When I was a much younger
eldritch spawn human, I madly loved RPGs, or role-playing games (the kind played with others on a tabletop; the computer versions only came around much later.) The reigning king in that era was still Dungeons & Dragons, but I eagerly collected the rulebooks for (and tried to inveigle my friends into games of) Top Secret, Gamma World, Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Super Heroes, Toon, Paranoia, and probably others that I don’t even remember.
With my current residence
deep in a cavern below Mount Voormithadreth the grounds of Miskatonic University, countless miles down in quaint New England, I don’t have a suitable gaming group nearby, which has taken me rather out of the hobby. I still have an interest in the games, though, which is fortunate, because it’s how I came recently to discover a book that presents an exciting, thought-provoking, and most importantly, useful approach to narrative analysis, Hamlet’s Hit Points by game designer Robin D. Laws.
Laws is hardly the first to propose breaking narratives into units called “beats”, the purpose of each beat being to provoke a particular audience response; as Laws acknowledges upfront, this is basic practice among actors and directors, who break down scripts in this fashion to better plan the staging of each beat.
Laws’ classification system, however, is by far the best I’ve yet seen, comprehensive yet simple. The majority of beats are accounted for by just two types, procedural and dramatic, representing either progress or setbacks toward outer goals (procedural) or inner goals (dramatic). Three more beat types cover the revelation of information to the audience and/or whetting their appetite for that information. The remaining four beats do an impressive and pretty comprehensive job of covering the remaining possibilities, including some that are often missed in high-minded literary classification schemes (try explaining the enduring popularity of the Marx Brothers’ movies without acknowledging the gratification beats; I can assure you it won’t be easy.)
Shifting focus, though, I’d like to point out something very important about Laws’ analysis qua analysis. Any attempt at a system for analyzing literature falls inherently into one of two categories: it’s either a system for taking its subject matter apart, or it’s a system for taking it apart and also for putting it together. Academic institutions, anxious to prove their seriousness, generally teach the most high-minded literary classification systems they can. These systems almost always fall into the first category, designed to deepen your appreciation for what wonderful work The Great Masters did, rather than teach you how to achieve good effects in your own work – even if the latter is the declared purpose of the course of study.
But Laws’ beat analysis system is definitely from the second category. The toolkit he provides in Hamlet’s Hit Points is not just intended for constructing satisfying narrative structures. It’s intended for game-masters trying to shape such structures on the fly, and not only that, but from components (i.e., player actions) that by their very nature are largely out of the game-master’s control. By necessity, such a system must be more forgiving in what it considers success – and I submit to you that this factor, too, makes it more useful a tool for writers than other systems more likely to be taught in academia.
If I sound like I’m saying that academia’s study of the Great Works is overrated, that’s not my intent. It’s not a bad thing to aim high, and one can definitely do worse in learning how to get great results than looking to, well, those who got great results.
At the same time, there are dangers to the widespread practice of studying what the Great Works we know have in common and concluding that they must be prerequisites for Great Work. For one thing, Great Works are simply not the only ones that matter. Even if one is enough of a snob to deny that Decent and Pretty Good Works have their own quite respectable place, one should at least be realistic enough to acknowledge that few Great Works come from authors who didn’t create Decent and Pretty Good works first and work their way up.
More importantly, though, the methodology of assuming all future Great Works will follow the patterns and molds of the past Great Works is just plain flawed. If we go back a few centuries we find literary scholars arguing with deep concern whether a play could truly be Great if it did not follow “the unities.” Today, only dedicated literary scholars are likely to even know what “the unities” even were, and those that do know will find the notion that it’s somehow superior to obey them … quaint, at best.
It would reek of more than a little arrogance if I were to tell you, my Gentle Readers, “here, read this novel and it will demonstrate how right I am on this point.” The only reason I can justify suggesting exactly that is the fact that the novel in question is so very good. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read the first book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife quadrilogy, Beguilement; if you already have, think back to your reactions upon your first reading.
Of course, some of you will make note of the book to obtain and read later on, and continue reading here in the meantime. That’s fine; for your benefit, we’re going to discuss the book with as few spoilers as possible. Just two, in fact, and vague ones at that. Spoiler One: within the first quarter of the book, the protagonists have faced, and countered, a world-threatening danger. Spoiler Two: no other danger they face in the rest of the first book approaches the scope of that first danger.
Now this means that Beguilement completely fails to match the model of narrative structure that we probably all learned in secondary school, where the stakes keep rising and rising from the “turning point” near the beginning up until the point of highest stakes, the “climax,” shortly before the end. I’ve heard from many other Bujold readers who have noticed this unusual aspect of the book’s structure. However, I’ve never heard from anyone who enjoyed the book any less because of it.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though; you can read the book for yourself and ask yourself “Does the book’s failure to fit the narrative model I was taught in school cause me to enjoy it any less?” You may detect a voice in the back of your head, saying something along the lines of “Well, okay, I like the book well enough, but that doesn’t count, because I know the book really should have followed the rising-tension-up-until-climax pattern -” Nuh-uh. That’s circular logic. The question is whether the rising-tension-up-until-climax pattern should ever have been presented to us as so obligatory in the first place.
(If you’re wondering how it came to have such an unusual structure, Beguilement and the book that follows it, Legacy, were actually written together as a single book, and then split at the publisher’s instigation. The narrative formed by the two books together is a much better match for the traditional story model; however, since all of Bujold’s previous books were written to work as stand-alone volumes, even if they were also part of a series, I think it’s fair to look at Beguilement in that light.)
Hamlet’s Hit Points shows how its beat analysis system can be applied to three familiar narratives: Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca, and encourages the reader to try applying it to other narratives. I’d suspect that the results of applying it to Beguilement would also be tremendously edifying, especially as the whole Sharing Knife series is such an intricate intertwining of procedural goals (the defeat of terrifying foes of immense supernatural power) and dramatic goals (overcoming the pain from betrayals and tragedies past.) The real purpose of learning the system, however, is to shape your own narratives, whether they are the on-the-fly narratives of a dungeon-crawl or the novel you’re pouring your heart and soul into. At just $8 for the PDF version, I recommend it highly for any writer.
I wonder where my old dice bag went to?
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Hi JDC. I am now adding two books to my to-read list. ‘Hamlet’s Hit Points’ sounds really interesting, and useful. I’ve recently tried using both the beat sheet and 7-point story structure to work out the kinks in my WIP (a sci-fi novel), having had the most success with the later. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hamlet can do for me 🙂
I’m glad that I made it sound exciting! Can you say more about the “beat sheet”? It sounds intriguing, and now that the holiday rush is over, I may actually have the brainpower needed to learn new things again!
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