Monthly Archives: April 2008

Literary Mechanics: A Look at Plot Acceleration

Literary Mechanics: A look at plot acceleration

Kenneth Burchfiel

Physics and creative writing may appear to lie in hopelessly different realms. From a literal standpoint, this is true; I don’t suggest that a story about a man who can fly will make me sprout wings out of my shoulder. Nevertheless, the fundamental theories of physics can be applied quite fittingly to those of prose and poetry. Take, for example, the idea of acceleration–and how our knowledge of the scientific world can enhance how we go about shaping plots.

What is acceleration, in writers’ terms? It is the point where the plot shifts into fifth gear, the moment in the story where the reader forgets about the restaurant check and can’t take his eyes off the page. We all desire to write a plot with as much gripping power as a black hole, but how? What makes the difference between a stagnant, convoluted story and one that speeds up the reader’s pulse?

The classical physics world had a very definite understanding of acceleration once Newton threw in his two cents. First, for an object to positively accelerate (speed up, not slow down), the force applied had to be in the same direction as the object was already traveling. Secondly, an accelerating object would cover more ground in less time. Thirdly, an object would be going down the exact same path at the exact same speed unless a force was presently acting on it. We’ll be looking at each of those three fundamentals from a writer’s perspective.

Imagine a story with the following plot: a man loses his job after a tough economic period. He starts bleeding money, loses his house, goes homeless–then, all of a sudden, regains his house, wins the lottery and earns back his job.

There’s no doubt that the story was traveling in a definite direction. Event by event, page by page, this man was going closer into economic downfall. Every event accelerated him closer to this fate. Then, all of a sudden, opposite forces began to act on him. (This is where you either begin to groan or read more intently. I plead you to go with the latter if this is going to make any sense to you.) Before plunging into complete financial ruin, however, the man receives a shove in the opposite direction great enough to cancel out the forces steering him towards his demise.

This is what it means for a story to accelerate. These are the steps of catalysis and inhibition that all writers must learn to dance.

More than one writer uses a mix of acceleration and deceleration to create a suspenseful story with legs. The protagonist is on the edge of disaster, with the plot racing towards impending doom, when–just as the last nail sinks into the coffin–some unforeseen event turns the tide. (Had it not been for this technique, James Bond would have been dead long ago.)

Of course, there’s a danger to taking this mechanic to the extreme; moving a plot from zero to sixty in half a page gives the reader a sense of literary whiplash. There have to be enough accelerating events in place to make a story seem natural. The same rule applies for resolutions. It simply doesn’t work for a character to win the lottery and marry her boyfriend the day after her prison sentence ends; such a fast change blows the transmission. (If you’d like to see the physical equivalent of this, try putting your car in reverse when you’re on the highway.) Too many writers forget to apply the brakes before moving their stories in the opposite direction.

On to the second part of acceleration. Galileo, perhaps better known for that telescope fad that he started in Venice, also discovered that accelerating objects cover increasingly greater distances in the same amount of time. It doesn’t take telescopic vision to see the same thing occurring in stories: accelerating plots cover greater spans of the story in the same amount of pages.

The traditional piece of literature begins with an overview of the setting, detailed analysis of the characters and foreshadowing of later conflict. Ten pages into a story like this, and the plot might not even have shifted an inch. Once the tale begins to accelerate, however, less time is spent on every little action and detail. The story begins to skip around, with day-long and week-long gaps in between chapters. Right before the climax, the author may very well be leaping from event to event to get to the story’s core. Quite a chance for a book that started out on tiptoes.

If a ball covers six feet in one second and twenty feet in the next, we can assume it’s accelerating. Likewise, if two consecutive chapters cover ten days and fifteen days, respectively, we can safely assume that the plot is going faster. This makes for a laughably simple means of accelerating the plot: just increase the pace. Have your protagonist cover more ground, talk to more people and take more action than she or he ever did before. It might not intensify the plot directly, but the reader will get the impression that they’re approaching something big.

It’s not difficult to picture plots as these giant, golden machine that suck in events and spurt out storylines. There’s nothing veiled or mysterious about the term; a plot is simply the mechanism that drives a story. If a writer wants their story to get to point Z from point A, they better have a contraption prepared to make the trip.

The beautiful thing (or, perhaps, the ugliest thing) about science is that it can take anything and split it into thousands, if not millions of independent components. Give a scientist your wristwatch, and she’d be glad to dissect it into hundreds of pieces. Give a scientist a plot, and he’d love to open up the book and see how it all comes together.

I don’t claim to be a scientist, though I did take a watch apart when I was about seven. (It remains in pieces today.) What I do claim, though, is that all accelerating plots have their individual parts—meticulous pacing, convergent style and a compressed tone, to name a few. It’s a mere matter of separating one bit from the other, and before you know it, all the things that make up a fast-paced plot are at your fingertips.

Time to get your hands dirty.


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*How to make a detailed geographic map (with pictures)

This is more of a how-to guide than an article, per se, but I hope you find it interesting nevertheless.

Kenneth Burchfiel

If you want to get the general idea of an area, you go on Google Earth and spin the location around. If you want to really understand a place, you purchase a map and study it. If you want to know the furthest corner of the globe like the back of your hand… you make a map of it. It might seem that producing one’s own map of an area that Google Earth and countless stores have already covered, but there’s no better way to learn about an area than to graph it. At the least, you can always map fictional places.

(Quick note: if you’d like to see some of the maps I’ve made using the following technique, try visiting the “maps” section of Schreiben Depot if you haven’t already. )

This guide is meant to help you produce a high-quality map with geographic coordinates (longitude and latitude) for grids. It might not eclipse the store-bought variety, but you’ll learn enough from the experience to make it worthwhile.
Because the information provided can be a little hard to follow on its own, I’m going to include examples of what I’m talking about with important steps. Hopefully, this will assist you on your own coordinate mapping adventure.

Let’s begin! All you need right now is the computer you’re currently staring at.

Step 1: Open up Google Earth. The program is an all-but-vital part of the process; please download it if you haven’t already.

Step 2: Using Google Earth, locate the area you wish to map on the screen. This could be a city, a county–anything of your choice, though this specific kind of map works best for an area 500 x 500 yards or larger.

Example (see picture): I’ve decided to map a small section in Northwest Washington, D.C.

Step 3: Before you can draw in the map, you’ll want to plot out your coordinate grid. (For clarity purposes, let’s assume that your grid will be composed of inch-by-inch boxes. Any value works just as well as the next, but you may want to try out a map with inch-long spacing in between lines as an introduction to the process.) Using Google Earth’s line/path tool, draw a line from the eastern edge of the area you wish to map to the western edge. Find the distance, in yards, then divide by 24.6. This is ROUGHLY how many east/west (latitudinal) seconds your map will contain. Do the same measurement (in yards) going from the northernmost to the southernmost portion on the map, then divide by 33.7. This is the rough total for how many north/south (longitudinal) seconds your map will contain.

Example (seen in picture): my area measures 827 yards E/W by 810 yards N/S. Divided by 24.6 and 33.7, respectively, it looks like my map will take up APPROXIMATELY 35 E/W seconds and 30 N/S seconds.

Step 4: Stand up, breathe deeply in, then breathe deeply out. You’ve got a few tough steps in front of you.

Step 5: This is going to take a little guesswork on your part. With the length (in seconds) of the east/west and north/south dimensions of your mapping area, and keeping in mind the size of your mapping medium, calculate how many seconds per inch your map will have. Anywhere from five seconds per inch and less is usually enough to map out streets and buildings in cities, though 10 seconds per inch also works well for a less detailed map.

Example (seen in picture): I’ll be using an 8.5/11 sheet of letter paper for this map. It looks as if a 5 second-per-inch relief will work well here; at 35 x 30 seconds (see my example above), that’s a 7 x 6 inch map. This gives me space to put in coordinates and other information in the margins.

Step 6. It’s finally time to plot out your grid! Put down your calculator and open up Google Earth once again. Go to the northwest corner of your mapping area and, using the coordinates on the bottom left of the screen as a guide, move around your cursor until you find a spot whose north/south and east/west coordinates are exactly X.00 seconds. (For example: if my relief scale was five seconds an inch, a good place for the northwest corner of my map might be XX XX’ 50.00″ N, XX XX’ 35.00 W. This step is not vital, but it can make your map much easier to follow. Then, progress however many seconds east and south your dimensions called to reach your southeast point. It, too should be rounded to a convenient coordinate.

Example *see picture): it looks like the best Northwest corner on which to start my map is 38 53′ 55″ N and 77 01’25” W. Going 35 seconds east and 30 seconds south, I get to 38 55’25” N and 77 00’55” W.

Step 7: These are the first two corners of your map. Now, use a little common sense to fill in the other two.

Example: Based on my NW and SE points, it looks like my map’s SW corner will be 38 53’25” N and 77 01’25” W; my NE corner, 38 53’55″N and 77 00’55 W.

Step 8: It gets easier from here–I promise! This is when we begin to start DRAWING the map on your paper. Pick a spot close to the top left corner–but not on the corner–to start. Put a dot here; this will be your NW point. Then, keeping your seconds-per-inch value in mind, go however many inches east and south you need to get to your NE and SW corners, and plot those points, too. (You’ll want to use a ruler for the lines, unless you’re one of those people with an anti-ruler streak.) As you go, make marks every inch. Once you have your NE and SW corners, go ahead and draw horizontal and vertical lines from those inch-apart marks to the opposite side of the page. Congratulations! You’ve just gridded a series of geographic points.

Example (see picture): From my NW point, I go seven inches (35 seconds at 5 seconds-per-inch) right, or east, and six inches (30 seconds) south. This gets me to my NE and SW points, respectively. Having made marks every inch, I now draw lines from those marks to the opposite side of the page to form my grid of 30 boxes, each 5 seconds by 5 seconds. My SE corner is the last point gridded.

Step 9: Label your points! You don’t need to give the coordinates for the corner of every box in your grid, nor do you need to write out the full geographic points.

Example (see above picture): I’ll just give you the coordinates I write going from the NW to the NE corner, with one number every mark: 77 01’25” W, 20″W, 15″W, 10″W, 5″W, 0″W, 77 00′ 55″W. Notice that I only bothered giving out the full latitudinal coordinates for the leftmost and rightmost marks.

Step 10: This is both the longest and the easiest step at the same time: fill in your map! Outline the major streets/features in pencil first, then lay out the rest of the area around it. (To avoid confusion, I would trace over your latitudinal/longitudinal grid lines with colored pencil to separate them from the streets.) The level of detail and the number of features you represent in the map are up to you. I HIGHLY advise using ink and color at the end to make your relief easier to read.

Step 11: At this point, you have a working geographic map of the area. All done, right? It’s your choice. You can either head out right now and test out your design, or you can stick around for a few more steps and make your map especially useful.

Step 12: Take out a new piece of paper and re-draw the grid you made earlier. (It should be easier now without the math, and you need not use a ruler.) What’s the point of this new grid? This serves as a nifty way to keep track of important buildings, intersections and natural features that fall within your map.

Step 13: Go back to Google Earth and look around for things worth jotting down the coordinates of. Write the item and its coordinates within the box in your grid that the item falls within. (Confused? I would be. See my example.)

Example: Back to my map. It just so happens that Washington’s National Police Memorial (dedicated to cops who pass away while on duty) lies within my map. Its coordinates are, to the nearest second, 38 53’48 N and 77 01’03” W. I now grab my new, blank grid and jot down “Police Memorial- 48N, 03W” in the box 5 to the right and 1 down from the northwest one. (Why this box? Within it lie the coordinates for the Memorial.)

Picture at right: This was my finished map for the “Eastern Core,” as I called this area. I looked online, found the geographic coordinate for some “points of interest” and plotted them on the face of the map. (You can do this pretty easily by using an Excel scatterplot for points and latitude/longitude for your axes, though it can get tricky with the margins. I won’t go into that right now.) Anyway, this is just an example of how you can find and plot points onto your map.

Step 14: It’s time to go and visit! Take a trip over to the area you just mapped, walk around and look for new points of interest to include in your coordinates section. Part of the fun of making your map is the chance to venture into an unknown territory and begin exploring the area—just like the explorers of old did some 500 years ago. You might not be the next Magellan, but at least you have a place to record the findings of your quest.

Step 15: If you really want to get fancy with your map, laminate the first grid (the one on which you drew out all the streets, buildings and features) and tape the second grid (the one with the coordinates of all the buildings) to it. You might even staple two adjourning maps together if you end up making more than one. Experiment with folding the second grid behind the first one, then attaching a tab so that you can pull it out when needed.

I hope this guide was easy enough to follow. Pictures that go along with the instructions would definitely help; hopefully, I’ll put some up soon.

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Kneecaps and Marble

[Nothing groundbreaking, I know, but it settled into my head and wouldn’t leave until I typed it out. It’s not based on a true event, in case you were wondering.]

Kneecaps and Marble
Kenneth Burchfiel

Thank you, Father, for this rain.
My child loved it so.
I hope that you will take him, Lord,
Where all good children go.
And Father, please, bless all of those
Who never got to grow.

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300-second Freewrite

300-Second Freewrite
Kenneth Burchfiel

[A “freewrite” is a writing exercise in which the composer, without stopping for any reason (either to make edits or pause to think), must write for a given span of time. I took this idea to the limit by typing as fast as possible for five minutes, not even allowing myself to think about what to say in the next sentence. The results are here below.]

[10:34 p.m.]

Okayi, so here I go! I’m not even going to look back, I’m not going to press the backspace key. I just have to keep on writing and writing and writing until/– I think—five minutes are up. Ten thirty-four now and I have to write until eten thirty-nine, not allowed to stop, not really allowed to think, but perhaps our best thought lies when we don’t let ourselves go back and make corrections.

Already, this is pretty nice, as my perfectionist side is all blotted out. Who cares if I make speling misteakes? It doesn’t matter. What matter is that my thoughts flow faster and faster until something—I don’t even care what it is, nor how repetetitive my tone may get—happens on the page. That’s the thing about writing. Nothing comes to you before you write; it all gets to you as you write, building and building until you make the fanciful assertion that you’re not even writing about what you were writing about half a second ago. Am I writing about writing right now? A foolish topic. I neefd something new. I need a seed—something that will take me from the doldrums about writing about writing. For so many have touched on this topic and this topic alone.

Perhaps word count? Perhaps the stress of looking down a a page, seeing that one’s coutn isn’t even climbing half as fast as they watned? You’ll ghave these nights where you begin to write and every other socnd you have to stop, look down, whereupon you see that your story’s still at 450 words, perhaps not even that, and you want to get it to a good thousand. I’ve had nights where 180 minutes must pass before I reach the thousand mark; other nights, it can take even longer. Then again, there will be the great time where I blace through and get a story done much, much faster. Those days are becoming increasingly rarer; is it the perfectionism? Is it the sheer lack of anything to say? *(I would hope that it wouldn’t be the latter; I think it’s a great tragedy for any teenager living in such a place, with such potential as has been giving me to not have anything about which to write.0

Alas, five minutes isn’t quite enough. I’d love to take the scalper of freewriting and really plunge it into some topic—not in a sadistic way, mind you, but in a such of way that I think a thought that I have never touched on before. It seems as if that won’t happen tonigh; I’ve spent all this time revving up the car in neutral, with barely a catchy phrase or interesting point to show for it. I have fifty-one seconds left. Am I going to be able to redeem myself? Am I going tno be able to redeem myself? Surely, I am able to repeat myself.

There’s something to say about Japan. Her’s a civilization on the other side of the world, attached to our country only by the wispy lines of Northwest 747s, and yet—and yet,– the people are far more like us than we might ever actually know. Who’s to say? It’s a bit hard to get there. There esocnds, two… I’m done. Goodbye.

[10:39 p.m.]

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Arrows of History: the ongoing battle between dispersion and synthesis

Arrows of History:

The ongoing battle between dispersion and synthesis

Kenneth Burchfiel

We started out together. It’s hard to imagine, what with every corner of today’s world now populated by the human race, but all of us called the same land home back when humanity first started out.

It didn’t stay that way for long. Within the course of thousands of years, we swam and walked our way to Asia, Europe and even the Americas. This was a race that desired to move apart from one another, regardless of the reason. There were better opportunities where others had never set foot; better lives where nobody had ever dreamt to live. When our greatest enemy was nature, humans naturally banded together to survive. But as our efforts to overcome and control nature paid off, we ended up becoming each other’s greatest enemy. So began one people’s flight from another.

By the Middle Ages, we had all but forgotten our common ancestry. Everyone was part of a different clan, owner of one spot and land and enemies with everyone outside of it. Like rainwater on a car window, some of these clans grouped into nations, but the same mentality persisted. Mali wanted little to do with the people surrounding it. The Cherokee Indians only wanted the trade goods of other tribes; their cultures and stories could stay at home. The onset of the eighteenth century came replete with scores of countries, most of whom wanted only to separate themselves.

And yet, despite our predisposition to distance ourselves, there existed also a strange urge to draw closer to one another. This vestigial structure of the earliest days of humankind showed itself in the treaties we made with other countries, not to mention our fascination with those beyond our borders. Though drowned out by the desire to remain separate, the voice inside their heads that said, “Return, return” never left.

Just about every event in history falls into one of two categories: one, those that draw people apart, and two, those that bring people together. Much of the recorded era falls into the former; our establishment of boundaries, development of independent governments and xenophobic acts all effected isolation and dispersion from one another. By the 1900s, though, the latter category was filling up. International migration led to the blending of two formerly separate cultures. Borders in many countries fell as ethnic and political groups embraced each other’s heritage. Diplomats and ambassadors worked to improve local understanding of distant lands.

Resistance aside, this trend of coming together never abated. Its crescendo has produced some of the defining events of modern times, from the fall of the Berlin wall to the creation of the United Nations to the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Darfur. We are not yet a race free of division, as evident by the wars and border disputes continuing today, but the force of divisiveness has been largely tempered by the hope togetherness brings.

Some 40,000 generations ago, our ancestors all lived as a whole community. We are a world that, unaware, has begun to follow their example.

Togetherness doesn’t entail moving back to central Africa and packing billions of houses back-to-back. All it takes to live in the same land as everyone else is an understanding that this world, vast and uncharted as it might appear, belongs to all of us. God did not carve borders into the rock. The newborn American can smile at a newborn Namibian, naturally unaware of any man-made zone between them.

I wish not to subscribe to the utopian idea that a unified, assimilated world will be a perfect one. Civil wars occur far more frequently than world wars, shared borders or not. Nevertheless, if we make efforts to replace our de facto ignorance, suspicion and resentment of other countries with that kooky term called love, we might just close out the century together. Our ancestors would be proud.

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*Eastern Core Reference Map Recommended)

This map of a chunk of DC not only gives the user a coordinate grid and street-level detail, but includes places of interest such as restaurants, shopping areas, Churches, memorials, museums, etc. If you live in the Washington area, try printing it out and walking around with it. It also helps if you have a GPS; many of the locations can be found both by coordinate and by grid. (The area itself is just north of the eastern end of the Mall.)

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Washington’s Granite District

Somewhere in between K street and Dupont Circle, a lobbyist is counting his twenties. Welcome to the Granite District of D.C., where stately gray towers rub elbows with “chic” cafes and the occasional bookstore. People seem to come here for the money more than they do for the sights, but don’t let that deter you.

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