Saturday, April 28, 2012

Story Teller's Art: The Cabin In The Woods

Okay, so it's not much of a secret that I think Joss Whedon is one of the greatest working story tellers.  Now, sure, he uses mainly visual media, but we novelists can still learn quite a bit from what he's doing.

Specifically, we can learn from The Cabin in the Woods, which is not just an absolutely brilliant bit of cinema, but it's also a really fine bit of storytelling. (Go see it if you haven't, and take notes.)

So, let's talk about the structure used in The Cabin in the Woods and why you should keep it in mind as you write.

It begins with the title sequence, and this is the equivalent of the preface in a novel. It's just a few images, but they are nicely symbolic of the main conflict and what is going to come.

Now, of course, as writers, we can't just whip up a few images and some evocative music and let that do the job for us. But we can produce a scene that, if it does it's job, not only gives us a bit of information that doesn't neatly fit into the rest of the storyline, but is also a good symbol for how the rest of the story goes.

Good authors are fine with the whole information-that-doesn't-quite-fit part. But in the hands of a great story teller that preface will symbolize the whole story (or mood of the story, or theme of the story, you get my drift) in one tight scene. The balancing act is doing it so you give a good allusion of what is coming, but not giving the whole thing away.

Next we move onto what would be chapter one in a story.

I've seen 'how to write' sites that say your first page/chapter should introduce your main character and lay out at least the foundations for your main conflict. (They especially say this of YA books.)

To this I say, "Bollocks!"  How many of us have read sad little books where page one is: "Hi, my name is Blah. I'm the main character. Here's what's going to happen." I've read it. I know you have. Resist this temptation. It's a writing class 101, novels for dummies, technique.

Your first bit should introduce an important character, place, or theme. (And yes, this may indeed be the main character, but it doesn't have to be.) It has to be interesting. And it should set the tone. That's it. We do not need a massive plot dump on page one. We don't need the first paragraph to be a description of the Hero or main setting.

Cabin starts with a secondary character talking about how his wife is baby-proofing the house, even though they've only just started fertility treatments. It gives us a view of one of the places where the action will take place. But what it does more than anything else in those first few seconds is establish the fact that the movie will be funny and that there will be something going on besides the traditional five kids go into the woods thing. We get tone, and a hint of what may be coming.
Then it move onto introducing the main characters.

And then, finally, we get to the location for the main action.

Likewise, other very successful novelists have used this technique to good effect. Remember Harry Potter?  Yeah?  Okay, the first section of the first chapter is all about the Dursleys. Hogwarts doesn't even show up for over 100 pages. Can you imagine how flat Harry would have been if JKR had taken the first page advice?  Yeah, not so cool.

Next up is what Jim Butcher, of Dresden Files fame calls the "murky middle."  This is where most of the action goes and where tension comes into it's main power. And tension, that wonderful trick of the writer's art, is what makes readers keep turning pages.

What Whedon does so well, and what many of us in writer land need to work on, is building tension in a stair step manner.

Imagine, if you will, a graph. On the vertical side you have tension. On the horizontal side you have plot. In most stories the resulting line will be a fairly straight diagonal with a sharp drop off after the climax of the story. Some of these diagonals will be very vertical, lots of tension, not a whole lot of plot (this would be your traditional horror story) some are almost a flat line (this would be any story that is too predictable). But most of us will have some sort of diagonal or curve.

Whedon has something that looks like a set of stairs. Moments of just fun plot. Moments of sheer tension. Some little diagonal bits in between.  Now, the reason he does this and we all go Yippiee! is that he allows us to breathe and moves the plot forward.

Lots of times you run into the issue where an author wants to slow down the tension a bit, but forgets to keep the story moving forward. Anytime you've read a romance where the action stops dead so the characters can gaze longingly at each other, you've seen how that works. Or if you prefer, an action flick where everything stops for the completely unnecessary sex scene with the clunky dialog (I'm looking at you, Conan!).

Readers like down time. They especially like a little downtime before the big push to the climax. But the point of down time is to give them a chance to calm down before rehooking them into the cannot-put-it-down action. It's not a very effective use of a breather if you have to abandon the plot to do it. Joss remembers to keep his plot moving, while giving the viewer a safe place to catch his breath and calm down for a few moments before ratcheting things up.

On top of that, by using this pattern of action interspersed with calm, and a setting for each, Whedon provides the viewer with an expectation of what will happen at any given time, so when we hit the climax and he twists that expectation, we're squeeing with joy amid the mayhem of the movie.

We can do this, too. It just takes attention to detail, plot, and the intelligent crafting of theme to go with the different scenes in our stories.

Okay, I hope that dissection was useful.  Any of you seen a movie/read a book lately that you thought was a really good map of how to build a story?  Tell me about it in the comments.


  1. I was going to wait until this hit Netflix to see it, but now ... I'm kinda wanting to see it in the theaters. But, The Avengers is coming out and there's the budget ... Thanks for the insightfl review. I've ma-nom-ma-nated your for the Liebster Blog Award. It's purely voluntary and it's a rather nice thumbs up.

    1. Thanks so much. As for Avengers V. Cabin, that's a hard choice, they're both Joss films!

      My guess is that Cabin works better small screen than Avengers will, but who knows.

      Ahh to have such choices!