Friday, March 23, 2012

Writing Theory - The Circle

Today, we focus on some writing theory. You may have seen this elsewhere, or seen it in pieces, but I rather like this method (it is not my own), and thought some of you could benefit from it.

For this, you'll need:

  • 1 legal pad (or blank piece of paper)
  • 1 pen
  • 1 name for a character 
Now, draw a circle on the paper.
Now draw a plus sign in the circle, to create four quarters. (Divide the circle in half vertically then in half again horizontally)
Now number the ends of the plus with 1, 3, 5, and 7
In the middle of the quarters, number 2, 4, 6, and 8

It should, basically, look like this:

This is a cycle, and we're going to go through the numbers clockwise. By the time we're done, you're going to have a  good idea about the development of your story.

Note: This applies to all kinds of fiction - from screenplays to novels to big epics to cave paintings - anything where you have a character and a mission to do something.  

Let's get started.

 You're going to start this off with a character. I like to use protagonists for this, but it's also possible you use an antagonist for this, depending on your tone or your objective. You want to stay away from using secondary characters here, because they don't really need so much attention. 

The character starts at the top of this chart as we find them at the beginning of the story. Understand that the state we have the character at Position 1 is NOT going to be the state we find them in after Position 8. 

Also understand that if you go through this wheel several times (say it's one character over a series of books), that each Position 1 is relative to the start of the respective book, and it's not always going to be the stripped down Book-1 version. 

This is the conflict or problem the story has put forth to challenge the character. This isn't so much their internal desire, this is more like the plot of the book. For those people writing series, try and keep this to one book at a time -- being too broad here really waters down the efficacy of the subsequent numbers. 

If your story has twists or big reveals in it, then Position 2 is where you document the most complete and most knowledgeable plot of the book -- after all the twists, after all the misdirects, whatever the challenge is, goes here.

So, for something like The Usual Suspects, the plot isn't so much "To let Kevin Spacey get away with it", it's to "have the detective/audience understand what happened" 

For something more linear, like Donkey Kong, it's "To have Mario rescue his girlfriend (Who wasn't Peach) from a gorilla."

It doesn't have to be literal, this isn't quite Campbell's overdone Hero's Journey, but the idea here is that you take the character and put them in an environment/situation that they're not used to. An environment/situation different than what they're used to from Position 1, and as we learned about in Character 101, this should be  filled with challenges big and small for the character. 

The comedic route is to make this an issue of extremes - the milquetoast suburbanite in the ghetto, the rugged outdoorsman in the big city, the disconnected pair of lovers in the wilderness, that sort of fish-out-of-water element plays well comically provided you stretch it far. 

In more serious work, this represents a larger context for the character - the character leaving their familiar confines for new and larger surroundings. It provides a sense of expansion and intimidation, while also offering hope that along with the challenges come rewards. 

Here, the character is going to struggle. Not to their lowest point of their progression, hope isn't entirely vacant here, but they will be tested. They will have to adapt to the new environment, and initially that process won't be comfortable. Over time though, they'll become more comfortable and more accustomed to the new environment so that they can expand their comfort level and possibly develop satisfaction in themselves for obtaining new skills.  

Position 4 is about the act of the quest, the progression from starting-point to further-along-point and the improvement of the character along the way. This is NOT about the specific item or knowledge that will make them better, because...

Position 5 is all about the item or knowledge they need to improve. For the stranded castaway, it's the making of fire. For the nervous lawyer in court, it's the discovery of the witness or a legal precedent that will change the tide in their favor. 

Critical here though is the idea this: In Position 4, they didn't know the "thing" existed, in Position 5 they find out it exists and....

In position 6, the hero goes and gets it. He makes fire, she finds the legal precedent, the boy pulls the sword out of the rock. Ideally, Position 6 is made possible because of the confidence gained in Position 4 and the character benefits from the knowledge or awareness in Position 5. This is a pretty "hooray" moment for the character, and can very easily be the climax of the whole story if you wanted it to be, but often this can just be a moment of hooray on the path of the story. 

In RPGs, this is the item gained in a dungeon crawl, or the loot from a boss fight. 

The character is confident (Position 4), aware (Position 5) and armed (Position 6), and now they can go back to the environment (Position 3) and complete the plot (Position 2).

Like Orpheus, this is the character's emergence from the trials thus far back to the environment he calls home. In some stories, this means they'll go all the way to the village he was kicked out of or they'll just go back to their "newer" home because they've matured/grown/developed independence from their old ways, and possibly can't go back (either metaphorically or literally).

This can be a whole part of the story, like a return to areas previously thought dangerous now made easier because of equipment and experience gained, or it can be as simple as transitioning the story back to the bigger world. 

Lastly, the character is able to take on the plot, and (depending on how you want it to play out) possibly succeed. To reach this point, you had to go through all the preparation of previous positions (alliteration!). Without the equipment/knowledge acquired in Position 6, without the struggles and adaptation to a tougher environment of Position 4, they wouldn't be as ready to take on the plot as they first heard about it back in Position 2.

How would Harry defeat Voldemort without any of the knowledge from the middle of the series? (Sure you can argue that all he needed was 'Expelliarmus' and Horcrux knowledge, but he had to gain those at some point.)
How would Indiana Jones be able to find the Grail without going through the harsh lessons of his youth? 
How would James Bond be able to defeat...whoever he defeated if he didn't have the invisible car? (Seriously, dude had an invisible car...and fought someone on a glacier or something. I kinda blanked on some of the Brosnan films)

The point here is that the character has come full circle in some senses, but is on a whole new circle as well. Yes, there's the plot to contend with still, but there's also a visible set of benefits and consequences gained from previous actions. The character has matured, our understanding and appreciation of them has deepened and the story can move forward, through the plot and into resolution. Or even into subsequent stories, if you want to repeat the cycle with a whole new plot, and build forward. 

If ANY of this is unclear, let me know. Leave a comment, write me an email, catch me on Twitter.

Happy writing.