East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Structure on the go


Structure is essential in a story, especially if it is a long story. Even more so if it’s being written in a loose, impromptu way – the way I’m writing Parabellum Serenade. Once the story is finished, it will have to have a symmetry, like a crystal, a rhythm like a piece of music. The trick, because I am playing fast and loose, is finding a way to provide the story with hooks, with hard-points that will be used during revision to strengthen the structure of the narrative.

Parabellum Serenade (note to self – nice title, now you’ve got to get yourself a cover) is a story about a bunch of characters that served in the army and that, ten and odd years later, come together again for one last mission, to help a friend. They will find out they are about to take a larger bite than they can swallow. So, for starters, I am using a typical set-up for this sort of stories – the Five Man Band.

According to TVTropes

The Five-Man Band is a group of characters whose members fall into archetypes which all complement one another. They are a very specific team with skills that contribute to the group in a way oddly analogous to the members of a rock band. It can sometimes literally be a musical group, but much more often is not.
The group traditionally includes:

  • The Leader — (lead singer) The leader of the group. Can be a mastermind, charismatic, levelheaded, headstrong, or some combination of the four. Often also The Hero.
  • The Lancer — (lead guitar) Usually a contrast to The Leader. If the Leader is clean-cut and/or uptight, the Lancer is a grizzled Anti-Hero or Deadpan Snarker; if the Leader is driven and somewhat amoral, the Lancer is more relaxed and level-headed.
  • The Smart Guy — (keyboardist) The physically weak, but intelligent or clever member. Often nerdy and awkwardly played for comic relief. Sometimes unconventionally young (early- to mid-teens). Sometimes a Trickster and a buddy of the Big Guy.
  • The Big Guy — (drummer) The strongman of the team. May be dumb. Or mute.
  • The Chick — (vocal effects, tambourine) A peacekeeping role to balance out the other members’ aggression, bringing them to a nice or at least manageable medium. The Chick is often considered the heart of the group. This role is played by a woman or girl. Someone female. Otherwise, it is not a Five-Man Band.

Admittedly, this is trite, and it has been done to death, but what the heck, it’s a start – and it provides structure. Also, it fits the kind of characters I had in mind.
I’ll be able to subvert the cliches and – hopefully – take my readers by surprise.

The next step comes out of a silly conceit of mine – the five characters served in the army, in a unit that had the Ace of Swords as their crest.
As a matter of fact, I did serve in an Air Farce unit that had the same crest, and I like the wink and the nod to my old buddies – because I was lucky enough to meet some great people while wasting one year in service..

But here things become interesting, because as I write the chapters in which the five characters are introduces, turns out I can use the tarot cards again to identify them – and use the cards as titles for the respective characters. Let’s see…

The Leader – is Bruno. He’s the competent, quiet guy that everybody trusts, and when the story begins he’s been living as a sort of invisible man, drifting across the landscape, doing odd jobs. He has a strong sense of duty, but also a sort of melancholia. He is the Hermit – knowledgeable, wise, but also alone. He will look for the other members of the team, to bring them together, so the lantern of the Seeker is a fitting symbol.

The Smart Guy – is actually a smart girl, Sara. She’s the most level-headed and mature of the team, and also the most problematic. Too serious, with too many bad memories. As the story opens, she’s been working as a teacher in a Catholic school.
The Queen of Swords represents an intelligent, cold woman, one that maybe went through a loss. This is Sara the way I envisioned her.

The Lancer – is Steve, and he’s not coming along, not if he can avoid it: he’s not the kind that risks his own skin after all these years. He’s the snarker that trusts no one (but the Smart Girl) and has a wide set of unusual skills. He’s got a sewing machines repair shop, but it’s pretty obvious he’s got something else going on the side. He is the Hanged Man, because he’s not completely trustworthy, and yet his choices are his own alone – including the choice to sacrifice himself for his friends if needed.

The Big Guy and the Chick – are Terry and Rita, and they are a couple. In a nice (to me at least) inversion, he’s the big guy that’s good with big machines (and big weapons), but she’s the point-man and the one endowed with the mind of a killer. They are, quite obviously, the Lovers, and through much of the story will work as a single character, complementing each other. They are also the ones that have more to lose in this game, which adds a bit of dramatic tension.

By crossing the basic trope (I hate the word) of the Five Man Band with the tarot, I have laid down the foundation for the structure my work will hopefully have in its final draft. I’ll be able to use the same sketchy, card-based system to define the other characters in the story (there’s a dozen of them), and yet I am not losing any flexibility or maneuvering room.
Nice and smooth.

Now all that remains is writing the thing – but so far it’s been working out quite satisfactorily. I am applying one of the great rules of genre writing:

do not write the boring parts

But this is something we’ll discuss another time, just as we’ll discuss,maybe, the world-building and the bit of research I am doing on the fly.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

5 thoughts on “Structure on the go

  1. I can’t explain how much I love this. Not just that you’re willing to take a trope and run with it, but that you’ve fused it with something as ultimately cool as the tarot. I stand in awe (and can’t wait to read it)!


  2. A agree with Jessica, this is pretty awesome, and I, too, can’t wait for the finished product! Happy writing, Doc!


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