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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Critique Wednesday: The Blind Men and the Elephant

Writers At Work

Analyzing a novel is like being in the Blind Men and the Elephant story: not only are there different ways to view a novel, but in seeing it through only one perspective, we can lose sight of the whole experience of the novel as an integrated beast with a long rope-like tail, smooth ivory tusks, and thick leathery ears, each serving a different purpose, but useless without the others.

This analogy sprung to mind as I'm reading Stealing Fire From the Gods by James Bonnett. Leaving aside the vast amount of pookie-pookieness in this book (which is ostensibly about screenwriting, but actually about the history of myth), Mr. Bonnett would say that any good story handed down by oral tradition evolved to contain an element of truth which transcends the story and literally taps the unconscious mind of humanity for lessons we all need to hear.

(Pookie-pookieness, yes? Yet ... there's an bit of truth as well.)

The Elephant
Novels are a loose collection of character arcs and voice and storytelling elements, all pulled together into something that can be a symphony singing an unspoken truth ... or a Frankenstein of badly stitched pieces stolen from the graves of other stories. *shudder*

The overarching goal is (or should be) to provide a satisfying experience for your reader. For that, deploying a small fleet of Blind Men is not a bad approach.

The Blind Men
In the interest of creating a symphony, not a monster, I like to analyze stories (mine and others, during critques). Sometimes I use Snyder's Beat Sheet (which I highly encourage), but that only gives you an idea of the skeleton of the story. Sometimes I use an Emotional Beat Sheet (which is my own interpretation of Peter Dunne's work on Emotional Structure), but that will only give you the heart of the story, not its brain (I'm mixing metaphors wildly now; please bear with me). I highly recommend reading Save the Cat Strikes Back, which has a detailed analysis of the Third Act, framed in terms of  "gathering a team" to "storm the castle." Also in Save the Cat Strikes Back, Snyder talks about Thesis, Anti-Thesis, and Fusion, which is the small lens of truth I want to dive into today.

Thesis: the pre-change world (also known as Act I)
Anti-Thesis: the opposite world, the fun-house mirror world (also known as Act II)
Fusion: Where thesis and anti-thesis worlds are brought together (also known as Act III)

If you rebel against the idea of structure, you can stop reading now. But if you believe (as Robert McKee discusses in Story) that structure is simply a short-hand for describing how people respond to the act of storytelling, then party on with me.

When I was writing Closed Hearts, looking at the elephant of my story in terms of Thesis/Anti-Thesis/Fusion gave me an important insight into needed changes in the third Act. I won't go into spoilery details, but it went something like this:

Thesis: For Kira, the thesis world is where she, Raf, and her father are together in their "normal world" - which for them consists of hiding from the jackers that hate her. Even when she is ripped from that normal world physically, those three characters, and especially Kira, still act/react as if getting back to that world is the only important thing.

Anti-Thesis: Kira enters the anti-thesis world when she makes a decision to truly join the Jacker World, with Julian and the jackers fighting a nascent revolution in Jackertown. Now she is in a world in opposition to her thesis world, where things are upside down or distorted from what she expects. This can especially be seen in certain characters, who become fun-house mirrors of themselves in the thesis world.

Fusion: This is the point in your story when your protagonist needs to take all their new skills/fortitude to solve the story problem. For an emotionally satisfying solution, it helps if the Thesis and Anti-Thesis worlds are fused, or brought together. This fusion can also be seen in the "gathering of the team" part of Act III that Snyder talks about in Save the Cat Strikes Back: often the team members come from disparate worlds, some from the thesis world and some from the anti-thesis world. Bringing them together and reconciling them to the task at hand, allows them to storm the castle together. This fusion of the two worlds, in some ways, is a reintegration of the pieces of your character, who may have started out your story fractured in some way and in need of healing. In an early draft of Closed Hearts, I knew how the third Act needed to play out, but there was something not-quite-right about the storyline that carried it there. I had, just by intuition, fused some elements of Kira's Thesis and Anti-Thesis worlds. But looking through the lens of Fusion to bring cohesion to the story, I realized I was missing pieces that needed to be there for a true reconciling of the two worlds. Once I fixed the missing pieces, the something-not-quite-right feeling vanished. Intuition can often take you 80% of the way, but knowing how to craft that last 20% is the key to taking your story to another level.

To really wrap your mind around these concepts, I encourage you to read the book (meaning Save the Cat Strikes Back, but you can read Closed Hearts as well, if you like!).

These are just a few of the ways you can analyze a story. Others include studying character arcs, looking at image systems, elucidating themes, analyzing conflicts. What Blind Men (i.e. story analysis techniques) do you use?

As promised, I'm giving away another 5 page critique!
(also: if you're looking for critique partners, feel free to connect with other writers by leaving your name/genre/email/critique availability in the comments)

Legalese: I'll randomly chose a winner of a 5 page critique via Rafflecopter. The critiques will be offline, not posted on the blog. My critique philosophy is "honesty with kindness." I believe someone can't learn while they're in pain, so it's important to temper the truth with gentleness. I also believe my job as a critiquer is to help you tell your story better, not change it to be the story I would write.
a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. THIS is why even reading a novel (and either like or disliking it) is so objective! Those darn Blind Men! ;-)

    I don't use any story analysis techniques. Not on things I read or things I write. For me, there is no rhyme or reason to what I like or even write. Yup, I'm pretty all over the place, just reading what makes me happy and writing what makes me happier. ;-) It I had to analyze anything, I wouldn't want to do it. Too much work. ;-)


    1. LOL! So, you're an intuitive storyteller. Which is awesome, and I wish I could do that, but when I do, my stories aren't as strong.

      And you are so right about the subjectivity of why people like/dislike a novel that they read - I hadn't thought of it that way, but different people are definitely looking for different things. This is why I throw up my hands at reviewers who ding a book because they "don't like the genre". Well...yes, then you're going to have a hard time liking the book!

  2. Liking a book is so subjective: I'll love a book and my friend won't like it all! But I think writing a book, though we may approach the process differently, has these elements you wrote about in your post. And if they're missing or not fully formed, the reader might not be aware but might leave thinking something is off. Unless the writing or characters is so outstanding that they don't care the emotion/structure wasn't optimized.

    Does that make sense?

    1. Absolutely makes sense! And no book is perfect - or has to be, in order to be loved. Some seriously flawed books (in one sense or another) are very well loved, because they speak to something that transcends it's flaws. Which is a fascinating subject all to itself! But I think, as writers, we have the tools to work behind the scenes and craft a story that will deliver a great reading experience - this is one reason I love analyzing stories, really getting into the clockwork inside that makes the thing work. #geekAlert

  3. I think this is one of the reasons I like goodreads - it reminds me that books I love others may hate and vice versa. The really important thing is to maintain professionalism in all instances of conversation about books - love, hate, whatever.

  4. I need to reread STCSB. I remember the thesis and antithesis, but I can't remember the fusion part.

    I recently attended a Michael Hauge's workshop. It's changed how I approach my stories (though I still keep STC in mind because I love that book).

    1. Oooh, I'd love to hear your insights from the workshop!

  5. I always hated analysing books in English classes. Now I have to analyze my own just to get the query/synopsis written :(


  6. What a great analysis, Susan. I find identifying the thesis really helpful, too.

  7. Awesome. As always. And another book for my list. If I go broke, I'm blaming you.

  8. I really needed to read this today! Thanks!!

  9. I spend a lot of time lining up my scenes with the Hero's Journey, but I can easily see how it would match up with the Thesis/Anti-Thesis/Fusion concept. 99% of the time, using a structure of any sort has helped. But there's that pesky 1% where I feel like I'm trying to shove a round peg in a square hole!

    1. Yes, I definitely think there’s times when you have to follow your intuition, rather than the structure. Although I agree – most of the time forcing myself to use the structure improves the story.

  10. I like the way he put that. Have you ever watched Saturday Night Live and wondered why some skits left you going, "WTH?" It took me a while to figure it out, but their skits have always been written with a beginning and a middle...but no end. That wouldn't work with a book nor a screenplay.

    1. Comedy is a mystery to me. I mean, I know how to laugh, but understanding how it works? Nope. :)


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers