Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Storytelling Approach, Pt. 1: Puzzle Building and Solving

Ariade (Ellen Page) folds a street in Inception.
I really loved the movie Inception. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen. Not the prettiest, the most profound, or best executed, but the scene where Ariadne learns to build dreams struck a chord deep in my chest that still makes me shiver.

Christopher Nolan defines science fiction in this movie, at least for me. He gives form to symbolism, symbolism to form, and uses both to turn reality inside out. He gives his characters the power to bend and break the rules of physics at will within the context of the dream. As a balance, he assigns consequences for abusing that power. The dream state is addictive. The more time the dreamer spends under, the higher the potential for addiction. The further into the dream one goes, the greater the risk for losing the sense of being. Time stretches out. The line between what is real and not becomes harder to see.

That was the price that Cobb’s wife, Mal, paid for the life they built while dreaming.  She lost her grasp on which world was real.  Certain that she was trapped in a dream, she walked out of a high rise window and fell to her death.  Also a consequence, Cobb can no longer do his job. His mind always throws Mal into the mix, and her goal is always sabotage. (Mal...bad...coincidence? Not remotely.) Therefore, a new architect, Ariadne is brought in to build the biggest dream world Cobb’s team has ever attempted. The way that Ariadne builds her first dream world reminded me very much of how I build my stories.

My creations, however, have not prompted someone else’s subconsciously-created minions to attack me…yet.

I’m fairly good at jig-saw puzzles. I’m getting pretty good at sudoku. Crosswords and ciphers stump me, but that’s their job, right? Novels are like a 3D jigsaw with blank pieces coated in dry-erase material. I’m putting pieces together…but I’m also creating the pieces, one at a time, as I go along. In the end, I’m even surprised at what comes together. Honestly…I look at a finished manuscript printed out and think, “Holy S&#%! Where did that come from?”

Every. Single. Time.

So, I thought that I for today’s post, I’d try to work through HOW I put my puzzles together. One story came to mind immediately. Probably a distraction, but let’s follow it and see where it goes.

In 1999, as I’ve mentioned on other posts, I was working on Circle of the Butterfly. (Speaking of distractions, that one was a road trip to Albuquerque that ended up in Milwaukee. It was planned as seven double-POV novellas…ended up a two-volume epic told from 19 POVs. Not as convoluted as it sounds, but still…oops.) Anyhow, I had gotten to this scene where I needed to get an army inside of the walls of a fortified city. I had spent weeks working out the scenarios that could use to accomplish that. One day, I’m sitting on the couch looking through my notebook, and there it is. If the answer had hands, it would have slapped me. Much earlier in the timeline, one of my POV characters is sitting in a window, watching refugees flood through the city’s gates. This woman is the same narrator that observes the siege for which I am trying to provide foreign soldiers. Bingo…the army is already in the walls and had been for months.

Puzzle piece polished off. And the contours of the piece provided additional possibilities, like inside collaborators, sleeper agents, mass betrayal by the kingdom’s holy knights…is there anything more fun than a setting turning itself inside out around unsuspecting characters? Possibly, but rare, I’m sure.

Where was I? Oh, yes. My writing approach.

I’ve come across a lot of talk about “pantsers” and “plotters.” I used to be a pantser, until I took a writing class that squashed that habit like a bug, but strict plotting never worked for me either. I’m in between, I guess. I’m a pantser on the scenes, but a plotter on the bridges between them. I always have more than one chapter in progress. And I start editing before I’m done with the first draft. These four things allow me to plant details to cinch the story tight in the end. I can examine plot holes, build upon detail that will be crucial at other parts of the story, and keep a consistent narrative feel throughout.

I’ll give you this example from January Black.

They shared snacks and traded small talk when they were in the apartment at the same time. The moments combined to make him feel as if he belonged in the king's home and presence, but he never grew into the idea that he knew Hadrian.

They seem insignificant sentences, but they figure into the resolution of the plot. I’d explaining how but some readers don’t like spoilers. [wink] Truth is, though, those sentences were written simply as Matty’s reflection on his friendship with his king. A statement of fact, nothing more. It was during the first round of editing that they struck me as an integral detail to the story. Recognizing the importance of the second sentence resulted in serious rewrites to a dozen other chapters.

Let's go back to the Inception clip for just a moment.  Ariade asks Cobb about messing with the physics of the dream, after which she folds a city on top of itself and then literally walks UP the street. The viewer follows them…the impossible becomes the new reality and the dream continues. The world as it had been before is now insignificant…and having broken the barrier, Ariadne charges forward to see what she can make the dream do next.

I mentioned before that I start my first edit before I finish my first draft. What I mean by that is that when I’m about half-finished, when I have a rough idea of how many chapters I’m going to end up with, I print the file out…with blank pages for chapters I haven’t outlined yet…and I put them into a three ring binder. Then I start going through it with a red pen looking for bits like the one above. I scrawl notes all over regarding what needs to be added and what needs to be taken out because it’s already not working. In this way, I create pieces for my puzzle that will fit voids in multiple locations…describe a character in chapter seven, provide an obstacle in chapter forty-three, and provide motivation for a choice made in fifty-nine.

I like the three-ring binder better than a word processor, or even Scrivener for this step, because I can physically put my hand on page 59 and flip to it while working out a scene on page 259, and then back again. I find it much easier to develop an idea between two separate parts of the book when I can see them side by side. I can figure out the logical place to gloss over months of the timeline. I can plant the seeds for an incident in chapter 47 throughout the opening act. When I’ve got my details sewn, my edits entered, and my sketched scenes written, I can then address the climax, nudge a character into mischief and knock down three-hundred pages of dominoes.

Catch up with me next week when I post part 2, in which I will describe the process of my second and third (and fourth, fifth, sixth…) round of edits. Tomorrow...I'll be throwing whatever at the wall and see what sticks.


  1. Hmm interesting. I've never really thought about doing it from a 3-ring binder before. What I did for my current WIP is I printed out the first draft and reread it, scribbling all over it and then rewrote it. I used post-it notes to add details or to bring out other areas, telling myself what should be moved or what is significant etc. I'm going to do that again here soon for the next round of revisions :)

    As for Inception, I got the feeling that it was Leonardo DiCaprio who was confused. The ending made me think that his wife got out and he was still stuck inside.

  2. I love that interpretation! :)