Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Grand Unified Theory of Story

By Marcus Sakey

So it’s Wednesday morning on a bright, chilly day in Chicago. Beck’s Sea Change is on iTunes, and I’m alternately coughing—lousy time to get sick—and engaging in the loosest sort of brainstorming. That’s too vaunted a word, really. Daydreaming is more accurate. Toying with the raw elements of new stories.

This happens to me every time I head into the third act of a novel, as I am about to do with my as-yet-untitled fifth. My head begins to detach, to loose the lines that have kept me tied to a story for a year or more. It’s something I used to fight aggressively, believing that I wouldn’t be able to finish if I drifted too far. And that’s probably true, but over the last few books I’ve learned that my subconscious is apparently cognizant of the need to eat, and it doesn’t stray past the point of no return.

I do, however, begin to wonder what might be next. I drift and sort and look for things that turn me on.

And I’d like your help.

I am by nature a system breaker. I’m good at looking at things and figuring out how they work. It’s a skill I’ve tried to apply to writing. While I don’t believe in a Grand Unified Theory of Story, there is an algebra to storytelling. There are rules and logical forms that can inform your choices.

But, just like in physics, it’s often the most basic questions that are least susceptible to solution. And most basic of all to good storytelling is this: What makes you love a book?

This is where you guys come in.

Here’s what I’d like you to do. Think of one of your all-time favorite books. A novel so good that you had the conflicting desires to tear through it and yet also to savor it. A book that’s lingered in your memory, with characters you missed when it ended. Don’t tell me MOBY DICK—I’m not analyzing enduring scholarly worthy, and besides, I won’t believe you anyway. What I’m interested in is a book that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go.

Got one? Good. Now take a minute and think about why you love it.

Obviously, there are going to be some things that we can count on. You’ll have adored some or all of the characters. It will be a ripping good tale. There will be stakes and consequences and the possibility of disaster.

So let’s take those things for granted and go a little bit deeper. What makes this book special for you?

I’ll give you an example of what I’m looking for. A book I felt that way about was NEUROMANCER, by William Gibson.

Yes, it had all of the above. I loved the characters and the story burned along and it had significant stakes both personal and metaphysical.

But thinking about it right now, two distinguishing factors come to mind. The first is the world, which was thoroughly and convincingly imagined. Gibson created cyberpunk—coined the term, in fact—and his future was one that I felt I inhabited from the first words. I believed in it. I could see the connection between our world and his, a perception that was enhanced by the way the characters took it for granted, maneuvering through it with neon cool and switchblade sensibility.

The second factor is that though it was science fiction, and though it borrowed the trappings and texture of film noir, it was at heart an adventure story. I was the boy reading adventure tales under the blankets by flashlight, and a huge part of me still is. I will always love a good adventure—especially if it feels fresh, as Gibson’s did.

So that’s my request. Obviously there are no right and wrong answers, and you can go into as much or as little detail as you like. But seriously, if you have a couple of minutes, this would be incredibly helpful to me. And those of you who lurk but never post, this would be a great time to bust your cherry.

Thanks in advance!

31 comments:

Maryann Mercer said...

Hey, Marcus :o)
Iron Lake by Kent Krueger...I just kept turning the pages. Couldn't help myself. I needed to know what was going to happen next! I blame it all on his narrative, some of the best I've ever ever read. Sounds trite, but his words flow almost effortlessly from page to page, something much easier to comment on than to do. Perhaps it helps that I was home sick, but I read the entire book in (almost) one sitting, and then reached for the second one! I know this sounds more like a bookseller handsell(and I've used it on occasion for his books), but it's the truth!James Lee Burke has the same effect on me. And you already know I've done the same with yours 'cuz someone told you!
For me I guess narrative is the thing, followed closely by characters I can root for, even when, as in The Amateurs, they're not really on the side of the law.
Hope this helps a bit on this cold Wednesday...find some Gan Mao Ling. It works, honest!

Jen Forbus said...

I'm a character reader at heart. The character is the foundation of a great book to me, and I don't mean specific characters. I'm talking about the overall character development, the relationships between characters, the struggles and conflicts of the characters, the characters' language. In my reading experiences, great plots develop from characters I believe would act accordingly in those plots. A great plot that forces unlikely characters into it, falls flat for me. So, to use my specific example to highlight this, it would be L.A. REQUIEM by Robert Crais. The humor of Elvis and the humor of Joe and the humor of Samantha Dolan are all different kinds of humor, but it's used effectively in each character and I love that. The relationships that develop between these characters and around these characters make the actions of the characters and the events of the plot come alive on the pages. The dynamics of the relationships between Joe and Elvis and Lucy also contribute to my love of this book. Even the dynamics of the relationships between Elvis, Joe, Lucy and the cat are vital to my affinity for this book. The contrast between the characters also sparks life into the book. The plot is fantastic, but it is fantastic because I care what the outcome is for these characters and how it will affect the relationships between them, how it will alter who they are and what they become.

I'm not sure if that answers your question, Marcus, but I could draw these same correlations with any of the books that I deem to be among my favorite reads.

Stephanie said...

Tana French's The Likeness was one of those books for me. Apart from the gorgeous writing, spot-on dialogue and a compelling central character, part of the appeal for me was that she took what was, frankly, kind of a ridiculous premise (former undercover cop who looked exactly like a murder victim who was using her former undercover identity, cop goes undercover as the dead girl to solve the murder) and rocked it so hard it left me breathless. It doesn't hurt that I have a particular fondness for the kind of odd, exclusive community she becomes a part of and the dirty gothic aesthetic of their sprawling, decrepit manor house full of Chests of Mystery (my kingdom for a phrenology head!).

Chris said...

I'll go with Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I think that Card cuts to the core of moral dilemmas--which is what makes the book so engaging. Ender simultaneously wants to save the human race while maintaining a semblance of his own identity in the process. And Card never really strays from this conflict--all the side conflicts (like Peter and Violet's secret plot to rise to power) play off of the central conflict. And it has an incredible twist ending that is authentic to the rest of the story. So often twists feel manufactured--they're just done for effect--but Card executes this perfectly and it makes the last quarter of the book really interesting.

Good luck with the end of your book Marcus! I just read "The Days When You Were Anything Else" in the Thuglit anthology and was totally blown away.

Kevin Smith said...

Among fiction, there are so many choices, but I think I might have to come back to "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris, and the defining things about that novel, for me at least, was first the detailed understanding of the individual characters' makeup and motives. Dolarhyde was a monster, but we saw the circumstances that created the monster, and that made him a little less scary but the world a little more so, because we saw that a baby born can see this and suffer through that and end up a brutal slayer of families.

The second feature of "Red Dragon" that caught my eye was the hard-earned knowledge of people, of their quiet habits and their dark sides. Will Graham's knowledge of the silverware in a witness' kitchen and the knife on an ex-con's belt, his searching for a clipboard to find a left thumb print, all represented to me the distilled moments that come from a character having more of a past than most, a character who didn't materialize in an author's crime scene, but who visited dozens of them, smelling the blood and picking his way through the debris left by paramedics.

Bennet said...

I'm a lurker, but was sufficiently intrigued by your question to answer :)

For me it was Dan Simmons' Hyperion. Often I'll like the theme of a book, but find the characters weak, the plot engaging but the dialogue trite; Hyperion pulled everything together (aside from an over reliance on "lapis lazuli skies") into a rare, thoroughly enchanting read.

I've never succeeded in describing to friends what I loved about the book - take the structure of the Canterbury tales, add a healthy dose of Keats, sprinkle in a Buddhist-leaning artificial intelligence, an incisive exploration of what religion is supposed to mean to humankind and wrap it in a suspenseful science fiction framework with characters you'd be happy to argue philosophy with over a few beers. It sounds like it might be a bit of a mess, but it isn't.

I loved having things to think about after I put it down. And I admired (and perhaps envied a little) his ability to juggle all those disparate balls and not merely keep them in the air, but create fascinating patterns.

Dana King said...

Lots of books have done this for me. The two most recent were George V. Higgin's THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and Pete Dexter's DEADWOOD.

As you noted, it's the characters--at least one key character--that I get wrapped up in, and the story has to be believable. I don't do international chase high body count superhero thrillers. I want to feel like I could be this person. Not that he's Anyman--stories where amateurs triumph over professional criminals can drive me crazy--but that if I had his skills and attitude, this is what it would feel like. It becomes personal to me.

And the writing has to kick ass. Weak writing will put me off a story before I even know what it's about.

Dan said...

I'm going to head off-trail with this one; the book I'm thinking of isn't really a crime/thriller. Stephen King's "IT" is a book that I re-read every couple of years. It's epic in scope (and in length) but the combination of the character development and the theme, to me, is a literary achievement. This one can't be just written off as horror. The first time I read it, I blazed through the 1000+ pages in a couple of days. When I finished it, I turned it over and read it again, this time savoring it. I can't call myself a serious Stephen King fan, but "IT" was truly magical.

Mike Dennis said...

Within the last few months, I've read two that have really stayed with me. David Goodis' THE STREET OF NO RETURN and Douglas Fairbairn's STREET 8. Both are noir to the max, both hold you to the page, and both make you care about characters strictly through the writing--characters you might otherwise find unappealing.

The story of STREET 8 is probably a little better (but not by much) as it purports to tell of the travails of a used car dealer in 1977 Miami, but in fact is a bitter tale of the transition of Miami itself seen through his helpless eyes. I posted a review of it on my website a week or two ago, and the book has never left my consciousness.

Same goes for THE STREET OF NO RETURN, but Goodis is such a great writer, that I'm sure I'm not alone in loving this novel.

Sharon Doering said...

Great way to reel us in, Marcus! I am a big time lurker.

Like most, I read for characters. And come to think of it, I don’t actually need much of a plot. Martin Amis’s Money? I’d follow John Self anywhere, just to see what he’s up to, what mistake he will inevitably make today.

But if we are talking your standard great read with a plausible plot and we are talking the last 1/3 of a novel, I’ll stay up way too late for the imminent collision.
The bad decision after bad (yet unavoidable) decision that ends in this 20 car pile-up, the road ominous with fog, me biting my nails to see if maybe someone’s heroism will break my heart, or if a single child might emerge from the haze unscathed.

One of my all-time favorites is Pet Sematary. First, there’s the idea. It’s unbelievable, yet King of course makes it real through dialogue, characters, and that magic of his. But the whole novel is this looming car crash. Oh Christ, you know he’s going to bury the kid. It’s coming, here it comes, and you know it’s probably going to be more devastating than you can imagine, but you can’t look away. And then, you want to know how the characters are going to handle the crash? Because, all of it MATTERS so much to the characters, their lives are forever changed.

James Lee Burke is good at building up to a collision. Forget it, he’s good at everything. And I just read Winslow’s The Power of the Dog. Christ, What a pile-up.

So that probably doesn’t help you much because it’s obvious. But I also think it is as simple/impossible as the obvious combination of great characters, dialogue, tension, language, and some element of the unique.

Noatak said...

Marcus:

Another book-loving lurker here. The book that comes to mind for me is BUFFALO SOLDIERS' by Robert O'Connor. It is his first, and to my knowledge, his only novel.The story takes place in West Germany, on a US Army base. The main character, Elwood, is a mid-level clerk who while he is not using and dealing heroin spends his time making his commanding officer look good. It is written in second-person, present tense and is funny, frightening, and totally realistic. I've known a lot of military types and can say that O'Connor manages to nail what life is/was like in the military during peacetime....it has it all, sex, drugs, rock n' roll and violence. Though I knew I was reading fiction, I also kept reading because what was being described was as real as it gets. Stunning, honest, truthful writing. Highly recommended, I am hoping someday Robert O'Connor will write another book.

Steerpike said...

Great choices from everyone so far.

Mine is Moby-Dick.

(I'm sorry, I had to)

Seriously, though, a book that's always been very powerful to me is Paul Auster's novel In the Country of Last Things. His prose style and the complete bleakness of the world he creates resonated with me.

Marcus Sakey said...

These are fantastic responses--thank you guys.

Interestingly, the overwhelming trend is apparently character. not just that they need to be well-written and that plot comes form them, but that it seems like what is likeliest to move you--at least those who posted--is falling in love with a character.

That's helpful to me. A couple of characters have been spinning around my brain apropos nothing, or at least no story, but just because I like them. Which suggests that maybe others will too, and that I should look to them when it comes time to focus on Book the Sixth.

Anonymous said...

I've always been a big fan of Dennis LeHane and I think the book that fits your criteria for me is Gone, Baby, Gone. Good mystery, great characters, and a major ethical situation at the end that I think about many years after reading it.
Another book is Replay, by Ken Grimwood. It was origially published over 20 years ago, by I think about it often and what I would do in similar situations. Its about a man who goes back in time repeatedly to relive parts of his life. Each time he goes back he replays his life a little differently. Very thought provoking and interesting to see how it all plays out at the end.

Anonymous said...

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Bryan Gruley said...

Sorry to come to this late, but I'm betting you haven't finished that third act yet, Marcus, so for what it's worth ... Sophie's Choice did this for me. I loved two things about it. Stingo and Nathan and Sophie, of course, and how they pursued their intertwined lives in Brooklyn. But moreso I loved the way the novel was like an onion, with layers of truths later unpeeled as untruths until weg to the final terrible truth of Sophie's choice. It was like Styron used his characters and our engagement with them to lull us into succeeding false levels of security until finally we were presented with the truth we couldn't possibly have heard earlier on.

Anonymous said...

Well I agree but I think the brief should secure more info then it has.

rick zipper said...

HI Marcus.
Your mom and dad got me interested in reading and responding to your question. One of my favorites was Pat Conroy's Beach Music. I struggled with finishing that book, because I did not want the experience of sharing in their lives to end. Not only were there rich characters, but I cared about them. I cared what happened to them; what they did; choices made and lost; and while all of the things that drove the story mattered to me, those things mattered less than the character's experience of what happened. When I read a book, it is truly not the story/plot that holds me. It is not so much who dies, lives, gets rich, divorced, has kids, etc., it is how they deal with what happened. For instance, the moral dilemma and betrayals of "Good People" did not matter because they drove the plot. They mattered because I liked the characters, wanted the best for them. Once a character is created, the character (which to me, because of my profession, means personality) has to remain consistent, and decisions made that would violate character can only be undertaken if the explanation for them being out of character, makes some sense. So I guess that's my answer. Developed characters who behave out their roles in resolving the plot, without doing things that would make me think, "They would never do that".
As to your third act dilemma, one good possibility is that your unconscious is just working out what your characters would do next in preparation for their resolution of their raison d'etre, and the end of their story.
rick zipper (FoT&S)

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