Atomic Narrative

Scene Choreography Part III of III

© Will Greenway 2000

Welcome to the third installment of choreography in scene construction. In our first two pieces we talked about several different concepts that explain and dissect the techniques of scene rendering. Largely, we have been using movie and theatre analogies, correlating those approaches with writing. In part one, the main things we touched on were queues and chain reactions. In part two, we focused on the "atomic structure" of writing, emphasizing a tight viewpoint and stressing the importance of energy and vectors to drive the story. In this section, we will look again at composition and energy, but discuss in more detail how they are distributed in complex scenes.

One of the ideas stressed over and over in part two was the "writing atom" and that it could represent anything from a paragraph (sub-scene) up to an entire novel. Let's be reminded that an atom consists simply of an introduction (transition), a body, and conclusion (bridge). When an atom serves as a component of a larger entity the introduction and conclusion become a transition and bridge respectively. The reason this atomic structure is so important is that it is an objective way of organizing otherwise subjective material. When we critically analyze our material for weaknesses, finding the atoms is usually the best way to recognize why something isn't working to best effect. Because the atom is so simplistic, if an element of that triad is missing, it's easy to spot. Any "broken" atoms indicate a problem.

We're spending time again on the atom because it is a hard and fast structural constraint. It's an absolute--black and white--without need for flippy-flappy pseudo rule enforcement. The English language is chock full of strange instances of grammar, syntax, and spelling that apply half the time or have numerous odd exceptions. The atom always works. With so many other gray areas in writing, having an absolute to hang onto is nice isn't it?

What we're going to do now is expand the atom's role further and show you how it can be used to describe everything from sub-structure to super-structure of a novel or series of novels.

First, let's discuss a little bit about "functions" or tasks in scene. It's starting to sound a little bit like math or programming, isn't it? I know you were a lit major BECAUSE you hated math... just bare with me. Remember we talked about vectors and scene energy. Now, we'll add targets and goals. Each atom has a purpose or goal, a role that it plays in the collective scheme of things. Understand, that this is really an analytical label we're applying second hand when we're interpreting structure. I don't expect you to think "this atom does x, and that atom does y".

If we really buy into this whole atomic metaphor, story construction is an atomic process. The matter or material is assembled one atom at time (at least it should be). No one, and I mean no one who has any aspirations as a writer, should be stymied by writing a single atom. An atom can be: "He came. He saw. He left." There you have it, the smallest most compressed cohesive unity: introduction, action, and conclusion. Now, being so small, that atom doesn't do much or serve much purpose. HOWEVER, that seemingly do-nothing sequence with just a few alternations CAN become something significant to a story like: "He shoots. He scores! They win." Atoms are powerful, just tell yourself that. They become even more powerful when they are aimed at a target and have a goal.

That brings us back to functions, atoms and atom aggregates are used to accomplish writing tasks. Here's a list of tasks broken down by the aggregate they serve. Don't be intimidated by this list, it is the subject of an entire article unto itself. Suffice that these are virtually every kind of atom you might sit down to write. As such, they are defined in an open generic way:

Task Outline
  • World / story definition
    • milieu establishment
    • rule establishment
    • scope establishment
    • player / party / aggregate establishment
  • Scene definition
    • scene setting
    • scene refinement
    • scene change
  • Character (Protagonists / Antagonists) definition
    • character introduction
    • character establishment
      • need establishment
      • desire establishment
      • weakness
      • strength
      • initial vector
      • terminating vector
    • character complication
      • tests / proofs
      • downfall
      • redemption
    • character inter-relation
      • relation tone
      • relation foil
      • initial relation vector
      • terminating relation vector
  • Plot definition
    • Problem
      • problem establishment
      • problem complication / transmutation
      • initial problem vector
      • terminating problem vector
      • problem resolution
    • Stakes
      • stakes establishment
      • stakes transmutation
      • character / stakes association
      • reader / stakes association
      • inter-character stakes establishment
      • inter-character stakes transmutation
  • Action
    • establishing vector
    • vector complication
    • vector climax
    • vector denouement
    • vector bridge

That's a pretty scary list isn't it? Probably because you don't know what some of it means. Worry not, we don't have to swallow that here. We will come back to it in SCENE CONSTRUCTION: Being A Task Master.

The list is a way to categorize what an atom is doing. Each task has a specific definition and by looking at how well the atom accomplishes that goal gives you a way to judge that unit of writing. By the same token, because a scene is built of atoms, it's a lot like building a house or making fruit salad. You know what the thing is made of, so all you need to do is put the stuff where it needs to be, and then assemble the product. Don't I make is sound sooo simple? If only.

So, we've talked about scenes, atoms, and now tasks. What does all that have to do with CONSTRUCTION? Well, we've DECONSTRUCTED things to death, haven't we? We just need to reverse that.

All scenes have an action vector, they also have a goal or target vector. This is the role or purpose the scene serves in the hierarchy of your story. It's important that you know what that is when you sit down to write it.

For instance, an entire chapter can quite easily be dedicated to introducing and establishing a character. So the chapter, which may or may not be an aggregate of scenes and sub-scenes has as its focus "character introduction". That's the MAIN target. I capitalize that because stories, especially novels, can have many threads, and like a juggler you have to keep all the balls in the air. So, while the chapter's primary purpose in life is to serve introducing that character, there can be several sub-tasks that you may have to give attention.

When you assemble the atoms in the chapter, you will group them, each atom serving one or more task masters (meaning they move the vector towards one of the aggregate goals).

You approach the writing by looking at the tasks you have to accomplish, and then resolving things by building the atom from the outside and moving inward. In our example, the chapter focus is to establish a character. Because of our atomic structure rules, we must satisfy the requirements of the chapter atom FIRST. So, we must first write a chapter introduction. It's just common sense, the introduction is a scene definition task. That task is an atom to itself. It will have a transition (which bridges in from the previous chapter), a body (the actual setting details), and a connecting bridge which leads into the action of this chapter. Now, here's where it gets complicated. Establishing setting details is itself ANOTHER atomic task, because you SHOULD have a character to experience and witness the elements you are preparing to describe. So that atom has its OWN agenda. It's as we start looking at this atomic structure we see how atoms can become intertwined. Where an introduction atom is serving the chapter, the setting, and the character establishment tasks. That's why I mentioned atoms serving multiple task masters.

By this point the whole atomic structure thing seems to over complicate things, so let's take a step back. Atomic structure is presented here to show that as freeform as writing is, there is most DEFINITELY a hierarchy of things that the work must accomplish in order to be coherent. It's like knowing that if you're going to build a car you will need wheels, a frame, a body, and an engine. The specifics of those elements are themselves infinitely variable, but if one of them is missing it's HIGHLY likely the car won't work.

In introducing atoms and tasks, I'd rather not get caught up too much in trying write atomically. It's enough that in knowing atomic structure that it's a chapter and it needs an introduction. There's a character, THEY need an introduction. There's a setting, IT needs an introduction. Those disparate items need to be conveyed, and then bridged into whatever you decide follows. The atomic power is that we have such a simple checklist: intro, body, bridge. Did you do it? Yes, you did. Move on.

Where the atomic structure really pays benefits is when you are critically analyzing a work and trying to figure out if a writer has done their due diligence. Much of why writing fails to accomplish what the writer intended is because of missing elements and the all-important awareness of energy vectors.

So, we spent all this energy on atomic writing theory, let's get a bit more mileage out of it. As I've already eluded to, the main idea of the writing atom is that it's cyclic, and that the triad structure is pervasive through every level of your writing. No matter how simple or complex the material comes it can be broken into atoms, aggregates of atoms, super structures and substructures which are themselves atomic expressions.

As atoms apply to the structure of the writing, they correlate with every task that you will ever execute in written form. This applies even to characters; they follow an arc, they are introduced, they develop and change, and they transition into the new person they are when the story resolves. Rather than me leading you through it, I think you will see the truth of how this applies to other writing principles.

Atomic structure. Done. You got it right? The analogy and principles of atoms are what gives shape and mass to the narrative, as well as being what binds the material together. Now, we have to get those atoms into motion.

As discussed earlier each atom or functional unit serves a purpose. You will remember way back in choreography part one when I gave the analogy of queues and balls sitting in those queues. Now that we understand atoms, know that those queued details are atoms that serve the environmental narrative task.

When you write descriptions of ANYTHING remember that the atomic structure exists even down to the conceptual level, where a sentence clause serves as a transition, a middle clause the body, and the trailing clause the bridge.

Every atom has a vector. That vector can tie it to any of it's associated tasks, or can simply serve to combine it with other atoms. Every character, each event, and even the setting itself can have a vector. As you compose, constantly reinforce that energy and keep the reader aware of it.

As we talked before no matter how complex the scene is, you build from the highest level inward, satisfying the introductory and body components as you resolve and queue each layer.

The vector of your story can be in a lot of forms. A vector's energy can be woven into anything including dense detail.

Consider this descriptive passage:

Introduction/Description Example

Wren stared up at the massive entity looming over her, burning red eyes blazing with malice, jealousy, and hunger. A creature of perfect beauty that made the eyes ache. Hate incarnate that made the soul shrivel. An exquisite monstrosity, white hair and blood colored robes flicking in the storm winds. Wren's knees, weakened from the intense battle, turned rubbery. Her heart, already racing as fast as it could go, kicked in her chest like a crazed animal. The charnel smell of the roof had been replaced by the murky scent of dying flowers. The sounds of the demons, minions, and cultists had been cut through like a knife. Many of the cultists and minions now lay on the cobbles twitching and writhing, smoke trailing from their eyes and helmets. A coppery taste like blood filled Wren's mouth. Feeling and seeing the massive power of the being before her, she tightened her hands on Azimuth and Eyespite. She stared at the creature, not daring to name her.

This is the introduction atom for Hecate from the novel Savant's Blood, she is the villain and climactic foe for that novel. The introduction itself has a lot of things going on in it. Setting details, character details, a whole LOT of stuff. To the point it's almost melodramatic. This is the big Kahuna though, the ultimate baddy... so cut me some slack. It's not every day you describe a deity of death. Did this bore you? Or did you feel that vector driving things forward?

Part of the vector that keeps you dialed in is the character is tied into description, sensing and experiencing the presence of her ultimate foe.

Okay, we've done description, and showed a clear vector, let's make some atoms whirl. This is an excerpt from the "great game". Our heroine is competing in what is essentially a scavenger hunt for super-elite adventurers. The twist is this game involves some _contact_ and our lady Wren has managed to nab the big score which will win the game for any team that can catch and defeat her. The problem is, the gamers take the game a weee bit too seriously...

Action/Description Example

Her heart skipped a beat. People were out there just out of sight. Poised. Listening. Waiting. She sensed each outlet of breath, the twitch of hand or shake of a head.

Wren clenched her fists and looked up the watercourse. It was a fair gamble that she could trace the ravine back to Riverback village and the post.

A knife in either hand, she went up stream hopping from rock to rock, moving as swiftly as she could without risking a telltale slip and splash. The water camouflaged most of the sound of her movements.

A hundred paces up the stream she froze as she sensed several bodies move suddenly. With her sudden halt, the other presences she detected also stopped.

Damn it. She tightened her grip on the daggers, and selected the path she would run; lots of trees and bushes to tangle up and hinder any airborne pursuit.

Drawing a breath, she leaned forward, braced, and then charged. In the pastoral silence, her footsteps seemed to shake the whole forest. Her heart thudded faster as she stretched out for every step in a full sprint for the thickest cover.

Wren's flurry of movement seemed to make the surroundings explode. She was instantly aware of at least a half a dozen different presences converging on her. A woman cussed. A man yelled. Wood shattered and steel clanged. If anything, the volume and proximity of the noises pushed her even faster.

She leaped to the top of a three pace high tangle of deadfalls bounded down the far side and dove to duck under the sharp fronds of a slasher-weed patch. She rolled out the far side pursued by the sounds of ripping vegetation and fierce profanity.

The snaking course of the stream caused Wren to take flight as a ravine abruptly yawned in front of her. With no room to stop, she could only commit to the jump, pushing off with all her strength and plunging across. Arms wind-milling, legs churning the air she arced toward the far side.

Wren was so energized by fear and desperation that she hit the far side with a pace to spare. The leap apparently startled Dominique who was crouched in the brush obviously intent on ambush. In the wide-eyed instant it took her to recover, Wren was already five long strides down the trail.

She rounded a bush, sensed a movement, and dove. Wren felt a sharp impact as fingers glanced off her back. Her low flight took her right between the legs of a towering white-haired Myrmigyne who tripped and yelled in frustration.

Rolling, she shot back to her feet and continued her dash. She felt people in pursuit, but was far too busy concentrating on the path ahead to glance back and see who. Head down, she speeded toward where Riverback village must be. That was the one big disadvantage. All of her pursuers knew where she must be headed. She was surprised more of them hadn't managed cut her off.

As if cued by a play-write, T'Gor chose that heartbeat to jump into the trail. The lanky warrior was hardly a wall, but hitting him would be scarcely less painful than colliding with a slab of granite. Wren didn't try to stop, but pushed off from the ground. She made a road of the bearded man's torso, planting her heel square in the middle of his chest, and kicking off. The move flipped her up and backward so that she went over the heads of her two pursuers and came down just as they veered to avoid collision.

Heart drumming fast, she threw both Azimuth and Vectra, the weapons whirred out and struck her intended targets. On the left, it was blonde Beia who was nicked on the shoulder and on the right dark-haired Dorian flinched as a blade scratched across her hip.

Both women cried out, shaking their fists in frustration.

**Team clash, L-0, Idundaughter defeats Targallae and Ariok. Beia neutralized. Dorian Neutralized. Multiple victory bonus applies. Scores updated.**

The fact that she managed to catch both Beia and Dorian off guard probably surprised her more than it did them. She unsheathed Quicklick but held on to it. T'Gor would just dodge the shot, any surprise she might have had was gone an eyeblink ago.

A gleam in his eye, T'Gor glanced to the two other players. A smile on his impassive face, the bearded warrior shook his head. "Nice. That was sweeter than candy."

Turning to face Wren, Beia frowned and brushed back her blonde hair.

Dorian hit her forehead with a clenched fist. "Oh hush."

T'Gor whipped the sword off his back and advanced on Wren.

She retreated. Damn it, she'd have better chances fighting a whirlwind. If that wasn't bad enough, Damrosil and Dominique must be close by because their team-mates had been called neutralized.

The brush behind her broke and the dust-covered figure of Algernon appeared, sword in hand. Wren saw an opening off to her right and took a step that way. The gap filled as a warrior dressed in silver mail stepped into it--Bertram.

Gripped by an icy fear she looked to the opposite side of the trail, only to see both Cassandra and Arabella landing there. She clenched her fists as Dominique, Tal, Damrosil, Terra and Desiray dropped in around her, completing an impassible ring of fighters and mages each of whom possessed nothing less than legendary skill.

"Oh spit," she muttered, heart thundering and body cold. There was literally nothing she could do, there was no place to go. She had one dagger and ten opponents. "There has GOT to be a frelling rule against ten on one! Damn it! Gaea herself couldn't take you all on at once!" She pulled off the backpack. "Which of you wants to take it from me, huh? That'll be interesting."

**Clash time exceeded. Teams Targallae and Ariok return to normal play. Transcript updated.**

"Oh sure, just frelling add two more..."

I picked this scene because it's technically not a fight, but a chase. By the end, we have thirteen characters in the visual frame. One of the structural considerations in this scene was bringing in the characters and getting them in the "view" all at once. The image I was ultimately shooting for was poor Wren standing in a circle of enemies. Believe it or not, the chapter's entire vector is to drive to that one image.

That goes back to what I was originally saying about goals and vectors. I built the scene around the goal, that image. The scene was essentially designed backwards to how Wren gets in that predicament.

Now, about characters and dealing with a lot of characters. Remember our atomic number? Three. Deal with three at a time. Introduce them three at time, or in three groups and give the groups tags. In order for the characters to really work in the scene they each have to have their own vector. These supporting cast characters need to be kept alive, so you have to cycle through them, updating us as to what they're doing periodically unless they are directly interacting with the protagonists.

In this particular scene all these characters have one vector.

Get Wren.

Nothing like brute simplicity. You will find that vectors should be simple, and they should be easily expressed and understood. They are the motivations and driving forces of the different aspects of your story.

To tie things up, we explored the atomic structure of writing until we were sick of it. We looked at how triads extend into every conceivable aspect of your writing, in characters, in plots, in substructures and superstructures. We showed how atoms aggregate to become the your story mass, and how those masses each have a purpose or serve a task. We showed how vector and energy pushes through the atomic structure and gives weight, emotion, and inertia to the story.

Hopefully, this section on choreographing writing has given you some new and useful ways to look at your writing and that of others.