Friday, October 11, 2013

Story Game: Erle Stanley Gardner's Plot Wheels

I have a cold.  I hear from the waitress at the Taiwanese restaurant where I picked up some hot and sour soup (as cure) that there is a really nasty but short head cold going around.  I am hunkering down with said hot and sour soup, Halloween candy and a half-gallon of OJ.  I did not have a coherent version of the post I meant to put up today, so instead, I have a canned post I intended to put up later.  It's still about a writing game....

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, and writer of dozens and dozens of novels from Mason to Pulp Fiction, was a self-taught lawyer.  As I understand it, he was kicked out of law school somewhere back east and so he went west to California and simply studied law on his own and passed the bar, and became a successful (and sometimes unorthodox) defense attorney.

One of the things he understood as a writer and a lawyer, was playing with the rules.  He, like his famous creation, thrived on taking on an intricate, rule-bound environment and using those complex rules to his client's advantage, and against the opposition.

So it's not surprising that he liked to work within strict formulas in his writing.  And at one point in his writing, he created a randomizing story creation game of his own.  His "game" is actually the inspiration for my original story game, which is growing and growing and growing.....

The University of Texas at Austin has in its collection four of Gardner's famed Story Wheels. I downloaded and transcribed them. (For the most part... there is still one or two words that I just can't figure out.)

If you're a long time reader of Gardner, their contents aren't surprising, though it is not clear whether he used these wheels for all his books or just for a time.  He certainly had these elements in his head before he created the wheels, and by the time he created them, those elements were strongly enough in his head that he didn't need the wheels to remember them.  I doubt that these wheels changed his fiction any.  They were likely just a way to mix it up and keep it fresh -- to allow him to leap more quickly into the writing.

It is interesting to study these wheels as someone who has read his books.  When I look at the phrasing, and what he chooses to include, you realize what is conscious in his writing.

(Another thing learned: A great lawyer and writer isn't necessarily a great speller.  He spelled the word "villain" as "villian" throughout all the wheels.)

What I find interesting is what elements he finds necessary to create a story.  Of course, elements he takes for granted wouldn't be in here.  Also anything that he doesn't feel the need to vary wouldn't be here.  Another thing that wouldn't be in such a plot wheel are things which are unique to the story.  There's nothing here, for instance, that relates to the main concept of the story.  This isn't a brainstorming tool.  It's about writing the story once concieved.

Before I go further, here are the titles for his wheels: 

  • Wheel of blind trails by which the hero is mislead or confused.
  • Wheel of hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero
  • Wheel of Complicating Circumstances
  • Solution

The thing that strikes me above all is how much these topics all relate to one thing: the battle of wits between the hero and others. ("Solution" is about how the hero wins.)  These are all about strategy.

Of course, strategy is what he did brilliantly in his writing (and I assume in court).  The whole appeal of reading a Perry Mason novel is wrapped up in the legal shenanigans and maneuvering that Mason does.

I'm speaking here, about the books, not the TV show.  The TV show, which I also love, had a certain amount of strategy, but focused more on investigation.  I understand the earliest books (which I haven't read) did too.  But the developed series, after the first ten books, was at least as much about legal maneuvers as they were about the mystery.  But back to the wheels....

What I find interesting is that Gardner did not make any wheels for the things he was weak at. For instance, he wrote very flat characters, but he didn't bother to create a wheel for generating character.  (His secondary characters wheel is all about the opposition they present to the hero, not actual character.)

The stereotype of a writer who uses a formula or a mechanical tool to generate plots, etc, is that he'd use it for the stuff he was no good at or didn't care about.  If you don't like to do something, you create a machine to do it for you, right?

But when you think deeper, it makes sense that Gardner would create a tool for the things he loved most, not least.

Creating flat characters is not hard.  If you don't care about characterization beyond a certain rote level, there are no decisions to make.  You just throw in a cliche, or leave the character blank.  The more you know about something and the better you are at it, the more you see a million options.  Decision making is harder, because you can see many benefits and problems with each direction you could go.

So randomizing choices with what you're good at can actually be a time saver.  It only requires a minimal short hand, and you jump straight into solving that problem; put your energy into pushing it in a new direction.  The fact that you've artificially limited your options just forces you to be more creative.

Which brings me back to my own Plotting/Writing Game....

I suppose this is the difference between a game (and learning) and using something as a work tool:

A work tool is to make the job easier.  Both learning tools and games are designed to make the job a little harder -- to challenge the student or player.  Using random choices forces you to do things you might otherwise avoid.  You have to work harder, and be more creative.

(Added note: I drafted this before I found more information about how Gardner used the wheels and had a whole theory of plotting related to them -- and that he originally created more wheels.  In the end, his game is a lot more like mine than I thought.  So I'll probably revisit this subject again later -- and at that time, I'll give you a transcript of the four extant wheels.)

In the meantime, let's hope the waitress was wrong about this cold maybe laying me out for three days.  I will post an update on Sunday, if only to give you an ETA on next week's posts.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh gosh, hope you don't have the variety of cold that I've had...for the past 3 weeks! I think it's the longest one ever and no, it's not a sinus infection. Every time I think it's finally done, it morphs into something else (currently an annoying dry cough).

I love the idea of these types of games and Gardner's story wheels. I wouldn't necessarily say that there was much *strategizing* going on in my books...perhaps more serendipity with the clues and the suspects being careless. But there *could* be and it could be cozied up to make it appropriate. It's an interesting idea.

The Daring Novelist said...

The cold *seems* to be letting up. (Fingers crossed.)

The strategizing was in the contents of his wheels. And yeah, for most mystery writers, the story is about the investigation. The strategy is in the legal thriller aspect.

I will soon be talking about my own "wheels" which relate to romantic suspense, and also about a "create your own" aspects of the game.