Ed Protzel

Genre-stretching novelist — Author of darkly ironic fiction

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Playing with Story Structure to Delight the Reader

Last Saturday, I participated in the St. Louis Writers Guild’s annual Writers in the Park event, where area writers could attend workshops, network and sell their books to the public. One of the sessions I attended was David Lucas’ (president of the SLWG) presentation, which outlined several types of novel structure. Listening to him made me think about the ways in which I use these techniques to structure my novels.

Telling the Story
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on Honor Among Outcasts, the follow-up to The Lies That Bind (book 1 of my DarkHorse Trilogy). My novels are so imaginative, one could assume I develop them by “seat-of-the-pants” method. I confess, I do like to let the stories go where they will, to create interesting characters and to let their natures build the action, to let them surprise the reader and me. As a writer and a reader, I like the little surprises that show up in a story as much as anyone.

However, there is much more method to my madness than that.

The Structure
David covered the four-part structure, which I often rely on to give the story a spine, to make it easy for the reader to follow.  For example, the first two sections might encompass these elements:

·      The Set-up. To establish The Lies That Bind, I put all the major characters in a troubling situation in the first quarter of the book. For instance, Durksen Hurst, my “hero” (or anti-hero),  and his partners, a group of slaves, devise a scheme to build their own plantation called DarkHorse. By the end of that section, they’ve acquired the land and are in a pretty precarious position, having to build a plantation and not get exposed, with death and danger lurking around every corner.

·      The Development. The second section begins with Antoinette, whom Durk loves, ready to abandon him on her own secret mission. Antoinette, too, has her set up and development. You will find Cassandra-like, mysterious Antoinette a very complex woman, certainly not a typical “heroine.” Additionally, in this section, Durk and his partners clash with the wealthy and powerful Frenches (Devereau French and his mother, Missus Marie Brussard French), who are trying to do them in.

A word here: In defiance of typical structure, The Lies That Bind has a second hero (or “anti-hero”) in Durk’s antithesis, Devereau French. Devereau, who is struggling for his own freedom from his manipulative mother, is not your typical villain. Rather, Devereau has his own set of problems, which will delight and amaze. Readers will see how Durk’s and Devereau’s problems are different—and yet the same.

Sections three and four have their own characteristics, but that’s for another blog.

It may seem that I’m constantly defying structure; yet I am really just playing with standard structure. My goal is to produce constant surprises for the reader and, I confess, to amuse myself!

Mythology as Structure
In his presentation, David also tied storytelling to Joseph Campbell’s writings on myth. Campbell studied all the world’s myths and found common elements among them, elements that are found in the most successful fiction. Theoretically, every story we read is, in essence, a new myth. One can argue this stuff all works based on our basic human wiring. Right?

Campbell writes that all myths, symbolically, feature a hero on a journey. The hero leaves the ordinary world and is called to an adventure. In The Lies That Bind, Durk plunges into the swamp/forest; he and his partners scheme to build an egalitarian plantation in a slave society.

According to Campbell, at some point the hero is tested and discovers who his allies and his enemies are. Clearly, Durk’s partners are his allies: their lives all depend on trusting each other. And the Frenches are his enemies. Right? Not so fast!

Devereau (my other “hero”) is being driven by his mother to destroy Durk and his partners. However, Devereau resists—he doesn’t want to do it. Now Devereau, as a second hero, is defying the mythological structure. Is he a friend or enemy of Durk’s? Why won’t he accept the role of enemy?

Finally, there is resurrection in the hero’s story, where the hero’s final problem is solved. Here, too, I give it all a twist so that the reader is surprised and left nearly breathless. Does Durk solve his problems (many of which he created himself)? Does Devereau gain freedom from his mother? Does Devereau defeat Durk or vice versa? Or do they both experience something a bit more ambiguous?

Of course, there are more stages to a myth than the ones I’ve provided. To learn more, see Campbell’s ground-breaking work, The Power of Myth. (See Bill Moyers PRB series.)

As you can see, from beginning to end, The Lies That Bind toys with traditional structures. I hope I’ve played well on readers’ expectations and delighted them with the book’s many shockers.


News Flash! The Lies That Bind received two new flattering reviews this summer:

·      Historical Novel Society: “The action and drama are compelling from the first page to the exciting conclusion. The animosity between the French plantation and Hurst builds to an exciting and surprising climax. Antoinette is so mysterious, one doesn’t know of her mission until the end. Highly recommended, and I am anxious to read the next installment.”

https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-lies-that-bind-book-one-of-the-darkhorse-trilogy/

·      Midwest Book Review: “The debut novel of author Ed Protzel's 'Dark Horse Trilogy' series, ‘The Lies That Bind’ is a deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end. While strongly recommended for community library Historical Fiction collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that ‘The Lies That Bind’ is also available in a Kindle edition ($4.99).”

http://www.midwestbookreview.com/sbw/jul_16.htm#Fiction



Arrange a Visit
I love speaking to book clubs, organizations, bookstores or libraries about writing, history, or (of course) The Lies That Bind and my DarkHorse Trilogy.

To request a visit, just send me an email at: ed.protzel@att.net.

Speaking at Left Bank Books, St. Louis

Speaking at Left Bank Books, St. Louis

Take the NaNoWriMo Challenge in November

Well, here is where I don my writing coach cap and whistle and draw your attention to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), being celebrated in November across the country.

 If you’ve ever wanted to write fiction, you should definitely go for it next month. Just sign up  at NaNoWriMo.org and draft a 50,000 word novel or novella. You track your progress, get pep talks and support, and meet fellow writers online and in person. What more could you ask for?

Sure, any writer can tell you that good novels are not just written; they’re re-written, edited, and edited some more. But still, this is a great starter exercise, if it only motivates you to get the story down. You can re-write/edit later. In fact, once you get your first draft roughed, then the fun really begins as you revise. So go for it!

 A Less Solitary Experience
It’s nice that today there is so much support, online and otherwise, for would-be writers. The effort is not quite as solitary as it once was. Perhaps there are enough ways to link up to other writers and readers to overcome the isolation of the computer screen. I’ll tell you, readers who will take time to give you considered feedback are solid gold. Makes the long, hard slog of writing a novel more fun. A reader will have a different perspective from yours, and will tell you honestly when your story is unclear, etc., plus engage you in discussions that will summon up good ideas. Solid gold indeed.

The good thing about this one-month challenge is that it forces the writer to write every day. That’s great because, as I’ve mentioned, for a new writer, especially in the beginning, creating a novel can be more than challenging. It’s like your brain has inertia of rest: you’ve got to cut your way into the story with a sword or an ax. Once your story is going, however, it’s like inertia of motion: it’s painful to be kept away from your tale. At some point, the act of creating your story is so pleasurable, so exciting, so fulfilling, you don’t want to stop. It’s more than worth the pain of getting started.

An “Easy” Method
Frankly, when I get an idea for a novel, I’m pretty ready to go—I can’t wait, in fact. Experience, perhaps; but the only way to get experience is to start writing. One fun way to go about crafting a novel is the method Syd Fields’ book, Screenplay, suggests for writing scripts. I’ve used it and recommend it.

Divide the story into four roughly equal segments. Come up with three major plot points: a quarter-way, half-way, and three-quarters-way in. Then decide on your dénouement or climax. These are guideposts and may change somewhat. In fact, the events at these guideposts may change meaning by the time you get to them because your story has outgrown them. It’s great if things change or evolve: that means you’re creativity is taking over!

Make sure you know what your major characters want; or if they’re confused, like Hamlet, why they’re confused. Then make their actions true to their motivation, which will keep the story moving forward. In this way, your characters can come alive, and your story will be more than a simple narrative. Often, your characters will fool you and change the story. To me, this is the magic of fiction writing—being surprised and delighted by your own creation!

Next week: More on creating characters, depth and themes, and how I developed the characters in my forthcoming novel, The Lies That Bind (TouchPoint Press, November 2015).

© Copyright 2017 Ed Protzel