Category Archives: Plot Structure

Those Last Three Minutes of Casablanca

Author’s Note: If you haven’t watched Casablanca, do so immediately. This is the movie that changed the way Hollywood made movies and it’s something every writer should understand. There are SPOILERS below, but you need the explanation to really make my points stick.

Casablanca (1942) is a landmark film and one of the top movies of all time. What most people don’t realize is that this movie, specifically the way it was written, changed filmmaking forever. Before Casablanca, the prevailing sentiment in Hollywood was that telling a character-based story required a much longer film. Take Gone With The Wind (1939) with a running time of 3 hours and 58 minutes as a good example of this. Most movies of the time period were shorter, nearly devoid of plot or substance, and played to the audience on a purely esoteric level.

My two favorite movies from this period come from my love of big band music (I was born 50 years too late). Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) feature Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Each of these movies are around the standard ninety minute timeline of most Hollywood features of the 20th century. If you watch them (and I do recommend them – pure popcorn fun), there is virtually no substance. This was a standard practice during this time. Casablanca came along and changed all of that by focusing on the character, Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart.

What Casablanca did was very simple. Rick had several things (goals) that he wanted to achieve. Despite being an ex-patriot, Rick wanted to stand up against the Nazis, he also wanted to win back Ilse, his former lover, and he desperately needed friends in the local area to survive (mainly Henri, the police chief). The movie weaves the story of the “letters of transit” which are basically a “pass” from Nazi-occupied North Africa. Rick obtains them and they essentially are the ultimate “get out of jail free” cards. He’s prepared to use them when Ilse suddenly comes back into his life – with her new husband Victor (a famous Resistance leader).

Ultimately, the story puts Rick in the unenviable situation of having the letters of transit and not being able to win Ilse back. He goes to the airport to meet her and her husband and all of the audience’s emotional involvement in the storyline comes to a crescendo in the last three minutes and forty or so seconds. In that time period, Rick gives Ilse and Victor the letters of transit (“We’ll always have Paris”). When the Nazi officer responsible for the area arrives and demands the plane stop its departure, Rick kills him in front of the police chief, Henri. Instead of arresting Rick, Henri tells his men that Major Strosser is dead and they should round up the usual suspects. Henri and Rick walk off into the darkness – “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The movie ends right there – fade out, roll credits, end scene. It’s brilliant.

Instead of a four hour character drama, Casablanca did the same thing in ninety minutes and it became a benchmark for storytelling. Not to say that movies after it, especially in the 1940s and 50s didn’t try to hold on to the fun, no substance formula – they did, but Casablanca proved that a character drama could fit in the same amount of time given to those popcorn flicks. How does that apply to fiction writers?

Very simple. Your book is likely going to be a movie in your reader’s head. Tie those emotional knots and deliver them to the reader as close together as possible for the maximum emotional response. If you’ve cried at the end of a movie, you recognize this. Try to do the same in your writing – your readers will thank you.

Pre-Writing and Screenwriting

Until 2012, I was a pantser. Truth be told, I still write short fiction without a plan sometimes, but I’ve been fully converted over to outlining. It’s a long story, but it’s worth the effort. The very first novel I wrote, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, took me 18 months to write. Without a roadmap, I would write all the little ideas and delete troves of words before latching onto another idea and doing the same thing over and over again. It was a slog and I hardly remember finishing it. When I had the idea that became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL, I vowed that I wouldn’t do that whole awful process again. I determined that I was going to figure out how to write a novel. I’ll cut off some of the story here, but a book on screenwriting changed the way that I write. That book was “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” by Jeffrey Alan Schecter. It’s a quick, easy read that gives you insights into character development, story pacing, and a structure that resonates with your reader.

Schecter’s book impressed the folks at Mariner Software enough that they built a screenwriting program called Contour that follows his method to the letter. When I found out about Contour, I quickly downloaded the free demo. From there, I ended up purchasing the program. It’s a part of my pre-writing process, which is the theme of the month, so let me break down how I get ready to write a novel.

Let’s say I have an idea already pretty formed in my head. Chances are that I’ve started gathering some notes on that idea in a notebook (yes, I have a notebook problem – there are never enough). I take that pretty formed idea in my head and start to make sure I can craft it into some of the key notions that Schecter teaches about character development. The takeaway here is that without good characters, your story doesn’t live to tell the tale. Forget to develop your protagonist and your book never reaches the end of Act One because there’s nothing to change them. Fail to develop a solid antagonist and your story dies in Act Two. By building the character development first, even before I start the plotting pieces and exercises, I have a solid idea of where the story is going to go based on the goals of my characters. From there, I go through Contour’s beats and guide sheets to develop a “straw” outline – that’s my first pass entirely through Contour. I come back and add more detail to the areas that need it – thanks to big text boxes and the like. Once I’ve done that, it’s time to open Scrivener, my writing software.

Once in Scrivener, I use what’s in Contour to help flesh out a basic structure. I create the building blocks in various ways – either folders and chapters for scenes, the cork board function for random thoughts or unplaced ideas, and any references I need to consult as I write. With the data from Contour about specific plot points, character goals, and what the characters need to discover/solve/act upon, by the time I’ve laid out my pre-writing, I have a serious amount of data already in the program ready for me to use. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but for me it’s better than trying to handle those dozens of notebooks and pieces of scratch paper. If I take the time to enter the ideas in Contour, it asks the questions for me and my answers further flesh out the plot. From there, writing is relatively easy.

How easy? At this point, I’ve invested several hours in building out Contour and laying out Scrivener the way I want it to. For me, the end result is that I write faster. Remember RUNS IN THE FAMILY? Eighteen months from start to finish? With the method I laid out above, I wrote SLEEPER PROTOCOL in seven weeks. I wrote the recently published sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL in about nine weeks. It’s a much faster process when I know the route that I’m going to take. By laying out the entire novel, if a character decides to do something differently that I want them to, I can let that play out a little and still have a clear ending in mind. I can adjust things as I go, which is much easier than stopping and starting all over. With a full outline, I know where I have to get back to, and it makes a difference.

No two methods are the same, though. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, that intense planning and note taking process leads to big changes with my speed and productivity, but it may not work for you. There are a million ways to write a novel, but they don’t all require any prewriting. They do require writing, so get to it.

 

Prewriting: Getting Your NaNoWriMo Game Face On

I tried to discovery write my way through my first two National Novel Writing Months, but failed both times. It wasn’t until my third attempt that I committed to the change that made the difference. For years, my friends and mentors tried to tempt me into outlining, promising mad productivity gains, stronger stories, and less time spent drudging through the editing phase. I resisted because I was convinced that outlining would ruin the joy of creation, dampen the rush I got through discovering my story and my characters. But between you and I? The real reason was because I had no idea how to outline effectively.

Every other time I tried outlining, I started by listing plot points. What I didn’t realize was that I was stacking up two-by-fours and hoping to end up with a house. My first major challenge was to realize that I needed to instead start with the big picture.

Story and plot are not the same thing. The plot is what the character does, the story is what the plot does to them. The plot of Star Wars: A New Hope starts with a boy who grows up on a moisture farm before running away with a space wizard, two droids, and a pair of smugglers. They are captured, and during his escape, the boy saves a princess before fleeing the Empire. They all join the Rebellion and our hero ends up blowing up a weapon of ultimate destruction and evil. The movie’s plot takes 67 words and 3 sentences to describe. The story can be stated much more simply. Star Wars: A New Hope is about a boy who comes from humble beginnings only to discover that he has the ability to change his world by standing up to a great evil. 33 words, 1 sentence.

If that’s not a familiar story, you haven’t been consuming much fiction. Frodo from Lord of the Rings, the titular character of the Harry Potter series, and even Simba from Disney’s The Lion King all experience the same story. Truth be told, humans have been telling each other the same stories for most of our history. Keep it simple and find a story that will resonate with your readership. This will be the foundation for your outline.

My next breakthrough came when I took Dave Farland’s Story Puzzle class. I learned that I needed to build my story like I would build a house, by starting with the studs and working my way out. A plot’s studs are its scenes, and scenes are nothing more than goals paired with failures that lead to an eventual success. Understanding your story’s try-fail cycles means that you need to dig down into your characters’ motivations. How is your protagonist going to respond to the initiating event, both emotionally and then through action? How is that reaction going to interfere with the antagonist’s designs and how is that character going to respond? Rinse, and repeat. Once you understand what your protagonist and antagonist want and how they’ll go about getting it, the rest falls into place.

So, after much work I had a functional outline, by far the best I had ever written. I started my third NaNoWriMo attempt. I was only days in before I found a plot problem. It wasn’t a big plothole, but enough of a stumbling block that I missed my daily goal. In the past, I would have agonized and insisted on filling the hole before being able to move on. However, the next day I started my writing session by typing, “<<Assume my character accomplishes her goal, she disarms the bomb and saves her friends.>>” I then opened a new scrivening and started writing my next scene. The beauty of the outline was that I didn’t need to discover the end of the scene. It was all planned out, I could move on and come back to fix it later.

Things were going well, I was reaping all the benefits that my friends and mentors had promised me. I was cruising along, exceeding my daily word counts. Then one day I had an idea. It was good enough that it was worth changing my whole outline. This was my third challenge. I was worried that my discovery writer past was catching up with me, that I was going to ditch my novel’s blueprint and would end up wasting all the time I had saved and all the progress I had made. Rather than starting to knock down the walls I had already built, I took a few days off of writing and reworked my outline mid-NaNoWriMo. It seemed crazy to do, but the idea was just that much better than what I had planned before.

The outline may have been my book’s blueprint, but I wasn’t committed to following every detail. It was there to help me visualize the whole structure of my novel and decide where my renovations fit in. I knew which walls were load bearing, where all the piping was run, and how the rooms would flow one to the other. Because I understood the totality of what I was trying to build, I could honestly and objectively decide if my new idea was better. I went back to writing with a newly revised outline and I ended up finishing strong, winning my third NaNoWriMo attempt.
Though I have been wooed into becoming an outliner, I still find ways to discover. It hasn’t taken away from the thrill, but rather increased the satisfaction of a story well crafted. This month on the Fictorians, you’re going to hear from many writers about their own experiences with prewriting and the techniques that allow them to keep up the grueling NaNoWriMo pace. If you are an experienced NaNo’er, welcome back. If you are a newbie who is considering taking on the mountain for the first time, welcome to the family. We have 30 days left to build our base camps, folks. Will you be ready to start the climb?

When Setting Defines (or Defies) Genre

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve referenced in multiple posts here at Fictorians regarding how the kind of universe your story exists within helps define its genre. The rule was brought to my attention via Daniel Abraham in a Clarkesworld post on grimdark fantasy that’s well worth a full read. Mr. Abraham in turn attributes the rule of thumb to Walter Jon Williams, and I’ll quote the relevant passage of the Clarkesworld piece (one of their “Another Word” series of posts) below so that no meaning is lost in the paraphrase:

“In fantasy, the world is essentially benign; in science fiction, the world is essentially amoral; in horror, the world is malefic. Put in terms of illness, fantasy evil is an illness from which the world must recover. In science fiction, evil is a social construct put on a universe that simply is the way it is. In horror, evil is the natural deformity of the world from which there is no way to recover.”

— Daniel Abraham, “Literatures of Despair,” Clarkesworld, 2013

Now, as with any rule of thumb, there are grains of truth to this surrounded by sand-hills (salt-mountains? I’m not clear on what kind of “grains” this metaphor refers to, and so my metaphor is collapsing) of wiggle-room. I’ve spoken at length about how genres tend to bleed together and how often works of fiction fail to fall squarely into one genre or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take this rule of thumb at face value. Close examination of the physical (or metaphysical) underpinnings of what makes your fabricated world tick can help you decide what kind of story you should be telling, and even how that story ought to end. For those authors who have an easier time coming up with fantastically detailed worlds than they do defining a particular story to tell within them (you know who you are), here is one way to narrow down the multitudes of options. It can also be a useful set of guideposts to pantser-style writers who find their story getting away from them in ways they don’t like, as opposed to ways they do.

And that’s not all the rule is good for. Like all rules, it’s good for breaking. Say your goal is deconstructing a popular genre. Well then, perhaps your Tolkienesque epic fantasy story can run afoul of a universe where everything is horrible all the time and the heroes can ultimately lose or the horrific truths forming the foundation of your world can be unexpectedly defeated by the actions of the protagonist, fundamentally restructuring everything that came before. Nothing can be as exhilarating (if done well) or as frustrating (if done poorly) as a twisted expectation.

If you do go this route, I recommend a “frog in boiling water” approach, even though that particular metaphor is untrue (it turns out frogs are not that stupid). Begin with the obvious notes of one genre but quickly introduce a discordant note that points to the genre your story will eventually more into. Gradually shift from one to the other as the plot progresses, so that the transformation feels necessary by the very end. This is particularly effective in shifting from fantasy or science fiction into horror, particularly if you can ramp up the dread while staving off the final realization in the reader until the last possible moment.

In the end, it’s best to think of this rule of thumb, like any rule of thumb, as a tool rather than a boundary. Just remember another saying I’ve become fond of: don’t tear anything down before you understand why it was built in the first place.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.