Thursday, November 3, 2016

Michael Moorcock's Three Day Novel

In his early days of writing, famed fantasy and Appendix N writer Michael Moorcock was a disciple of Lester Dent's Master Plot.  In the first chapter of the now out of print Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, "Six Days to Save the World", he describes the writing techniques he used to write his early novels in three days each.

Because Death is No Obstacle is out of print, I am using excerpts from Wet Asphalt, no doubt quoting far more than needed.  As always, this advice is offered to give insight into the writing process and not to dictate from a mountaintop on how to write.
"If you're going to do a piece of work in three days, you have to have everything properly prepared."
"[The formula is] The Maltese Falcon. Or the Holy Grail. You use the quest theme, basically. In The Maltese Falcon it's a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Black Bird. In Mort D'Arthur it's also a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Holy Grail. That's the formula for Westerns too: everybody's after the gold of El Dorado or whatever."
"The formula depends on that sense of a human being up against superhuman forces, whether it's Big Business, or politics, or supernatural Evil, or whatever. The hero is fallible in their terms, and doesn't really want to be mixed up with them. He's always just about to walk out when something else comes along that involves him on a personal level." 
"There is an event every four pages, for example -- and notes. Lists of things you're going to use. Lists of coherent images; coherent to you or generically coherent. You think: 'Right, Stormbringer: swords; shields; horns", and so on." 
"[I prepared] a complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. I knew what narrative problems I had to solve at every point. I then wrote them at white heat; and a lot of it was inspiration: the image I needed would come immediately [when] I needed it. Really, it's just looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects and turning them into what you need. A mirror: a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned."
"You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you've got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other." 
"The imagery comes before the action, because the action's actually unimportant. An object to be obtained -- limited time to obtain it. It's easily developed, once you work the structure out." 
"Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It's a classic formula: "We've only got six days to save the world!" Immediately you've set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there's only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?" 
"Once you've started, you keep it rolling. You can't afford to have anything stop it." 
"The whole reason you plan everything beforehand is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you've actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do." 
"I was also planting mysteries that I hadn't explained to myself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn't matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you're going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I'll put this in here because I might need it later." 
"You start off with a mystery. Every time you reveal a bit of it, you have to do something else to increase it. A good detective story will have the same thing. "My God, so that's why Lady Carruthers's butler Jenkins was peering at the keyhole that evening. But where was Mrs. Jenkins?" 
"What I do is divide my total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece, say; then divide each into six chapters. ... In section one the hero will say, "There's no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by getting the first object of power". That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time element. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal. 
"Very often it's something like: attack of the bandits -- defeat of the bandits -- nothing particularly complex, but it's another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you're dealing with incoherence, with chaos, the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction. 
"So you don't have any encounter without information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it's a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function." 
"First, [Lester Dent] says, split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then -- now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget -- you must never have a revelation of something that wasn't already established; so, you couldn't unmask a murderer who wasn't a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third."  
"There's always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn't allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero's morbid speeches, and so on...The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can't have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, 'What? Dragons? Demons? You've got to be joking!' The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don't want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you've got to have somebody around who'll act as a sort of chorus." 
"'When in doubt, descend into a minor character.' So when you've reached an impasse, and you can't move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character 's viewpoint which will allow you to keep the narrative moving and give you time to think." 
One last note: later in the book, Moorcock talks about how he is also fond of using stock characters, especially those from the Commedia Dell'Arte.
Moorcock takes the essential story of a Doc Savage novel, the treasure hunt, and applies it to fantasy.  Imagery, time, and character roles are all key elements to the pre-writing needed prior to the actual writing.  Using the Commedia dell'arte also gives a stock set of character types to draw from.

Also of interest in the comments is a discussion on how to scale Dent's 6,000 word formula into a 60,000 word short novel. With novels currently in the 100,000-200,000 word range, the formula could also be scaled readily into 120,000 and 180,000 forms.  However, brevity suits the pulp style better than the length of a modern doorstopper as recent authorized Doc Savage novels, such as The Sinister Shadow, suffer a bit when compared to the originals because of their length.

UPDATE:  The introduction to Death is No Obstacle yielded this tidbit as well:
And he also takes for granted a due sense of the serious nature of the entire project of storytelling. “If you believe, as I do, in simple good and tangible evil, and that evil starts with petty greed and tends to get the ascendancy, you've got to find ways of expressing that in fiction, while still giving everything its proper shadings and subtleties," he says.
For Moorcock, fiction is primarily and essentially a moral entertainment. He believes, he says, that "morality and structure are very closely linked."
Let me repeat that.  "Morality and structure are very closely linked."   Misha Burnett's Five Pillars proposed that moral conflict is a necessity of the pulp style, whether it is directly questioned by a pulp detective under stress or the Shadow's vengeful war on crime.  I have also been reaching towards an idea of structure as a sixth pillar, whether it be the five act structure, various writers' master plots, the repetitions of "Rattle of Bones", or six days to save the world.  That these two pillars might be in fact unified is on the surface counter-intuitive, as there is nothing inherently moral about five act structure.  Certainly, this thought will require further investigation.


  1. Here's some thoughts for you:

    This one will be hard because you're trying to verbalize things that you know on a gut level. Consider that morality itself requires structure. It doesn't matter what your moral framework, it's a system of thoughts, beliefs, and actions that is constructed from first principles and built out to guide increasingly narrow situations. You can argue about whether the Christian or Hindu or even Atheist system is the True system to rule them all, but the fact remains that in each case you're talking about structured systems.

    Look at the language that I used to describe morality in that paragraph: system, structure, framework. These are all terms indicating a base set of rules from on which the rest of the philosophy hangs. That shows that morality is essentially a coming to grips with a universal truth that exists outside of the person trying to suss out the morality of a given situation.

    Compare to an amoral person who has no framework and no system and no structure. They judge everything based on internal considerations: Do I want it? Can I get it without drawing too much flak from others? How will this help me?

    So this may be a case where 'the medium is the message' comes into play.

    Consider also that the key to education is repetition. If you want to impose your own moral framework on somebody you keep hammering the same pattern over and over.

    God did it with the bible; how many times does the cycle repeat where the Jews rule and get complacent, God cuts them loose, they get pious, God frees them, they rule and get complacent? Quite a few. That's the warning that we shouldn't get complacent and turn from him.

    If it's good enough for God, it oughta be good enough for Dent, Hammett, and Moorcock!

    1. I agree with everything you've written.

      I've been treating the discovery of a relationship between morality and structure as an Eureka! moment. It puts quite a few things into focus for me, such as the abandonment of both morality and structure in story by groups out to change readers and fandom. It also makes me question other ideas, such as what structure is. I've considered it from an academic viewpoint, five act structure, etc., and those ideas are inherently amoral. But Moorcock's idea of structure as "six days to save the world" or the rescue of a kidnapped child would automatically raise moral questions that have to be answered in story.