Teaching has started where I work, and I'm spending a lot of time reviewing all my materials on mythology for one of my subjects. But I'm doing the same for Story Structure, bringing in some new information and ideas. I team-teach this with a scriptwriter, and we learn from each other as we go along. This week we wanted to look at shorter stories and films, such as Tropfest, but we're also going to analyse some TV drama.
I've got plenty of books on my shelves about scriptwriting - very often the structural stuff they talk about relates just as well to fiction writing. But I had little on TV writing, so today I bought a new book, Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. I have no intention of writing TV drama myself (however, if they were still making NYPD Blue, I might have a go at a script for that!). But it was fascinating to read what these guys had to say about how a one hour drama works.
They start by saying "Every TV drama series is the same." And go on to explain the four acts, how each one works, and what each act needs in terms of building tension. What is even more interesting is the next chapter where they talk about why audiences watch. Not for the plot (which usually has the same elements, depending on the genre and setup), but for the characters and their lives. If we care about them, we will want to tune in every week to see how they're going.
They also talk about the key scene in any episode, and how the whole story of that episode is about leading up to that key moment. Inevitably, I started thinking about how this relates to fiction writing. What is our key moment? The climax. How often do I talk to students about the narrative drive, the main character's intense need or desire that propels them through the story, the fact that you need to continually increase the tension to keep the reader turning the pages?
And how often do I see people start writing a novel and come to a grinding halt after three chapters or 10,000 words? Because they don't really understand where they're going. They haven't worked out what the key scene or climax needs to be about, what needs to happen in it, and how everything you write in the novel should be leading up to that. And all of that still comes back to character, 98 times out of 100. The other two times are, I'd say, in movies or novels that are thrillers (think James Bond) where the climax is about saving the world.
Even if you resist writing any kind of outline, even if you are a "seat of the pants" writer, don't you still know somewhere in your writing gut what that thing is that your main character wants? And if you don't, how much writing do you have to do before you work it out? 50,000 words? 100,000 words? One chapter? What works for you?