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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, July 27, 2007

bones, muscles, skin: the anatomy of story

Yesterday I was talking about the idea of using the technique of writing a "story treatment"--a document once routinely used in screenwriting--for novels. I mused about perhaps drafting a sample section of story treatment for an existing novel, and I haven't forgotten that; I'd like to try it.

I'm thinking now of the preceding stage: the "step-outline", in which you develop the bare bones of the story, perhaps on index-cards. I had already used index-cards as a way of helping myself plot stories for many years by 1990, when I first came upon a set of notes of one of Robert McKee's storytelling workshops. (A workshop student, typing furiously on a laptop, had taken excellent notes, a copy of which had been obtained by a CBC executive who had also attended the workshop. I was a struggling writer with two mortgages and couldn't afford the workshop. She took pity on me and let me have a copy of the bootlegged notes--I was after all trying to write a series for them. And Robert, if you're reading this, don't worry: I have since bought a hardcover copy of your book, and was delighted to do so!) They were a revelation. How eagerly I read through the photocopied pages of typed notes.

McKee's method changed my approach to using index-cards, and I immediately put his ideas to work in drafting a novel I had been working on called Truth of the Python, about a Vancouver hypnotherapist who inadvertently regresses a bed-wetting client to a past life--as the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Mckee's methodology made this a much more purposeful exercise: I isolated my main plot and subplots, and gave each an act structure.

I still have those index-cards (or most of them)--I just pulled them from a file in my cabinet. I see I developed three separate stacks. One is a "master stack" of 4 x 6" cards that contain only the act turning-points of the plot and each subplot, of which I had five. The plots are labeled A through F, and each act has a number--so A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.

Then there is a stack of 3 x 5" index cards containing the individual scenes (this stack appears to be incomplete, alas), filling in the steps between the major turning-points on the 4 x 6 cards.

Finally, I have another, separate stack of 3 x 5 cards devoted to "thematic" developments in the story. These cards represent the idea-content or the significance of the story developments to my protagonist, Philip Dozier. I can't quite tell now exactly how I used these "theme" cards. Each one contains some assertions written longhand in pencil, along with a page-reference at the bottom-left corner (I think these are references to my binder of notes), and a sequential number in red pencil in the bottom-right corner. There are 37 of these cards.

For example, card 5 contains the story question for the book as a whole--the A-line question, which I phrased as "Will Philip find meaning in his life?" The card goes on to discuss the implications of the "inciting incident", or the scene that kicks off the story. (In this scene, Philip regresses his client, Greg Brodie, to a distant past life as Pythagoras, but also discovers that he, Philip, apparently had a role in that remote time as well, and the whole session is crowned with the appearance, through Greg, of an apparently all-knowing "discarnate" entity that calls itself Khepra.) Card 6 makes the comment, "Phil thinks he wants 'meaning', but in truth he seeks life: the sustenance of the heart."

Weird? Perhaps. My aim was to take my ethereal, spiritual idea, and turn it into a dramatic story, with a proper act-structure and cliff-hanging turning-points. It pretty much worked, and indeed I was able to get representation for this book at A P Watt, a prestigious London agency. The "index-card" approach had stood me in good stead.

I developed the method further with my next effort: a novel called Observer that I started writing in 1994. This was a space-age murder mystery, also set in Vancouver, that had my protagonist, a financially independent loner named Connell Smith, investigating the killing of a local software entrepreneur. In this work I prepared the drafting by writing the whole story on index-cards first, winding up with a stack of 90 4 x 6 cards, which I have in front of me now.

I recall crafting and recrafting this stack, moving between it and my notes binder. As I developed the story, I would draft cards, changing them, throwing them out, inserting new ones as I went. As the stack developed, I would periodically sit down with it and go through the stack sequentially, visualizing the story unfolding. As I turned each card, I would feel a sense of "yes!" and move on to the next card. As soon as I hit a problem, a feeling that what I was reading did not really flow, or push the action to a new level, I would get to work on identifying the problem and solving it. Rejig some cards, add one or two, and start again.

While plotting this story, because it was a mystery, I also developed another set of cards, yellow 3 x 5 ones, on which I recorded the protagonist's evolving theory of the murder. This way I, the author, who knew who did it and why, could keep track of the working theory in the mind of the protagonist and of the reader. Each new story event would cause that evolving theory to change.

Card 1 (theory 1), for example, is "sabotage/revenge by a disgruntled employee". (The victim, Rick Matthews, was found shot to death in his office in Richmond, B.C.) Card 2 is "sabotage by competitors". Card 3 is "sabotage by vencaps/investors in order to grab more of Mattrix (Rick's company) cheaply". And so on, until the climax of the story, when the full truth comes out. I found this method very helpful, for I could always, when working on any given part of the book, check to see what the current theory of the killing was. (Plus, of course, I had to come up with all these different theories of the murder--whew!)

I divided the story into chapters, and gave each chapter its own header-card, with the chapter number, as well as a word signifying its key event, and a phrase expressing the significance of the event. For example, the header-card for chapter 1 has the word "murder", and the phrase, "the trauma of loss"--the significance of the event for my hero, who was heavily invested in the victim's company. Chapter 2 is labeled "conspiracy" and "Connell decides to sleuth the crime for himself".

My story, as always, was weird--but it did flow. I do believe in and recommend the method.

Sometime over the past day, maybe in the dead of night again (although I did not spend much time awake last night), I thought of the story-development documents in terms of the parts of the body. The step-outline is the skeleton. The treatment is the organs and muscles. The actual draft is the skin and hair.

Note that in order to live, we need all of those things. And just because the skin and hair is all you see as an end-user, it doesn't mean that you can do without the other, structural elements. The skin and hair, of course, lie over them.

So, yes, maybe a story treatment for my next novel.

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  • A very good post, Paul. I've been re-reading my copy of STORY, and thinking about note-carding my current fantasy WIP. Your post has persuaded me to go ahead and do just that. d:)

    By Anonymous Debra Young, at July 27, 2007 10:44 AM  

  • Thanks, Debra. It would be great to think that some positive result could come out of one of these posts!

    By Blogger paulv, at July 27, 2007 5:01 PM  

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