You’re going to love this week. If you’re not quite convinced of that, read what Bernard Cornwell did when he was starting out.
Here’s what we want to accomplish this week.
- See the model in action in your specific type of story
- Improve your sensitivity to how stories make you feel
Discovery Questions & Activities
Question 1: how does the model apply in practice? (6 hrs)
Select 3 novels you’ve enjoyed. Identify the following for each novel. I track my data in an Excel spreadsheet.
- Words per page
- The main character
- Other main characters and the role they played (are they on the MC’s team or the antagonist’s or a third team?)
- Main story line
- The main story line and what its MOTHR is
- The page on which the MOTHR is introduced
- What the MC’s concrete goal is
- What led you to get behind the MC
- What prevents the MC from walking away
- The events of the story and the page each starts and ends on (I often use a Post-it to mark the end of each event).
- If it’s an OTH story, indicate whether the event raised your hopes or fears for the character. If it’s an M story, did the event move you closer to solving the puzzle or farther away? If it’s an R story, did the event grow or undermine the relationship?
- Page where the trouble and struggle phases end
- What locks the MC into the final attempt
- Page where the you are given a clear yes/no resolution to the main story line
- Additional story lines (optional)
- Additional story lines, if there are any, and what their MOTHRs are
- When those additional story lines are introduced
- A list of the events of these story lines
- What the event did for hopes/fears, solving the puzzle, or the relationship
When you finish breaking down the novel, calculate the following:
- Total number of words in the novel
- Total number of events for the main story line
- Average words per event
- Number of events in the trouble, struggle, and resolution phases
- Number of events and % of the story spent in each of the three phases
- Number of events and % of the story spent after the yes/no resolution (aftermath)
- Number of events and % of the story that happened before the MOTHR was introduced
I want you to then post in the comments for each novel:
- Novel title
- Novel word count
- Main story THOMR
- Number events
- Average size of events
- % of story spent in three phases
- % size of aftermath
- % size of story before MOTHR introduced
- 1-3 key insights you gleaned from all of this
Question 2: What do the 3 grunts feel like when reading and what causes them for me? (4 hrs)
Please read Lesson 3 on learning to see.
Now, get a thick pad of some type of Post-it note, then go to the public library or a bookstore and select 10 random novels off the shelf that you’ve never read before. You will be reading the first chapter of each. Make sure you include a few different genres. If you are part of a writing group, you may volunteer to read 10 different short stories or the openings to 10 novels if that sounds more interesting. Or you may select the 10 random free ebooks from Amazon that are listed in the top 100 for a genre category. If you choose to do ebooks, use the highlighter instead of Post-its.
Open the first novel and start reading. Do NOT read with the intent of looking for problems. Read only with the hope of finding a good story. Follow the 3-grunt process on the opening chapter and use the Post-its instead of marking up the book. Do not spend a lot of time with the Post-its or analysis at this stage. Just keep on reading. Stop at the end of the chapter or where you would normally stop in that chapter because you felt it wasn’t going to be a good story.
Now this is the key step: go back and identify what type of grunt each note was and what caused you to grunt.
Repeat with the other 9 books. If you run out of novels before you run out of time, go take 10 more off the shelf.
When you finish, write a brief summary of the types of things that caused you to make the three different grunts. Post your summary in the comments.
Week 1 Reinforcement (15 minutes)
At the end of this week, I want you to take the week 1 test again and send it to me. You cannot look anything up. You must answer from memory.
It’s clear I have not made it clear what I mean when I say “events”. My bad. Let’s start with some definitions. A story is made up of:
- Narrative summary
- Narrative detail
Narrative tells what happened. It might be what’s happening in the present time in the novel or the past. At the most basic level, this includes external events like action and dialogue and internal ones like thoughts and feelings. You can summarize the action, meaning it takes you less time to tell it than what it takes to actually unfold. Or you can detail it, which means it takes as long to read it, or longer, as it does to act it out.
Think about a trip to a location an hour away. If you write it in narrative summary, you can say, we drove to Logan to see the movie. Boom, you’re done. That’s summary. If you write it in narrative detail, you will say, I walked up the first flight of stairs from my basement in two steps, turned at the landing, and ascended the rest of the stairs, almost tripping on the last higher step. I took a step to the key hook and removed the keys. Then I removed my coat from its hook and walked to the back door. Etc.
You can also write in pure summary or detail or have passages of narrative that mix the two. You can see a good example of a mix in the preview of Mette Harrison’s The Princess and the Bear.
Description is simply information about the setting or character that helps us imagine the context of the events. Notice how this starts with description. It’s mostly description, but it all relates to the event of the narrator finding the dead dog.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
I went through Mrs. Shear’s gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.
The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs. Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.
Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles, but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.
I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.
Exposition is when the narrator explains something. Here’s some exposition. Notice it’s simply the narrator explaining something about a courtroom.
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the box and agree to be lied to.
The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patient. To wait. Not for just any lie. But for the one you can grab onto and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that blade to rip the case open and spill its guts out on the floor.
That’s my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where everybody lies.
And here’s exposition with description mixed in.
The Green Mile by Stephen King
This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain. And the electric chair was there, too, of course.
The inmates made jokes about the chair, the way people always make jokes about the things that frighten them but can’t be gotten away from. The called it Old Sparkey, or the Big Juicy. They made cracks about the power bill, and how Warden Moores would cook his Thanksgiving dinner that fall, with his wife, Melinda, too sick to cook.
But for the ones who actually had to sit down in that chair, the humor went out of the situation in a hurry. I presided over the seventy-eight executions during my time at Cold Mountain (that’s one figure I’ve never been confused about; I’ll remember it on my deathbed), and I think that, for most of those men, the truths of what was happening to them finally hit all the way home when their ankles were being clamped to the shout oak of “Old Sparky’s” legs. The realization came then (you would see it rising gin their eyes, a kind of cold dismay) that their own legs had finished their careers. The blood still ran in them, the muscles were still strong, but they were finished, all the same; they were never going to walk another country mile or dance with a girl at a barn raising. Old Sparky’s clients came to a knowledge of their deaths from the ankles up. There was a black silk bag that went over their heads after they had finished their rambling and mostly disjointed last remarks. It was supposed to be for them, but I always thought it was really for us, to keep us from seeing the awful tide of dismay in their eyes as they realized they were going to die with their knees bent…
And here’s exposition which then goes into narrative.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
You can also get a blend of narrative and exposition when a character explains something.
Commentary is when the narrator comments on the events as with the humorous footnotes in the Bartimaeus trilogy or Jonathon Strange. Yes, there’s probably some overlap with exposition. If you want to see commentary, read the preview of The Amulet of Samarkand by Stroud (I love, love, love the demon narrator of this book).
Narrative forms the vast majority of any novel. And, from my experience, everything else relates to it in some way. Because of this, I usually don’t break the other things out, unless they go on for a significant amount of time because I think, for the reader, it probably feels like part of the event.
Now, when I break down novels, I’m not looking for the smallest event that can be narrated–a single line of action, dialogue, or thought. I’m looking for something more along the lines of a scene. It’s often a single trip around the story cycle. For example, with Star Wars, here’s how I might break down the opening events.
- Vader chases and boards the ship. The end of that major event is the droids escaping and Vader ordering his men to track them.
- Droids argue about which way to go and split up
- Storm troopers find pod and their tracks and pursue
- C3P0 gets taken by the Jawas
- R2 gets taken by them
- The droids are purchased
This is how I’m thinking about it. The events I want you to break out are the main steps in the story. And because the exposition, commentary, and description are almost always part of that event, they go with it. So for example, in Pride & Prejudice, the first few paragraphs are exposition, but it’s all part of that opening event, and so I would lump it in there. It’s important to see it, but that type of detail is for analysis we’ll do later.
Here’s chapter 1 of Servant. These could be 2 events–Barg preparing and Sugar finding the hare and seeing the men–if I wanted to be more detailed. Or I could lump the first 4 chapters all into a bigger event and call the whole sequence “the Sleth hunt attacks Sugar’s family.”
In this exercise, I’m not looking for fine detail. So err on the side lumping larger sequences together. But all the events you identify should be contiguous. You’re not breaking out exposition and description. The purpose of the exercise is to see the event structure of a novel.
BARG, THE HARVEST MASTER and butcher of the village of Plum, stood in the crisp light of early morning with a number of men, waiting to murder his friend the smith, the smith’s wife, and their two children.
Oh, none of them called it murder, but all knew that’s where this would lead. And what choice did they have?
The villagers had been joined by others in the district and divided into groups positioned around the smith’s. One group hid behind the miller’s. Another, the one lead by Barg, kept itself behind Galson’s barn. The third waited in small grove on the outskirts of the village.
The men with Barg stood for an hour, checking the buckles of what armor they had, wrestling with the shock of the matter, and waiting for the signal in silence. At first, a handful of the outsiders had boasted of what they’d do. “Mark me,” said a Mokaddian wearing the turquoise of the Vargon clan. His Vargon accent was plain, rolling his r’s much too long. “I will land one of the first five strokes.”
Barg cut off a handful of his hair with a knife to show his mourning for what was about to occur. “You’ll be one of the first five he guts.” He grasped another handful of hair and sawed through it.
“What do you know?” the Vargon said.
“I know that today I will help kill a man who saved my life.” He cast another clump of shorn hair to the ground. “The smith is a roaring lion. You had best beware.”
The Vargon said nothing in return, but what could he say? He was only trying to cover his fears. Sparrow the smith was a formidable warrior, and if the accusations against him were true, then it was certain some of those who had gathered today would die.
The approaching dawn silvered the fields and thatched roofs about the village and set the roosters to crowing. The cattle in the paddocks began to low. A stray dog outside the ale-wife’s barked at a snake trying to get to the tall grass. And down in the south field, a few straggling deer decided it was now time to leave the fields and find cover. The men knew their signal was only minutes away.
* * *
On the side of the village closest to the forest and Galson’s, the smith’s daughter, Sugar, stood in her barn feeding the family’s two horses and heard the jingle of a trap bell in the garden. The sound was followed by the panicked cry of a hare.
Nothing ever got away from one of Sugar’s traps. And from the sound of the ringing, this creature was big. All that commotion was sure to bring Midnight and Sky, her family’s dogs. She’d trained them to leave her game alone, but these two liked to bend the rules whenever they could. So Sugar put down the hay fork, and told Fancy, their mare, she’d return later. Sot, their draft horse, had already had his fill and had moved out to the watering trough. Then she picked up her smothering sack and stepped out of the barn and into the yard with her bare feet.
The village homes looked like fat ships floating amidst a sea of grain. But it was not a quiet sea. Da had flung both doors to the smithy open and stood at the forge hammering away at his work. Farmer Galson’s cattle bellowed. They were the noisiest bunch of cattle in the whole district. Sugar saw them bunched up at the far end of their paddock waiting for one of Galson’s grandsons to open the gate so they could go to the watering pond. But that was odd . . . someone should have led them out long ago.
Beyond the paddock gate stood the thatch-roofed homes for farmer Galson, his children, and his adult grandchildren. Almost a village all by itself. The soft yellow light of hearth fires still shone in many of the windows. Outside, one of the wives made her way back from the privy in a pale nightgown. She held a wailing babe on her hip.
The woman looked up, and Sugar waved across the field at her, but the woman did not wave back; instead, she dashed for her house. Maybe she hadn’t seen Sugar. But then again, maybe she had. Some of the Galsons thought they rode a lord’s high horse. And that included the boys who had begun to court her.
Sugar walked to the garden, opened the gate, and stepped under the arch of climbing rose. The lemony scent from its pink blooms lay heavy in the air. She walked along the shadowed rows of vegetables until she came to the peas and salad greens. There she found a large hare, a black-tail that was going to make a fine breakfast.
It was easiest just to brain them with a stout stick, but she didn’t want to chance ruining the fur about the throat, so she readied the smothering sack and approached the animal. This part of the garden was still wet with yesterday’s watering and the soil stuck to the bottoms of her bare feet. When she got close, the hare began to kick in earnest.
It was a monster. Twelve pounds at least.
She threw the sack over it to protect her from its kicking and clawing and quickly held its hind and head quarters in place. It cried out in distress, but she kneeled on its side and pushed the air out of its lungs. She pushed until she knew she’d start breaking its ribs, then waited for it to suffocate.
The giant hare struggled underneath her for a minute or so and then lay very still. Sugar removed the snare noose from its leg. The hare felt dead, but she’d been tricked before. A number of years ago, before her moon cycles had come upon her, she’d picked up a hare and carried it into the house and laid it on the cutting stone. The whole time it had lain in her hands like a limp rag, but the second she began to cut, it jumped up, knocked the knife right out of her hand, flew off the table, and bolted out the open door, all to her father’s delight. She didn’t want a repeat, and so she continued to press this hare.
Across the paddocks the Galson’s dogs began to bark. They were joined by another group down by the Miller’s. The dogs would often bark this way when travelers passed through. Sugar looked up to see what was causing the commotion.
A wide line of men on the far side of Galson’s paddocks marched out from behind the barn. They marched in battle order with bows and spears, their helmets gleaming in the early morning light. Those with spears also carried shields painted with a grotesque boar’s head circled by a ring of orange. It was the mark of the Fir-Noy clan of Mokad.
It was not uncommon to see such things. All men, Mokaddian and Koramite, were required to regularly attend their clan musters. But something about this was not right.
She turned and saw another line coming up from the Miller’s.
Then she realized: these men were converging, but not on the practice field. No, they seemed on a direct course for her house.
Let me know if you have questions.