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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Running in the Dark by Jodi Henley

I wanted to start this post with chaos theory, or maybe stuff about Chatman’s work on kernels and satellites, but after three beta readers gave me the virtual equivalent of a long, hard look I figured the best thing was to call this post what it is.

Three dimensional thinking for organic character-driven stories.

Structured pantsing works, but doesn’t go far enough.

Sort of like if I’d said, “I’m going to create this really fabulous character and shove him in a department store, with two floors and an escalator, so full of balloons, getting to the exit means he’s going to have to step on, shove out of his way, push, pull and pop hundreds of balloons.” The floating equivalent of a McDonald’s ball-pit--loose enough for your character to breathe, but tight enough to make “down” the only thing he knows for sure.

Organic writing is a little messy , not because it doesn’t have internal logic, but because it has chaotic elements. In other words, character-driven stories grow, using a non-linear system that’s easier to “see” in multiple dimensions--up, down, underfoot and rolling up the escalator in little ripples.

Whatever your character does--no matter how small--can make those balloons, like story events, move in significantly different ways. In a two character story like a romance, pushing the heroine in at another entrance creates more waves, ripples and eddies, all of which--in some way--will touch those of the hero.

A good example of this story-style would be Leon the Professional. A character-driven movie written and directed by Luc Bessom. Transporter and La Femme Nikita


Mathilda and her little brother live in New York with their dysfunctional family. Her father stores drugs for dirty cop, Norman Stansfield. When Stansfield takes revenge on her father for stealing drugs and kills the entire family, only Mathilda, who was out shopping, survives by finding shelter in her neighbor’s apartment. Matilda finds out Leon’s a hitman and asks him to teach her so she can avenge her brother.

….given Leon’s background as a hitman, tiny variations in his first meeting with Matilda have the potential to send balloons shooting off in wildly different directions. He’s on one side of a door, she’s on the other, and once the villains kill her family, they’ll find her.

--if he doesn’t let her in.

Because Leon is a fully fleshed character, he can only react to Matilda’s desperate whisper in ways which are true to his internal logic. He can shoot her and go back to bed, ignore her> and go back to bed, come out shooting and try to kill the bad guys…

...or he can open the door .

Each action is a thought away from each other and starts out the same—with Matilda
on the other side.

When Leon finally turns the knob, every action he didn’t take is still there, as things that “could” have happened, but didn’t, although “the path taken” creates ripples of its own. Just like in a real person, just the fact that Leon considered the other three options says something about him and enriches the emotional layering, because only “this” person, in this place at thistime can drive this particular story.

As a writer, I can focus on the plot as a whole and hit every plot point from A thru F in alphabetical order. An emotionally repressed hitman needs to open the door so he can connect with a little girl and kill a dirty cop.

Goal, motivation and conflict.

Part of the reason organic writers might run into a wall is because in a character-driven story overall GMC is easier to see “after” the rough draft. Initial goals don’t start out as the story goal, and motivation shifts and changes. If there’s conflict, it might be one of many conflicts or something that grows into “the” conflict.

Your characters choose, as a result of the actions they take…their own destiny--like life--free from caricature, archetypes, predictable drama and simple solutions.

Organic writing is a belief system--chaotic, unpredictable and personal. You are the only one who can define it. Believe.


Jodi Henley is a long-time member of the popular on-line writer’s forum “Romance Divas” here her craft of writing articles have been archived as downloads in The Place for Answers, Romance Diva’s on-line library. Highly sought after for her plain-English approach to problem solving, Jodi spends her time dissecting the craft of writing. Her obsessive Myer-Briggs INTJ personality drives her to explain her findings, and she considers herself lucky to have a receptive audience. A long-time blogger, her blog, “ Will Work for Noodles, is a popular writer’s reference for people in fields from play-writing to Christian magazines and newspaper journalism. She'll be teaching her workshop on Running in the Dark: Organic Structure for Character-driven Stories in June for FFnP.


Sela Carsen said...

I'm not sure what it says about me, but I totally get it. As a pantser, each move, each thought, each decision, creates the potential for all kinds of things I never imagined happening when I first opened the blank document. Good luck with your workshop!


That was a very interesting post and I feel the depth of the character really adds to the story.

Anonymous said...

I've actually written the 'what happens if' for some of my stories. Kind of interesting to find out what would have happened if he hadn't opened the door sometimes.

LynnRush said...

"... a character-driven story overall GMC is easier to see “after” the rough draft"

Fantastic post. Makes a ton of sense to me. I always thought I was totally weird that I could pick out the GMC better after I'd written an 80,000 word rough draft and went back to revise and flesh out.

So, I'm not crazy?

Okay, don't answer that.

Thanks for this post. I learned a lot.

Kimberly Farris said...

I totally get this too.

Great post. I'm looking forward to hearing more about this concept.


Unknown said...

Sela, it probably says that you need to finish your regency. Thanks!

Thanks, Missy :)

You know...I've got to try that Charlotte. Never thought of it and it'd be kind of cool.

Lynn, the trouble is that it's easy to talk about and define plot and GMC, but harder to define intangibles. You're about as crazy as I am. :) And you're very welcome.

Kimberly, you will definitely hear more. :) I'm hard to shut up.

Unknown said...

Ah hah! That's what I need - more reference to the road not taken.

Natasha Moore said...

I totally get this too. I can try and try and try to plot out ahead of time but the story never comes together until I'm actually getting words down. And the most amazing things never happen until the characters is actively making those choices. I can never plan those things ahead of time. I just have to trust it will happen. As you said. Believe. Great post.

Unknown said...

lol, Alice. I'm usually running like hell--mostly in the dark. Sometimes I wonder if I'm chasing my characters or my characters are chasing me. :)

Thanks Natasha! imho, belief in yourself and your people is 90 percent of the process. :)

Unknown said...

A fascinating read - and helpful as well, as it makes me ponder just how much/how little plotting and outlining I really need to do.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed your post, and would love to read more of your thoughts on the randomness of pantstering. lol

I feel like I follow the characters around and write down what they're doing and saying as they decide to do it.

It can be frustrating to never know which way I'm going until they tell me, but I enjoy it. It's the only way that makes sense to me.

It's nice to know I'm not alone in my oddities. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks Stacy. :)

I used to be a pantser, then I got really really deep into the whole plotting/GMC/turning points/spreadsheets and every kind of plotting technique you can name--then one day I realized it wasn't working for me and let go.

I think...as long as you know how to start and how to end, characters drive everything else. It's important to know craft, but also when to say, "I've got grammar. The rest is optional."

I never outline anymore, but I'm really really meticulous in building my people. Not in the whole interview/data sheet way, but in how and why. More like a pysch profile with core events. :)

Thanks Hailey :)

Trust me, once you get me going, I'm hard to shut up. Come visit my blog (that's not a promo-thing. I get itchy at promo. Simply an invitation) and ask away. I'm always fishing for questions because they make me think. I'm working on a "movable scene" post, although it might be a few days, and I still have that post (I'm thinking youtube, but my kids are fighting me on it) on algebraic equations for structure. Which is cool, but doesn't really do much as a technique. Just a definition, I guess.

craft for the joy of craft. :)

Liana Laverentz said...

I get it, too, but could never explain it the way you have. Next time I write a scene, I'll be thinking of balloons and escalators! Best of luck to you with your workshop, Jodi!