Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Strange Structure of "Billy Summers"

SPOILERS: This post contains several fairly specific spoilers for "Billy Summers"

In Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Jessica Brody maps out a beat-by-beat breakdown of how novels are structured. She also provides several examples that follow the same basic formula, but are as varied as Misery, Pride and Prejudice and The Kite Runner.

Reading her book is a pretty humbling experience. What she's articulating feels so fundamental, so obvious, that's it's almost embarrassing to realize you didn't think of it first. At the same time, it's hard not to feel grateful that somebody did, since now you can learn how it's done.

(The book itself is an adaptation of Blake Snyder's classic on screenwriting. In her introduction, Brody writes about the first time she read Snyder's book, and it sounds like she had the same thunderclap of revelation I did. Around we go.)

What really convinced me that Brody and Snyder were right was when I tested out their ideas for myself. For reference, here's an abridged version of Brody's beat-by-beat breakdown of the first half of a novel:

Setup (1 – 10%)
Sets up your hero's life and their status quo world

Catalyst and Debate (10% - 20%)
Disrupts the status quo world with a life-changing event. Hero debates what to do.

Break into Act 2 & B Story (20% - 25%)
Brings the hero into the second act, where they will try to fix things the wrong way. Introduces new characters who will represent the b story and guide the hero through the “upside down” world of the novel

Fun and Games (25% - 50%)

Delivers on the novel's premise; this is what the story is “about”

Midpoint (50%)

A false defeat or a false victory that raises the stakes. There's a shift from “want” to “need” as the hero realizes they can't continue as the person they were. There's now no going back.

Because they're so clearly defined, they're also pretty easy to test. For my experiment, I chose a few favorite novels and opened to their literal middles. If a book was 300 pages, I opened to page 150. I wondered: Could it really be so precise?

By god, yes. In book after book, the Midpoint beat showed up just as Brody described. A body would be discovered, or a battle won, or a revelation finally made. There were lots of ways this moment might happen, but in every case it was clear that "shit just got real." The stakes would be raised, and the hero would be left with no choice but to go on.

Ever since then, the Save the Cat! model has been in the back of my mind whenever I read a new book. I guess that's probably normal. Once you peek behind the curtain, you can never look at Oz's big floating head in quite the same way. Now I always catch myself noting the beats – “Okay, here's the opening scene, now here's the set up, and this, of course, is the catalyst ...” Most of the time writers stick to the formula. But once in a while they will not.

Billy Summers, the new Stephen King novel, starts out like a pretty straightforward revenge story. The title character, a hitman who only kills “bad guys,” decides to accept one last big job before he retires. The trope is so common in crime fiction that King lampshades it frequently throughout the book. Early on, Billy think self-consciously about how “one last jobs” are always bad luck in the movies. Later, on the eve of his revenge, he reminds himself he's "no Sylvester Stallone."

So you can't blame a guy for expecting this to be a pretty formulaic story, a strict genre piece smart enough to wink at the reader. In some ways that's true. The overall plot unfolds the way you'd expect: The hit doesn't go according to plan, Billy is betrayed by the people who hired him, and he goes on the lam while he plots his revenge.

Where things get interesting is when King strays from the Save the Cat! model. For one thing, King spends a very long time on the set up – the first 30% of the novel is all about Billy's day-to-day life undercover in a small Texas town. While he waits for the chance to make his kill, Billy gets friendly with his new neighbors. He plays Monopoly with the kids down the street, hosts barbecues, chit-chats with tenants who share his same office building. (Billy's cover story is that he works as a writer. He even starts work on a memoir to help make his story seem more authentic.)

When the catalyst finally happens, and Billy discovers that he's been betrayed, we're pretty deep in the novel. And then, while Billy hides out in a basement apartment, he suddenly has a new problem quite literally dropped on his doorstep. A van appears outside in the rain and dumps out a young woman who's just been sexually assaulted.

The woman is Alice Maxwell, and she will serve the role of the B Story character for the rest of the novel. What's surprising is that she doesn't fulfill this function until after the Midpoint. That's when she wakes up in Billy's apartment and, thinking he's the man who assaulted her, catches him off guard with a knife.

The Midpoint here still serves it's typical function: After evading capture, Billy is now caught off guard by an innocent who recognizes him as the assassin who's been all over the news. As a hitman who only kills “bad guys,” he won't dispatch this unfortunate witness, but he also understands the risk in offering her help. After everything else that's gone wrong, this moment is his “false defeat” when the stakes are raised and all his careful planning is thrown into jeopardy.

But because the Midpoint also serves as the start of the B Story, we get a second Fun and Games beat. Billy tracks down and takes care of the men who hurt Alice, and then the two of them set off on a road trip to find the man who betrayed him. Even though it comes late in the book, it's also what the novel's "about:" a road story of an unlikely duo teaming up together to take their revenge.

Finally, there's one more complication to this off-kilter structure. I mentioned that Billy was writing a memoir; this book-within-a-book follows its own set of beats, but I think there's an argument to be made that the "Memoir Billy" is also a distinct separate character, serving in the B Story role. Memoir Billy shows up not too long before the 20% mark, and as a character he functions to guide Billy through an interior journey of remembering some terrible things he's tried very hard to forget. In this part of the novel, the Catalyst isn't Billy's betrayal – it's the moment he's given a laptop and told to write something as part of his cover.

For as much as Stephen King telegraphs Billy Summers as typical crime fiction fare, the structure is much a lot more complicated than he might have you believe. Which is the great thing about writers like King. When you understand the rules of storytelling, you also understand how to break them.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Turning Points

“In the military, to deliberately inflict injury upon oneself so as to avoid service is called malingering. It's a court-martial offense that is punishable, in some armies, by death.

The habits and addictions of the amateur are conscious or unconscious self-inflicted wounds. Their payoff is incapacity. When we take our M1903 Springfield and blow a hole in our foot, we no longer have to face the real fight of our lives, which is to become who we are and to realize our destiny and our calling.”

-Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro


“Sobriety wasn't supposed to be like this. I thought when I finally quit drinking for good, the universe would open its treasure chest for me. That only seemed fair, right? I would sacrifice the greatest, most important relationship of my existence – here I am, universe, sinking a knife into my true love's chest for you – and I would be rewarded with mountains of shimmering, clinking gold to grab by the fistful. I would be kicking down doors again. In badass superhero mode.

Instead, I woke up at 5 am each day, chest hammering with anxiety, and crawled into the closet for a few hours to shut out unpleasant voices. When will I screw this up again? What failures lurk beyond these four walls? I trudged through the day with shoulders slumped, every color flipped to gray scale. I spent evenings on my bed, arm draped over my face. Hangover posture. I didn't like the lights on. I didn't even like TV. It was almost as if, in the absence of drinking blackouts, I was forced to create my own.”

-Sarah Hepola, Blackout


About a week ago, on impulse, I threw my copy of Turning Pro in a bike bag just before I set out to ride. Ten miles in, when I stopped to drink water on a park bench, I pulled out the book for company.

I'd read it once before, years ago, but this time I was reading it sober. And maybe that's why I was so surprised to realize that most of the book is about addiction. Chemical dependencies, sure, and also addictions to failure, fighting, sex, the internet – all the ways you can let time slip through your fingers while avoiding the life you supposedly want.

At some point I had to stop and wonder: What was I thinking when I read it the first time? I couldn't remember, but the question nagged as the theme of addiction came up again and again. Had I really missed the point so badly? Did I really keep drinking while Pressfield warned against all kinds of addiction?

Well, yeah. I did that a lot. I read books on alcoholism and sobriety and mental discipline. I took little steps that I hoped would turn into magic bullets. Like for instance, after I read Roy Baumeister's book on willpower, I started to buy lots of gum. Baumeister's book referenced studies that showed sugar could help you stick to decisions. So I figured, what the hell? I'd chew tons of gum for the glucose and to keep my mouth too busy to drink.

It didn't work, obviously, but my heart was in the right place. Sometimes. Other times it was absolutely not, and all I wanted was a big bottle of Dark Eyes to get me through a long weekend.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard spends an almost pathological amount of time trying to catalog every possible kind of “double-mindedness” he can think of. For Kierkegaard, the only thing truly worth desiring is The Good, but setting your heart in a single direction is not as easy as it sounds.

For example: Let's say you desire The Good because you figure it will help you avoid getting in trouble. “Not so fast!” says Kierkegaard. “That's double-mindedness. Sure you want The Good, but you're also scared of punishment.”

Okay, then. So say, instead, you desire The Good because of the benefits it brings to your life? “Nope,” says our favorite Dane. “You're not focused on The Good. You also want that reward.”

(If Kierkegaard just left it at that he could make his same basic point in a much shorter book. But Søren being Søren, he just can't help but go through every single example of double-mindedness he can possibly think of. This is one of those things I find extremely endearing about him as a person, even when his work gets tedious to read.)

Although Pressfield takes a lighter touch, large sections of his book are a similar kind of cataloging. If Pressfield's idea of “turning pro” is analogous to Kierkegaard's “purity of heart,” then “Resistance” is Pressfield's equivalent to “double-mindedness.”

Resistance, in Pressfield's cosmology, is the force that tries to stop us from doing the creative work we were put here to do. It is tenacious and deadly, and while it can manifest in obvious ways (like drinking yourself into a stupor), it can also be subtle.

And so Pressfield spends several chapters describing how those subtle manifestations can appear. Maybe you distract yourself with travel, or sex, or trashy TV. Maybe your career's the distraction – you might throw yourself into a day job designing sneakers, but know in your heart that you really just want to paint.

I thought about this while I read Turning Pro. And then, when I finished, I read Blackout, Sarah Hepola's funny and moving account of her own struggle with alcoholism. What surprised me most was how familiar it felt. Some recovery memoirs tell tales vastly estranged from my own experiences, but Hepola's hit much closer to home. We had similar childhoods, similar friends, similar experiences in the working world (although mine on a much smaller scale – while Hepola was moving to New York to work for a nationally-renowned publication, I was churning out copy for plumbers and HVAC repairmen).

In the book, Hepola gets sober only to realize that it hasn't fixed everything. Maybe it hasn't fixed anything. She writes about the fear that follows those moments with the loss of her anchor. What now? How? What if I screw it all up again? Is sobriety still worthwhile if it doesn't get you the things that you want? Is it an end to itself, or were you chasing something else all along?

If the past is the best predictor of the future, alcoholics have good reason for concern. How many times did I “quit” just to pick up again later? How many bottles poured down how many sinks, each one supposedly the last?

And yet something still drives you forward. From one mistake to the next and the next until finally, hopefully, you stop. What is it that at last makes the difference? The answer is rarely so clear. Here's how Hepola describes it:

“Quitting is often an accumulation. Not caused by a single act but a thousand. Drops fill the bucket, until one day the bucket tips.”

What are those drops? Pain. Shame. Remorse. All pointing the way back to the path. As Pressfield explains, “Why is shame good? Because shame can produce the final element we need to change our lives: will. Epiphanies hurt. There's no glory to them. They only make good stories at AA meetings or late at night among other foot soldiers in the trenches. These soldiers know. Each has his own story, of that ghastly, hideous, excruciating moment when it all turned around for him.”

“The eager traveler who travels lightly does not … learn to know [the path] as well as a wayfarer with a heavy burden,” Kierkegaard writes. “The one who merely strives to get on does not learn to know the way as well as the remorseful man. The eager traveler hurries forward to the new, to the novel, and, indeed, away from experience. But the remorseful one, who comes behind, laboriously gathers it up.”

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Adventures in Pupating, Part 3


I thought we were done with the swallowtails after our last crop of dill all went to seed, but as it turns out I was wrong. Volunteer dill has sprouted up all over the yard, and with it comes a new batch of caterpillars. 

Unfortunately, the caterpillars have also caught the attention of our local wasp population, who would love nothing more than to eat them alive. So we decided to bring some of them in.

You'd think, by now, their life cycle would seem more mundane. We've been raising them all summer long, and from one individual to the next the basic stages are almost identical: 
  1. Eat as much dill as you possibly can
  2. Poop (also as much as you possibly can)
  3. Grow a hundred times your original size 
  4. Take one last, giant dump for old time's sake
  5. Run around like a maniac until you find a spot to build your cocoon
But despite this consistency, it never gets old. There's something intriguing about their single-mindedness. All they want is to grow, and they follow nature's command by consuming a staggering amount of food, the equivalent of you or me leveling a small forest by eating the trees down to stumps.

In the swallowtails' favor is the fact they're only eating our dill, which grows a lot faster than we could possibly eat it ourselves. Their ravenous cousins, the cabbage worms, receive far less friendly treatment when they're desolating our broccoli and kale. (And let's face facts: cabbage “worms” are caterpillars, too, but their diet has earned them a worse reputation.)

As for that fifth stage -- the restlessness -- it took us some time to get used to. With the first few caterpillars we raised we didn't know that was part of the cycle. Even after we found one creeping across our kitchen island, we figured it must have gotten confused and we kept trying to put it back on the dill.

Some of the runaways were more successful. One we later discovered in a cocoon hidden behind the kitchen trash. Another we found on the lam crawling across the floor, where it had somehow evaded the cat. And a third is still unaccounted for, although by this time I have to assume it met an unfortunate fate, since no swallowtail has ever appeared.

Once we finally understood this was a normal part of the process, we moved everyone into a protected enclosure. This doesn't stifle the wanderlust, but it does prevent them from getting lost in our kitchen. Instead they now walk loops around the enclosure, sometimes for hours, until they settle down to build a cocoon. Do they stop because they're exhausted? Or is there some secret signal that tells them this is the time, and here is the place? So far, I haven't figured it out.

What I do know is that their growth imperative is replaced by an urgent desire to travel as far as they possibly can. They're not just leaving behind their old feeding grounds, or finding a nice, quiet place to build a cocoon. They're traveling far, covering huge distances even at the risk of exposure. This may be the most vulnerable moment in the whole life cycle. Surely even the most bumbling predator would notice a plump, juicy caterpillar crawling around out in the open?

Yet somehow it all seems to work. Not just in our protected enclosure, but out there, in the wilds of the backyard with all its birds and wasps and neighborhood cats. I know it works because the caterpillars keep on coming, turning up in our dill as regular as clockwork. As much as I'd like to believe we've helped goose the numbers of our local swallowtail population, Nature's never really needed our help.

But we help anyway, and we watch, and we wonder: What would it be like to live with such purpose? And how does it feel to so effortlessly follow your nature? 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Bikes and Books

It's been a strange week. September hit and it was like somebody flipped a switch—we've had nothing but cool, beautiful weather since the first. After a punishing run of 90-degree days in August, it's nice to spend time outside without having to periodically wring out my shirts.

But beyond the weather, there hasn't been a whole lot to celebrate. A friend and a family member both got hit by the new wave of COVID. Other friends got bad medical news entirely unrelated to the virus. The national news is grim. The international news is grim. And while a cynic might say that's always the case, I'm not conceding the point.

Toward the end of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius makes the argument that all fortune is good fortune. And it really does feel like an argument—of all the back and forth between Boethius the Narrator and his companion Lady Philosophy, this is when things get most desperate and heated. You can feel Boethius the author trying to drag himself over this last philosophical hurdle, to convince himself that the universe is good and just no matter how it might seem in the moment.

When my father was dying of frontotemporal dementia, sometimes I could temper my own anxiety by telling myself, “This isn't happening to you, it's happening to him.” It was a way to reorient my thinking, to put somebody else at the center. At times this was a pretty good trick. I could focus on my dad, or even my mom and my sisters. Other times I would have to admit that, while I might not be dying of dementia, maybe I still had reason to feel like shit.

So was it a healthy coping strategy in the end? Man, who knows. It beat the hell out of drinking, I'll tell you that. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but in any case it's not the kind of thing you would ever say to somebody else. If someone's mother was sick, you wouldn't say, “Just remember, it's not happening to you!” Not if you wanted to keep all your teeth.

Generally, when people talk to you, they're not looking for a new philosophical framework. They just want someone to hear them and express some concern. They want a little human moment to hang on to before they have to dive back into the shit.

This morning I got up and the sky was overcast, and the clouds just kept getting darker while my wife and I finished our coffee and eggs. At the risk of a very wet ride, I stuck my bike on the back of the car and drove to a new trail not too far from home.

Well, I shouldn't say “new” trail, so much as two sections of old trail that had finally been connected, granting me an easy freedom to bike six miles until I reached the next county. I expected the trail to be packed, as it usually is when the summer heat finally breaks, but because it was morning or because there was a forecast of rain there really weren't many people around. A few other cyclists, some runners, some walkers, but scattered so far apart that it still felt like I had the trail to myself. 

Just as I hit the sixth mile, a little drizzle started to spit. I was planning to turn around anyway, but this seemed to seal my decision. The rain never really materialized, though. I stayed dry the rest of the way back, so I decided to push my luck and stop at the local vinyl and book shop, which is exactly as hip as it sounds.

I was looking for the new Stephen King, which Mystery Scene described as both King's most straightforward crime novel and also an ode to writing itself. I tend to think that's when King can be at his best—his books On Writing and Misery are two of my favorites for that very reason. This particular bookstore sees no great value in alphabetizing their stock, which is great for stumbling over the unexpected but less helpful when you know what you want. Eventually I found the store's sole copy of Billy Summers tucked away in a corner, which made me suspect I might be slightly uncool for buying it.

The cashier rang me up and offered a bag, and I reflexively turned it down. Then I looked out the window and saw my mistake. The clouds had finally made good on their threat of a downpour.

“I guess I will take that bag.”

“Yeah, I was going to say.” The cashier snapped open a green plastic sack, then handed it over the counter. “Is that your bike out front?”

“Yeah. I might have picked a bad day for it.”

“No you didn't,” the cashier said, which was perfectly true. “Just be careful out there going home.”

I agreed that I would, then put my book in the bag and went back into the rain.

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...