In my last blog, I talked (okay, blogged) about the difference between a scene and a story—a critical difference if we seek to elevate our erotica above the merely erotic, to make it both satisfying and memorable. It talked about all the ingredients I collect for a story, like a main character, an antagonist, conflict and resolution.
‘Ingredients’ is a good word for these things, because it tells us what we need to get started, but not how to put it all together. For example, you wouldn’t introduce your bad-guy in the last chapter, right? Even when you have all the right ingredients, you still need to put them together properly to get a story.
Structure: A recipe for success
Ever heard of the three-act structure? It’s not new. It was coined by Aristotle, apparently, and is now a staple of modern screenplays. We can employ the same techniques to structure stories, even short ones. Rather than boring you with a long and dull description that I copied off Wikipedia, I thought it would be more fun (for me) to show structure in action by decomposing a well-known story (in this case, a movie) into some of its structural components to show you how it works.
Now it’s no secret that I’m Australian, and it’s also no secret that every last one of us is a knife-toting, crocodile-wrestling maniac. It should come as no surprise that I have chosen the 1986 classic Aussie rom-com, Crocodile Dundee, starring Paul ‘Hoges’ Hogan and Linda Kozlowski. I know you’ve all seen it; don’t try to deny it.
So let’s have at it. Since I’m too lazy to actually describe the three-act structure, I’ll refer as I go along to some excellent infographics from www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com by K.M. Weiland, author of Structuring Your Novel.
Here’s a cinematic blurb for Crocodile Dundee that I pasted together from a few sources:
Sue Charlton, a New York reporter, heads to Australia to interview the living legend Mick Dundee. When she finally locates him, she is so taken with him that she brings him back with her to New York. How will the Aussie bushman cope in the big city? And how will Mick cope when he finds himself falling in love with Sue?
Now, this is my third go at writing this blog, and what I’ve discovered in two failed attempts is that breaking down the plot of even a simple movie like Crocodile Dundee into its three-act components is a monumental undertaking. I wouldn’t finish writing it, and you certainly wouldn’t finish reading it. I’m just not that interesting. Instead, I’ll try something briefer and hopefully more interesting, by pulling some of the key scenes out from Act One and trying to identify them in the Weiland infographic.
Scene: The Walkabout Creek Pub
It’s the third scene of the movie, where Sue accompanies Walter Reilly to the Walkabout Creek Pub to meet Mick. Mick sweeps in in a boisterous, raucous rush of hilarious larrikinism, wrestling a stuffed crocodile, when he spots Sue.
They lock eyes and there’s a long, sexually charged moment that lets every viewer know exactly why they’re there—to see these two fall in love. This is a critical moment for the movie, because not only does it introduce the title character, it lets us know his goal (get the girl), and it is the pursuit of that goal which drives the drama.
In a romance story, a scene like this is known as a meet-cute (or sometimes cute-meet), a cute, amusing, and endearing way for the love-interests to meet. Woe be to she who writes a romance without a meet-cute.
Sue, to her great credit, steadfastly sticks to her purpose and is not wooed by the charismatic bushman:
“Listen, you do understand I want you to take me out where you were attacked, show me how you survived.”
“Oh well, I don’t know, just the two of us there alone? I’ve got me reputation to think about.”
This is our first sniff of the movie’s central conflict: Mick wants the girl, but the girl wants the story (not to mention, she has a boyfriend). In this way, the story’s antagonist isn’t a bad guy, or a monster, or a volcano, it’s situational. If Sue wants the story, she must spend time alone with Mick, and in doing so, she will have to endure his country charms. Surely only the strongest woman could resist!
Let’s look at K.M.Weiland’s Act One infographic. That link should popup a new window. I’d love to duplicate the infographic here, but I’m too damn lazy to ask Ms Weiland for permission. If you’re too damn lazy to click the link (hey, I’m the last to judge), then you’ll just have to imagine a timeline that shows how Act One is broken up into The Hook, The Set-up, The Inciting Event, The Build-up, and The First Plot Point. Curious yet? Clickety-click … I’ll wait …
You’re back? Great. Now this infographic isn’t romance-specific, so we don’t see meet-cute there, but clearly the Walkabout Pub scene is part of the set-up; characters: check; goals: check; stakes: check.
But what about that Inciting Event? It’s supposed to be in here somewhere. It will be the place where the antagonist takes its first bite out our main characters. The Walkabout Creek Pub introduces the situational antagonist, but it hasn’t slapped either of them down, yet.
Lesson: Not all critical scenes are on the right-hand-side of the infographic.
Scene: Sue Strikes out alone
After a day and night of outback adventure, Sue is recording her impressions on a tape recorder when Mick interrupts. (Apologies to US viewers, this link is blocked to you and I can’t find the scene elsewhere on the Internet)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pl8rwEuPf84#t=25m15s (Apologies to US viewers, this link is blocked to you and I can’t find the scene elsewhere on the Internet)
“Yeah, but you’re not alone. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, but… I think I know how you must have felt… Or how I’d feel if I were out here alone.”
“You… Out here alone? That’s a joke. A city girl like you… You wouldn’t last five minutes, love. This is man’s country out here.”
“That’s right. I’m only a sheila. We’re heading for that escarpment today, right?”
“Okay. See you there this afternoon.”
You’ll have to watch the clip, because what the dialogue doesn’t show is the death-stare Sue gives Mick when he says she wouldn’t last five minutes.
This is our antagonist, out to play, teeth bared, saliva dripping from its maw. How could these two ever love each other? Physical attraction is one thing, but love between a chauvinist and a feminist? Not going to happen.
I think we’ve found our inciting incident. Their differences have driven a wedge between them, and it’s going to take a miracle to bridge the chasm it’s created.
Lesson: An Inciting Event is key to any complete story, not just a romance. We set a character onto a goal, but where’s the fun if we just let him succeed? Mick Dundee taking the city girl out into the bush, falling in love and living happily ever after is NOT a story. The Hook may be the thing that gets us reading, but the Inciting Event is the thing that makes us care.
Scene: Echo Lake
After the Inciting Event comes a series of scenes where Mick regains ground in his romantic quest for Sue, not the least of which being the one where he saves her from a crocodile attack.
Each of these plays on the same theme, Sue’s conflicted feelings for Mick, and the sense of safety she enjoys to be protected by such a manly man.
These feelings come to a head at Echo Lake. Sue is resting on the bank and watching Mick spear-fishing. The look in her eyes and the backing score all say one thing: she wants this man. Problem is, Wally will be there soon to end their adventure, and then she’ll have to go back to New York alone and resume her normal life without Mick.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pl8rwEuPf84#t=38m12s (Apologies to US viewers, this link is blocked to you and I can’t find the scene elsewhere on the Internet)
“Mick. When I go back, why don’t you come with me?”
“Well, it would make a great wrap to the story… You in New York City.”
“Oh. For a minute there I thought you were making a pass at me.”
“Well, I might have been. Would you mind?”
This is a huge moment for Sue. She’s tried playing the assertive modern woman to Mick, and it almost got her killed. But even though she’s the one making the move, everything in the scene still screams that she is playing submissive Jane to his Tarzan, which is the drama that drives their romance.
More importantly, it opens the plot of the movie. We’ve had the city-girl-in-the-outback, now it’s time for the bushman-in-the-big-smoke, which—apart from the romance—is the real point of Crocodile Dundee.
Looking at our infographic, we see that this is our First Plot Point. We’ve had the set-up and the build-up, now it’s time to crank the handle and let the story fly into the second act, which is where all the real conflict happens.
Lesson: The Inciting Event is not the plot; it simply opens up the story for the plot reveal. Because of this amazing thing that happened (Inciting Event), now we must embark on this adventure (First Plot Point). The closer you can tie these two to cause and effect, the more compelling the drama.
What Have We Learned?
Crocodile Dundee is cheesy and formulaic, and yet every time it comes on TV (and in Australia, that’s a lot, and usually late at night), there I am:
I’ll just watch to the croc attack.
I’ll just watch to Echo Lake.
I’ll just watch to “That’s not a knife.”
The reason I keep watching until they land in each-other’s arms in the New York subway, is because it’s a tremendously satisfying story. And it’s tremendously satisfying because it keeps giving you what you need, when you need it.
This is no accident.
Sure, you could ignore structure. You don’t want to write formulaic fiction that ticks boxes, you want to write a beautiful, organic story the way it needs to be told.
Well sure, you can. Don’t let me tell you different. But if your goals are less lofty, if all you want is to turn a good idea into a great story that people will enjoy, then look into this structure thing. It really works.