Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Structure and “Are You My Mother”

Probably the best structured of any children’s picture book that I have read, and the book that best illustrates structure for any piece of fictional writing is, “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman. Structure of fiction books and movies is not the three act play that most of us are brought up to think of. They have three acts but the acts are not equal.

In a movie the first twenty minutes is the introduction to the character and the situation in which the character finds himself…. at twenty minutes (1-3 pages in a children’s picture book or 1-2 chapters into the novel) there is an “inciting incident” which causes the main character to make a decision that sets him on the track of the rest of the movie, novel or children’s picture book. Generally, he thinks it is the thing that is going to solve his problem. In a well structured novel, the first chapter or two is the equivalent of that first twenty minutes of a movie or the first few pages of a children’s picture book.

In “Are You My Mother?” the set-up takes the first two or three pages. The mother bird is sitting on an egg. She sets off in search of food. The baby bird hatches, doesn’t find its mother. The inciting incident, that sets it on the track for the rest of the book, is the decision to set off to find its mother. From that moment on, it’s on a track that turns every one or two pages to within two or three pages of the end (every 15 minutes in a movie, 1-2 chapters in a novel).

In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a dog, a cow, a cat, a chicken, a boat, a plane, a car… and always his question is “Are You My Mother?” and always the answer is, “No.” Each time the question is asked or thought, the answer is slightly different. The plot is turned and each section of the plot is handled slightly differently. If you use the seven Harry Potter books as samples of that template each chapter leads to a different confrontation with a variation of Lord Voldemort, or someone else or some elucidating situation or circumstance. Each situation and each confrontation is different. Each chapter adds to our knowledge of the wizarding world, or Harry or Lord Voldemort until you have the entire tapestry before you.

Finally, in each modality there is a visit to the Valley of Death in which all is apparently lost for the lead character. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy, tragedy, Sci Fi, mystery, novel, movie, children’s story – in a well structured book there will be a moment at which the lead character finds himself in a hopeless situation. In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a “Snort.” The snort, which is a steam shovel, picks up the baby bird – at which point the bird thinks it’s a gonner – so does any child listening to the story for the first time.

Then follows the resolve. The snort puts the bird back in his nest. His mother comes home. They recognize each other. They snuggle lovingly. All in 2-3 pages.

In a well constructed book – like the Harry Potter books – Harry is confronted by a variation on the theme of Lord Voldemort and survives. The end of Book Three is slightly different in that Harry saves Serius (his godfather) and does not actually confront Voldemort to do battle. That is a transition book. It allows Serius into Harry’s life and it sends Wormtail (Peter Pettigrew) to the aid of Lord Voldemort. Number six is also a transition book. It takes out the powerful Dumbledore, it introduces the first Horcrux, and it sets Harry onto the path of ending the fight with Voldemort in which one of them must die.

The “Die Hards” bring up another problem. What happens when you have a strong character who has met many Valleys of Death and isn’t intimidated by them. In that case the Valley of Death is applied to someone he cares about (his wife, his daughter) and the character confronts it on their behalf. Whatever is going to elicit the emotion of all is lost is what the writer uses.

Structure is fascinating to study. After you’ve enjoyed a good move or book for the first time, read it for the way in which the author handles structure. Watch any studio-created action adventure (a high concept movie which plot you can encapsulate in a sentence or two) with a stop watch and at 20 minutes the action changes to the track the movie will ride on. At about 110 minutes the Valley of Death appears and you slide into the resolve. Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality, the Die Hards, the Lethal Weapons, they’re all structured in the same way. The interesting thing is how brilliantly and differently each of them does the exact same structure.

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