Monday, 5 May 2014

The Story Solution

In July 2012, I listed some of my favourite books on creative writing, in a post called Read All About It. I stand by those recommendations, but feel I have to add one. It's The Story Solution by Eric Edson. I'd actually bought it three months before composing Read All About It, but hadn't gotten around to reading it. When I finally opened it, I was very glad I had.  Reading The Story Solution was like having someone take the chain off a door I'd been pushing. After two years of struggle, plot gushed.

What's it about?
The Story Solution is from the same stable as books like Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey, and Dramatica: a new theory of story by Chris Hunt and Melanie Anne Phillips. Like them, The Story Solution owes much to the earlier The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

Okay, so what were they about?
After many years' research, Campbell concluded that most great myths share common elements, regardless of where and when they emerged. Moreover, these elements appear to follow a similar pattern. This is Monomyth theory. I suppose the bottom line is that stories (pervasive and popular ones, at least) are subject to, and the result of, natural selection. Like it or not, humans get satisfaction from stories that tick certain boxes. Stories failing to tick those boxes fall by the wayside. So - and this is very important - Monomyth and its derivatives do NOT claim to be templates, and paying attention to them will NOT strip your writing of originality or feeling. All these guys are saying is: Many (if not all) successful myths/novels/movies contain certain elements - do with this information what you will. The subtext being: Leave them out at your peril.
I can't claim to have read all of Campbell's book. It isn't light reading. And, significantly, it's not aimed at the novelist. Or any sort of writer, really. It's just a set of observations about existing stories. A mindbogglingly thorough, well-researched and revolutionary set of observations, to be sure, but observations for all that.

I found Vogler's book more accessible and relevant. It follows Campbell's ideas pretty closely, and suggests plotting techniques for the novelist. It's a great book, and probably the best one-stop shop for most novelists who want to master story structure.

Snyder's book is more accessible still, and pays less overt homage to Monomyth, giving equal credit to Syd Field's Screenplay. Aimed squarely at screenwriters, it's full of cutesy terminology and easy-to-grasp tools. I love Save the Cat almost as much as I love The Writer's Journey, but I wouldn't choose it as my one book on plotting, as it seems to skim over things a bit too glibly in places.

Hunt & Phillips take things to the opposite extreme. From the first time I came across Dramatica (my God, ten years ago!) I instinctively felt it has a huge amount to say. Unfortunately, it takes a huge amount of effort to wade through its complex details. It's not helped by slightly woolly writing. Recommended for tolerant rocket scientists with a lot of time on their hands.

Enter The Story Solution. Though this one is also written for screenwriters, the majority of its content applies to novelists too. The influence of Monomyth is low key, while Edson's explanations are accessible, and his suggestions useful. I tell anyone who'll listen that The Writer's Journey is essential reading for the novelist, but in truth I found one or two concepts hard to grasp. Not so with The Story Solution. Upon reading it, I realised that it was my failure to fully understand, say, the differences between "The Ordeal" and "Resurrection" that had been holding up my whole novel. Also, there were dozens of events, scenes, and conversations - some already written - I knew I wanted to include, but which remained floating in limbo. With reference to The Story Solution, I was able to place all of them. And in every case, I thought "Yes! That is SO right!"

What does it bring to the party then?
Like Vogler, Edson follows Campbell's idea of identifying elements which all or most successful stories (in this case, movies) contain. In common with them (and the much-maligned Snyder) he goes out of his way to stress that there is no magic template into which you can or should plug in some details to create a bestseller. The basic premise remains: See those successful works over there? Well guess what...every single one of them contains these elements. Do with this information what you will.
Edson proceeds to identify about twenty key points which feature in just about any successful movie you'd care to name. Not only that, but he gives times (sometimes to within a couple of minutes) at which these points tend to occur.
Crucially, this isn't just a shallow checklist. Each point is explored in depth, with many examples from well-known movies.

Ugh! I'm coming out in hives!
There's a school of thought which holds that fiction writing is - and should remain - a mystical process. That novelists are born members of a magic circle which cannot be entered by dint of work alone. (I touch on this in my post Less Voodoo, More Rocket Science.) Even if they don't consider story analysis futile and heretical, followers of this school tend to go bug eyed at the thought of applying the answers to a new work. Where's the magic in that?
Well, I guess it's nowhere. Like it or not, when we start learning how to write fiction we are peeking behind the curtain. If you've read this far down the page, chances are not only that you're a writer, but that you've already taken some steps to learn the "craft".

  • Begin in media res
  • Murder your darlings
  • Don't fuck with the viewpoint
  • Watch those adverbs
  • Double-space your manuscript
If you've heeded any of those or dozens of other bits of advice, or even asked what should and should not be included in a query letter, or checked a tricky spelling, you haven't necessarily broken a spell. You're learning the ropes, pure and simple. You're taking steps to remove unnecessary obstacles to success. Where, pray, is the arbitrary line between this and applying tried-and-tested principles of story structure?

Okay, fanboy, we get it. Now, what are the negatives?
Well, opening The Story Solution is a bit like walking into a fashionable self-help seminar. Edson coins the term "Hero Goal Sequence" and proceeds to append every instance of the term with a little "®" symbol. I mean, come on!
But if you can get past that, and a certain amount of repetition (which my slug brain happens to require) then I'm convinced you could find this book as helpful as I did.
Just take off your Magic Circle badge first.

P.S. For an almost* exhaustive discussion of  the most important theories on story structure, see Greg Miller's post here.

* Mainly due to certain legal obstacles.