? Or how about a son who's slowly dying in the hospital? Sure, heck, let's mix the two. A dying, estranged son with an ugly prognosis. That sounds like a... you know... promising dramatic element.
Now we've got a plot, a breathing character to live it, and additional forces at work to keep things interesting. With all this in mind, let's try that outline again. But do be aware that all of these elements are going to change the pacing of the three act structure I wrote up there, and that's okay! This is when the story starts to become a puzzle. Everything has a place, we know that, we just need to adjust each bit until it's in the right shape. The needs of the story are now going to drive our decisions more than our decisions are going to drive the story.
So let's get to puzzlin'. In our beginning, Gary is being challenged in an election for the first time. Let's say it's not that he's lost his seat already, it's that he has always run uncontested and has the potential to lose it now. He won his seat previously running on a platform of bringing transparency to politics and has not let the people down, but he hasn't delivered terribly strongly on that either. It's a thick web, politics, and it's tough to get very far if you won't scratch a back or two. Now, a hint of conflict - the Other Guy who we'll start calling... Oscar... has appeared and poses a strong threat. It's not looking good for Gary at the outset. Also, remember that his estranged son is meanwhile wasting away in a hospital somewhere. In order to keep his seat, Gary continues to neglect his son and gets busy campaigning.
There is a hint of darkness and conflict at the top of this act, but Gary now has a mission and is off on his adventure. In a way, act one ends on an up note because here is potential for great reward. Now let's ruin all of that potential over the course of the next act so we end up on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.
In our middle, we need to see the goals and conflicts, the challenges Gary faces and the failure or success that results. We know that Oscar's a bad guy, right? And we decided he steals the votes. So we see that the Oscar has been working with a financier who has paid some people off to get the election won. If Gary could get the votes that we see will be stolen, he would still have his seat. This rearranges things a bit, but stays true to our original idea that our antagonist is the reason Gary lost his "house." And because we decided that Oscar is a jerk in our nine-beat outline, we'll say he's mean to the financier's assistant in some way. That's a way we can show this character quality without having someone come out and say, "You're a jerk, Oscar." And let's not forget the subplot! It needs a middle too. Gary goes to see his son in the hospital and they say everything they want to say. It does not end well. Maybe even now, the father is unable to forgive the son, or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe Gary is called away to work for an important campaign matter before they can resolve their issues. There's that conscious vs. subconscious desire conflict I was talking about. Either way, it is not a pretty conversation.
I think that effectively puts us on the opposite side of where act one left us. Now let's bring it all home with the happy ending we planned.
In the end, the Oscar's financier's angry assistant to whom he was not kind switches sides and tells Gary what's going on, giving him a crucial piece of information. Meanwhile, Gary's son, apparently unhappy with his father, contacts the Oscar saying he wants to endorse him and lay out the dirt about his dad. He convinces Oscar it will be valuable publicity as the election approaches. Oscar shows up on a live feed for a news network, and Gary's son releases the crucial information on the air which proves the election is being rigged. The bad guy is caught. Gary has seen his son out of the audience's sight and they've hatched this plan together, exposed a corrupt politician, and brought to light the fraudulent activity in politics in a high profile way. Gary is offered his seat back without contest, but declines, deciding to retire. Though the fight goes on, he has fought his part in the war and he has won, and now he can spend time with his son.
If we want to get extra sappy, we could say Oscar was coming in to submit a bill that would increase Gary's son's difficulty in getting adequate medical care, and now Tiny Tim is going to live!
We could. I mean, Dickens did it, right? ... or was that just in the Muppets version?
Either way, look! I just wrote a little story.
Where do we go from here?
Next, I would start asking myself a lot of questions. Does anything seem too convenient? You bet it does! How is Gary's son able to convince Oscar he should show up at a hospital on a live national television feed? The young man would have to have some serious connections, or a particular wit, or a bit of information that would convince Oscar of such a thing. So guess what? I'm going to start thinking about the son's character, who he is, what he does, his desires. And I'll do it with the financier too, and the assistant. As I explore these people, I'll have bad ideas that have no place and a few ideas that fit perfectly! Sometimes, the original idea will slowly morph over time. Gary might end up being a local business owner, Oscar might be a corporate CEO, the Thing might be an upcoming change in the local zoning or licensing laws, and the thievery might be paid-off government zoning officials. As you can imagine, these might end up being very different stories, with different scopes and characters and messages.
But through all this, the structure, or at least its principals, remain the same.
And that's the jist of it. I start with an outline like this and just keep writing details, and changing things that make more sense, or feel better, or say something that I want to say. Eventually, I've got so many details written in that it only makes sense to stop writing in outline form and just start writing what is actually seen and said and revealed, in the format of whatever medium I'm writing for.
Like I said before, this is probably how anybody writes stories. I hope this post hasn't been entirely banal and you found something helpful, interesting, or amusing somewhere along the way.
I intend to continue on with these little articles until I've caught up to my current stage of production and then continue the blog from there as a more in-depth way of updating you on my progress with Spooky Corps, as well as provide some educational behind-the-scenes, or... in-my-head stuff. And maybe in articulating my method, I'll learn something myself. They say you should teach to learn, so there you go.
Thanks for reading. If you want to stay updated, it is entirely possible there is a way to subscribe to this blog. I don't know anything about that, so I'll tell you to subscribe to the Spooky Corps project's Facebook page instead. I'll be back to work on Spooky Corps on Thursday. I'm really excited to dig back into Part One, bringing it up to the scope of the whole story, now that it's fuller. The ideas are already there, and my fingers are itching.
dictated, typed, not read. It's far too late for proofreading.
[I have since proofread and probably missed several glaring mistakes. -ed.]