Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pet Sematary

Using the narrative funnel

with 3 comments

A funnel

Good stories, whether the length of a joke or an epic fantasy series, tend to fall naturally into threes. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s something satisfying about the basic structure of a beginning, middle, and end that makes it useful even for narratives that don’t follow conventional plots in other ways, which is why I tend to structure everything I write, from the level of an entire novel to individual scenes, with a threefold structure in mind. This also appeals to my obsessive, orderly side, which loves all forms of symmetry—hence the fact that nearly every post on this blog falls neatly into four paragraphs of roughly equal length. Yet it’s a mistake to think of a story as a neat triptych, in which every section takes up approximately the same number of pages. Such a structure might look good in an outline, or on a stack of index cards, but in practice, a reader reaching the end of a long novel is likely to be grateful when the final section moves quickly to its conclusion. Even if Part III is exactly the same length as Part I, when it’s being experienced by a reader looking forward to the last page, it tends to feel much longer.

Instead, it’s often best to structure a novel like a funnel, with a relatively lengthy opening followed by a shorter second act, topped off by a swift climax. Planning a novel using this kind of structure—which shouldn’t be confused with the inverted pyramid—has a number of benefits. A good book, at least in the suspense genre, ought to feel as if it’s accelerating with every page, and a funnel structure bakes this kind of momentum into the shape of the story itself. The funnel forces you to be more concise when it matters most: by the end of the novel, there isn’t time for digressions or diversions from the main line of action. It keeps you from wasting too much time on denouement. And it brings the story more rapidly to the last page at a time when even a sympathetic reader is likely to be feeling a little tired. This is why many of the best suspense novels become increasingly compressed as the story unfolds, not just in terms of raw page count, but in narrative time: the first part may cover a period of many days or weeks, while the conclusion takes place over the course of a few hours, so that events, rather than unfolding successively, seem to be happening all at once.

Funnel physics

This kind of structure is beautifully obvious in a novel like The Day of the Jackal, which remains, on most levels, the single best template for any suspense novelist to follow: the second and third parts are each about half the length of the one before, and its conclusion unfolds across forty tense pages. The same structure works in all kinds of genres: you see it in novels as different as The Collector and Pet Sematary. It’s also standard in screenplay format, in which about thirty pages tend to be spent on Act I, fifty on Act II, and something like twenty-five on Act III, although for novels, I’ve found that it’s usually best if your second act is a little shorter. (After all, everyone has second act problems.) And even if you’re more of a gardener than an architect, it’s usually a good idea to look back at a manuscript to see if it can be nudged into this sort of shape. If nothing else, it helps to give the story the appearance of momentum, and as in most other forms of faking it, once you’ve done what you can to impose this structure from the outside, you’ll often find the story shifting to accommodate it in subtle ways.

As a result, this is the structure I’ve ended up using for all of my novels, initially by accident, but increasingly in a more systematic fashion. The Icon Thief fell naturally into this kind of form: Part I covers about ten days of narrative time, Part II slightly less, and Part III only one day, not counting the epilogue. City of Exiles and the upcoming Eternal Empire both do the same, partially because I reverse engineered them to look and move more or less like their predecessors, but also because the structure just works. It also has surprising benefits for the novelist. After wading through hundreds of pages of material in various drafts, the writer, even more than the reader, is likely to want to wrap things up as soon as possible, and I can tell you from experience that it’s nice to know that you only have ten chapters left to write, rather than twenty-five, once you reach Part III. In short, the funnel structure in fiction works a lot like a funnel in real life: it gathers up a large amount of material and concentrates it down to a nice tight line. It’s a useful thing to have in your bag of tools.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2013 at 9:50 am

Learning from the masters: Stephen King and The Shining

with 4 comments

Room 237

Last week, in my post on the mirror scare, I noted that most of the conventions we see in horror movies don’t really work on the printed page: a book can’t startle us, or throw a cat at us, or use a scare chord to make us jump in our seats. When a commenter asked if I could think of any tropes that could be utilized by authors of horror fiction, I replied that they could all be found in a short scene of four pages or so in The Shining, when little Danny Torrance enters Room 217 for the first time. (It was changed to Room 237 in Kubrick’s movie, apparently at the request of the hotel where it was shot.) Looking back, this strikes me as worthy of a blog post in its own, so if you haven’t read the novel, you can at least check out the scene in question here. I’d recommend only reading it in a brightly lit room, where no one is likely to sneak up behind you. When you’re done, read it again. And if you’re at all interested in writing literary horror—which is only a highly refined and intensified version of suspense itself—I can’t imagine a more useful exercise than taking this scene apart to see how it works, once most of the gooseflesh has subsided.

Let’s consider the sequence beat by beat. The most striking thing about the chapter is how beautifully it builds. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken about the importance of cutting the beginnings and endings of scenes, and how directors like Kurosawa will intentionally omit purely transitional moments, such as shots of a character opening or closing a door. The one place where this rule can be ignored, and where it truly begs to be broken, is when there’s a monster waiting in the next room. As I’ve said before, the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door, once you’ve established what might be lurking behind it, which is why King spends so much time getting Danny into the room itself. Once he’s inside, the narrative continues to unfold slowly, with lots of homely little details, like the closet with its “clutch of hotel hangers, the kind you can’t steal,” as Danny moves inexorably toward the bathroom—and the tub. And once we have time to collect ourselves, we find that we’ve been given a perfect illustration of Orson Scott Card’s distinction between dread, terror, and horror. In the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dean Koontz says much the same thing:

Does King start the scene with Danny in the room? No way. The scene begins with Danny outside 217, the passkey in his pocket, and he takes more than two hair-raisingly tense pages just to open the door and step inside. Anticipation. King makes us sweat. But when Danny finds the dead woman in the bathtub, and when she opens her eyes and reaches for him, the rest of the scene moves like a bullet and climaxes one page later. We are given more time to dread the encounter than to experience it.

Saul Bass artwork for The Shining

This is all perfectly true, although I should also point out that, contrary to what Koontz says, the dead woman doesn’t open her eyes at all. Her eyes are already open when Danny slides the shower curtain back, as described almost as an aside within a longer paragraph—”Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles”—which makes the image even more horrible. She’s been waiting for Danny for a long time. And that’s the kind of touch that makes King the best author the genre has ever seen. The rest of the chapter is a terrifying master class in just about every tool a horror author can use, and it’s been imitated by other writers, as well as King himself, ever since. Once the dead woman comes out of the tub, she moves slowly, which is far more terrifying than the alternative: this isn’t a monster you can outsmart or outrun. Danny spends much of the scene trying to convince himself that nothing here can hurt him, when we unfortunately know better. And once it seems that the horror is over, it’s really just getting started—at which point King cuts away, crucially, to leave us to imagine what happens after Danny turns around to stare into that dead and purple face.

King has written scarier books than The ShiningPet Sematary is probably his greatest sustained work of this kind, even if it falters a bit near the end—but I don’t think he’s ever topped this sequence. (It’s especially scary when reading the original Signet paperback, in which the scene takes place on page 217.) I’ve written about my admiration for King before, but I may as well say again that he’s one of the few popular novelists who have only grown in my estimation over time. He’s good in ways that you can only appreciate after you’ve read the work of talented but lesser novelists working in the same genre. I recently read Koontz’s Phantoms, for instance, and while it’s a nice propulsive read, it feels two-dimensional and calculated in comparison to King’s work. In fact, I’ve often thought it would be worthwhile to go back and systematically seek out all of the books from King’s classic period—which I’d arbitrarily say stretches from Carrie through Needful Things—that I haven’t read yet. Growing up, I devoured just about everything King ever wrote, but for whatever reason, I managed to skip over The Dead Zone, FirestarterCujo, and the entire Dark Tower series. I’ll need to back and check them out one of these days. But I’ll make sure to turn all the lights on first.

The uncanny influence of Stephen King

with 4 comments

Over the past year, I’ve sold two novelettes to Analog that have strong overtones of horror, a genre in which I’d previously displayed limited interest as a writer. “Kawataro” is my homage to Japanese horror movies, while the upcoming “The Boneless One” is sort of a haunted house story and murder mystery set aboard a research yacht in the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t set out to write stories this creepy, but seem to have arrived at them by accident. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that they reflect the influence of a writer whose impact on my work is invisible but pervasive. He’s a novelist of massive fluency and technical proficiency, enormously inventive and imaginative, with a real gift for character and setting. He seems capable of doing just about anything within the conventions of the popular novel—although he rarely knows how to end a story. And through sheer cultural dominance alone, he’s had a subterranean influence on a whole generation of writers. He’s Stephen King.

King’s lasting mark on writers my age reflects one of the fundamental truths of fiction: if you want to change your readers’ lives forever, get them while they’re young. I don’t remember the first King novel I read, but it was probably The Talisman, picked up when I was a fifth grader as a tattered paperback at the much mourned Roskie & Wallace (later known as Gray Wolf Books) in San Leandro, California. Over the next two years, I worked my way through most of King’s oeuvre, the high points of which were, and remain, It, The Shining, Pet Sematary, and The Stand. Was I too young to be reading King? Sure. But that’s the best time to be reading his novels—when you’re just a little too young for the violence and sex and ideas they contain, so they seem to promise all of the primal power that fiction affords. The comments on this AV Club article imply that my experience was shared by millions of young men (and women) who came of age in the last thirty years. As a result, I think that King will influence, and has influenced, the writing of this generation in ways that will become increasingly clear as time goes on.

Stephen King

King, although far from a faultless writer, is certainly the most powerful popular novelist alive. His medium is horror, but very rarely has this seemed like a commercial calculation. Rather, it feels like an inner compulsion, a sense that horror and the supernatural provide him with the best way of exploring the themes to which he repeatedly returns—childhood, family, the inevitability and unfairness of death, the power of imagination, the memory of place. That willingness to follow character and theme wherever they lead, all the way into the darkness, makes King utterly unlike most other mainstream novelists. Reading It again two years ago, I was simultaneously impressed by how convincing and rich these thematic elements remained, and how dated the horror had become. It no longer has the power to scare me—though the thought of Tim Curry in clown makeup might—but it still has the power to move me. It might be my favorite popular novel in any genre.

Not all of King’s books have aged as well. The Talisman, on rereading, remains hugely inventive and textured, but structurally all over the map; the uncut version of The Stand is one of the most ambitious of all popular novels, but its mythic confrontation of good versus evil hasn’t dated well, and it’s also clear that King had no idea how to end it (a shortcoming that affects nearly all of his books). Pet Sematary, though, is almost flawlessly imagined and controlled, up to its grand guignol conclusion, which strikes me now as a failure of nerve, while still undeniably effective. And King’s best short stories are particularly fine—they may end up being his most lasting work. But his real legacy is impossible to measure. For thirty years and counting, through sheer skill, scale, and luck, he wound up shaping the inner lives of almost every young person who saw a future for himself, or herself, in imaginative literature. No other living author can claim nearly as much.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

%d bloggers like this: