Stories are Excuses

An excerpt from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s philosophical notebook (ctrl+f 111 for full quote):

People think that I wrote TBS to communicate my ideas about human errors, epistemic arrogance, complexity, and high-impact uncertainty. The fools. I wrote a book to talk about Yevgenia, Lebanon, Casanova…. And I used that Black Swan idea as an excuse. Any other topic would have bored me. Had I written a book about the black swan idea almost nobody would have read it.

Fiction is the act of communicating ideas through a story. Non-fiction is the act of a story — the incomplete narrative we think of as a complete person — communicating ideas.

Either way, you can’t communicate ideas without a story.

Check it — people are self-interested. They will either respond to your story because it’s entertaining (made so by hallmarks of storytelling such as the three-act structure, conflict, etc.), OR because there is a compelling story behind you.

Unless there is a story involved, no one gives a shit, and no one will read anything you write.

I expect VERY FEW, if any, people to take my advice on writing as of this posting. I have no delusions about that. So why post? Part of the story friends — connect the dots.

If you want to be a writer,  master the craft of storytelling. You need an excuse to say what you really want to say.

Pacing Analysis: Billy’s Balloon

Here is what just might be the funniest movie on the internet. It takes advantage of the immutable law that watching children get hurt is hilarious. Don’t believe me? Watch this. Or this.

Or just watch Billy’s Balloon, which, in addition to being hilarious, teaches several valuable lessons about the art of pacing.

Watch the movie first, then come back.

I’m going to analyze how the pacing in the story works using the youtube clock to demonstrate the principles put forth in my last post about the three speeds of pacing (slow-time, real-time, fast-time).

To demonstrate pacing, I’ll analyze the first half of the film. The story is made up of 325 seconds. In addition to putting up the seconds that have occurred, I will post the TOTAL amount of the movie that has been completed in Red. The percentage of the movie that takes up the scene will be in Green. These will later be used to illustrate the difference between slow-time and real-time.

0-9 seconds. 3% // 3%

This is the title card. Nothing of great importance. Included is the black screen.

10-40 seconds. 12% // 9%

Nothing really happens, although our expectations are raised. It’s a kid, so what? But the balloon is there, which draws our attention. There isn’t much to be said for pacing until the next scene, save that although this feels like a long time (because the character and their conflict hasn’t been introduced), its only a bit over 1/10th of the whole thing.

40 – 1:30 (50 seconds) 28% // 15%

This scene comprises all of Act 1. The inciting incident is when the balloon initiates a simple downward blow on the child’s cranium. This is further escalated with the charging aerial assault, knocking the child facedown into the ground (classic) and further administering a beating that would make a bobo doll feel pain. The balloon even starts to strangle the kid.

Time to pause and talk about expectations. In the 10-40 second segment, the audience’s expectations were raised. The tension — and conflict — comes from our initial expectation that something is going to happen between the boy and his balloon.

This tension is delivered upon in the next segment, 50-1:30 . The balloon starts to attack the kid and keeps raising the stakes. This is culminated in the tying of a noose around the child’s neck, which is important because it sets the stage for the next phase: how is he going to top THAT?

Events here, although exciting, occur in real-time. This means that we see them as they occur because they are exciting. The scene ends with a release of dramatic tension by the adults walking by.

Before I go into the next scene, remember these two things. First, we know what’s going on in the story now: this is a conflict between a boy and his balloon. Second, after raising tension, it has been released. But the conflict hasn’t been solved. This is a perfect time to play with audience expectations and employ slow-time… which is what happens.

1:30 – 2:25 (55 seconds) 45% // 17%

55 seconds, counting the time it takes Billy to fall to the ground and the one second it takes for me to click pause while laughing. In this one scene, all that happens is the balloon picks up the kid by the hand and drops him. If you shave off rattle-retrieval time, you’re still looking at around 15% of the story devoted to this one event.

Look at how much time the last beating took. 50 seconds, and it had several escalations. This is a single event slowed down to 1/3rd it’s speed (which we KNOW because of the next scene, covered in a few) to increase pleasure and tension in the viewer. This is the power of slow-time.

2:25-2:40 (15 seconds). 49% // 5%

Welcome to fast-time. It takes 1/3rd the time of before to drop Billy onto his face. One might argue that this takes place in real-time — it may. But compared to the last scene, it may as well be fast.

I’m going to stop the analysis here because the points have been made. Look at the percentages in the paragraphs above for a good lesson in how to manipulate time and what the audience sees.

OBVIOUSLY this isn’t a story, more of a single, escalating scene, but the lessons in pacing are quite good.

Note the escalation at the end — that’s the best use of fast-time. We don’t see each individual balloon assault each individual child. We skip immediately to the part where it’s a full on balloon riot.

The Three Speeds of Pacing

I wrote before about pacing, but I never really wrote down Pacing’s Golden Rule.

Pacing’s Golden Rule: How much description a scene gets is inversely proportional to how much action is occurring in the story. There are three speeds you have to work with: real time, fast-time, and slow-time.

Example 1: Characters are traveling through a desert or some boring shit like that. This deserves a sentence at most, and this is fast-time. Fast-time means that the words on the page are occurring much faster than events in the story. You say the characters are going through the desert and that’s it. In the story, that will take days, weeks, months. For the reader, seconds.

Example 2: Characters are talking about their past lives and one of them is kind of funny. This deserves to be written in real-time because, after all, it’s entertaining. Hopefully some different traits will be given about the characters and we’ll learn something about them. This occurs in real-time.

Example 3: A fight scene in which the protagonist is in danger of dying and losing everything they have. Here is where things need to be cut-back to slow-time. This is when the words on the page are read at a slower pace than the events in the story. This is when you describe the gleam in the villain’s eye, the way time slowed down, etc. This is because there is a lot at stake for the characters, and if you’ve done your job establishing conflict, the reader wants to get that conflict resolved. Don’t let them have it easy — slow down the scene, let them savor the moment.

The Work

Have you ever watched the director and writer’s commentary for The Fellowship of the Ring?

In it, the writing staff talks about the difficulty they had writing the prologue. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while (or ever), this is the initial scene that gives all of the backstory on the Ring of Power.

In the commentary, they said the prologue alone went through several drafts.

First they tried it with Isildur, the one who cut the ring off of Sauron’s finger. That was no good.

Then they tried it in an omniscient POV through a nameless narrator. That didn’t work either.

Gandalf voiced the prologue in one draft. There was even a take where Ian McKellan read it.

There was even a draft where Frodo read the beginning.

At some points, they weren’t even sure they were going to have a prologue. There were several versions of the movie where the story began with Bilbo writing his book.

None of these were the final draft. They were all small failures and mistakes that went into creating what eventually went into the film.

That’s at LEAST four drafts, none of which were the final. And those are just for the prologue, which they weren’t sure was going to make the final cut.

The team eventually settled on having the prologue be from the Ring’s POV to show, quite literally, that the Ring was powerful and had a will of its own. They decided to have it voiced by Galadriel, an elf. Not only was Galadriel immortal, so she would have been around to remember such things, she is one of the most powerful elves in the world. And Cate Blanchett had an awesome voice.

The Lesson?

When you write a story, expect to fail. Don’t just expect it. Embrace it. It’s all part of the process, and it’s not really failure. It’s a necessary step to figure out the most important parts of the story. No one does it right the first time.

Writing is work. Put in the hours, write the drafts. Sometimes it will take three. Four. More.

Don’t get discouraged. What separates the best from everyone else isn’t talent. It’s perseverance. It’s dedication. It’s doing the work.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

You Don’t Really Need a 3 Act Structure

But if you don’t have it, you need to provide some form of compensatory value to the reader.

To me, the 3 Act structure in fiction is a very powerful tool for developing conflict that’s never used. It’s like trying to ski down a mountain with one ski and no poles. Through moguls. Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s probably not going to work.

People read fiction for pleasure, period, end of discussion. Sometimes the pleasure comes from deep, existential insights of the characters. Sometimes it comes from the humor inherent in the story. It almost always comes from the excitement conflict creates.

How interesting is a person in real life who doesn’t want anything? How interesting is a person in a story that doesn’t want anything? Same thing.

Lay out the stakes for your character. What makes this day different from all the others they’ve experienced? What do they want, and what’s stopping them from getting it? Make your character interesting, and give them something to do.

Really, that’s all the 3 Act structure is. It’s not a formula for a good story so much as a loose blueprint for creating compelling conflicts.

The only real rule is you have to entertain your readers. If you do that, you’ve won.

Plot Analysis: Bullet in the Brain

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s short, emotionally resonant, masterfully crafted, and fresh.

Read the story here. If you really want to get a lot out of this, read the story twice. This is important because the first time you read anything, you’re going along as a reader. It’s only on the second read, when you know what’s going to happen, that you can start to see the structure of things.

I know it sucks, but writing is work. If you don’t want to put in the work, you won’t make it.

Every story starts with the inciting incident. In short stories, the inciting incident often, but not always, occurs within the first paragraph of the story. This is because short stories are… well, short. In novels, it’s not uncommon for the inciting incident to occur within a chapter or two. But it’s where the story really begins.

The inciting incident is the first event that makes this day different from all others in the eyes of the protagonist. It sets off a string of events in an escalating causal chain that come to form a story. A causal chain simply means that one event leads to another.

Enough jargon — lets apply these ideas to the story. The inciting incident in this story despite its short length, occurs kind of far into the story. Tobias Wolff is an amazing writer, and he is able to do this because even without the inciting incident, there is conflict and escalating action throughout the beginning of the story.

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.

This is the first sentence of the story and it introduces a problem that, while not the meat of the story, is enough to keep the reader interested, especially because of the strong language: loud, stupid, murderous.

This is important to note. If, at any time, the reader does not understand what a character wants and sees them struggling to get it, they won’t be as interested in the story as they could be. It doesn’t mean a story is bad. It just means that it might not be as strong as it could be.

Everything anyone tells you about writing should be thought of on a spectrum. If your characters aren’t interesting, it doesn’t mean your story will fail. It just means that on the spectrum of pleasures one usually gains from reading, this one is absent, and you need to compensate for that in some way if you want people to read what you wrote.

The story moves briskly along, each sentence heightening the action between Anders and the women in front of him.

Then, it happens. The inciting incident.

Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door.

This is the beginning of Act 1, the initial conflict. Many things usually happen in the first Act, but the one thing that ALWAYS happens is a transition to Act 2, the meat of the story. This sounds stupid and obvious, but it’s the only real rule for Act 1. Many things usually happen in Act 1, such as the introduction of other characters, but they aren’t necessary and aren’t part of the story here.

Note the continued escalation of action. EVERY sentence has a purpose, and every time something happens, the stakes are raised. This begins with Anders making fun of the language of the robbers. The robber doesn’t hear this, but the action is still escalated when they put the guard to gunpoint. This shows the robbers mean business.

The robber decides to rob the woman who had gone on break earlier, the same woman that the woman in front of Anders remarked on, causing Anders to expunge his vitriol.

Now, when Anders rubs it in, the robber hears him.

Two other things to note. First, notice the causal chain. If the woman in front of Anders hadn’t said anything, then Anders wouldn’t have said anything here and there would be no story. This is an almost invisible event, yet it’s CRUCIAL to the story because it makes the story all about Anders and his decisions. There is no puppeteer behind the scenes, moving paper-thin characters around.

This is Ander’s story.

The conflict between Anders and the robber continues to escalate until, keeping true with his character, Anders sees something that a literary critic would think is funny — the literary equivalent of blasphemy in a painting of Zeus and Europa.

Anders laughs, and the stories goes into Act 2 when he’s shot in the head.

People will always tell you that story is about character, and they’re right. Up to this point, Anders is an unsympathetic narrator. He’s angry, caustic, and rude. We’re interested in seeing what happens to him, though we don’t care about him as a character.

Act 2 starts with one, simple premise: what Anders remembered before he died. It’s a powerful thought, enough to keep us reading even if we don’t particularly care for the narrator.

But Wolff, in a stroke of genius, tells instead what Anders did not remember (ironic, also, because it can be said he must not have remembered these things in life either). The Act 2 is shorter than normal here, but that’s because it occurs with such ruthless efficiency. Each sentence comprises an event, and each event is a puzzle piece that fits together to form Anders’ life.

Each event here is unexpected, and keeps us reading. And each event is so unlike the character of Anders that we’ve seen, we also want to keep reading. We have to know what happens. We have to mesh the Anders we’ve seen with this new, sympathetic Anders.

In three masterful paragraphs, we see Anders’ life. We see how the world, once wonderful and romantic, slowly reveals itself to be anything but. And we see how eventually the poetic magic that once infused Anders’ life is snuffed out. When everything becomes monotonous, and the same, and the bottomless well of rage and indignation created at this.

THIS is what life is for? THIS is what I waited for, what I put in all those hours for?

It’s a very powerful thought, and just as we’re digesting these things, Wolff drops the bomb: Act 3.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.

This is the most important point in the story, and as I’ll explain in a later post, because it is the most important point in the story, it needs the most description. We’re no longer being told events — we’re living Anders’ last memory.

And what a memory to end with. Alone, without the story behind it, this scene would be meaningless. But without having to say it, Wolff shows Anders at his best, when the world was full of wonder and magic. When a boy saying two simple words was enough to set his imagination aflame and fill him with the magic and wonder of life.

Any questions, clarifications , or objections to anything above, leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them ASAP.

The Three Act Structure

The biggest problem I think most amateur writers have, myself included, is a lack of adherance to a three-act structure.

The three-act structure is essential to virtually every story. I didn’t always think so, but I do now. It’s the skeleton of the story — without it, all you have is a useless pile of flesh.

Why do I believe a three-act structure is so vital to a story? Well, in fiction, a story is a series of events set up to entertain the reader. And what’s entertaining about a story?

Conflict. Every story in the history of the world has conflict. Every. Single. One. Conflict is the reason your reader is giving up time, their most valuable possession in the entire world, to read your story. They must have the conflict resolved.

The three-act structure is the method through which conflict is most effectively organized. Why is it the most effective? I think it’s because it frames events in such a way that people respond to them. Predictably, it contains three acts.

The first act is the initial conflict that starts the story off. It begins with the inciting incident, which is the event that makes this day different from every other. Though the conflict of the first act varies, it’s really just a stepping stone to the second act, which is the main conflict of the story.

The second act is the heart of the story. Things usually get worse and worse for the hero until at last the darkest hour, the moment when all appears to be lost, surfaces. The hero conquers this and propels the reader into act three. The conquering of the darkest hour is often accompanies by some sort of reversal.

The third act is the conclusion of the story. It resolves all of the conflicts and ends the story in a satisfying way.