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Thursday, April 16, 2009


I'm privileged to have Amy Deardon visiting the blog today. Hope you'll sit back and read about Amy, her book, A Lever Long Enough, and her insights about writing. After the interview you'll find Amy's article - Story Structure. Thanks, Amy, for visiting the Café today and allowing me to share your research with my readers. Congratulations on your recent book, A Lever Long Enough.

Carla, thanks for allowing me to visit!

Tell me a little about yourself?
I’m married and fortunate enough to be able to stay at home with our two children, now 15 and 13. In my life B.C. (before children) I did bench science research and taught anatomy and physiology at an undergraduate level.

How did this book come about? Or to put it another way, how did you decide to write this particular story?
Lever is about a small military team that travels back in time to film the theft of Jesus’ body from the tomb. I like to think of it as The Case for Christ meets The DaVinci Code.

In my mid-twenties, I undertook a personal quest to investigate the claims of Jesus’ resurrection with the goal of destroying them. To do this I studied biblical and extra-biblical accounts of Jesus and numerous commentaries by believers and skeptics alike, listed the facts agreed upon, and began to explore scenarios that could explain what was known. To my surprise and considerable dismay, the evidence kept pointing away from naturalistic explanations and eventually formed a virtually certain case for the resurrection of Jesus. Finally I admitted defeat and became a Christian.

I wrote this book because I was blown away by the case for the resurrection, and I wanted others to understand it.

So you were a scientist before you became an author? How has that helped you in your writing process?

Like science, fiction writing requires persistence and attention to detail. However, scientific and fiction writing are opposites. To write an article, you must put the facts up front: this is what was investigated, this is how, this is what was found. In fiction, to create tension you must always leave one or more questions unanswered. If a character says something, the other character can’t just answer, he must delay, or go off on a tangent; otherwise the writing is *on the nose* and boring. Another difference is that in scientific writing one must include all the details, whereas in fiction writing it’s important to only write what advances the story. For example, no one wants to read about how a character picks up a bottle of water, unscrews the lid, and takes a deep refreshing drink unless the character is about to give a speech and is afraid he will cough unless he can, just maybe, unobtrusively grab a bottle of water first. Jeopardy or tension needs to be in everything.

The biggest surprise I found when writing fiction was just how vulnerable it felt. Scientific writing is technical and impersonal.

What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

The temptation for me is always to just rip ahead and write. I did this with Lever – I was learning fiction techniques as well so it probably wasn’t so bad, but I ended up throwing out so many many pages of good writing because the story wasn’t going in the right direction. I didn’t know why not, just that it wasn’t right.

For my current book, I laid out an outline and write from that. I go off on tangents, of course, but before I go too far down a new uncharted path I analyze the direction to fit it into the story. It seems to work for me. There is nothing neat about piecing a story together though; even with the best preparation it takes a great deal of trial and error, because things always look different in the writing from what you planned.

How did you develop the characters in your novel? Charts? Interviews? Or did you just start writing?

I knew generally who they were. As I wrote, the story events forced me to make more choices of what they were like, and I also invented story events that would test them precisely at their weak points. It was an organic process, an interaction between character and plot.

What do you want the reader to gain from A Lever Long Enough?
I’d like someone to race through the story to find out what happens next, then shut the book and say, wait a minute… My goal was to demonstrate (without the use of fictional miracles) just how remarkable is the case for the resurrection. My prayer is that God can use this book to open the mind and heart of a skeptic.

Who’s your favorite author?

My favorite fiction author is Michael Crichton – I love his amazing premises and intricate plots.

What is the latest book you’ve read?
I just reread Testament by John Grisham. This is a surprisingly spiritual and inspiring book, thoughtful.

Coffee? Tea? Sparkling mineral water? Or . . .
Every morning I make a big pot of tea and drink as I write. It’s very soothing. I’ve recently discovered white tea (Lipton makes an awesome blend with mango and peach flavors), but I also like spearmint, and chai. Earl Grey is the pits (never understood why Captain Picard on Star Trek requested this!)

Coffee? I can drink it without gagging, but it’s never to be chosen, at least by me. My husband loves it though.

Seltzer with a little bit of orange juice, please.

Shall we move on to chocolate?

What new project (s) are you working on?
I currently have two book projects. The first is my prequel, Nest Among the Stars, about the space station disaster that occurs to one of my main characters (Sara) before she emigrates to Israel. It’s a lot of fun for me to be writing, and involves the time machine in an unusual way.

The other project came about from my experience writing Lever: after finishing, I decided there MUST be a better way to organize a story, so I took maybe a year dissecting numerous novels and movies to better understand how a narrative is put together. The Story Template describes the algorithm I’ve developed to allow a writer to develop a resonant, compelling inner/outer story (novel or screenplay) from the germ of an idea. I’ve refined it through story-coaching multiple students, and am excited because this method of story development truly seems to work!

Can you tell me a little more about your algorithm?
I was amazed to find how remarkably consistent story is even across genres. The events may be different, but they always cause the story to twist in a certain way. Briefly, story can be divided into four themed quarters, and is marked by story posts at predictable locations. (Some of the posts landed within a range of just 2 or 3 percentage points of the whole in all the stories I looked at).

The structure of story, I believe, is laid deep within our souls, not invented but merely described. The closer the outer form of a novel or film conforms to this inner template, the more the story will resonate within us. Interestingly, the events during the last week of Jesus’ life as described in the gospels, from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection, perfectly mirror the proportions of the story template. I believe that God implanted this story template into our minds as yet one more way we may respond to Him.

It’s your turn. Any closing thoughts or words of wisdom?
Just, the Lord is awesome! Everything goes back to Him.

Thank you, Amy, for being my guest today. I’ve loved having you and wish you all God’s best with your writing. Read reviews and buy A Lever Long Enough here. You can learn more about Amy Deardon here. You can also find the story tutorial for preliminary story development she developed here.

In my studies of story structure, the biggest surprise I found was how little story development varies. My dear friends, we are such very boring creatures! No matter the genre, the same development of story events occurred, over and over and over. For this blog entry I wanted to give a quick summary of story structure according to me. Much of this is not original work -- I'm not that brilliant -- but I've synthesized the work of smart people with my own humble observations to come up with a model of story structure that works for me, during my work in coaching writers.
During my studies, I tore apart about 20 *good* modern novels (ie novels that I enjoyed), ranging in genre from literary to adventure to mystery to YA to science fiction, plus a bunch of movies. I did word counts or timed scenes with a watch, listed everything into columns, and then analyzed the commonalities of story progression across genre.
The story can be divided into four more-or-less equal parts, each part with a distinct theme. Furthermore, there are definite story POSTS that occur reliably in the progression of the story, and land reliably within a range of a few percentage points of the whole. I'll put them down very briefly, and use the film *My Big Fat Greek Wedding* to illustrate. BTW I could have picked just about anything to illustrate, but this is a cute movie :-)
ACT ONE: demonstrates the original or starting position of the protagonist, plus the set up to show how he moves into the main story.
Ordinary World -- shows what the protagonist's *normal life* is like. Toula is a 30 year old unmarried Greek woman working in her (extremely intrusive) family's restaurant.
Inciting Incident -- shows a potential change offered to the protagonist, either a choice or an assignment. Toula finds a college brochure that might offer her an opportunity to achieve something different by taking a few classes.
Argument -- the protagonist isn't sure if he will enter the new world or not. Toula must convince her father to allow her to take some courses at the college.
Door -- represents a *journey* into the new world. Toula enters the college campus and starts taking classes.
ACT TWO FIRST PART: the protagonist learns how the *New World* works, and also thinks that once this little journey is over he will be *unchanged* (able to straddle or return to the Ordinary World). This is often shown as a series of three encounters, each increasingly involved.
Toula is shown changing her image to become more glamorous (hair, clothing, ditching the glasses, makeup etc.), answering questions competently in class, and socializing with other students (something she couldn't do as a kid).
Midpoint: an often flashy event that represents either a false high, or a devastating loss, that makes it clear the protagonist can no longer go back to his Ordinary World. Toula meets Ian, a high school English teacher, and starts dating him even though she knows her family will *never* accept him because he isn't Greek. Shortly afterwards, Nikki tells Toula that the family knows about her romance with Ian, and then Toula must sit before the disapproving family committee that tells her to break it off.
ACT TWO SECOND PART: the protagonist scrambles to regain equilibrium while the antagonistic forces gain power. Toula's family tries to match her with other *suitable* bachelors without success. Finally Ian proposes to Toula, who joyfully accepts, but her family only reluctantly agrees. Ian yields to these powerful forces by becoming *Greek*: becoming baptized and participating in Greek family activities, including a fabulous party in which Ian's conservative parents are contrasted with the noisy Porticullis clan.
Slide: another often flashy event that serves as a funnel. The nature of the climax is now clearly seen. Often there is a sort of *death* present here; think Obi Wan against Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie. (observation courtesy of Blake Snyder in his Save the Cat!, a book I highly recommend). Toula comes home with her wedding plans, only to learn her family has already ordered the invitations and the bridesmaids' dresses.
ACT THREE: the protagonist gears up for the final encounter, although it looks unlikely that he will ever win. Toula is dismayed that her family is so intrusive, and that her family and Ian's are so different.
Darkest Moment: The very worst position that the protagonist can possibly imagine. While preparing for the wedding that morning, Toula realizes she will never be free of her family.
Help from Outside: a small action that allows the protagonist to regroup and win. This story post I recognized courtesy of Nancy Rue and Angela Hunt in a NANGIE writing class I took a few years ago. Toula's grandmother shows Toula her own wedding crown, and Toula realizes that her family all love her and that she is connected to her family in a deep and profound way.
Climax: an often flashy sequence in which the protagonist ultimately wins, if not the outer conflict then certainly the inner (think Rocky). Toula and Ian have a beautiful, Greek, wedding and reception. Toula's father makes a joke that shows how Toula's family and Ian's family, although different, are ultimately the same.
Resolution: tells how the protagonist's life will go on. Toula and Ian are shown several years later in a house next door to her family's house, walking their daughter to Greek school.
******OK, there is the story structure in miniature, sort of. Try laying these story points over any story you like -- you'll be surprised at how well they'll match!This column is for dear friends. I hope it provides some food for thought.***copyright 2008 by Amy Deardonall rights reserved.
Carla here. Story structure used with permission. I loved having Amy here and will be looking closely at my own WIP to see how it measure up. Would love to hear your comments. What sort of story structure do you use?

1 comment:

Hope Chastain said...

What a wonderful interview! Thank you both so much! I'm going to line this up over my own stories! I hadn't thought about it, but now that you mention it... :D

What a blessing! Your story reminds me of Malcolm Muggeridge, who went through much the same process you did, Amy, and (of course) came to the same conclusion! I pray your book reaches many unbelievers.

Hope AKA Marion