The Synergy of Two Books About Story

“The writer is a man who seeks a larger world.”
— Dwight V. Swain, in Techniques of the Selling Writer

“You are the slave of your story, not its master.  You don’t make decisions, you make discoveries.”
Brian McDonald, in Invisible Ink
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I don’t like the word “synergy” very much, although I’m not so sure why.

I am a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-my-parts kind of guy, but the word smacks of marketing, as if it’s the name of a used-car dealership.  Maybe my skepticism is because it’s a description of process that’s everywhere anyway, of emergent properties arising out of separate elements.  It probably has a lot to do with the management-speak where I work, of “incentivizing proactive synergistic visions, going forward.”

But in the case of two books on fiction writing I’ve been reading, the word actually seems to have some meaning, in the sense of the “cooperative action of two or more stimuli, resulting in a different or greater response than that of the individual stimuli.”  But then maybe the word I’m really looking for here is “synchronicity”, the seeming purely coincidental occurrences that take on meaning….

The two books are Techniques of the Selling Writer, published in 1965 by the late Dwight V. Swain, who wrote prolifically for magazines and films, while teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma, and Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, 2010, by Brian McDonald, screenwriter and teacher.

I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel, just getting started really.  I’ve written a few scenes, I know my primary characters pretty well, I know how the story begins, how it ends, and what the main character thinks he’s doing.  But I slowed down, and then came to a halt.

I’ve been realizing I don’t know what a story is.  I know one when I hear or read one. But I don’t know how to make a real story, what propels it, what keeps it moving, what gives it heart and meaning.  Characters, setting, plot, dialogue, scenes, conflict, all those elements of so many books on writing, don’t give me what I need to know about story.

Techniques of the Selling Writer sets out to do just that.  With that title, you might think it’s a book about being as commercial as possible, of following some set formula in whatever genre can make you the most money.

In fact, it’s not that at all.  It’s about the survival of the fittest, the fittest way to tell a story that can stand out amongst serious competition in the marketplace of fiction publishing.

It’s about the basic bolts and nuts of story framework, from building scenes and character development to larger issues of what makes a writer.  It’s a handbook about getting to grips with story.

It’s not about avant-garde writing, of encouraging the James Joyce in each of us, but about the craft of story as we may find it widely distributed in the culture about us, of books and film and games, although often we will find that such stories are lacking.

These comments won’t be a review really, just the main things I got out of each book in my quest, almost like that of a character in a book, for story….

Most Useful Description of Technique

Techniques Selling WriterSwain starts his useful description of technique for me when he begins to write about “motivation-reaction units.”  That almost sounds like widgets from a factory, but he’s really talking about building feeling as the character confronts situations and reacts, which the reader then begins to participate in.  There is cause and effect at the core of effective story, and these motivation-reaction units link together as you write to provide a thread of meaningful causation.

Something happens of significance to the character, and of pertinence to the story: the reader sees that an active response is necessary from the character.  The character’s reaction ensues.  There is some change, perhaps small, in the character’s state of affairs or state of mind.  This should precipitate another motivating stimulus and then another reaction.  These linked units gradually build.  “The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”  The chain should be strictly chronological so that the writing leaves an impression of a continuing stream of reality, with appropriate “haptic” (bodily) sensation and involvement.

There is much more detail in Swain’s teasing out of this basic story process, of course, but this gives the gist.  And each M-R unit, as Swain calls them, must be pertinent to the story as a whole.  It may be harder to do than to say….

But at its simplest, for a beginner: Write a sentence without your character (becomes motivation).  Follow it with a sentence about your character (becomes reaction).   Of course, as one becomes more skilled, the units of each type may be somewhat larger.  And although this method might sound simple, or simple-minded, it “sometimes poses problems of choice that are little less than fiendish.”

The next level up (can we say storey?) in the tower of story is that of scene and sequel.  I kind of know what a scene is, but I hadn’t really thought about sequel as a technical term in this context.

Scene and Sequel

Story, Swain says is built with those two basic units.  A scene is a unit of dramatic conflict lived through by character and reader.  Sequels are the transitions between scenes.  He makes it sound so simple….

A scene functions to provide interest, and to move the story forward.  It provides opposition to your character.  It’s a unit of conflict.  The structure of a scene is 1) Goal 2) Conflict and 3) Disaster.  I like that no. 3!

What is disaster?  Swain says it’s the scene’s hook — providing logical but unanticipated developments.  It often comes in the form of new information received.  If a scene doesn’t end in actual disaster, it must raise an intriguing question for the future.  The skill in this may be to make the disaster potential, rather than actual.

Swain insists that all this can succeed for the literary work as much for the potboiler.  But one can’t be afraid of drama.

What then of sequel?  “It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.”  The sequel functions to translate disaster into goal, to telescope reality and to control the story’s tempo.  Swain says its structure is 1) Reaction 2) Dilemma 3) Decision.  (I’m continually impressed about how logical Swain is about these creative tools.)  Our hero decides on a new goal and the next scene, with its struggles, begins to arise.

Swain says the source of story satisfaction for the reader is the release of tension.  Or from another angle, the way the story turns out is your reader’s key source of satisfaction.

He goes on from scene and sequel to discuss the beginning, middle and end of a story, and what constitutes each.  The beginning ends for Swain when the main character commits to action against the danger or threat he realizes he faces.  And then the middle of the story becomes how the main character becomes more and more constricted as to his avenues of action.  Towards the end we see more clearly what the main character deserves, and what he gets.

Populating the World

Swain’s chapter on story characters, The People in Your Story, is refreshing in its straightforward and common-sense approach.  Use the least number of characters to do the job of advancing the story.  If a character is not in some way either for or against your main character, then they’re not serving a useful story function.  And remember that stress reveals character.

Each character must appear to move under his own power.  So one must supply each character with 1) Lack and 2) Compensation.  What makes a character interesting?  Contradiction.

There’s much, much more to all of this of course than I can relate here.  Swain’s strength is his logical analysis of the mechanisms of how to move a story along, while leaving in the would-be writer’s hand the extent of the creative variations that can be devised.  He has an old-fashioned (but perhaps ever present) sense of what the novel can accomplish that’s definitely not postmodern.

So, Swain made me all optimistic about being able to get my hands on the levers of story.  Then I read Brian McDonald’s short book (only about 150 pages), and my optimism took another turn for the better.

Invisible Ink

Invisible InkIn Invisible Ink, McDonald has let me finally understand what theme is and more importantly how it functions in a story.  Lots of books about writing place importance on thematic purpose and consistency.  I just could never feel what it really meant in whatever I was trying to write.

McDonald’s description of the armature as a way of talking about theme suddenly made the whole thing much clearer to me.  He likens the armature to the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  The armature is the moral of the tale, the purpose of the story, the point of all the drama.  What does one really want to get across?

As an example, he refers to the animated film The Iron Giant.  The intriguing armature of this work is: “What if a gun had a conscience and didn’t want to be a gun anymore?”  If the armature works, in the end it will move the reader.

Armature provide the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.  McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool.  “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

Bring in the Clones

The concept of characters as clones was another aha! moment in McDonald’s discussion of the invisible strands that tie a real story together.

“Clones are characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path.”  Clones can display, often very subtly, the shades of meaning in the story’s world.

For instance, the cravenness, corruption and pitiful nature of Gollum in Lord of the Rings represents what could well happen to the hero Frodo if he gives in to the Ring.  We can measure the success of one character by the failure of another.  Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz — the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man — are another example.  They are all artful clones of Dorothy.

This concept allows characters to serve the needs of the story, to make it more powerful, and not just be random personalities that the writer allows to wander onto the set.  Not every character has to be a clone, but it is obviously a powerful tool for illustrating the armature.

 Ritual Pain

“…It is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible.  You must back them into a corner and force them to change.  Make it as painful as you can.”

The thought of causing other people pain usually gives me the horrors.  But as a writer you have to put your poor fictional people through hoops of fire on the horns of dilemmas.  This is a bloodymindedness that I definitely have to work on in what I want to write.  I should think of it, though, as McDonald recommends: “Ritual pain means painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.”

He notes also that you have to find the right kind of ritual pain for each character.

The Masculine and the Feminine

McDonald takes the politically incorrect, but intuitively true, notion of real differences between men and women and applies it to storytelling.  Men do tend to prefer action flicks.  Everything is on the surface and introspection is not much in evidence.  Woman do tend to prefer depictions of people emotionally involved with each other, with not necessarily a lot of forward movement in the story.  His main point is that to get readers to care about what they’re reading, both these aspects need to be evident and in balance.  They deepen each other, just like men and women.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is another mechanism by which an author can show the extent of a character’s change, of his sincerity, of growth.  “Simply put, the climax of a story puts the protagonist in an intense situation that forces a choice that shows growth or lack of growth.”

Superior Position

McDonald describes “superior position” as one way to cultivate either suspense or humour.   It’s when the audience knows, or suspects, something that the characters do not.  He says this bit of craft is what made Alfred Hitchcock a masterful storyteller during his fifty-year career.

There’s more, of course, in McDonald’s book but these were most of the kernels that I took from it.

It remains to be seen of course if I can incorporate what I’ve learned from these two books in my own writing.  But I do feel more confident.  At the same time I seem to aspire to what Thomas Mann (cited by McDonald) once wrote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

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