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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

anatomy of a blockbuster

Yesterday's reading: Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman; and Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux.

I spent more time than I expected reading Zuckerman's book, reading all the way through chapter 3, drawn in as ever by reading "how to" advice on how to improve storytelling. In chapter 2, Zuckerman gives an overview of the elements he feels are central to writing a "big" (that is, capable of becoming a major hit and attracting strong interest from publishers) book. These are:

  • high stakes
  • larger-than-life characters
  • the dramatic question
  • high concept
  • multiple points of view
  • a sexy or intriguing setting

By "the dramatic question" he means essentially what Robert McKee does by the "story question"--a clear, simple question (or few questions) on the reader's mind, such as whether Scarlett O'Hara will succeed in getting Ashley to return her love, and whether she will recognize that it's really Rhett she loves. Despite all the incident in the novel, these questions drive the story forward.

I like Zuckerman's take on "high concept", which defines as a "radical or even outlandish premise", such as Michael Crichton's idea of cloning disonsaurs from fossilized DNA. My own feeling is that "high concept" is appealing because it provokes an imaginative response in the potential reader (or viewer). I saw this happen myself while doing The Odyssey: people were immediately intrigued when they heard the concept for the show: "An 11-year-old boy, falling from a treefort, lapses into a coma and finds himself in a strange world populated only by children, where he only remembers that he needs to return home--wherever that is." I could see people's minds spark with curiosity and interest: what would happen in a show like that? What would it look like? The Odyssey was a high-concept show.

But I would add something further: it is essential for the high-concept story to be realistically presented. The real power of a high concept is taking a situation that most people recognize is strange or awe-inspiring (such as, what would happen if a giant asteroid smashed into the Earth?), but which they find hard to imagine, and then taking them through the experience. The audience goes through a once-in-a-lifetime (or once-in-1,000-lifetimes) experience in the safety of their livingroom. You imagine it for them.

So I think I agree with Zuckerman on that. Although small stories can be bestsellers, note that the Harry Potter series, about a wizard's boarding school, and The Da Vinci Code, about a plot surrounding the hidden life of Jesus (I think that's what it's about--haven't read it), are both high-concept works. I like high concepts, always have, so that's in my favor as a would-be blockbuster author.

And multiple points of view? Yes. Hard to write, but potentially very enriching for the emotional range and thematic range of a work. I have said before that I believe this is one of the marks of what makes an epic. My own take on it is that it creates a sense that the story is bigger than any one character, which suggests that the world is rich, complex, and meaningful.

One problem: Zuckerman uses Ken Follett's The Man from St. Petersburg as his main example book--and neither of my local libraries has a copy!

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