Three Dirty Birds Talk About Story Trumps Structure: Escalation

Here we are again–Three Dirty Birds, Talking about Story Trumps Structure. Today, we’re reading Chapter 4: Escalation.

Kate: By escalation, he’s talking about intensifying situations as the book progresses, making things worse for the protagonist as we get closer to the climax (*giggle*) of the story.

Ana: I thought that was a really good point. It’s not just that things have to go wrong, they also have to get worse, and they need to be connected.

Zoe: Yes—more “out of the frying pan into the fire” than “out of the frying pan, and I also got fired.”

Kate: I was a bit surprised that he thought that progress was counter-intuitive, though. I mean, if you’ve done any amount of reading at all, it seems obvious that everything has to get worse at each stage before you can resolve the story. Like the character has to bottom out before they can rise again. (Zoe is laughing because I used the word bottom)

Ana: I actually did some brainstorming this week with one of my friends who’s never read a book on writing, and even she knew that things have to get worse all the time. I guess it’s not that… Yeah, I’m just going to agree with Kate that if you read a lot, you know that.

Zoe: I guess the real warning is that it has to get worse in a related way—not just throwing in more horrible things to have horrible things. It needs, really, to come out of characters’ choices. Things get worse because they decided to do or not do things. Breaking Bad and Weeds are good examples of things get worse because of the characters. Everything that goes wrong, all the deeper shit Nancy and Walter get into, is because of choices they made.

Kate: A simple technique, but one that sometimes gets missed.

Ana: I also liked how he emphasized that action doesn’t equal tension. I’ve read some utterly boring action scenes.

Zoe: What I took away from that is that tension results from what the action (or whatever’s going on) means to the character, what’s at stake.

Ana: I think in his talk of rising action he also mentions that every sex scene means less and less for readers. Kind of bashing the erotica genre again.

Zoe: I don’t know if was so much bashing as just not considering it.

Ana: I wasn’t really serious about my bashing comment.

Kate: There is a point to it–if the sex is integral to the progression of the story, then it shouldn’t detract from it, and each scene should mean something. But I’ve made that mistake myself, where the sex felt right between the characters, given the situation, but came too close on the heels of another sex scene, and I think it reduced the impact and meaning of it.

Ana: I know I’ve been annoyed by ‘too much sex’ in a book before. Especially when two scenes happen closely together it can be difficult to build any sexual tension between them.

Kate: It’s a tough line to walk, especially when you write for a publisher that likes lots of sex in a book. How many scenes do you include, how often can you fade to black, before you get your knuckles rapped? And the other way around, getting your knuckles rapped by the readers.

Zoe: So it comes back to what you’re trying to accomplish in each sex scene—is it moving the story forward, creating tension, deflating tension? Or is it just there for the sake of more sex? In talking about repetition killing tension, James says that grief—not all the murders/deaths—is what readers respond to, and that brings it back to tension being created by what it means for the characters. Sex is the same way.

Kate: It’s all about the feelz, man.

Zoe: Right! And you can have characters get together early on, but hold something back—does your main character want to live out a fantasy but he’s afraid to? Then you’re growing toward that point. Does he just want a one-night stand and not to get involved? You’re growing toward overcoming that, etc.

Ana: Yeah, for me… or rather, for my characters, sex usually happens before the romance, so I’m often using it to build toward that.

Zoe: Because sex is easy. Love is hard.

Ana: Parts of sex are pretty hard. Or, the parts involved should be.

Kate: I would hope so. Though I just put a damper on the sex in one scene. Hard to be sexy with your mom just down the hall.

Ana: You’re pure evil. But we knew that.

Kate: Lol. It’s a common human experience. I’m sure everyone’s been there.

Zoe: James gets into ways even the smallest things can take the wind out of tension, down to verb choice, punctuation, sentence and paragraph length, adverbs and adjectives. You don’t want to get wordy when you’re in a tense moment in the story. You want readers to feel a little breathless.

Kate: Shorter sentences, crisper verbs, fewer descriptives. Or, long running sentences that leave you out of breath by the time you get to the end. Depends on whether you want to imply decisive action, or terrified pelting down an alley.

Ana: Yup, I think it’s also important to keep it simple in tense moments because you don’t want to confuse the reader and pull them out of the story because they’re wondering about your wording.

Zoe: He also talks about pace, and how you don’t want to stop in the middle of your climax to describe things, which reminded me of a book I read a while back—otherwise good book, but in what should have been one of the most tense moments, it all stopped for the characters to have long conversations about themselves, and then a long, leisurely sex scene, and it really bogged that part of the book down. I should have had my heart in my throat, but instead I was skimming and flipping pages.

Ana: He/she probably (falsely) assumed the tension of the approaching climax would carry you through the boring parts.

Zoe: I think what was going on was they were looking for a point where they could give the characters a chance to get to know each other and connect, since they hadn’t had much opportunity for that. It was just…the wrong place. I’m not sure its place was even in this book. But when you’re writing romance, you want to make sure the readers get why these two people are The One for each other, and sometimes you get it wrong.

Kate: Keeping the characters’ desire in the forefront is really important at this point of a book. Well, through all of it, really, but by the time you get close to the climax, dealing with these desires should be just about everything the character is interested in dealing with. It should be big, and overwhelming, and not give anyone time to wander away to check out the TV Guide.

Zoe: Yes, and that’s where this part of that book missed the mark. The character’s desire was to keep the other character safe from a threat to his life. Sex shouldn’t have been on his mind. (Or, well, it should have been on his mind, but he should have been thinking, “There’s no way I’m doing that right now when he could get killed.”) The danger to that other character was literally right outside the door.

Ana: “One last time before we bite it”? I’m wanting to sing ‘Can you feel the love tonight?’

Zoe: Lol.

Kate: I was just wondering if it was his mother.

Zoe: That would have been interesting, but alas.

Ana: Guess it wasn’t Kate’s novel.

Kate: Lol. I have too many of these walk-in things. There must be a part of me that’s never made it past the age of 12.

Ana: Some days I’m happy I even got to the age of 12.

Zoe: Right…so that wraps up this chapter. Next we get to the one we’ve all been waiting for: the climax! (Nudge nudge)

About the author: Kate Lowell

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