HOW ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER HELPED ME FINISH MY FIRST NOVEL.
So here’s a little nugget of show-biz gossip. It’s something I was told years ago by a film director. I’ve been unable to verify the authenticity, so it could be apocryphal; but I hope it’s genuine because it reveals a weird kind of genius that could help you finished your next novel. Here it is: Arnold Schwarzenegger (allegedly) begins a new film project by starting with the poster design.
It sounds underwhelming, but take a moment to appreciate the brilliance of it. If you start a new writing project by thinking about the marketing, you’re actually organising your basic story structure. A typical Schwarzenegger film poster shows a protagonist with a problem. If you add a shout-line to the visual image, you have a strong indication of plot, genre, and target audience, which are the bare bones of any commercial writing project.
It’s true to say that most novelists are less commercially orientated than Arnold Schwarzenegger; more inspired by a sense of personal expression than by genre guidelines, but in a basic sense all stories are the same: they all begin with a problem the protagonist is obliged to solve.
Listen to this, (as paraphrased from the great story-structure guru Robert McKee): All writers are genre writers… The first task is to identify the genre, or combination of genres that will inspire creativity. The second task is to master the possibilities of that genre. The third task is to satisfy the audience expectations of that genre, while you take them into unanticipated pleasures.
I’d like to believe the ultimate prize is to create something so original it defies classification. Yet no matter how original we strive to be, all novelists are genre writers to a greater or lesser extent. Having knowledge of genre guidelines doesn’t make a story less original; it actually allows the story to fulfil its potential, because within each story-type there are certain house rules that need to be observed.
My favourite book on story structure is: INTO THE WOODS by John Yorke. Of all the books-about-books, this is the one I return to. Not only is it a great discourse on the question of why we tell stories; it’s full of essential information, and hidden gems of knowledge regarding genre. And the more we learn about genre, the easier it is to create McKee’s fabled unanticipated pleasures.
For example, did you know that The Quest Story (e.g. The Odyssey, Finding Nemo, Indiana Jones, etc.) is actually a love story? Neither did I. But once explained, it becomes obvious: the hero is driven on an adventure to capture a fabled prize and bring it home to enhance the lives of the people, or the place, they love.
What I learned from Arnie is that knowledge of basic genre parameters will speed the writing process. It wasn’t until the final re-write that I realised my own debut novel was a ‘quest’; and once the genre was identified, the structure fell naturally into place.
In my novel The Karma Farmers, the protagonist is searching for a desire path; specifically, for the middle ground between science and religion. He finds it in the work of real-life theoretical scientist David Bohm, (the most controversial scientist you’ve never heard of). It’s a story of blood, drugs, obsession, necromancy and physics – but it’s also a love story! I never saw that angle. But without love, where would we be now?
THE KARMA FARMERS (a dark, cinematic adventure of love, murder and quantum theory) is published by Unbound, and available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.