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.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...