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Friday, April 13, 2012

Lin Anderson: Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me…


Today, I'm proud to introduce guest blogger, Lin Anderson who has published eight novels featuring forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Lin's books have been translated into several langauages and are in development for TV. Her short stories have appeared in a number of collections, most recently Dead Close was chosen for the Best of British Crime 2011. Also a screenwriter, her film River Child won a BAFTA and the Celtic Film Festival best fiction award. Lin's website is: http://www.lin-anderson.com/

This following essay is the first of a three part blog.

Part 1: The Structure of Story

How important is it to understand the structure of a story?

When I wrote my first short story and my first novel I had no idea how stories 'worked'. I knew instinctively when one didn't work, but had no idea what was wrong with it. When I wrote my first crime piece for television, I studied how it was done by watching Prime Suspect, a classic, and noting the structure, arrangement and purpose of each scene. The resultant screenplay generated a great deal of interest from a USA based television producer.  I didn't have it completely right, but I had told the story in a way that kept him reading.

That screenplay became the novel, Driftnet (available as an ebook on amazon.com at http://tinyurl.com/bodetdz) first in the Dr Rhona MacLeod forensic crime series, now running to eight books. The series is in development with ITV and I recently saw the screenplay for 'Final Cut' which they intend starting with. The writer had told  the story for screen really well. I was impressed.

After Driftnet was published, I became interested in why the story worked well and began to look at stories in the way I look at screenplays. Any story in any form is 'a character in action'. Crime novels are not about the crime per se. They're about the character(s) that solve the crime. Great characters create a series. The readers come back for more of them and their world. That's understood, but what about structure?

I would argue that writing a crime story is harder than writing general fiction. Why? Because you have to do everything that a dramatic piece does - create a protagnist your reader can empathise with and use their personal story to explore the human condition. Added to this you have to create a complex mystery that interweaves with their own story. Secrets must be revealed at the right moment (always keep a secret as long as possible). Placing each piece in a complex jigsaw so that the reader cannot/must not know the full picture until the last piece is in place. Not for the fainthearted.

So how does understanding structure help you?

We all intuitively know when a story 'works'. Watch a movie audience. When they start twitching and losing interest, they've dropped out of the story. The question is why? The general form of a story is  The Beginning/The Muddle in the Middle/The Resolution. Roughly speaking the first and last form a quarter of the story each. The Muddle in the Middle is a half. The middle section is the really tricky part. Here's where things can flatline and you lose your way and your readers. Beginnings aren't easy either, but creating something new is heaps of fun and carries you along, provided you understand what a beginning must achieve.

Stories are characters in action. Actions driven by conflict. The conflicts may not be big in world terms, but they are big to your main character. As one conflict is solved, another rears its bigger uglier head. The opening is the first time we see your main character in action and is instrumental in selling your book to your readers.

Effective beginnings need to do three things
·         The chief of these is to get the story going and show what kind of story it’s going to be and the tone you'll use to tell it.
·         The second is to introduce and categorise the protagonist
·         The third is to engage the reader’s interest in reading on. (They have to want to turn the page)

A beginning can do more than this i.e. establish a mood, a setting, a norm. But it should always do the first three. The most economical way of handling these three jobs is to find a way of doing all three at once using a scene. Why? Because a story is a character in action. You reveal the character by what they do in a situation. Stories are also circular. The end will in some way reflect the beginning, but we can worry about that at the end. Whatever inciting incident you create will set your character on a journey to satifsy a need they might not even know they have. By the end of the first Act they will have stepped over the threshold into the unknown. In a crime story, the inciting incident will normally involve a crime, which will require solving. In Driftnet, the murder of a teenage boy who looks like Rhona makes her think he might be the son she gave up for adoption 17 years before. That inciting incident impacts on both her personal and professional life. A double whammy. Is he or isn't he her son? Who killed him?

Next time, Part 2: The Muddle in the Middle.