The Prisoner In The Mask

I’m very much into reading nowadays [1] and, lately, have put more thought into learning the craft of writing than I have into that of chasing skirt. I guess writing is a skill suited to my advanced station in life because it’s something I can improve at year-after-year for literally decades. At some point, pretty young ladies are going to look at me and say “ewwwwwww! get lost grandad” and my player career will come to an ignoble end. Not so with writing.

My Writer’s Journey has seen me casting my eyes around for a learning methodology. How does one become good at writing? Here are some of the things I’ve tried:

  • Read several “How To Write” books that explore the mechanical structure and the mindset of writing novels. It feels something like the academic side of Game study.
  • Watch seminars and lectures from top writers advising younger writers, such as the Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet Masterclass series.
  • Read lots of books from many different eras to absorb how others do it.
  • Write my own material and then hire or cajole other writers and editors to review it with feedback, which I then implement in a rewrite.
  • Edit other people’s writing, to get an outside perspective on problems that occur in the writing process and how to fix them.

I’m serious about becoming a good writer and I’m hopeful about my progress. Just as with Game or any other skill, if you apply yourself in the right direction you’ll improve. I remember being extremely proud of my first memoir Balls Deep upon release in late 2014. I’ve written five books since then (one unpublished) and have improved such that Balls Deep feels cringe now [2].

So where is this preamble leading?


Not relevant to today’s post

I tend to deconstruct books as I read them, observing the craft of the writer below the words in order to pick out learning points for my own writing. “oh, here’s the bit where he establishes the stasis for the protagonist” or “here’s where he foreshadows the reversal” and so on. Sometimes I’ll admire a writer’s smooth and invisible insertion of exposition while other times I’ll shake my head at how clunkily it is thrown at the page. Recently, I’ve come to notice a difference in structure between old and new fiction. Let’s see if I can articulate my thoughts.

Writing gurus often distinguish between plot-driven and character-driven fiction. The vast majority of paperbacks, including likely 99% of genre fiction, is plot driven. The Quarry book I recently reviewed is one of them – there’s a template and each book differs in location, supporting cast, and small details here and there, but they all proceed in much the same structure. For epic fiction there’s a single template: the monomyth. Regular fiction has the eight-point story arc, and the three act structure. This is why modern books feel so samey. For hundreds of years writers experimented with the novel form and over time there was convergence upon a limited prescriptive formula. Writer training and reader tastes shifted to accommodate it.

Not unlike how every popular song sounds the same nowadays [3]

There’s an upside to this. As a reader you know what to expect, get all the right buttons pushed, and it’s a formula that has been fine-tuned to keep you engaged from beginning to end. Modern books tend not to drag or take odd diversions from the main story arc. If you read a half dozen books per year you won’t mind, and likely won’t notice, this convergence and its throttling of variety. Having read 37 books in two months, I’ve noticed.

Modern “character-driven” novels are not character driven at all. They are plot-driven stories that happen to have strong characterisation. You can tell this because you feel an underlying structure akin to a funnel. The book begins with a wide funnel and ends narrow. That’s rather abstract, let me try to explain [4]

The story begins with a wide-open field. Let’s say it’s Quarry drinking beer in his lakeside retreat in chapter one. Things could go in any direction. Detrioit? Chicago? Memphis? Mexico City? Quarry is a pin in the centre of a map but we as yet have no idea where the story will take him. So the Broker arrives and they converse, a contract killing being pitched to Quarry.

What job is it? Will it be a quick hit of an accountant who embezzled a mob boss, or perhaps it’s complex such as killing another assassination team before they kill their target?

rabbit road

I suspect I’m being encouraged to go a particular way

By chapter two, the story has taken some direction. He’s going to Memphis and the job is to protect a controversial pornographer and to thwart a hit ordered on him. That big wide funnel has just narrowed. Most of the world, and most of the potential situations within it, have been discarded. They won’t enter into this book. You could call it narrative focus.

Quarry rolls up in Memphis and now, on a smaller scale, he’s in a wide open field. Who will he meet there? How will they react to him? What oddities will they observe that determine how he plans his job?

By chapter five we’ve met all the main characters, gotten an inkling to their friendships and enmities, and the likely avenues of threat. The funnel narrows again.

I won’t go into the whole story but beneath the surface, the book reads like a wide funnel gradually narrowing down to a fine point – the climax. At no time does it widen out again. At no time does Max Allan Collins throw out the funnel and send Quarry down a new funnel [5]. Modern stories have a certain inevitability about them, proceeding relentlessly towards the end point in the funnel – usually in a straight line. Or to use another metaphor, the plot threads introduced in the first few chapters are like side roads all converging to join the highway, then the highway lanes merging into a single lane. Always moving forwards.

When the protagonist suffers a reversal (i.e. a setback) he isn’t actually set backwards. Rather the antagonist has simply pulled further ahead. The overall story momentum is forwards, even if the gap between antagonist and the pursuing protagonist has widened following the reversal.

If Quarry has a bar fight in chapter 6 you know he’s going to win easily. If the same bar fight happens in chapter 15 he’s probably going to suffer a significant reversal, because that stage of the plot template requires it. If his friend Boyd is also in the fight, he’ll survive because he’s a recurring character. If it’s a friend he just met in this book, he’ll probably die in the fight.

Modern books have the same predictability as modern music. Even the plot twists are predictable at the meta-level [6] like the “different bit” that occurs after the second chorus in a pop song before the reprise [7].

Character-driven stories, theoretically, shouldn’t have a plot. Their dynamic is to create an interesting protagonist, put him into situations, and then see how he handles it. Even the writer shouldn’t be clear where the story is headed until he begins thinking in his character’s shoes. This gives character-driven stories the feel of a “random walk” in finance terms – there appears to be direction to the movement but you can’t predict it, only observe the pattern after it’s finished. You don’t know what’s coming next, but you’re keenly anticipating how the character will get himself out of the mess he’s in.


A strong character, yesterday

Dennis Wheatley books are like that. They are a snakes and ladders game for the hero.

When I first read him, I had a sense that the funnels didn’t apply. The story would seem headed in a particular direction and then suddenly switch. For example in The Prisoner In The Mask, the story is about Duke de Richleau hanging out at his dad’s manor in Russia when some French royalists try to recruit him in an effort to restore the French monarchy in the 1880s. They settle upon a strategy of putting de Richleau into a Paris cadets school as a coach who can keep an eye on their preferred claimant to the throne, a teenage boy of blue blood. All the plans are carefully laid until suddenly at a drunken graduation celebration, a betrayal sees the party raided by police. Duke de Richleau must react quickly to this surprise and things turn deadly. He’s now a wanted criminal, on the run.

The entire plot shifts, the best laid plans thwarted. All of that cadet school stuff becomes completely irrelevant for the rest of the book because that plan was binned. The next act is all about rescuing the young noble from prison (he’s the man in the mask now). On and on it goes like this as de Richleau is presented with unexpected situations and must think on his feet and plot a new course of action. At no time does the book narrow the funnel. It never feels inevitable.

The story is like a winding mountain road, going up, down and winding back in on itself. It’s not a straight highway merging lanes down to one.

In this case, the royalists completely fail in their plans to restore the monarchy [8]. That would be like Quarry failing to complete his mission – it wouldn’t happen, the modern reader would feel cheated. I realise this is why I like Dumas so much. His books too draw compelling characters and set them off to achieve objectives but all kinds of turbulence upsets their plans and forces them to completely change tack. They often fail in their quests. I like books when you don’t feel this relentless inevitability of the hero closing in on success with barely a backward step [9]

And in case I didn’t mention it earlier, I liked The Prisoner In The Mask. It’s a solid espionage and adventure yarn in the usual Wheatley style.

If you’d like to fortify your compelling character so as to bravely and intelligently meet all unforeseen reversals upon the streets, you can’t do better than Daygame Infinite, everyone’s favourite pick up guide.

[1] This likely comes as a big surprise based on how little I’ve talked about books recently.
[2] I’ve noticed that when I do something to the best of my ability, I think it’s great. Then when my ability improves and my best becomes better, the old stuff feels cringe.
[3] And are all written by the same two Scandanavian men
[4] You can see I’m struggling to articulate the concept. I haven’t been able to find anyone talking about this from whom I can borrow concepts or jargon.
[5] Because that would break the rules of modern plot-driven fiction and likely anger the reader who invested in the first funnel.
[6] You may not know the specifics of how the plot is twisted, but you know it’s coming and have an inkling what it’ll involve.
[7] We all know the pop structure of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Different Bit-Verse-Chorus-Chorus-Fade
[8] You probably knew that already, seeing as the grubby communists of France still don’t have a monarch. They seem to prefer a closet-case EU puppet who bangs grandmothers.
[9] Except the predictable reversals at points four and seven as required by the eight-point story arc.