SPOILER ALERT: This is the conclusion to the assignment in SUPER SECRET #46: The Three-Act Structure. I sent workshop members on an Easter egg hunt to find all the hidden Super Secrets in my novelette “Muzik Man.” If you’d like to get the most from this exercise and don’t want the story spoiled--especially the ending--I recommend you read the story first. It’s in Deep Magic, Fall 2020, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. It’s only three bucks! https://amzn.to/313KGJf Ready? Did you read the story? Great! And so it begins ...
“Muzik Man” is the story of an android minstrel missionary, sent to save a tone-deaf world. And this time, he won’t screw up! The question is, did the author screw up? Did he deploy his own Super Secrets properly?
The proof is in the pudding. The story was selected from over a thousand stories submitted for that call period in a magazine that features NYT and USA Today bestselling authors in every issue. It’s tough competition to play on their stage; DM is known for their rigorous selections process. In addition, “Muzik Man” weighed in at 10,700 words, a novelette. Novelettes are hard sells because they take up more space in an issue--space you could fill with a couple more big-name authors. Also, the more words, the more chance for errors. Super Secret #31 comes into play. Do you risk it? Could I have told the same tale with less words? No, the story would have been diminished, so in this case, it was jusssst right.
More proof? The issue was reviewed by Tangent Online, the industry’s premiere reviewer of short fiction, and “Muzik Man” received a “Recommended” at the end of a long and positive review, which means it goes on their 2020 Recommended Reading List. ( https://bit.ly/2IjghQs
) Since I am here to teach, you should know this is an important list to make for awards consideration for stories published in the 2020 year. So it’s safe to say I had a good reason for asking you to read this story and to analyze it. Thank you for doing so. I trust it was a fun way to get each of you to refresh your knowledge of the Super Secrets--each of you did an insightful analysis. My objective was to reveal how to play the Secrets in your own work while studying mine.
I also taught a new Super Secret through this exercise. The three-act story structure. It’s a simple tool for understanding a story, which is why the teaching has been around for thousands of years. It’s useful for understanding stories because it’s easy to see. Beginning. Middle. End. Act One. Act Two. Act Three. And that’s exactly how we’ll break down my demonstration of how I utilized the Super Secrets in “Muzik Man.” We begin with act one.
But before a story begins, you have a title. It’s the chef’s tasty appetizer to whet your appetite for the meal to come. That morsel better deliver! Title must hook the reader with intrigue; it must also set theme. Super Secret #7: Title is Your First Hook. I used an untraditional spelling of music to tell you this is something different than what you might expect. Muzik, instead of music. This story is not going to be trouble right here in River City ... but I’m betting on the title subtly cueing up subconscious visions of an enthusiastic band leader coming to town ...ACT ONE: The Beginning.
The story opens with our protagonist. Muzik is immediately named. We don’t wait pages and pages to find out who our hero is, whether this android has gender, and if he’s machine or human. It’s all there, no screwing around. Readers need this info STAT. If you don’t believe me, read David Farland’s writing tip from yesterday: Beware of False Suspense. Here’s a highlight from it: “Let me put this clearly: The author’s job is not to withhold mundane information, but to convey it. Your job isn’t to deprive the reader of story elements, but to create a powerful illusion of reality, a shared dream that the reader can easily enter into.”
Withholding necessary information your readers need so that you can create a false sense of suspense is a sin. We must know who the story is about, what the story is about, and where the story it is taking place. We need this immediately. This is Super Secret #9. That I thought long and hard about his name is Super Secret #44. And that I immediately set the stage with a robot watching a starship fly off leaving him alone on a planet is Super Secret #45: SET. YOUR. STAGE.
By the second sentence, I not only tell the reader Muzik is a robot, but I also tell the reader what genre the story is in. Super Secret #12: Speculative Element Up Front. Genre cue. Readers (and judges!) need to know what genre this story will be. There is no question this story’s genre cue is science fiction. Get this done quick. Many aspiring writers wait many pages before doing a “surprise reveal” that their modern New York City subway story is really an urban fantasy about trolls. Don’t be that guy. You will just annoy your readers and kill your chances with editors and contest judges. I know all of you are better than this. This is for that other guy, har har.
Note Super Secret #25: Avoid first person POV for WotF. This story is written in third person, past tense point of view. Note how every experience we perceive as readers is through the eyes and mind of Muzik (until he is dead, where I am forced to use another POV character until I can bring him back). This is third person close, or third person personal. It creates a very personal experience, binding sensory inputs and emotional inputs entirely through the perceptions of the protagonist. If I have done my job as a writer properly, creating the Reader/Hero bond, I have already bound my reader’s perceptions to those of the protagonist. By staying inside of Muzik’s head, I’m also keeping the story inside of yours. So in the opening, act one, how long do I wait to create what I call the Reader/Hero bond?
I don’t think I’ve specifically taught you this Secret, but it’s a major teaching in my “Winning Stories” master class. At what point do I make my first attempt to make you like or even fall in love with Muzik? Second line, and third line. You have a robot that cares whether or not he steps on flowers. He even apologizes to them in a kind way. “Sorry little fellas.” As the author, I’m telling you this robot is very human, caring and sensitive, and he has deep feelings about beauty and life. Do we like those kinds of people? I sure do, and wish this world had more of them. I’m betting you do, too. The Secret of the Reader/Hero bond is making this deep emotional connection between reader and protagonist throughout your entire story. This goes way beyond a “save the cat” moment. You must create a character readers will care about, or no one will care when you start throwing problems at them. You must continue to make those emotional connections from reader to protagonist throughout your entire tale. It’s not a gimmick. This is the Way. (Insert cool meme of the Mandalorian turning his head toward you here.)
How about Super Secret #6? Do I hint in the opening of the grand vista of my world? You bet! This is a galaxy hopping android, and act one gives you the basics of his age, previous missions, who’s his boss, and how massive their missionary program is. The first line even gives you a grand vista scene of planet Fendor, the place Muzik is about to go explore on an adventure. This is also Super Secret #45: Set. Your. Stage. Muzik can’t walk through a void. I have to show you the world he’s about to enter. This will be his Other World, the realm of unknown, and a hero must cross the threshold of the known world to the unknown to begin his journey.
How about Super Secret #15: Open your story with a character in a setting with a problem. First word is the character, setting is the first sentence, and problem? Top of the second page. “And this time, I won’t screw up!” We immediately know Muzik is in trouble. Trouble creates tension. If I’ve done my job right, you care that this sweet android is concerned about a serious problem. What is it? You have to read on to find out. How many pages do I make you wait? Same page, and the next three pages. It just gets worse, and worse, and worse. Muzik appears to have screwed up on every world he’s been sent to. This is his last chance to get it right! His Heart’s Desire is to ascend to the elite Minstrel 2000 series where he will no longer be alone and work alone. Instead of a long line of success, this is his last chance! What will failure mean this time? “Horrible confinement, hideous torment, the most excruciating agony a star-jumping Muzik Man could ever be afflicted with: tenure as Minstrel in Residence, teaching junior level band to tone-deaf flipper-fingered Purpluppians or similarly encumbered race.” The stakes are high for our dear Muzik, and they’re only going to get worse. Much worse. Life threatening worse. Secret #22: THINGS GET WORSE! But it all starts here, with Muzik behind the eight ball, right in the opening of the story. But it all starts here, with Muzik behind the eight ball, right in the opening of the story. Want me to repeat that?
Within act one, I reveal a Magic Sword. “He called it, Big Splash
.” This is Super Secret #32. Guess what? I play with this Secret. It’s a faux Magic Sword, just like that fur coat you’re wearing. But Muzik believes it’s his Magic Sword, and off he goes to battle with it at the end of page five. What’s a Magic Sword? A thing of power to defeat that which keeps your protagonist from obtaining their Heart’s Desire. What’s Muzik’s Heart’s Desire? To convert the Fendorian’s in record time so that he can impress his Creator, the Maestro, which he believes will help him ascend to a higher plane of existence, the 2000 series. And he’s got just the weapon to defeat the culture crushing teachings of the Archalon--he called it “Big Splash.” See? He believes he has finally discovered the secret weapon those coveted 2000 series androids use to convert musically stunted worlds in record time. Alas, Muzik is not wise enough to realize his plan is flawed, and the Magic Sword he has forged will actually bring about his demise.
A tricky Super Secret for this story is Super Secret #18: Start Your *#&$^ Hero’s Quest! Dave has said you have five pages to create your opening with all the required ingredients. By page six, your protagonist better be crossing that threshold and entering their adventure! Remember that. In Writers of the Future, Dave gives you five pages to set your stage and start your quest (yes, he did a daily tip on this), and it’s really a good rule of thumb for any short story. Every detail better be interesting and hooking Dave along through each of those pages. This includes revealing your unique character, in a cool setting, with a desperate heart’s desire, and then having a soul-crushing problem drop its ugly combat boot down on top of that Heart’s Desire. Your hero is forced to make a decision to do something about the problem or say goodbye to their chances of ever getting that which they hold most dear. Again, a good rule of thumb for short stories is by the end of page five, your hero better have a plan to obtain that which they desire, and they better be heading out the door to get it. That is the end of act one. Does “Muzik Man” accomplish all of this in five pages?
Why yes it does! In fact, exactly five pages, at least on my word processor. In hard SF--which “Muzik Man” is--this is hard to do. Not only do you have all the elements of story to set up in that space, you also have to establish your science elements that govern your world. There are robotics issues, including establishing rules of emotional ascension. There are interplanetary issues like space travel and how long it takes. There are planetary issues, what’s the flora and fauna like, what level of technology is the society, how will the language barrier be crossed ... all of these things have to be anticipated and answered before your reader can raise logic questions. They must believe. Your job is to give them enough logical data parsed out in tasty morsels so that their minds will stop objecting and settle peacefully into your world.
But there’s another thing I had to fit in the front, act one, so that the payout at the end would be grand. On top of all these external necessities, I had to set up an internal emotional arc (Super-Duper Secret #1). Sure, on the outside, Muzik wants to convert this world in record time, and the story follows his attempt to do so. That’s the external story arc, or the plot. But Muzik has an internal growth arc as well, and the reader must know what his deepest Heart’s Desire is and how an android psyche can work to obtain it. So I reveal the system within him, the system of tests and exercises his creator the Maestro has given him that he must master if he ever hopes to achieve the emotional maturity and stability of the 2000 series. If I don’t reveal this maze and manor system he grapples with inside himself in the opening, it will be deus ex machina in the ending. The ending will fail. So in those five pages, I’m also prepping the reader for the ending (Super Secret #27), and Muzik will go on an internal journey of self discovery as well as an external one. Also, in hitting those notes of Muzik seeking knowledge of his creator and the divine nature of musical compositions, his internal arc takes on a spiritual quest as well, a search for god. That manor is actually a temple, and Muzik is denied access. He is troubled by the fact that he is not worthy.
And you thought this was just a story about a happy-go-lucky robot. : )
That’s not easy to do in five pages. But it has to be done if I’m to get the big payoff at the end. Super Secret #5, I make a huge promise to the reader in the opening. I reveal everything Muzik desires, externally and internally. By the end of the story, I had better deliver.
One word of caution. This is not an in medias res opening, Latin for “into the midst of things.” You don’t have here a protagonist engaged in an action scene, with backstory being thrown in between gunfire. Such openings are extremely popular today, I believe in large part due to imprinting by Hollywood action movies and our compressed attention spans from the glut of digital information we have to process each day. However, for this story, I started it exactly where it needed to begin. The trick is when you build character and world like this, you make the reader immediately care for your hero. If they fall in love with him or her, they will want details, as long as those details are interesting and bear directly on the story. So hook them all the way through your opening act with lots of tasty morsels. You are enticing them for the upcoming main course coming hot out of the kitchen.
Which is Act Two.
[To be continued ... But feel free to discuss.]