Special Events — The heart of storytelling

I love verbs and I’m suspicious of nouns.  So it’s not surprising that what really attracts me to any kind of a story is what happens. And what keeps me turning the pages or glued to the screen is anticipation of what happens next.

Sure, I’ll come back to a book or a TV show or a movie because the character or actor interests me.  But, in most cases, I’m interested enough to give them another try because they have paid off in memorable events.  In other words, I trust them because of their actions.  So story building, essentially, depends on generating good events.  Without a doubt, they need to connect in some logical fashion and it would be nice if the characters involved are sympathetic, but if nothing interesting happens, forget about it.

So where to events come from?  What makes a good event?  How many events do you need?  What makes a good collection of events?

In fiction, events come from everywhere — experiences, dreams, imagination.  They may emerge unexpectedly from seat-of-the-pants writing or they may be collected from many sources into lists.  The lists may be random or they may be aggregated around a core idea or feeling.  The core idea of “Peter’s Shell” was turning “The Cask of Amontillado” (imprisonment) up-side down (freedom).  The core feeling of “Waverley” was loneliness.

The first event of “The Cask of Amontillado” is the protagonist tricking Fortunato into coming with him.  Note that the protagonist does something.

Whichever way events are generated, many of them will be weak or useless.  I take a list, either derived from my pages of text or created as a list, and strike out anything that doesn’t interest me.  (The ones that interest me might not interest others, but I have little hope that they will interest others if they don’t engage me.)  Among those that are struck out will be some events that are needed for the story.  Maybe.  It is amazing how many times things that seem to be needed really aren’t.  Writing the story without these events usually works since readers have the ability to fill in what they need.  Some of these events may simply convey some needed facts.  The facts can often find their ways into the story by other means.  In any case, I put question marks next to these events as reminders.

The verbs — good, strong, active verbs — are at the heart of why these events interest me.  (“Trick” is a great verb.)  Can any of these events be made more interesting?  Often, yes.  I go through the list and try and push things to the limit.  In one story, a scene where a character chastised another became one where she demanded he sign a separation agreement.  Finding ways to push to the limits is not hard.  Accepting what comes out is.  It usually “messes up the story,” requiring a lot of rewriting.  It always makes things harder on the characters.  When I am being diligent, I will write the scene in the full-on way before I decide to reject it or go with it, no matter what he consequences.  In most cases, it makes for a better story.

Besides going to the limit, there are other things that can make an event more interesting.  The protagonist in “The Cask of Amontillado” uses reverse psychology at every turn.  His ironic attitude enlivens every event.  Images (such as the tinkling bells of Fortunato’s motley) can also make a scene irresistible.

So now you have a list of events with great verbs that go to the extreme, have attitude and are filled with memorable images.  They need to go into the right order, an order that will make sense, reduce confusion and build.  You may find yourself with too many or two few events, depending on what you are trying to create.  (A good rule of thumb is one event, on average, every three to four pages.  One event may occur in more than one location, especially in a screenplay.  A short story may have fewer event because there may be more narrative set up.  Flash fiction will probably have extremely compressed events, with a high average for the wordcount.)

The best circumstance is too many events.  Looking for further cuts is usually a good idea.  Not much needs to be done in a case where bigger is not a problem (e.g., turning a short story into a novella).  When length is pretty much fixed, as with a screenplay, working backward is one good technique to identify unnecessary events.  The toughest part of having too many events is letting go of those you love but don’t need to tell the story.

I’m more likely to have too few events.   Working backward, asking questions about the characters and getting other folks to read what I have can help me come up with more.  If I’m lucky, the list itself will suggest holes to fill.  If all else fails, simply working on the rewrite, telling the story from start to finish, will get my imagination going.  Each new event, of course, needs to be challenged.  It won’t help to fill gaps or pad the text with dull and mediocre scenes.

There are times when the idea or feeling for the story is too slight.  In these cases, it is best to put the work aside.  Sometime in the future, you may discover that the events really have a different focus, one that is stronger.  Or it may be that the events find their ways into other works over time.  But some events, scenes, sequences and draft books should simply be abandoned.

Almost there now.  The final question is what makes a good collection of events?  Having interesting scenes that all belong to the story and flow together is more than a good start.  But there is a danger that the sum may be less than the parts.  It may not add up to a compelling story.  Here’s where the tools of plotting, looking for motivations and architectures of acts and story design can come in handy.  Everyone from Aristotle to Robert McKee have written about construction of obligatory scenes, the climax, inciting incidents, points of ritual death, pinches, etc., etc.  If all this is a mystery to you and you’re interested, I’m happy to add references, but there is lots of help out there.

Events, however, get you most of the way.  They can provide the go/no go for people with not enough time to write.  (And I don’t know any writers who do have enough time to write.)  The characters we love — in fiction, in history and in our lives — are memorable because of events.  Arthur pulls a sword from a stone.  Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants.  Your child is born.  We reference people by names, associations (works for, is cousin of) and physical descriptions.  But the most powerful reference is he/she is the one who did an interesting act.  This is at the core of storytelling.

My doings:  I had a book proposal turned down and four contest entries have failed to even final.  Oddly, I’m not discouraged.  Within an hour the editor who turned down the book asked if I would be interested in collaborating with another author.  (I would.)  One contest returned the best feedback I’ve gotten on my fiction.  Clear and actionable.  The other had two apoplectic judges’ sheets from non-pros that trashed the work, but the one from the pro said:

“Great job!  Entertaining read, & a fresh, topical (identity theft, child pornography) spin for the plot.  A computer dude for a hero–fresh!” and “Wonderful style, very readable & very fitting with the sub-genre.  Some wonderful turns of phrase.  I felt fully immersed in the story as I was reading.”  She gave a score of 149 out of a possible 150 points and said to “get this puppy out to agents.”

I’ll be doing that later today.

No sheets yet from the other two entries.  We’ll see.

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2 responses to “Special Events — The heart of storytelling

  1. Oddly enough, my hook is the characters. If I don’t like them, preferably including the antagonist, I don’t care what they do. I close the book or change the channel.

    That said, of course they need to do something interesting. For me that’s almost never a question of crash-bam-boom. I still contend that it should be possible to construct a viable story that hinges on a decision whether ketchup is poured from a particular bottle, and character reactions to that decision. As story incidents go, I lean toward expectation reversal (c.f. Joss Whedon and Patricia C. Wrede), or something we having seen before that is nevertheless believable for that character.

    I’m here via FB. It’s nice to reconnect after all these years!

  2. forgingthefuture

    I love characters, too, Karen. And character/plot isn’t (ideally) an either/or. However, you might be able to create a story people want to read — enough to pay for — from ketchup. I cannot.
    When I look across the stories of mine that I enjoy reading but have gone nowhere, it seems in many cases that I have a character who delights me but who doesn’t do enough. And enough is dictated in large part by the form (short story, script, novel, etc.).
    The fiction I consume has enough events (often with reversals) in almost every case.

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