Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wordcraft -- Bones of a novel, part I

On the last day of the recent FenCon writing workshop, workshop leader Lou Anders wanted to teach us to write screenplays. Why, some participants must have wondered, would Anders, editor for a press that publishes novels, want to discuss screenplays in a nonscreenwriting workshop?

Because when he taught it to other novelists, he said, their beta readers went from merely sighing to weeping aloud at the climax of their books after putting the principles of Dan Decker’s Anatomy of a Screenplay into practice. And maybe because Anders, who has taken Decker’s classes, is a former screenwriter himself. And he’s the guy you’ve got to please if you want to get published at the Pyr imprint where he’s the editorial director.

Having struggled with the structure -- rather, nonstructure -- of the fantasy novel I pulled out of my files for the workshop, I was willing to learn more. I’d read enough books on screenwriting to be a fan of adapting the three-act structure of screenplays to the longer format of a novel. But I’d struggled not only with the structure but also with character relationships.

Protagonist I could pretty well get, although it helped to hear Anders point out that the protagonist’s desire -- the overriding reason for the story -- must be concrete. “It can’t be ‘happiness,’” Anders said.

Okay, but why, when I picked out a bad guy, didn’t he (or she) always work the way an antagonist is supposed to?

Surprise, Anders said, clicking through the stills from classic films that illustrated his talk. The antagonist is out to prevent the protagonist from achieving his desire, but he’s not necessarily a bad guy. So in the movie Casablanca, the antagonist isn’t the Nazi. He’s “good guy” Victor Laszlo -- because Laszlo and protagonist Rick want the same thing -- Laszlo’s wife, Ilsa.

And when Anders mentioned a third party, the “relationship character,” most of us looked knowing until he told us, this person isn’t necessarily the romantic interest. Instead, the relationship character is the one who accompanies the protagonist on his journey, has often “been there” before, and is the person to whom the protagonist expresses the theme of the story. Or who may express it himself. So in Casablanca, the relationship character isn’t Ilsa. It’s Claude Rains’ Captain Renault, who insists that Rick is a sentimentalist at heart, and who stays with him to the end, even when Ilsa leaves.

Those less steeped in older classics might find Anders’ analysis of the Batman movies more helpful. The relationship character is the Joker -- he’s always there.

Now we had a triangle of character relationships -- protagonist, antagonist and relationship (also known as dynamic) character. Need to expand the list of characters to fill the needs of a novel-length work? Give each member of the trio her own corresponding triangle, remembering that every antagonist and relationship character is the protagonist of her own story, every protagonist is somebody else’s antagonist or relationship character. Happy writing!

(But wait, is that it? Where are the three acts? Coming up next Wednesday, in bones of a novel, part II.)


 

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