Friday, August 28, 2009

Wilson Runs the Obstacle Course

Fantasy author N.D. Wilson lays out an exercise in pacing that he calls The Obstacle Course. The basic idea is to set unconventional narrative goals through which the story must thread. Though they could be almost anything, Wilson likes to (1) pick an unusual conflict, (2) put the protagonist in an unexpected setting, and (3) come up with a striking closing image towards which he writes (4) with minimal exposition and (5) inside of a word limit either longer or shorter than that with which he is accustomed.

Sounds like a setup for frustration, right? Why not just write something you want to, something a little easier? Why put yourself through so much trouble? Wilson offers an excellent rationale:

All good fictional story-telling involves a narrator successfully running an obstacle course. The characters have established attributes (stray outside them and they become inconsistent and the story uncompelling -- see Ayn Rand). The setting has given props, given time constraints, physical constraints, etc. Each scene has a role, a thing which must be accomplished, a useful contribution to the overall narrative (and the author needs to know what that micro-destination is beforehand). On top of this, the readers have expectations. If any kind of story-grip has been achieved, they will be racing ahead mentally, guessing at the ending, at the arrival, the resting point, projecting their own path through the obstacle course or the maze . . . and they will typically be disappointed in the book if they guess correctly. Outfox them.
Read the whole thing. A little reflection reveals how very true this is. The stories that stick with us are often the ones that tie us in knots with a surprise ending -- or that shoot straight as an arrow to the conclusion while keeping us waiting for the twist that never comes.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Unknown said...

I don't know about the "waiting for the twist" line. There are really two "good" storylines: the surprising twist and the satisfying conclusion. A bad story attempts to surprise without considering the plausibility, or goes to its foregone conclusion without enough style.

However, I don't read a good satisfying ending "waiting for the twist that never comes." In fact, I'd say that if a story aiming for the predictable but solid ending is engendering the feeling of an impending twist, it's not doing its job correctly. Writing the old story well means doing it skillfully and with poetry, shaping the story until that ending is the only one that can possibly be. When it inevitably arrives, it is the capstone to a well-sculpted building and it belongs.

Loren Eaton said...

See, I gotta be careful about trying for those kicky endings. They can make me say more (and/or less) than I intend!

Generally speaking, I think your two classifications are spot on. When I wrote the "waiting for the twist" bit, I was thinking of The Road and Stephen King's "Riding the Bullet," grim stories that make you think, "This has to turn at some point. It can't end the way I think it's going to." But they do. Maybe that's something of a third way. But as to whether or not they're successful, well, that's up for debate. (For my two cents, "Bullet" definitely succeeded.)

B. Nagel said...

The Road had me hoping for a turning point, grasping at the possibility that McCormac was operating outside of his MO. And there is hope in The Road (including but not limited to the Bird of Hope boat). As LitFic, I think McCormac did a beautiful job.

The sheer number of 'obstacles' in genre fiction is staggering. So many standard characters or situations to run, avoid, adjust. So much expectation on the part of the experienced genre reader. And that's where I think the 'waiting for the twist' bit is most effective. When you are able to lay down a track that your readers feel they recognize, but it takes them in an unexpected direction.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Good point, Scatter, but might I offer one corrective? Even the satisfying ending has to be a bit unexpected in order to work. Or, if not unexpected, at least approached from a novel direction. The Name of the Wind feels traditionally satisfying, for instance, largely because he followed the general path of the hero's journey. Kvothe isn't "postmodern," or "wry," or particularly "cynical" even an "unexpected hero"--he's the same white male epic hero, orphaned and thrust into a wide world, of whom we've seen dozens. Yet Rothfuss keeps his book interesting by wryly warping every step on the way--Rothfuss's characters think, feel, and act in ways that are shocking because they rarely cooperate with their epic role. I may have known exactly where the story was going, but I never knew what would happen in the next five pages.


The thing I experienced lately that made me wait for the twist that never came was Dr. Horrible. I'm not sure whether or not it was a good thing.

Dr. Horrible was all about flagrantly mocking the conventions of superheroism and supervillany. Captain Hammer is in no way noble. Dr. Horrible is much more of a lovable, nervous idealist with delusions of grandeur than a mastermind challenging God for dominance.

And of course there's the delightfully insane silliness, and the strong setup of Musical Theater tropes (both co-leads live parallel lives on opposite side of moral dividing-lines, both feel something lacking about their current position, both feel an immediate attraction which they resist, &c.) Billy & Penny could just as easily be Sky Masterson & Sarah Brown from Guys & Dolls. Or Danny Zuko & Sandy Olson from Grease. Or (with a slight gender-switch) Galinda & Elphaba from Wicked.

I expected, therefore, the Musical Theater plotline to dominate. Rather than the normal self-serious supervillain/superhero storyline, I expected some twist that I didn't see coming, which would give me the happy musical ending even if it had to be forced. I expected, in a word, Once More With Feeling, where "not a one" of the heroes "can say that it ended it well" but everyone celebrates anyway and the episode ends triumphantly with a (very ill-advised) kiss. That is, an ironic repetition of the musical-theater formula.

Instead, the "twist" is that Whedon's supervillain storyline shot straight. Dr. Horrible succeeded in becoming, well, horrible. He succeeds in transforming himself from an ambiguous uncertain human to a clear-cut, iconic, emotionless figure of Evil.

But while I may applaud the moral focus of the ending (even likable losers can make Faustian bargains), it annoyed me. I expected Joss to be clever within the rules of musical-theater entertainment. I expected an ironic happy ending, a final full-cast song, something that I could dance to even if on closer look it was a bit disturbing. Therefore I felt I had got less, not more, than what I expected when he handed me the morality-play ending.

(On the other hand, the conclusion is, if nothing else, thoroughly memorable and thought provoking. Something the otherwise intelligent Wicked sidesteps with its somewhat ham-fisted attempt to finally draw everything into a traditionally satisfying Big-Musical Ending.)

Loren Eaton said...

The Road seems to be primarily a meditation on the Imago Dei ("carrying the fire") and how it works out into one's actions even at the end of the world. It's lovely and fascinating, yet I kept wishing that McCarthy would find a happier ending for his characters.

One of the fun ways to switch up the obstacles is to blend your genres, to mix 'n' match them in unexpected ways. But that has its own perils; it's easy to lose readers that way.

Loren Eaton said...

Gah! Simultaneous posting! Jinx!

Forgive me, CR, but I'm going to not read your post because I haven't seen Dr. Horrible yet. But it's on my list!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

You are quite forgiven, Loren.

In fact, I'm tempted to re-watch Dr. Horrible to make up for your not having watched it. (Without spoiling it, I can say that it steadily improves upon rewatching.)

Loren Eaton said...

It looks really funny. I've got a week-or-so-long break from work coming up soon. Maybe I'll watch it then.