Scribbler’s Saga #84 – Read the Book After

Posted: April 16, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

I have a complicated relationship with any sort of writing manual, but most especially the ones meant for screenwriters. You’ll hear me decry the cookie cutter feel of newer or lazy writers that use these books to the exclusion of all other considerations. Then I’ll launch into a discussion about a plot using the lingo – “In Star Wars what is the All is Lost Moment?” – “Obi-Wan raising his saber to give the others time to get away with the Death Star plans.” I don’t hate them completely, just misuse thereof.

So new rule: read all writing manuals, especially the ones primarily dealing with classic structure, after writing the first draft of your first work.

Now for the why. These books all harken back to the works of Joseph Campbell who in turn drew on Carl Jung, the pioneer psychoanalyst that taught us about narrative archetypes as a way to understand why we do things. Jung’s presumed thinking: people go crazy in ways that become eminently predictable once they start telling their stories that reveal personal needs.

Thus, when the doctor repeatedly hears the same general stories, humanity has a universality that shows up in our narrative. Identify the needs in the story, cure the patient. And the theory says that while the physical cause of being Napoleon versus the guy in the next bed being Alexander is the same, the reason for the divergent delusions will show up in the narrative heard in therapy concurrently with administering the drugs. At least, Jung moved the field past the nonstop sexual dysfunction of Freud, but I digress.

Joseph Campbell attacked the problem from the other end as a folklorist. He went out and tried to gather stories from as many sources as possible. Apparently, across many cultures he found a commonality of that leads to many of the aphorisms that still guides writers – “Two basic stories, a prince/outcast/farm boy leaves town or the stranger comes to town” – “Stories involve the metaphor of the dangerous quest creating the circumstances for the protagonist to grow into his true self” – “Characters fall into highly recognizable categories: farm boy, princess, orphan, rogue, absent father, monarch etc. etc., that Jung would call archetypes” – “We tell the same seven (fifty?) stories” – “You have zero conflict to drive your story.”

There are modern folklorists trying to shoot bullets at Campbell’s work. Because I’m just the guy writing the stories and not a professional folklorist, I have zero tools at the moment to decide whether it’s just popular to shoot bullets at work that might be too connected to the bad old ways. Or if Campbell missed key examples of stories that were dramatic, but didn’t follow the exact pattern of the Hero’s Journey identified in his work. Much actual scholarship to follow.

What I do know is this, I wrote a book with a vampire sitting pretty in a metaphorical castle trying to exert his will upon a young lady forced to make a choice between the un-life offered by the vampire and a full life in our world with lovers, husbands, jobs and the next adventure. As Mina Harker nearly cracks, but comes roaring back to stick Vlad between the ribs, so to did Anna Victor trick her vampire lover into a tandem embrace only to fuck his ass up with a Dixon-Ticonderoga Number Two pencil. It was only, like, three weeks ago that I even admitted – “Oh, wow! I just rewrote Dracula only changing little things like the journalism setting and made Anna the woman that drives like she should go pro! My bad!”

We really do tell the same stories over and over.

The best explanation for this presumed universality is this. People once shared the same campfires telling the same stories. When the truthful story about Hork and his rumble with a lion gets boring with repetition, then guided by the joker heckling the story from the far wall, the story evolves to take on the characteristics of Herakles killing the Nemean Lion, a true monster.

It is possible that the exact structure outlined in the books that I deride as Do X on Page Five, is even more completely ingrained than I want to admit. The good parts of the story which the bastardized theory says creates a biochemical response in the form of epinephrine, endorphins and other psychoactive hormones that are basically addictive. And because we all once shared the same caves, really good stories play well across the whole world because of the ancient memories of jonesing for the same stories.

Back to my suggestion for a new writer to read these books after completing the first draft of their first work. If it holds up that structure is an ancient species memory encoded in our genes by these chemicals, then the writer wouldn’t need the book to tell them Do X on Page Five. They will get there themselves simply by writing the words allowing the apparent semi-conscious thought process do the work for them.

If you add in that I wrote a book where it has taken me eleven years to admit that I mugged Bram Stoker for his literary lunch money, we can assume that the books you read up to the point you start writing will influence your work guiding your structure. Let your subconscious mind that includes your memory of the books you like do the work for you.

Part of my love-hate with writing manuals of this kind is that I’ve come to believe that it’s a cart-horse problem. Do things in the best order for you watch your story soar. Front load your story with worry about the book telling you to Do X on Page Five watch your misery sometimes block you from writing anything at all. For me it comes down to write the stupid book now and worry about the according to Hoyle structure later.

I’m not saying you should never read these books. We all live in the common narrative with access to the same tools and it helps to understand them. I believe our subconscious minds will get us close on the first draft, but we still need help when moving to the second draft. Read the books you think you need to when it’s time to edit your work into all subsequent drafts. This is similar to the practice among screenwriters of placing their scenes on cards and playing with the order to see what really works.

Of course, none of what I suggest applies to someone on their second project. Once you’ve read these books, they can’t be unread and to one degree or another they’ll guide your subconscious, semi-conscious and conscious thinking in the future. This is a good thing when you have experience to deal with different stories, but first time out it sucks to have to listen to you worry about silly things when I just want to tell you – “You used to be five and you made up shit goofing around with your friends and it was probably brilliant!”

Anyway, this is a suggestion like many others. At least someone will pipe up – “I beg to differ, they need to deal with these concepts upfront.” And if reading the manuals first helps and you don’t freak out about the punctilio of Do X on Page Five, then do it your way. Just write the book and enjoy the process.

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