Breaking story breaking
As you might know, my background is movies and television, and breaking story was always my favourite part of the job.
I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling of discovering where stories of your own making are going.
Sitting there with your second or sixth coffee of the day, staring at the breakdown, the cursor flashing in a constant tick-tock as the seconds of your life flash by. Then suddenly your jaw drops as you realise something massive, the other patrons in the coffee shop staring in your direction as you try to keep down the exclamations of “Oh God… Oh Jesus… No way!”
Then there’s a frantic scrambling to try and encapsulate that thought, thread it back through the breakdown, subtextually or straight-up textually. Then you take a breath, go back to your coffee, which has been cold for about an hour.
The world of writing I come from is outline based, you have to know what happens, where you’re going, where your story is going, because the focus is the character, the emotional depth, the story – the plot – is just a journey the characters go on. Twists and turns come and go, but it’s about them.
(Plus, in that world, your boss wants to see an outline, so they know you’re not wasting your damn time..,.,)
Breaking story is all that and more. It’s about arcs, making sure they’re there, that every element of the story serves the character, feels logical, and makes some damn sense.
Of course, you can find emotional depth without outlining, write by the seat of your pants, but there’s a risk of missing something, the twists you discover in real time shocking and surprising you to the point that your characters take a back seat to your own enjoyment of discovering where the story is going.
That’s not to say that the outline is the word of God. It can change – it will change.
Touch Sensitive had a 35 chapter outline, and there are 60 chapters in the final novel – that’s over a third of extra story that happened as I was writing it. Some of it was brand new facets of the story, others were natural chapter breaks that I wasn’t able to feel while looking at the outline. The first five chapters were originally one chapter – that’s how blind I was to where the natural breaks should be…
Why’s this on my mind?
This week I broke story on the fourth book in a series, and it was only when I finished the breakdown that I realised just how natural the process is now – and how it’s changed since I dropped my first book back in January of last year.
When I was doing it all wrong.
Back then, I was plotting with the movie / TV mindset.
Movies, as you probably know, tend to have three acts: a quarter of setup, two quarters of complications, final quarter for finale / denouement.
Television is similar, but with anything from four to six act breaks for commercials…
And that’s where the plotting of @ suffered, in my opinion – and the reviewers have said as much, a lot mentioning that it was good plot-wise, but the finale felt rushed. That’s true as true can be, because it’s a movie ending. I think there are 16 chapters in the book, 3 are setup, 6 are complications ensuing, 3 are the finale – which would be perfect for screen, but doesn’t read right on the page.
NLI-10 didn’t suffer the same fate, because it was originally intended as 6 hours of television. Each episode essentially became 3-4 chapters in the adaptation process. But looking back at it now, as I start letting my mind wander over the two sequels that will be coming soon, there are still mistakes I made, character moments that could have been more subtle, emotional moments that weren’t honest enough.
It took me a year of writing books to get a handle on the difference between screen and page, and Touch Sensitive is currently the pinnacle of that, although Shadowmancer and In The Blood are close seconds, and based on the reviews, the paradigm shift on my end of finally getting something close to an understanding the form is resonating with readers.
What I guess I’m saying is that it feels like I’m not just ‘a writer’, as I was back in the old days (which were also a flurry of being fired a lot, deported a bit, and being a bit of a functioning alcoholic and so on.) It feels like I’m actually, maybe almost, perhaps knocking on the door of becoming an author – which is what I’ve wanted to be since I was a kid.
This isn’t meant to be a brag, and I hope it’s not coming off as such. It’s intended as a realisation that the adage is true: practice makes, well, not perfect, but something that isn’t dreadful and might be closing in on good.
And that’s all we, as the fragile little human skinsacks we are, can hope for when we try to do what we love for a living.