In 1964 Philip K. Dick wrote a letter to fellow SF writer Ron Goulart. Dick was struggling with a rare incidence of writer’s block at the time, and in the letter he lays out his blueprint for an archetypal PKD novel. None of his published books fit the blueprint exactly, but it’s still a thought-provoking view of the clockworks that made his fiction tick.
Dick said of this structure, “…this is how PKD gets 55,000 words (the adequate mileage) out of his typewriter: by having 3 persons, 3 levels, 2 themes… with a melding of all, then, at last, a humane final note.”
Most of the letter can be found in Lawrence Sutin’s PKD biography, Divine Invasions. But the gist of the formula is as follows.
In the first three chapters, introduce three key characters.
Not the protag, but a “subhuman” everyman. Dick calls him the taxpayer, the guy who picks up the tab, and suggests that you give him a monosyllabic name such as “Al Gulch.” For the rest of the letter this guy is referred to as Mr. G. The function of Mr. G is to show the reader the world of the book through his eyes on the ground. He’s passive. Throughout the story we learn how this world functions by how it acts on him.
The protag with a polysyllabic name, like “Tom Stonecypher.” This guy, Mr. S, works for some organization or business or institute. All that matters is that we learn what he does and what it does. We also get to see what his personal problem is, something that doesn’t concern the entity he works for, but that reveals his marriage, sex life, family issues or whatever. This personal problem is urgent and it involves another person such as a wife or brother, or child.
The novel switches tracks and expands its scope with the introduction of “Mr. Ubermench.” This is the superman (good or evil or transcendent) who operates on a higher level than the mundane concerns of Mr. G or Mr. S. Through the eyes of Mr. S we see the huge problem of the book that concerns Mr. U. This could be something extraterrestrial or supernatural. So while we continue with Mr. G feeling the effects, and Mr. S grappling with understanding his role as the median person, we also see this guy, “Mr. Big, Mr. God,” who is Atlas and has to bear the weight of some profound responsibility and power.
Dick says that “the entire dramatic line of the book hinges on the impact between Mr. U and Mr. S.” This requires Mr. S to “evolve along a pathway that carries him into a direct confrontation with Mr. U.—and hence the option to decide which way Things—i.e. Mr. U.—will jump in the crisis section, falls on Mr. S.”
Here’s where it gets interesting to me as a writer. Mr. S. thought he had problems, personal problems, but now he has some of the Atlas weight on him, and the original personal problem hasn’t gone away either, in fact it’s gotten worse. “So we have true counterpoint, two problems, the earlier personal along side the later world-wide, each inflicting harm or injury or increment on the other.” Then Mr. U becomes personally involved with Mr. S, and enters into the personal problem area so that the two dramatic lines are fused.
It turns out that the personal problem of Mr. S is the public solution for Mr. U, regardless of whether they are allies or enemies. This could be an event like Mr. S quitting his job, or going to the other side, or something. There may be a final clash between S and U, resulting in the death of U despite his great power.
In the denoument we find that whichever problem Mr. S has solved (probably the big one) has made the other problem worse. We get to relax about the great catastrophe and experience Mr. S’s feelings. Then there’s one last look at Mr. G, who was almost forgotten. How goes it with him?
Okay, so Dick wasn’t big on female roles. But I think there’s some good stuff here for writers.
In my first novel I didn’t conform to the PKD blueprint, but I kept it in mind when I showed the spiritual crisis of a rock star (who may have sold his soul to a Mr. U) largely through the eyes of a young recording engineer who wants to build a life with the girl he loves. The engineer gets drawn into the paranormal encounters and power games taking place in the studio, all the while watching his relationship fall apart under the weight of an 80 hour per week job. The relationship stuff affects his work performance under pressure, and conversely, being holed up in a control room with intense characters, who inhabit an alternate reality that turns out to be dangerously real, accelerates the collapse of his personal life. Tension mounts. Conflict follows.
When you work on two levels like that, you can easily explore the underlying themes of your book without doing a lot of long-winded telling because you’re spending most of your time showing the consequences of choices. I was able to say some things about the sacrifices demanded by a career in music and explore the tensions between creativity and commerce, narcissism and empathy that are a part of that world, all without lapsing into boring lectures that slow down the action.
So that whole two-level counterpoint tension thing? Very useful for me. If you’re a writer, you might want to see what kind of mileage you can get out of it.