Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Structure and "Are Your 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 (Act 1) 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 up to 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 a variation on the theme of, “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 and 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. 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. Between 90 and 110 minutes the Valley of Death appears and you slide into the resolve. Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality, the Die Hards, the Lethal Weapons, Transformers, Avatar all structured in the same way. The interesting thing is how brilliantly and differently each of them does the exact same structure.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How J.K. Rowling uses magic to shift scenes

Children’s books as a rule are allowed to have only one point of view. Even if you are writing in the third person you only write from the main character’s point of view. If you are writing for adults, you have the luxury of shifting from one point of view to another, but not with children’s stories. For most children’s stories the only way you can get around something happening somewhere else is if someone tells you about it, or your main character dreams or imagines it…. Even dreams and imaginings are not common in children’s literature.

J.K. Rowling got around that difficult limitation by allowing Harry Potter to see into Lord Voldemort’s mind because of the lightening scar on his forehead – the result of Voldemort’s murderous attack on Harry when he was a child. The visions of other people and other places is generally accompanied by tremendous pain in the scar – which lets the reader know it’s not usual or not happening in Harry’s present time or place. The lightening scar is Harry’s attachment to Voldemort. It is also the writing tool that expands the writing platform that Rowling enjoys. It is an exceptionally clever way to incorporate information that could otherwise not be incorporated into a children’s book.

The limits of a single point of view are one of the things that make writing children’s books very challenging, more challenging than writing adult fiction.

Superstitions in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series continues to fascinate me as does the growth and mastery of J.K. Rowling.

As she developed as a write, J.K. Rowling began including expletives that were specific to the wizarding world. Like “Merlin’s Beard!”

To my delight in her seventh book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” Rowling got around to Wizard-specific superstitions. What she does that is so delightful is skate right beside something that is familiar in our regular world, touch it a tiny bit so that is becomes specific to the world that isn’t ours but it is so familiar we don’t need explanation.

In a conversation about The Deathly Hallows and their inclusion in a children’s book of cautionary fairy tales she discusses:

• May born witches will marry muggles
• Jinxed by twilight undone by midnight
• Wand of elder never prosper

It is the wand of elder that is important to the through line of the story, the other two superstitions give credibility to the third. It’s very clever writing. Truly J.K. Rowling can be used a textbook for exceptional writing.