Mintonism #1: Every Character Deserves At Least A Three Act Play...

Image Credit to domeckpol

...or they shouldn't be in the story at all. It's confession time; this is the first time I have ever written a fiction story that had the potential to become Pillars of the Earth and I am in horror of it every day. For years, I have had the narrative in my head, but every time I have ever sat down to write it, it left me after three chapters, sometimes after just one. 

But I am also a Software Solutions Engineer by trade, and so about six months ago, I set out to create a system that would let me architect the characters and their relationships to each other, one that would help me visually maximize the drama as the narrative moves to conclusion. And after reading some self-help articles about writer's block, I came across one (can't even remember who wrote it unfortunately) that said, "Writing is a system and if a program in the system isn't working, change the program."

Well, I being the wildly creative, sometimes brilliant, but always ancient, old man that I am, thought to myself, "Let me try to create my own system." And every character in a story, should have a three act play they undergo and their plays should involve at least one of the other characters and so the narrative of the story moves forward, while the characters each move in their arcs of drama. 

David Milch wrote, in his amazing Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills , that good characters spin against the way they drive, and that's how you create dramatic tension and movement. He was talking about the legendary character Al Swearengen, brought to life by the world-class Ian McShane and of course through David's brilliant language and production. I think about this statement every time I sit down to plan and often during my writing. They spin against the way they drive. 

So taking these two maxims together:

  1. Every character deserves at least a three-act play or they shouldn't be in the story.
  2. Every character in drama should spin against they way drive, because this is where dramatic tension builds and explodes into mini resolutions for each character. 

So  devised a system for myself, and it's one that someone else is probably looking at this going, "I've been doing this for years!," which is cool too. I just found something that seems to be working so far.  In an object table, I put every character's name as a row and there are four columns, including the character's name. The other three columns are: Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3.  Then you put once sentence in each cell, under each act, for each character, and the sentence should state, simply as possible, where that character is emotionally in each act. This may take a few weeks because it's three-dimensional chess level of thinking.

During this planning time, you should be weaving dramatic tensions and conflicts together into characters relationships that spin against they way they drive. And once you have this structure in place, your job as a writer is to focus on moving the narrative, while writing beautiful, effective prose. By the way, I strongly recommend reading poetry while you write fiction and vice versa. You will amp up the elements of one in the other as you switch from writing poetry to prose, if that's your thing. 

Next time, I want to tell you about how this system has affected my work in progress Great Awakening. I'm super excited for where that story is heading.

JBM

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Hey, if you can spare 60 seconds:

Favorite Quotations #1

Photo Credit to Alex Van

Photo Credit to Alex Van

Today's notable quotable comes from Henry Miller's Sexus, a book enormously important to be as a writer. Of course I grabbed this book off the shelf at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Springdale, Ohio because the word SEX was in bold in front of my face. I flipped the book open and came to read this passage, like it was fate:

"Buildings emptied of their automatons are even more desolate than tombs; when the machines are left idle they create a void deeper than death itself. I was a ghost moving about in a vacuum. To sit down, to stop and light a cigarette, not to sit down, not to smoke, to think, or not to think, breathe, or stop breathing, it was all one and the same. Drop dead and the man behind you walks over you; fire a revolver and another man fires at you; yell and you wake the dead, who, oddly enough have powerful lungs. Traffic is now going East and West; in a minute it will be going North and South. Everything is proceeding blindly according to the rule and nobody is getting anywhere...Eat standing up, with slots, levers, greasy nickels, greasy cellophane, greasy appetite. Wipe your mouth,  belch, pick your teeth, cock your hat, tramp, slide, stagger, whistle, blow your brains out. In the next life, I will be a vulture feeding on rich carrion: I will perch on top of the tall buildings and dive like a shot the moment I smell death." --Henry Miller, "Sexus"--

I had never known freedom in writing before I read this passage. I was a strict formal writer - copying what I knew narratively from Stephen King and what I knew prosaicly from Joseph Campbell, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.  The main character, a romanticized version of Henry Miller is a man in the middle of a crisis in the middle of his life, like Dante when we find him at the beginning of The Divine Comedy. This is a pivotal moment of his spiritual awakening and so it became a hinge of mine as well. This was the moment that the main character saw the machine for the sham it was and made another choice, to fall into passion and revolution with the young Mara (a romanticized version of Anais NIn from my understanding). This book is still one of my go-tos when I want to read both fiction and poetry together.