Writing Excuses 10.11: Project in Depth: “Parallel Perspectives”
Key Points: Laying out a bonus story starts with how many pages are left. Each page gets an index card. This story, Parallel Perspectives, is structured as a framing story plus four individual perspectives, stories from each character’s POV. Telling the same story multiple times from different perspectives. The index cards are used to identify open spreads and page turn reveals. Order of the stories grew out of the awesome moment, and looking at the details of style and story. Shape, then timeline, then details. Bookended framing story. In this case, the structure is used to point out that different people tell stories in different ways, rather than just perceiving the same event in different ways. One lesson: a collaborative story can be a much better story. Another point about structure is that the shifts in visuals, in tone or narrative voice, also support the story. There is also good use of lead ins and outs, with little hooks to guide the changes in who is telling the story.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 11.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project in Depth, Structure in Parallel Perspectives.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we’re starting a new feature of season 10, where every three months or so, we are going to pick one of the projects that we have worked on recently and we’re going to try and relate all of the things you’ve been learning in the last couple of months to this project. Specifically, Howard’s bonus story, Parallel Perspectives, which is in…
[Howard, Brandon] Massively Parallel…
[Brandon] Has a really interesting structure. So we want to talk about how you came about structuring this in the first place.
[Howard] Okay. The first step in structuring a Schlock Mercenary bonus story… We took… Sandra does the layout. I say we… Sandra laid out Massively Parallel in the format that we lay these out in and determined how many pages we have left the end of the book and the end of the next signature, which is a multiple of 16. What has happened sometimes in the past, it’s like, “Oh, we’ve got three pages left between this and the end of the signature. We need to come up with 19 pages of bonus story, because three pages isn’t enough.” In this case, I had 13 pages to work with. So the first thing I did structurally was lay out 13 index cards so that I knew these were the pages the story is going to go on. The second thing that I did… I wanted to try something different. I mean really different. I wanted to collaborate in a way I’ve not collaborated before. So I sat down with my colorist, Travis, and pitched the story to him. I wanted to tell a story in which the framing story is the characters in a bar talking about a thing that’s happened and we get each of their perspectives on their role in the story.
[Brandon] Right. So you’re going to tell the same story multiple times from different perspectives. It’s a really awesome storytelling mechanism. Some of my favorite pieces of media have done this. I loved this story. I have to say, it worked beautifully…
[Howard] Well, thank you.
[Brandon] In this. I had read Massively Parallel. So seeing these different perspectives was extra fun.
[Howard] This… Yeah. To be clear, this structure is nothing new. When I brought it up with Travis, his response was, “Okay, one of these.” That is critically important to know, because… I mean, it was critically important for me that he knew what we were doing, because the other thing that I wanted to do is tell each of the sub-stories… I was only giving a couple of pages for each of them, because 13 pages, four characters plus framing material, not a lot of space. I wanted different artists for each of the perspectives. I wanted different art styles. I sat down with Travis, and the fun moment that we had was when… I said I want different art styles, and Travis made this face. I said, “One of them, I think, is sort of a Frank Miller stark black and white, and another one… Boy, I’m scared to say this, but if it was like the My Little Pony’s style…” Travis broke out in this big grin, and he said, “Oh, my gosh, I was thinking the exact same thing, but I was afraid to say it.”
[Howard] We knew… From that conversation forward, we knew that Chisulo was getting the My Little Pony style because he’s the big tough elephant guy. It was just… It was going to be such a fun disconnect. Then… And I gotta give credit where credit is due. Jim Zubkavich… I pinged him to ask, “Do you know anybody who can work in this style?” And he said, “Yeah, Brenda Hickey draws the My Little Pony comic book for IDW, and I’ve met her and I’ve got her email address right here.”
[Brandon] That’s very convenient. Very convenient.
[Howard] So I reached out, and this is… I did. I mean, this is a completely different discussion, how you reach out to another artist and invite them to participate in a project. So I did all of those things. Brenda was excited to participate. I had Travis on board to do the Sin City-esque sorts of stuff and to do… One of the styles we wanted was an uber superhero sort of thing which was sort of the climactic part. I brought my daughter Keliana in to do one of the perspectives because I wanted it to look very different from what I was doing. And I wanted… I love her style of line art. She’s already developed sort of a signature style. So, structurally, I knew that I had those pieces. Then I did, and this is the reason for the index cards, structurally, when you’re doing comics, I had to look for the page turns. I had to look for where there are open spreads and where you turn a page and get a reveal. We knew that the My Little Pony part had to be a reveal. If it appeared…
[Brandon] Right. You couldn’t get to half of a story and then…
[Howard] If it appeared halfway on one page, it wouldn’t have full effect.
[Brandon] Well, beyond that, it would distract from finishing the other story.
[Howard] Yeah, it would distract from the previous page. So pages… Now I’ve gotta open it up and see… Yeah, pages 250 and 251 of Massively Parallel are the My Little Pony sort of style.
[Brandon] Seeing Schlock drawn in My Little Pony style is one of the best payoffs I’ve ever had in one of your books. Even though you’d warned me it was going to happen. I read it and just was cracking up.
[Howard] I have to say that lettering over the top of Brenda Hickey’s artwork… I felt like a vandal.
[Brandon] Okay. We’ve laid down this. I want us to ask you some specific questions. Number one, how did you choose which order the different characters’ stories went in?
[Howard] Okay. That’s actually kind of easy. I knew that because this is Schlock Mercenary and because the awesome moment of the story was going to be everybody loving the way somebody else saw all of them… I knew that the superhero style was going to go last, and that was the one that Schlock was going to be telling. I already had… In our previous structure episode, I talked about awesome moments. I knew that the next to the last page, which was going to be on a page turn, was going to be a splash of the characters just looking awesome.
[Brandon] Right. So that’s your moment of awesome for this.
[Howard] That was…
[Brandon] You build everything kind of around that?
[Howard] I built everything leading to that, with the My Little Pony page turn happening a little bit earlier, and I knew that that needed to be just before that, because anything that came after the My Little Pony stuff just needed to turn the volume up.
[Brandon] Right. So you already had two of them in place.
[Howard] I already had two of them. At that point, I backpedaled and I asked myself did it make more sense to tell Chelle’s story before Elizabeth’s or Elizabeth’s before Chelle’s? Now I was into the nitty-gritty of the structure where I had to ask myself what were these characters actually doing? That was the… Honestly, that was the tricky part. I had to reread Massively Parallel, I had to reread the footnotes, I had to reread things that were written throughout the book to make sure that the pieces I put in place actually fit. Then I came up with a story in which Schlock, in order to free the others, is moving… Is getting the others moved into the hospital where Chelle is held. It’s going to be Chelle’s job to draw the cops while the others move to the roof.
[Howard] Simply put, that was the structure.
[Brandon] Awesome. Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which Dan is going to give us.
[Dan] Yeah. Book of the week this week is actually book 2 in a series that I have pitched to you before, The Hero’s Guide series by Christopher Healy. Book 2 is The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, read by Bronson Pinchot. What this series does is it takes the princes charming, all of the princes who are involved in the various princess stories, and then it shows them working together to try to… Basically, they’re trying to be as cool as the princesses are, because the bards only pay attention to the princesses, so they’re doing their best. This one is great, because it shows them… We talked a lot about structure. This is a heist story. They need to storm the castle. They do that via a heist. We bring back some… One old villain from the first book, a brand-new villain who’s even scarier. Then watch as Cinderella’s Prince Charming and Rapunzel’s Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Charming and Snow White’s Prince Charming all work together with their various cool powers. Of course, the princesses all come in to basically pull their fat out of the fire when necessary. How they use those powers and abilities to storm this castle and save the kingdom… Really great story. It is full of fantastic art inside. Interior illustrations. Gorgeous cover. Which you won’t get in the audiobook. But if you get a chance to see a hard copy or look it up online, it’s really gorgeous. So. Christopher Healy, The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle.
[Howard] Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership, and get it read to you by Bronson Pinchot, which is…
[Mary] He’s a really good…
[Dan] One of the best readers…
[Mary] Really good narrator.
[Dan] On the market.
[Howard] Really, really awesome.
[Brandon] Mary’s going to ask you a question.
[Mary] Well, one of the things that I was going to kind of point out to the listeners is that you figured out the overall shape of the story and then you went back and looked at timeline and then you started dealing with details.
[Brandon] And with your story, it’s really interesting because each of the four has a different tone. We were talking about deciding the tone of your story. What you really did is, you came up with one tone in the beginning… We’re sitting in the bar and we’re going to top each other with stories. That’s a certain tone, that’s camaraderie, that’s friends, and so… Really, the cool thing is, the end where they are all friends and admiring what Schlock has told, is a pay off on that first tone. Which you then slip three other tones into the middle of.
[Howard] Oh, and… I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but that’s not accidental.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, that’s…
[Howard] I knew that was what…
[Brandon] The cool thing…
[Howard] I knew I was building bookends in terms of the gross structure of the framing story. I needed it to be book ended in the details as well.
[Dan] Well, my question for you is because this kind of structure is a common one, but you’re playing with it in a different way. Usually when somebody does this kind of Yojimbo structure, it’s because they want to call out the fact that different people perceive the same event in different ways, whereas you are focusing on different people tell stories in different ways. Which was a fun new twist on that, paying off so solidly with General Tagon and his dropping the line about remote-controlled headless monkey, and then everyone buys them a round of drinks. At what point in the story did you realize that was going to be the punchline?
[Howard] That was one of the very last things that I arrived at. When I say very last things, that came after I had everybody else’s art. When I had everybody else’s art, and… I didn’t draw anything until I had pages from Travis and Keliana and Brenda. Then I started lettering their work. So I could see what it was looking like. Then I laid out my scripts according to the outline. As I was laying that out, and looked at the art that they’d delivered, I learned something very interesting. Which is that if I give an artist dialogue and blocking, what they will draw often communicates through the blocking the story elements of the dialogue in such a way that they have now freed up a whole bunch of words that I don’t need to use. So I could put different words in place. So as I was lettering it, I lettered it according to the original script, then I went back through, and I went, “No. I can punch this way up.” So I started adding more energy to the through line and to the style of their storytelling. Which I think is really where that aspect came out. Once I had done all of that, I got to the end and realized everybody has a storytelling style. That has become a new thread here. What the general has is bossing people around about their story style, and I have not paid that off yet. The way to pay that off was with a twist. Which is he gets somebody else to boss him around quote unquote, gets free drinks out of it, and does… And I’m not sure, Mary, if this qualifies as what we call a slow burn, but does that burn out to the camera as he’s being handed a beer, and we know… And this is one of the things that I love about the story, we know that they are hanging around telling stories about the remote-controlled headless monkey that we don’t get to hear. But we get to imagine that happening.
[Brandon] Well, plus… I mean, if you’ve read… You know about the remote-controlled headless monkey, you got lots of stories told to you about it, which was really fun.
[Dan] Well, it was a nice pay off as well because of the way that he was bossing the other characters around, saying, “That’s not how you tell a story.” Then he actually gets to show his mastery. With one line, he tells enough of a story to hook all of their attention.
[Howard] Now one of the things that I learned about this which… A beautiful lesson and I want to retrain it and I want to build on it, is that I told a much better story with the help of other storytellers. With the help of visual storytellers, than I could have told by myself. This is far different than… My original vision for this bonus story was a simple four people tell the story differently, and Schlock tells you how it really happened, and I draw all the pictures. That would’ve been about 25% of the awesome.
[Brandon] Right. It would’ve been a lot more familiar, in kind of a bad way. That’s the way that story, as Dan said, is always told.
[Mary] One of… I mean, the thing that I really like about it is that the visual is so supporting the story. Just for people who are doing prose, you can actually do that in prose, too, by changing the narrative voice, which is essentially what’s happening when you change the…
[Brandon] You even have visuals in a book. You turn the page and you see a lot of dialogue, that… Particularly short dialogue, it tells you something and you get a tone shift immediately. Another good thing, since we’re talking about structure, is that I liked the lead outs and lead ins to each of the stories where you did your tone shift. You started it in your frame story, which happened in between each, and you gave us little hooks, like the one where they’re like, “I was on the ceiling…” “You didn’t look up.” It wasn’t on the ceiling. “You didn’t look up. That’s why you didn’t see me.” Suddenly, oh, now we’re going to get this one. It works… You did very well at expectations and with playing off of expectations.
[Mary] Also, there’s all sorts of callbacks to the original… And to remind us what the original question was and the original structure.
[Howard] That was… Honestly, that was quite hard for me, because I was… There was a point in this project where I stared at it and all I saw was mud and mess and it was difficult to make sense of. So I had to grasp at the strongest of through lines. For me, the strongest through line was that changeup. Elizabeth says, “I arrived on the roof and Chelle was in trouble and so I did something heroic.” And Chelle says, “That’s not how it happened. I totally had that.” Then we see Chelle’s perspective. Yeah, she totally had that. And Chisulo says, “That’s not how it went down. You guys weren’t looking up.” And we get Chisulo doing it. And Schlock says, “Guys, I saw the whole thing because I was…” And the General says, “No, you gotta back up.” Those little pieces that I’ve summed up in 45 seconds helped me hang everything else through there. Honestly, I had this problem when I worked at Novell and was trying to build requirements documents. When you try and hold the entire project in your head at once, you’re lost. But when you can grab the themes and through lines and moments of awesome and set pieces, it… Oh, and when you have other people’s artwork to stare at… Oh, my goodness.
[Brandon] Well, you guys, if you haven’t read this bonus story, you really should. Go pick up a copy of Massively Parallel, read the bonus story, and then come back and listen to this again.
[Howard] You know what, I want to… I need to give huge thanks to the Writing Excuses crew for the inadvertent rescue.
[Brandon] Oh, right.
[Howard] Oh, my goodness. Gonna run maybe 90 seconds longer, telling you this fun story. When Sandra sent me the PDF so that we could at the retreat here… We’re recording this in October. We could review this bonus story together. I reviewed it, and one of the pages was broken. When I say broken, lines of dialogue, pieces of picture had been chopped off. I looked at it and I knew we’ve already sent this to the printer. This is a disaster. I called Sandra and we had some very emotional, stressy conversation over the phone. It’s not me yelling at her or her yelling at me, it’s us immediately realizing we’ve got to figure out how to fix this book. China, where we were having the printing done this time around, was on national holiday this week. So Monday morning, when they came off holiday, there was an email waiting for them that said, “Have you bound the book yet? We would like to replace the last signature.” Their response was, “Nope. We did all the printing, but we haven’t bound it up yet. We can totally replace the last signature. It will cost you a little bit of extra money and about a week.” And it’s saved.
[Brandon] So, you’re welcome.
[Howard] Having this podcast absolutely made the book that you are getting better looking without a sticker and a flyer stuck inside and an apology, and I didn’t need to spend another $15,000 reprinting them all. It was a stressy weekend for me until I knew what that solution looked like.
[Dan] Well, we’re here for you, Howard.
[Brandon] We’re also here to give you a writing prompt.
[Howard] Oh, my, yes.
[Mary] So. What we want you to do is… And this is in preparation for moving forward to beginnings.
[Mary] Which is going to be our next module. What I want you to do is decide on the promises that you want to make to your readers in your story, and outline based on those promises. So if you’re promising that you are going to tell a heist story, work on heist stories. If you’re… Work on making sure that you got those elements in there. If you’re promising that you’re going to have someone fall in love with someone else, make sure that you’re featuring that in your outline.
[Brandon] Excellent. I think that’ll work really well for them. You guys are…
[No doubt the missing audio says, “Out of excuses. Now go write.”]