Ep. 9 - Trailblazin'
Yeeeeehaww, take my horse to the old town road and whatnot. In this episode, we talk about the roads that have been built for you, and the trailblazing that's up to you.
What happened to Run: Prometheus? Why don’t I like it so far?
There are a few diagnostics I can run, but they all come back to preparation.
Here’s what I knew going in:
I wanted to try a new form of writing based on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstien. Frankenstien is written with a frame narrative where this ship captain is taking down Frankenstien’s recollections. I started off Run: Prometheus with some dude getting hired to put together Annabelle’s memoir.
I wanted to try a mystery narrative; something similar to the disappearances that take place in Hollow. Locking things inside of a mystery makes them automatically interesting! The question of what the heck is going on is compelling right up until the audience realizes that the mystery was empty all along, that nobody knew what was inside the box to begin with, and that compelling somebody toward something that doesn’t exist means that once the mystery is gone, you’re left with nothing!
I wanted to talk about doubt, and how to operate in a world where we can’t really know anything for sure because for all we know some extracosmic demon might be pranking us with a simulation of being a human being living on planet earth. The last thing you hear before you die is a twelve-dimensional Ashton Kutcher saying “You've just been punk’d!”
I wanted to discuss how many people you would hurt if the world revolved around achieving your personal happiness.
That’s great stuff to talk about! That’s no way to talk about it.
Ideas unbounded from story are like a vapor that slips out of your brain as easy as it slipped in. I had no plan, no structure; nothing but vagaries and musings. That was my one and only mistake.
In the novel Hollow, I borrowed elements from the late Roman Republic to build one of the major countries and its culture. The Romans were good at a good many things, but one thing they’re remembered for is their roads. Roman armies would build sophisticated roads throughout the empire – some of which survive to this day, and some of which were repurposed to modern highways – leading to the saying that “all roads lead to Rome.”
I always thought that the Romans were pretty silly about this. Modern road construction looks to an outsider like its barely outpacing continental drift. Even if the Romans had some brilliant Department of Transportation, I can imagine that building roads would take a lot of soldiers a long time. But this was back when I thought that soldiers mostly fought one another. I had no idea that the grand majority of a soldier’s duties actually revolve around getting things to the right place at the right time. A tank is pretty useless without fuel. An artillery piece is just an inert metal tube unless you’ve got truckloads of shells to put in them. All the heavy machinery that wins wars – even back in the Roman Republic – had to arrive on battlefields using massive, efficient transportation networks.
Now, you live in a world rife with roads, so you probably don’t know how awfully we rely on them.
I worked at a camp one summer in Alaska. The only path in and out of our camp was a three-mile stretch of beach at low tide. At least we had a path. We were near the state capital, but – fun fact – it’s physically impossible to drive to Alaska’s state capital.
That fun fact isn’t so fun anymore when you think about the people in Alaska who rely on emergency services that just can’t get there in time.
Building a road might seem slow, but try getting somewhere without one. Without a clear, passable terrain, every trip is a slog.
Let’s look at how a lack of planning led to my downfall.
I’m not of the school that you should know every part of your story beat by beat before you write it. Taken to its logical conclusion, that’s like saying that you have to write the book before you write the book. Your story is going to be messy when you first put it to paper. That’s why you never, never publish your first draft. It’s crap.
Comparatively, I mean.
You can’t plan for everything. That said, you can make things easier for yourself if you lay out a road to travel on. Luckily – or, unluckily, depending on your opinion – there are several roads that have already been built for you.
The simplest Narrative Structure for any written storytelling is as follows: Beginning, Middle, End. Act one, act two, act three.
Beginning: Introduce things as they are, then introduce a problem that might mess things up.
Middle: A catalyst sets things moving. The problem cannot be ignored. Characters change and situations change.
End: The action comes to some conclusion, leaving characters and situations changed.
These are the things you should know before writing a story.
No exceptions. Not if you’re just starting off.
I can see you wanting to make exceptions! I’m seriously not even kidding around here! No exceptions! Otherwise, you’ll end up writing Run: Prometheus!
The reason I counsel this path with no exceptions isn’t because there are no innovations to be made. Rather, within this framework, innovation becomes easier. You could say that we are slaves to this framework the same way that a ship is enslaved to the sea. The best way to exercise our freedom is to stick within the boundaries we were made for, and this three-act structure seems to be the most comprehensible storytelling method humans currently possess.
The reason the plot of Run: Prometheus doesn’t work very well (so far) is that the catalyst (asking a computer to make you happy) doesn’t come in until three-fifths of the way into the book. The reason I struggle to write Run: Prometheus is because I hinged the plot around the main character giving her life story – Frankenstein-like – to a biographer in order to get that biographer to do something, and I forgot to give the biographer a character or anything to do. So what’s the point in teaching him a lesson? I don’t know.
The last few days of February will be spent in trowing all the complicating elements I can at Run: Prometheus in a desperate attempt at creating a second and third act. The journey of writing this novel is going to be more harrowing than the actual plot ended up being, and it all comes back to preparation.
Hmm. I’ve got an inscrutable computer and a mad scientist. Who’s to say they didn’t prepare better than I did?
Next week, I plan to talk about what to do when you haven’t got a plan.