Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

How We Do

When I say that I’m a carpenter, you probably assume, quite reasonably, that I am handy with a hammer. If I tell you that I’ve worked as a theatrical carpenter, you probably don’t change your assumptions at all, because I’m still saying the word “carpenter.”

Here’s the thing: metal is by and large stronger and cheaper than wood. If someone tells you that she’s a theatrical carpenter, you should, yes, assume that she’s good with a hammer. You should also assume that she knows her way around metal working tools, including but not limited to angle grinders, porta-bands (portable band saws), recipro-saws, plasma torches, and welders (MIG, TIG, stick, and/or aluminum). I’m a lousy stick welder, personally, and I’m reasonably competent with a MIG.

If I’m building a wood set, I need wood tools. Metal-framed, I need a different set. There’s wide overlap – I still want my walls to be plumb and square and to have my seams be… well, seamless. Same end results (walls that don’t fall down), different application of skills.

This is why genre matters. If I’m writing a thriller, I should employ a certain set of tools if I want a certain reaction from my reader.

At one level, a mystery is a mystery is a mystery – whether your shamus employs a pen (Angela Landsbury), a gun (Sam Spade), or otherworldly spirits (Harry Dresden). Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that all mysteries are the same, not by a long shot. The point is that we have sets of flexible rules.

Consider the “con film,” which is frequently not about how the heroes steal the stuff in question, but how they get away with it. I give you Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. It has a straightforward four-act structure.

Act I: Danny Ocean assembles his team

Act II: The team carries out reconnaissance about the vault and the obstacles

Act III: The heist

This is the giveaway. The film is only three-quarters over and Terry Benedict (requisite bad-guy antagonist) has already lost his money. As watchers, we’re pleased Our Guys (requisite protagonist rogues) have succeeded in putting one over on the cold-blooded Benedict. The writers keep tension alive by not telling us how they did it. Of course it turns out the depth of the con goes beyond the exposition they’ve showed us so far, which has been so in-depth as to imply that the storytelling is actually quite broad and transparent.

Act IV: What we didn’t tell you (leading to the denouement and happy ending)

In fact, Donald Sutherland as Ruben tells us in Act I that this is the exact problem.

The relevant bit, where the writer spells out the real problem begins around 2:55.

The Usual Suspects and The Sting work the same kinds of gambit in film, as does Holly Black’s White Cat in YA fiction.

I’m not making an argument for plotting over pantsing here. As far as I’m concerned, those are simply two ways of finding your way through the story. What I am saying is that structure matters – and just like with any other rules of writing, the best way to break the rules of structure is to know them first.

Next up: The Curious Case of Rebecca Stead

Previous: Example One


3 responses

  1. You make a good point about knowing our genre and working in the rules. It’s good to know that those rules are a little flexible too.
    Plus, I’ve learned something about “theatrical carpentry”.

    September 6, 2011 at 10:42 pm

  2. This is really nicely said! I just stumbled onto your blog, but I agree with the point you’re making. In many ways, storytelling is just sleight of hand. In the Usual Suspects, for instance, because every member of the gang of crooks is getting nervous, we don’t think for a minute that the real villain might be one of them.

    When I was writing my mystery novel, Mediterranean Grave, I used a first person narrator. And the trick there is to convince the reader that you’re sharing all your information, when of course you’re holding back.

    William Doonan

    September 5, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    • Thanks very much! I hadn’t considered the stylistic effects of changing narrative voice (1st, 2nd, 3rd) since those aren’t as obviously structural in the same way, but I’m sure there are all kinds of hidden (and not so hidden?) tricks and traps.

      September 6, 2011 at 9:05 am

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