Saturday, October 13, 2007

As Above, So Below

Steve's Doctrine of the Barrage: a Primer for Fistfights, Knifefights and Literature.

While I chip away at My 5 Strengths, I thought I'd do as Charles asked and elaborate on structure. This essay originally grew out of Charles' discussions on power words and their placement.

I spent my formative years fighting. Somewhere around the onset of adolescence, I quit escaping into adventure fiction and started sweating in the gym. I sought the guidance of rough and violent men, and learned what they had to teach.

It's actually not uncommon. A great many nerds and geeks like myself decide we want to be Conan, Batman, Bruce Lee. I was just a little extreme. Full throttle and fuck it.

And oddly, I learned my literary style.

Look at the structure of those two paragraphs. They're more or less representative of my usual structure of attack. Now, they form a structure to tell an effective story.

Open hard. Once you've got your hooks in, that's the time for poetry, imagery and metaphor. Close strong.

#1) A short sentence to open, using a strong, simple verb. You'll draw the reader in.

#2) Now you have the leisure to wax poetic. I seem fond of what I call 'the triple-tap': a quick three-count of adjectives, a complex sentence of three complicated actions or sometimes a list of three examples (Conan, Batman, Bruce Lee). The point is, here in the middle, I'm free to open up with more complicated structures. I can diagram the second sentence in in this paragraph, but I'd hate to open with it...

#3) Close strong. Candy made a strong point about last words. Strunk & White agree. People remember the last part of what we say. Decide what's most important and put it at the end.

Sounds like I'm only talking about paragraphs, right? Not at all. For me, the paragraph is the fundamental unit of fiction. They are what the panel is in comics. Big or small, they are the basic beat of the story's telltale heart.

Go smaller. Consider the sentence. I still want to open strong (subject and active verb-- none of that wussy 'might have done' kind of stuff) and finish on the most important element. If you've caught me opening with a modifying clause or prepositional phrase, there's a reason.

Go larger.

My chapters kick off with the previous cliff-hanger and end with the next nail-biter.

I write in three acts. Act I opens strong. Whether I write romance, horror or adventure, there's no doubt what you're reading early on. (By the way, notice that little triple-tap in the middle there? Love 'em!)

Act II is where all the elaborations and frills come in. Characters act on each other in earnest, and everything gets complicated.

Act III is the end. That's the part the reader walks away with. Make it strong.

As above, so below. Sic terra mundi.

Of course, not *every* paragraph goes like that. Pacing changes things. As tension grows, sentences and paragraphs shorten. As tension recedes, this structure gets relaxed a bit. Sometimes, a theme or element wants extended riffing that doesn't lend itself to this structure. So I leave it. At least, for a time.

The story's most important.

I don't have to write like this. In fact, I have a terrible weakness for compound, comlpex sentences, with lots of adjectives and adverbs and modifying clauses. (triple-tap again!) It's like I only have one sentence to tell the whole story, so I better jam it all in there!

Days when this bad habit gets away from me, my work is eye-crossingly dull...

And of course, not everyone cares for tension. Every now and then I come across a writer whose sentences unspool in a leisurely fashion, each word crafted with care, the whole proceeding, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, chapter to chapter, with the kind of lanquid torpor we all felt as children on a hot summer's day by the water, never dreaming that time and mortality could touch these timeless, golden moments.

Me, I write thrillers...


cs harris said...

Brilliant analysis of structure. I plan to come back and reread this tomorrow when I'm more awake. There's much of value here.

I have a weakness for the triple-tap myself, to the point that I sometimes FORCE myself to only hit two beats, just for variety!

etain_lavena said...

Well you make ppl read and you love your words, they are trillers.....its all perfecto:)

Charles Gramlich said...

This certainly deserves a periodic rereading. I understand now what you mean by the triple tap, and I know I do this on occassion, although probably not consistently. It often sounds best to me at the ends of sentences, but varying it up by placing it in the middle at times would be worth experimenting with.

Good overall discussion of form too. Keeping the reins tight at beginning and end, and loosening them a bit in the middle to let the horse have it's head. Good stuff.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

This is one of your best posts, Steve, and that's saying something. I'm all for short sentences to start off my stories. "Today my opera gloves arrived in the mail." I've also saved this for rereading and emailing the link, seeing as I suck at HTML, the computer being my nemesis and all. Damn good stuff to sleep on, chum.

Bernita said...

Absolutely. Excellent. Post.

Sphinx Ink said...

GREAT post, Steve--chock-full of excellent tips. I like your style. Inspiring.

Steve Malley said...

Thanks for the kind words, folks. I suppose I just wanted to show that there is *some* method in my madness... :-)

Actually, these thoughts grew out of an extensive teardown and rebuild in my writing style a couple of years ago.

*** Weird. I just sat here for several minutes trying to find something short to say about that process. Really, I think it's another blog post....

Lisa said...

This is one I need to bookmark and save. Thank you.