This is going to be one part writing advice, one part literary theory, and several parts fan fiction to show how it all works.
Back in 2011, I had been thinking a lot about what goes into crafting a good story. Particularly, I had been struck by how awful the 1978 film adaptation of Chandler‘s The Big Sleep was, despite keeping the original plot structure, and how good the 1946 film was despite draining much of the force of the book’s plot with a Hollywoodized climax. The Bogart version succeeded, I suspect, partly due to better casting and more faithful adherence to the original witty dialogue.
Also, while reading Bukowski‘s Pulp, I realized the power of wit in driving a story even when structure is weak or absent. Then, the worst of the Pirates of the Caribbean films (so far) was released on DVD. Lots to think about, and it led to the realization that there are essentially four dimensions of story-telling.
The Four Dimensions of Story-Telling
The dimensions of story-telling are the three spatial dimensions of setting, character, and theme plus the temporal dimension of plot. What makes a good story is, I believe, simply having tent-poles in each of these dimensions.
(And, yes, I realize the graphic at the right does not show plot as a tent-pole, but I felt it conveyed the spacetime metaphor better this way.)
Notice that language is not among those dimensions. As writers like Dan Brown and George R. R. Martin demonstrate, an author need not slap down a masterstroke of poetry in every word, sentence, and paragraph in order to spin a powerful yarn—although such minute attention to detail is certainly worthy of consideration in distinguishing literary fiction from … well, from whatever we want to call the rest.
To spin a powerful and engaging yarn, however, all that’s necessary is the regular placement of:
- strong imagery to support the texture of the setting,
- memorable dialogue to support the emotionality of the characters,
- strong ideas to support the theme, and
- developments to support a plot that resonates with the narrative instinct of the human psyche.
With enough of these tent-poles in place, the rest of the story can be draped overhead with even the Dan Browniest of writing, and the pavilion of your story will remain aloft.
I feel that I already write this way unconsciously, piecing together bits of dialogue and characterization, setting and imagery, theme and ideas, and organizing them into a meaningful plot structure. In fact, I think that most writers do this, even when they don’t consciously realize that this is what they’re doing. If you do it, you probably just call it as “sketching things out” without thinking about the tent-poles.
But, even so, I want to perform an experiment in which I explicitly set up the basic tent-poles of of a story without draping all of the fabric over them.
For fun, I want to do a story I couldn’t actually publish, a hypothetical storyline for a Pirates sequel. I understand there are sequels already in the works (although they are apparently scraping the reef in pre-production) but, for the purposes of this experiment, I will proceed with the milieu details that are available at the end of On Stranger Tides, staking out tent-poles of setting, character, and theme inside the rough sketch of a plot-line that evokes the history of the series, but develops it forward as a trilogy about a disillusioned Jack Sparrow who is lured to adventure by two women pirates, one of whom is the goddess of the winds with a dark vendetta against the Church.
Of course, since this is only a tent-pole sketch, it will focus on the major (i.e., tent-pole) scenes in each sequence, leaving plenty of room for a hypothetical screenplay to be woven between them. Also, the opening will be fleshed out much more thoroughly, to get you into the groove of things, with tent-poles summarized as we go forward. I’ll do the first film in this Part 1, and the second and third films in Part 2 to come.
I will not use screenplay format, simply to avoid the perception that I’m subtly pitching this. *wink wink* This is just for fun! Check it out here: