Just got the first outline -- for Covet Thy Neighbor -- to complete (if not actually done). Of my four stage outline meter that I talked about earlier, all acts are at 3.5 or more. Since the challenge goes to the end of the month, I'm going to top off my notes tonight and give it a little rest while I work on other outlines.
Now, at this point, the story is more thoroughly plotted than any outline I've ever done, but I haven't gone far enough for the things I hope to do with it.
And one of those things I hope to accomplish is something I haven't mentioned yet -- mainly because it was too ironic for words:
Seriously, I'm writing these stories generated by random rolls of dice from a story generator which uses basic concepts from an outdated, excessively formulaic genre.
And I'm looking for artistry out of that -- I'm looking to improve my level of artistry from it?
I happen to be very fond of irony.
There is a kind of artistry that comes from excessive planning. It's certainly not the only kind of artistry. And not necessarily the most effective kind of artistry -- very often it's the kind of artistry that is only noticed and appreciated by aficionados (mainly other artists). It can even actively interfere with the appreciation of others.
But as an aficionado myself, I happen to love certain flavors of artistry. When I talk about the storytelling techniques of various movies -- characters, plot structures -- that's really what I'm talking about. Because, compared to books, movies are excessively planned. Even the most improvisational directors (like Robert Altman, who I'll talk about later) have to do a crap-load of planning to get to the improvisational parts.
I assumed that my love of this comes from movies, and maybe also from mystery, especially Agatha Christie, who (whether she planned or not) displayed incredible artistry of this certain type I love.
But I realized today that this also comes from the fact that I started my college career doing animation. Animation is this very very weird thing where you have to plan out every single solitary frame -- and everything IN the frame even the incidental boring things like clouds and trees and grass -- ahead of time. You don't have much flexibility on that.
And then, after it's all planned out, you have a very long long long long, slow, repetitious process of actually bringing your vision to life. (Even doing it the easy way, with pixelation rather than drawing, you move your object, click, move it again, click, move it again, click, move it again, click.)
The result of this strange process where you plan everything meticulously, and then get really really really bored carrying the plan out... is a kind of mad creativity in the details. You have all this time, and you know the story inside out, and you start to come up with odd little details to enrich the story. Just to save yourself from utter boredom. A little mouse hanging out in the background, reacting to what the front characters are saying and doing. Odd things to be written on the sign on the wall.
Now days, we tend to call some of this kind of thing "Easter eggs" -- because they are little treats and meta references hidden in the story.
But there's really more to it than Easter eggs and creative details. There is also a lot of substance to the artistry that comes from looking deeply at the story.
For instance, to the mystery writer, Easter eggs are called "clues."
Clues, Themes and Foreshadowing
As mystery writers, and readers, we tend to think of clues as evidence. And it takes a lot of planning to do it right, because a mystery is more than just clues and suspense. It's a game between the writer and the reader. Everything is a clue to a reader -- because they don't know what is relevant and what isn't. Furthermore, because it is a game between reader and writer, there is a whole other level of clues -- ones that have nothing to do with the game between the killer and detective.
If you are a mystery reader (or watcher) you have undoubtedly picked the killer based on non-evidence clues before. "I know it's the gardener because he has a perfect alibi and he's the only non-obvious suspect who appeared in the first act."
If your reader can pick the killer without actually knowing the story, that's not good -- that's NOT artistry. But taking the time to handle those things -- understanding how your reader reacts to them and using them to lead the reader further astray, that is artistry. Especially if you can make them believe they already know, but still promise them enough surprise to keep them reading.
Foreshadowing is a kind of clue too, but instead of being about "whodunnit" it's about where the story is going. And it's, in some ways, the opposite of the hidden clue, because the purpose is to create anticipation -- to give the reader a glimpse of where the story is going, so they can rub their hands together with glee.
It is, in a sense, a promise.
I'll use for an example something from Alfred Hitchcock -- a true master of artistry.
At the beginning of North By Northwest, we meet ad-man Roger Thornhill. His life is completely ordinary for a Manhattan advertising executive and he's in his element, and master of his universe. What we see of him is clearly all very Usual for him. But as he walks into a hotel lobby, on his way to an ordinary lunch meeting, what is the music played by the string quartet?
It's a Most Unusual Day.
Now, if you don't know the song, or you are paying attention to Cary Grant's incredible tan and didn't notice it... it doesn't matter. You can watch this movie with complete enjoyment without missing a thing.
But the fact that it's there is delightful. If you notice, you get a zing of anticipation. And if you didn't notice it the first time, it's one of MANY things in that movie that will make watching it again and again an always new and fresh experience.
And that, maybe, is my first definition of "artistry" -- it's something extra. Something the story can do without, but it raises the story to another level when it's there.
And it's not always small details. Sometimes it's how the story is put together. Structure and plot, in and of themselves, aren't something "extra." They are essential basics. But how you structure various elements of a story can change the underlying meaning of it -- the theme -- and give it depth.
The Truth Behind Zenda
Both the book and movies of The Prisoner of Zenda uses character structure to give the story more meaning. The structure behind the good guys and the bad guys are mirrored so that they contrast with one another. There is the unworthy legitimate king and his rival, and each has a more worthy -- and romantic -- champion to do the dirty work.
This all by itself highlights part of the meaning of the story: ideals vs reality. Those unworthy leaders are exactly like what we're stuck with in real life. They are what's wrong with real life -- they are dissipated or corrupt, and fuzzy on right and wrong. Also, boring.
The sidekicks, however, who are both barred form the throne, are what we like to think of as a worthy leader. THey are smart, and quick and skilled and competent. And they are not wishy washy. They act out for us what good and evil really are.
And the women on each side of this mirror give us even more on that front. In some ways, they are tests of worthiness. The hero loves the princess, and bows to her will. She loves him but chooses to be responsible (as he has) and take her place as a ruler of her people, even if it means marrying king she doesn't much like. On the other side, the woman in black loves the lead villain, but he takes her for granted (a sign of his unworthiness). The secondary villain, on the other hand, appreciates her fully -- flirts and courts -- but he is a psychopath, and she wants nothing to do with him. In the end, he tries to rape her (more obvious in the book than the movie). Proof he is a villain and not a gentleman, as he puts it. He takes what he wants, while the hero respects and protects the rights of others.
Now it might seem that this is not mere artistry, bu the story has been remade a million times -- often without this character structure. The story still works. I means something different, and imho, often means less -- it's just a love story, and not as much about our longing for reality to change, or about what makes worthiness.
The characters, in that case, become clues to what the story is about, just as the gardener's alibi (or lack of one) is a clue to his part in the mystery, and the music playing in the background is a guidepost to your anticipation (or an Easter egg to be enjoyed).
All Writers Use This Artistry
All writers put some of this stuff in there -- even if it isn't actually necessary. We all want our readers to feel anticipation, follow clues and for the story to have some meaning that makes it matter. But most stories stop at "enough." Why waste the time and effort? Especially if the audience isn't even going to notice a lot of it?
This is a lesson learned by Levinson and Link - the creators of Columbo and the Ellery Queen tv show and Murder, She Wrote. They put a ton of extra artistry into Ellery Queen, and it only lasted one season. They slacked off on Murder, She Wrote and it went on for years and years.
But still... I don't have a lot of interest in rewatching Murder She Wrote, but I own the DVD of Ellery Queen.
Some kinds of stories do this sort of layering more deeply than others (just as some stories have more action or more dialog or more adverbs or more sex).
And... I love this kind of storytelling. Give me a well woven, deeply layered story of clues and deceptions, and I'll put up with a lot of other flaws.
I started this experiment in "xtreme" outlining to help me deal with certain frustrations in writing. I realize that many of those frustrations are related to the fact that I want to go further with the weaving and layering within my stories.
Even in what otherwise is pretty formulaic fiction.
And I don't even expect that this will turn those stories into classics, either. I'm inspired by HItchcock's virtuosity at this -- but his movies are classics for more than that: they also had his chutzpah and his amazing sense of the dramatic. At the same time, Frances and Richard Lockridge books are less classic -- they are more dated, more formulaic -- but they still give me a great deal of pleasure to re-read, because of some of this artistry. (Maybe not the level of Hitch, but still, it's fun to watch the game played between writer and reader.)
I don't know if the outlining is going to actually make me better at this, but I can already see that it makes what I'm doing with it now much easier. I can lay in another thread without rewriting anything. I can push and tug and get it right. I can lay the Easter eggs in there before I start the writing.
And... well, I'm going to cut off here, but I was thinking about Robert Altman, who, after all the planning and work -- as much as any director -- still used a ton of improvisation when the time came to film the story. This is what I hope the writing will be like. But I'm going to start that next month, so perhaps I'll tell you about his techniques then.
(In the meantime here is a sample of what I'm doing with the First Chapter Xtreme Outline.)
See you in the funny papers.