Category: For Writers (Page 2 of 12)

How to Study Fiction, Part 16: Structure, Part 4

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scenes vs. Summaries

Beginning writers are told to show, not tell.

But intermediate writers start to learn that show and tell are both necessary, and in fact aren’t exactly opposites.  The two techniques can, and often must, coexist if you’re going to get a story told.

I find it a lot more useful to ask not whether to show or tell, but whether something should be a scene (with a beginning, middle, and ending structure and acted out more or less in real time) or a summary (which is not acted out in real time, but summed up to condense the story).

In general, events should be spelled out when the content is used to increase the tension of the story.  Events should be summarized when the content is used to anchor the world of the story (this includes the characters’ backstories or explanations of the situation in general, not just the literal world of the story).

Scenes increase tension in fiction.

Summaries provide context.

Let’s use a hypothetical section of backstory as example.  You’re writing a story in which you need to reveal to the reader an important event that occurred in the past–in this case, let’s say the main character’s father drowned in a boating accident.

In most cases, the backstory will simply serve to provide context to the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and should be summarized.

In some cases, however, the backstory will increase the tension of the scene.  Let’s say that you want to provide clues to the reader that the father wasn’t just drowned but that he was murdered, but that the main character hasn’t really put the pieces together yet.

You would write out the backstory as a scene so you can a) set up the clues, and b) increase tension.  The reader might not pick up consciously on the clues, but they will still feel the increase in tension, and associate it with that scene–they will know, at least subconsciously, that there was something important about that scene.

If you write out every event in a story as a scene, every event will serve to increase tension, no matter how minor.  There’s a famous film director who tends to do that; it’s Michael Bay.*  So unless you’re writing over-the-top thrillers, you may want to include some summary in your work.

We’ve already talked about how to write scenes; let’s take a moment to talk about how to write summaries.

Writing Summaries

The key to writing a good summary is focus on the style of how it’s told–not the content.  There, I said it!  Sometimes in writing, you have to value style over substance, and this is one of those instances.

The tension in a scene, where a character tries and fails to do something, is what drives a scene forward.  It is what, in general, drives a story’s plot forward.  So without an increase level of tension, what’s left to hold the reader’s attention? What makes a series of events inherently interesting to read, if the reader already knows that the conflict being described has already been resolved?

First, let’s look at a famous summary:

All right, all right, let’s see, she was inna water, the eel is comin’ after her, she was frightened, the eel started to charge her, and then–

I’m back to The Princess Bride, of course.  This is the scene when Buttercup is in the water as the Shrieking Eel is about to eat her, after the Grandson has interrupted the Grandpa and made him lose his place.  He’s skimming through the text, summarizing out loud.

The funny part isn’t that the eel is or is not about to eat Buttercup; it’s that the quick summary is told in the Grandpa’s voice, briefly breaking the immersion of the story.

Another one:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This one is the opening paragraph of “The Cask of Amontillado,” of which I have also made frequent mention.

A lot of openings of scenes are, themselves, summary.  Before the main action of the scene starts, there is often either a) a description of the setting and/or characters, or b) a description of the situation/problem…presented in the form of summary.

The beginning of a scene should not, by itself, increase tension.  That’s the task of the middle of the scene.  Summary and/or description are used to set the scene and give context.

So what goes into a summary, if it has no inherent drama?

  • The deep perspective of the POV character or narrator.
  • Some information that adds context to the rest of the story.

That information can be as simple as “Time passed in traveling from one place to another” or as involved as Stephen King explaining what’s been going on with Edgar Freemantle at the beginning of Duma Key.

Sometimes the information in a summary is provided after it’s relevant.  Normally this is a mistake.  Readers get upset about finding things out after they need to know.  One sentence too late is still a screwup; nobody liked being made to feel ignorant and stupid.

However, if there are two ways something can be interpreted, then it’s usually better to set up the simpler, more obvious explanation before the event, and the deeper, more complex explanation afterwards.

For example, in The Princess Bride, we learn that Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts before we meet the Man in Black, and that Westley replaced him, after.  The information that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts cannot be revealed until after the reader has a chance to look at the actor and go, “Wait…that dude sure looks like the farm boy.”  You have to give the reader a chance to guess; and, if they don’t, a chance to be surprised.

What does that have to do with summary?

Summary is for context, right?  We don’t need a whole scene of the Dread Pirate Roberts on the high seas.  Instead we get the following:

Westley didn’t reach his destination.  His ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered–

“Murdered by pirates is good,” the Grandson interrupted.

–she went into her room and shut the door.  For days she neither slept nor ate.

“I will never love again,” said she.

We won’t find out the truth until Westley is rolling down the hill and he shouts, “As…you…wish…” And we don’t find out about it as a summary, but as part of a scene.

The information before the Westley reveal is given in summary; the information afterward, in scene.  I would say that that’s a good way to do it–but it will depend on your story.  If you were working on a mystery or suspense story, you might provide the initial information in a scene, then let the detective sum up the truth at the end of the story.

Sometimes you want a plot twist that shouts; other times, you want a plot twist that whispers, for greater impact:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

That’s the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.”  The line For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them is pure summary–and redefines everything that went before it from the possibility of just being a cruel joke to the definition of revenge itself.

Scene vs. Summary Redux

I like to think of scene and summary as inhalation and exhalation, wax on and wax off, rise and set.  One of the techniques increases tension; the other doesn’t release the tension but provides a moment of calm that interrupts and defines it.

Some stories are going to need more summary than others; a thriller should have less summary, scattered lightly; an epic fantasy is probably going to have more summary, laid on with a trowel.  How much context do you need?  Do the characters live in the moment, or do they constantly consider the past and how they got where they are today?

A story with too little summary can feel like an onslaught of events with no meaning; a story with too much summary can feel like it moves at a crawl–because tension is not increasing on a regular basis, merely being maintained at a status quo.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this is (surprise surprise) to type in the work of an author that “feels” about right for pacing, and finding how much summary is actually included in the work, and where it’s tucked in.  Is it in big chunks at the start of a scene?  Is it scattered throughout?  When a character mentions something that POV character already knows but the reader doesn’t, does the POV character make an aside to the reader?  Is backstory spelled out in scenes?  Are the clues of a mystery located in scene or summary?

I can’t answer those questions for you: each writer handles them differently, and has different techniques.  I suggest taking a closer look at your favorite writers and how they handle their choices of scene vs. summary.

You have a lot more options than “show, don’t tell.”

Next time, let’s talk about what order to tell things in, and why.  Why Pulp Fiction?  Why Memento?  Should the reader know more about what’s going on than the character does?  And how can you set that up?

 

*Check out this video and its second half to see an interesting essay about Michael Bay’s style, both good and bad.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 15: Structure, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Structure: Headhopping & Tenses

Since these are two relatively minor elements, I’m going to cover them both here.

Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years. 

Headhopping

“Headhopping” is a pejorative term for shifting POVs while still in the same scene.  You’re an intermediate writer now; you’re allowed.  Master writers shift POVs a fair amount, I’ve discovered, and do it so smoothly that most readers (and yours truly) won’t notice it on a first read.

How is it done?  You have to understand POV as being from a specific character’s perspective in order to do so, and it’s for third-person POVs only (as far as I know):

  • You’re writing from character A’s point of view.
  • You need to get something from character B’s point of view, either information or an opinion.
  • You make character A’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • You swap over to character B’s point of view and make it as “objective” as possible.
  • You get whatever you need out of character B, going deeper into the opinions and attitudes of the character as necessary.
  • If you need to go back to character A, make character B’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • Swap over to character A, with their point of view as “objective” as possible.

I have “objective” in quotes because the shift doesn’t have to be truly objective, just not anchored directly, obviously, and solely in one character’s point of view.

Here’s an example.  The POV of this scene is a character named Dodger who is walking through Victorian London with his dog, Onan (who smells bad).

The one thing you could say about this dirty old city, Dodger thought as he headed out of the attic, strutting along in his new suit with Onan at his heels, was that no matter how careful you were, somebody would see anything. The streets were so crowded that you were rubbing shoulders with people until you had no shoulders left; and the place to do a bit of rubbing now would be the Baron of Beef, or the Goat and Sixpence, or any of the less salubrious drinking establishments around the docks where you could get drunk for sixpence, dead drunk for a shilling, and possibly just dead for being so stupid as to step inside in the first place.

In those kinds of places you found the toshers and the mudlarks, hanging out with the girls, and that was really hanging out because half of them would have worn the arse of of their trousers by now. Those places were where you spent your time and your money so that you could forget about the rats and the mud that stuck to everything, and the smells.  Although eventually you got used to them, corpses that had been in the river for a while tended to have a fragrance of their very own, and you never forgot the smell of corruption, because it clung, heavy and solid, and you never wanted to smell it again, even though you knew it would.

Oddly enough, the smell of death was a smell with a strange life of its own, and it would find its way in anywhere and it was damn hard to get rid of—rather, in some respects, like the smell of Onan, who was faithfully walking just behind him, his passage indicated by people in the throng looking around to see wherever the dreadful smell was coming from and hoping it wasn’t from them.

(Terry Pratchett, Dodger.)

In the first paragraph, the character is thinking to himself; we’re inside his head.  But the POV slides over to a vague sort of “you,” a generic “you” that doesn’t sound like an objective third-person POV, but it really is–it’s not clearly coming from Dodger himself, but kind of vaguely from “you.”

You probably didn’t notice that by the end of the third paragraph, you’re in the POV of the people behind Dodger and Onan, looking around to see where the smell is coming from.  It’s not Dodger’s perspective; he can’t even see them.

A good POV jump shouldn’t be obvious, and it should only drift as far from the main POV of the chapter as necessary to accomplish the point.  The technique isn’t supposed to be clear cut; if it were, it wouldn’t be effective.

Tenses

Your two basic tenses are present and past tense.  Because this is English, however, you can use all sorts of other tenses!  One of the strengths of English is in how freaking specific it can get about time:

The experiences he had had had been bad.

The time travel machine would have existed, except that it hadn’t.

We will have been there for an hour by then.

At this level, however, your main question is probably “Should I use present or past tense in my writing?”

Currently, fiction written in past tense is more common, and readers will tend to disappear into it more, because they have more familiarity with it.  Writing in present tense is less common, and you’ll have to work harder with sense and opinion details to keep readers buried in the character–but it also gives the tale a more modern/YA feel.

What tense you use should be more influenced by whether you like writing in it and whether your readers like reading in it than anything else–which is another reason to keep up with reading current work in your genre, so you know whether present- or past-tense books are more popular.

Anybody who says you must/must not write in a certain tense is talking to beginners!

Next time:  Scenes vs. Summaries:  When to show…when to tell!

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How to Study Fiction, Part 14: Structure, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

POV & Structure

Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years. 

At the beginner level, what we learn about POV is that it is a “point of view” and that there are three of them:

  • First person (I)
  • Second person (you)
  • Third person (they)

You may also learn that there is an omniscient third point of view (written from outside the character’s perspective) and a tight third point of view (written from inside a character’s perspective, but from the third person, not the first).

You will also probably get the message that you should not head hop, which is that you should not jump from inside one person’s point of view to another (generally in third person).  And you’ll probably hear that you’re not supposed to use second person POV at all.*

Okay, great.  Those are things that tend to trip up beginning writers.  But you’re not a beginning writer now; you’re intermediate, so it’s time to pick apart POV on another level.

What is POV

A point of view is the filter through which all the events of the story are viewed.  The point of view should have such a strong filter on it that it changes how the events of the story are told to the reader.  If you swapped POVs or omniscient narrators, it would be a completely different book.

In cases where the narrator is hidden or there’s a little head-hopping going on, the POV should still be strong.  A POV isn’t just literally how someone sees things, but also their attitude toward life.  If your POV is an omniscient narrator, this filter can secretly come from one of the existing characters, no matter how minor, in the story, or it can be pulled out of thin air.  Or it can just be you 🙂

Let’s go back to the movie version of The Princess Bride.  (Although I think this is relevant for the book version, too.)  The entire story, even the parts that aren’t being directly intruded on by Grandpa, carries a filter that comes from him.  Even though he is cynical, he still carries an immense well of love in him: both attitudes come through in the telling.

Removing the Grandpa/Grandson sections of the story would obviously change the story as a whole.  But removing Grandpa’s attitudes from the story and replacing them with, say, Humperdink’s, would totally change the story.  Buttercup would be beautiful, but she would be an idiot.  Wesley would not be a dashing pirate, he would be a murderer.  And so on.

A point of view is about an individual character’s or narrator’s view of the world, more than it is about first or third person.

How to Use POV

When people ask me how I decide what “person” to use in POV (first, second, third, etc.), I always say, “It depends on how much I want to lie.”  First person narrators make excellent unreliable narrators.  LolitaAmerican Psycho, and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are all first-person narrators.  People accept that when someone is telling you a story, personally, there might be some lies, distortions, half-truths, braggadocio, etc., involved.  But if you hear a story about someone else, you expect that your narrator will tell you the truth about that person, as they know it.  It’s like gossip, so be careful about writing an unreliable third-person narration–the distrust can blow back on the author, not just the narrator.

But the bigger question is, “How do I decide which point of view to use for this story?”  Which character is the right POV?  And how should that person best tell the story?  And how on earth do you decide whether to use multiple POVs?

As far as I can tell:

  • The right character is the one who “speaks” to you.  If you can hear that voice in your head, then that is the right voice to use.
  • The right character is the one who knows less, but can find out more.  Readers move from ignorant to informed during the course of a book; having a narrator who does the same is awfully convenient from a writing perspective.
  • The right character is the one who tries to see the events objectively, but cannot truly do so.  A narrator who both tries to see the events with the distance of wisdom and who can yet be overwhelmed by emotion is a powerful thing.  (This especially applies to omniscient-type narrators, I think, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
  • The right character is the one that the reader can understand and relate to.  Nobody can truly understand Sherlock Holmes; that’s why he tends not to narrate his own stories.

Multiple POVs are a special case.  Obviously, if you’re writing a romance where the POVs alternate between “he said” and “she said,” then you have your POVs selected for you.  And if you’re writing a thriller, then a dramatic prologue showing a murder almost has to be told from the POV of the victim, witness, or villain.  Some things are solidly established as reader expectations, and it’s rarely a virtue to try to completely flip them.

But what about other types of POV shift?

If you are typing things in, you will run into areas where professional writers are breaking POV “rules” right and left.  There is a lot of head-hopping among that crowd.  If you are outlining, you will see professional writers shift through more POVs than you might have noticed, too, with some POVs only showing up once or twice.

The rule of thumb is:

  • Have a main character.  (ONE.)
  • Spend most of your time with that main character.

Please note that this is only a rule of thumb; some writers will break that sort of basic rule.  George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire has some pretty sophisticated, unusual POV choices, and outlining his novels is pretty interesting in and of itself.

The arrangement of POV chapters should also reflect the plot of your story.  Let’s say that you have a story where there’s a good guy and a bad one, but it’s not initially clear which one is which.  Initially, each character might get an equal number of chapters, but as it becomes clear that evil has overtaken one of the characters, that character can have fewer chapters as the other character becomes the clear good guy.  Most authors will do this kind of thing subconsciously. However, if you’re interested in how it works, I’d definitely take a look at outlining the George R.R. Martin books.

First, Second, or Third?

Finally, let’s cycle back around to that old question: what POV should I use, first, second, or third?

  • First-person POV is for when you want the person telling the story to be in the reader’s living room with them, as it were.
  • Second-person POV is for when you want to address the reader directly, as in this blog article.  OR for when you want to sound hypnotic.  “You’re sinking deeper into sleep…” OR for when you want to completely alienate the reader from the narrator; I’ve done this on a couple of psychopath stories.  People naturally hold a second-person narrator at arm’s length.  See Caroline Kepnes’s You for a brilliant example.
  • Third-person POV is for when you want someone else to tell the story to the reader.  This is the most believable of POVs.  It sounds like someone repeating gossip, for one thing, and it’s easier to forget that you’re “hearing” someone tell the story, especially if you leave out a narrator and only report things from the third-person’s point of view.

A constraint about first-person narration:  All first-person narrators must be able to tell their own tales at some point, logically speaking.  If you kill off a first-person narrator at the end of a book without them having written or recorded their thoughts as they go, you’re going to have a very annoyed audience.

Next time, I’ll probably post on how to headhop and what using different tenses means.  But only probably.

 

 

*Which was exactly what I was doing in that sentence.  Talking to you.  In second person POV.  Writer “rules” are weird sometimes.

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How to Write a Mystery: Let Me Sum Up

Someone was trying to explain to me how complex mysteries were to write; she claimed “she wasn’t smart enough.”

I, of course, knew that she was, and that she’s be good at it…but of course couldn’t find a way to say that succinctly in person at the time.

There’s a French phrase, l’esprit d’escalier, that means “the spirit of the stairs.”  It’s when you think of the perfect thing to say…too late.

So here’s my response:  How to Write Mysteries, The Extremely Short Version.

  1. First, think crime, don’t think mystery.  Not every writer needs to be Agatha Christie.  A huge puzzle does not a mystery make.  Crime is British term that covers what in the U.S. would be crime, mystery, caper, thriller, and suspense.  You have a ton of options that don’t require intricate plots.
  2. Start with a crime OR a wrong done OR some kind of coincidence, trick, mischief or practical joke.  Something that is not quite right.
  3. Agatha Christie starts with one assumption that readers will normally make, and overturns it.  For example, “They couldn’t all have done it.” You don’t have to do it that way, but that’s how she did it.
  4. Have someone try to hide that one crime or trick, or try hide who did it.  It doesn’t have to be the same person, the hider and the do-er.
  5. Then have someone notice the incident and try to find out what happened. It can take a while for the person to notice.  Hundreds of years in some cases.  It can even take most of the story before they do.
  6. You can tell the reader more of the truth or less.  The less you tell the reader, the more it’s about the puzzle (as in a mystery).  The more you tell the reader, the more it’s about the people involved and their motivations (as in suspense).
  7. In most fiction, you don’t just tell the reader what happened, but how to think about what happened.  (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) In a crime story, tell the reader pretty much everything as you would otherwise, but when that thing would give the solution to a puzzle away, don’t tell the reader how to interpret what you just said.  Fair clues are always in plain sight.  They just aren’t explained to the reader.

Here’s an example of a clue without context:

I went home for Christmas.  The news announcer on the radio said, “Watch out for slippery roads, and anyone out on Highway 34 near Turner’s Corner should remember not to pick up any hitchhikers!  The infamous Jodie Turner died tonight in 1995, hit by a semi driver who had drifted off to sleep, as she was trying to hitch her way home from college in Minnesota.  Five vehicles have run off the road near Turner’s Corner since…all on this night, the twenty-second!”

And here’s what is really going on:

The narrator went home for Christmas.  The radio announcer said that stuff, but the narrator wasn’t listening to it, because the narrator was hitchhiking.  And dead.  Because the twist of the story is that the narrator will turn out to be the ghost.

(I haven’t written that story or anything; it’s just a cheesy example for the sake of this post.)

And that’s pretty much it.  End with some kind of resolution to the crime or whatever it was initially that caused the events of the story.  Justice done, not done, or injustice repeated in an ongoing loop (as in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson).  All have their place.

You can, of course, get really complicated about a mystery story (or any story in which you hold back information from the reader).  But the essence is simply that you’re being completely open with the reader…you’re just explaining what you’re being open about!

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How to Study Fiction, Part 14: Structure, Part 1.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Structure.

Now that we’ve looked at scenes, I can finally start talking about what structure is.

When you’re building a scene, how long should it be? Who should be the POV? What tense should you write in?  Should you have a separate scene for each POV? Should your chapters have one scene or multiple scenes? How much plot goes into each scene?  When I look at a story idea, how long should I make it–is it a novel or a short story? How can I even start to tell?  What do I do if I get stuck in the middle of a novel?  Should I pants or should I plot?

What is structure?  And how is that different than plot?

Structure is how a story is arranged.  There are a couple of Russian terms that apply here:  fabula and szuchet.  I may have talked about them already; I can’t remember if I have yet or not.  But they’re relevant here, so let’s look at them.

  • fabula:  the raw material of a story.
  • szuchet:  the way a story is organized.

Fabula is the story in strict linear order–backstory goes first (for example, when someone says, “Let me begin in the beginning.  First, there was light…”  Szuchet is when you rearrange things so that the reader doesn’t have to suffer too long in the boring yet still relevant parts and so that backstory is delivered when it’s actually relevant.  No story is pure fabula.  That kind of thing is purely unreadable.  Every story has a little bit of organization to it.

That organization is structure.  Every choice that an author makes that isn’t directly related to the fabula is a structural choice.

These include but are not limited to:

  • POVs/Tenses
  • Timeline told in linear order or otherwise
  • Length/pacing
  • Framing devices
  • Scene vs. summary of events

Any element of how the story is told, rather than what is told, is structure.  Some people will talk about “plot structure,” but that’s a whole different ball of wax, and, honestly, you’ve probably heard all about that stuff before.  If you’ve ever seen graphs of rising and falling tension or the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (adapted or original), Save the Cat!, Story Engineering, or anything like that, you’re looking at plot structure, not at what we’re talking about here.  Please set aside “plot structure” as a concept for now.  “Plot structure” is a basic of fiction, and you’re working on intermediate stuff at the moment.

No, I changed my mind.  Let me talk about where you should be with plot structure as an intermediate writer:

  • You have a favorite plot structure.
  • You are able to plug ideas into the plot structure and come up with events to fit the various steps in the plot structure.
  • When you sit down to write, you may or may not use that plot structure consciously and deliberately, but you know how the basic concept of how to put events in some kind of order to make a story with a beginning, middle, and ending.

Early writers often go, “I have an idea!!!” and then get stuck almost immediately in trying to write it down.  They don’t yet see the difference between an idea and a plot.  Intermediate writers will see people like this all the time.  “I have an idea for a series; I just need someone to write them for me, and we’ll split the profits 50-50.”  If you think coming up with the idea for the story is just as much work as the process of turning that idea into a series of events (whether you’re outlining ahead of time or not), then it’s time to back up and go over the basics of plotting.

No worries; every writer has strengths and weaknesses.  If and when you identify a weakness, concentrate on the basics in that subject for a while.  You’re still an intermediate writer!  But there will be places where you have to do some remedial work.

Structure isn’t plot; plot isn’t structure; they influence each other, but for now let’s keep them separate.

Structure issues at this level:

  • Trying to turn a short story into a novel or vice versa.
  • Getting over five thousand words into a story and deciding to change the POV character(s).
  • Being unsure of who the main character is or claiming that there’s more than one (or two, in certain romance novels).
  • Flabby middles.
  • Readers feeling lost.
  • Unsure of whether to add/remove a subplot.

Structure is a very deep subject; I may be missing some significant issues.  But these are the ones that I hear from other writers most of the time.

The biggest issue with structure, however, is something that I can’t really list as an issue.  I believe that structural questions are what hold people up on their way to becoming an advanced writer.  If you don’t have a grasp of structure, you can’t write at an advanced level, where the story that you write is told through not just plot and character, but in how you tell the story.

This isn’t a matter of style but of structure.  The Princess Bride cannot be told the way that Pulp Fiction is told, and vice versa.  Part of The Princess Bride is that the frame story–the grandfather and the grandson–is essential to the overall story.  Take the frame story off, and you have a decent movie, but not a masterpiece.  Ditto with Pulp Fiction.  Put all the events in linear order, and you no longer know things that the characters don’t know yet–that is, you lose some of the suspense–and you no longer have the joy of watching it a second time and realizing the characters know things in certain scenes that you didn’t–you lose some of the foreshadowing.

In the end, I believe the gateway to advanced writing is making the structure fit the plot fit the characters fit the style fit the…and so on.

You know how I keep saying something or other is pretty straightforward or simple, when you strip it down to the basics?

Structure isn’t one of those things.

Here’s my tentative plan for covering things:*

  • POVs.
  • Tenses.
  • Unreliable narrators/tabula rasa.
  • Scene vs. Summary.
  • What order to tell things in and why.
  • How many things to shove into a scene and why.
  • Story lengths.
  • Subplots.
  • How many POVs?
  • Framing devices, two-timeline stories, reverse stories, completely-out-of-order stories.
  • Flash fiction and other illusions of proximity.
  • Breaking down structure.

Next time: Beyond the 1st/2nd/3rd/omniscient question, or, what can I get away with in my POVs?

*Note, if you haven’t read the pacing posts, I’d do that before moving forward.  I’m going to put pacing after scenes but before structure, I think.

Free book and other curiosities here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 14: Scenes, Part 6. Final Endings.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Endings of stories.

Two things to cover here:

  • The end of any given story.
  • The end of a story in some sort of series.

It turns out that there isn’t much of a difference, although there is some.

The goal of an ending is to satisfy the reader, right?  The reader should feel happy to have finished a story that, hopefully, is written so well that they don’t want to finish it.

Easy!  At least, if you’re good at paradoxes.

It actually is almost painfully easy, as long as you break things down in a methodical manner and don’t try to skip anything.

First, let’s look at types of endings:

  • “Up” endings.
  • “Down” endings.
  • “Ironic” endings.

These are sometimes known as happy/sad/mixed endings, or comic/tragic/ironic endings.  My definition is, “Did the character achieve their overall goal, and was it good?” If the character both achieved their overall goal and it was good, that is an “up” ending.  If the character both did not achieve their overall goal and it was bad, that is a “down” ending.

But if the character either achieved their overall goal but it was bad that they did, or didn’t achieve their overall goal but it was good that they didn’t, that’s an ironic (“up but down,” or “down but up”) ending.

An example of an “up” ending is in the original Star Wars.  Luke wants to become a pilot; he does; it’s good.  The story is more complicated than that, but the ending really isn’t.

An example of a “down” ending is A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Nancy wants to save herself and her friends from Freddie Kreuger.  She almost seems to win…but is dragged off by Freddie at the last minute.

An example of an “ironic” ending is Schindler’s List.  Schindler wants to live a normal life while making money off the war; he fails to do so, but saves his own soul.  Or you might say he wanted to save Jewish people and did so, but feels nothing but sadness because he wanted to save more.

It’s very difficult to have a straight “down” ending on a story, one that the audience will enjoy.  You often have to hold out the possibility of success until the very last moment in order for it to work.  Otherwise, it’s just too depressing.  (Even Requiem for a Dream has a bit of an ironic tone.)

How is an ending put together?  I’ll talk about this in more depth later, but for now, let’s go with:

  • It usually takes up the last quarter of the book.
  • The main character has been preparing for this final, definitive attempt at achieving their main goal throughout the book.
  • The main character attempts to achieve their main goal.  This is “the plan,” or “the big push.”  Officially, we’ll call it “the climax.”
  • The main character does or does not achieve their main goal and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing.
  • The rest of the story focuses on wrapping everything up.

So you’ve written everything needed to set up your ending, you’ve written the climax and it’s either “up,” “down,” or “ironic,” and you’re not sure how to wrap everything up.  What to do?

How to end a story (in general):

  • Wrap up your subplots, usually in reverse order of importance (see below for how to wrap anything up).
  • Wrap up your main plot.
  • With the last line, tell or confirm to the audience what kind of ending they just read.

It’s weird.  People want you to explain things to them, but not in a way that makes them feel like you’re explaining things to them.  I’ll explain.

There are basically five ways to wrap something up, and a sixth to not wrap things up and just leave the readers hanging (but not in a bad way).

  1. Happily ever after.  State or hint that no major changes or problems will occur after this for the character.
  2. Happy for now.  State or hint that life goes on, but for now, it’s mostly good things for the character.
  3. Doomed ever after.  State or hint that the character is screwed and that this situation will not change.
  4. Doomed for now.  State or hint that the character is definitely screwed and has a long road ahead of them if they want to fix it.
  5. OMFGINE, or Oh my f@#$%^& God, it never ends.  State or hint that all of this is going to happen all over again, in some form or other.
  6. Unresolved.  Move the interpretation of the story onto the reader’s shoulders; usually balanced between two possibilities.  You tell me, you tell the readers, what happens next.  “The Lady and the Tiger” by Frank R. Stockton is an example of this.

So when you’re wrapping up subplots, each subplot gets one of these wrap-ups.

Here are some examples, in order: “The two hitchhikers who won the lottery got married, the town drunk has stopped drinking for now, my brother is dead (and I was the only one at the funeral), Raymond’s in the hospital in a full-body cast, my parents are convinced that they need to hold another over-the-top Christmas party next year, and either Gail is still alive or she isn’t.  I still get postcards from her, but the postmarks are all old, her messages have been lost in the system for years before they reach me, and I’m still not sure whether she loves me or I’m going to wake up someday with a knife on my throat.”

Most of the time, the endings and the wrap-ups match:  happy endings and happily ever afters.  But a lot of horror movies have happy endings with doomed ever afters at the last moment.  And ironic endings get the endings that they get, with an extra reminder that the ending is happy–but wasn’t what the character wanted–or doomed–but was what the character wanted.  The irony itself is like a separate subplot that has to be wrapped up and pointed out.

You don’t have to tell the reader “this is a happily ever after,” but you really should hint at it, even when the reader clearly can already tell what that ending is.  The last scenes in The Princess Bride (movie version) show a) the kiss that was the most perfect, the most pure, then b) the grandson inviting his grandfather to come back and read the story again:  “As you wish,” he says.

That extra bit of confirmation of what type of ending you just read is something that audiences love.

But what to do with series?  Most series just need a regular ending as you wrap up all the plot threads (or most of them).  But some series have over-arching plots.  What do you do about those?

  • Wrap up all the subplots, generally in reverse order of importance.  If a lot of the subplots are to be continued, indicate that.
  • Let the reader know if this is a “happy for now” or “doomed for now” type of wrap-up.  “As they celebrated, they knew that there would be darkness ahead.” “Even as they grieved, they knew that for the first time, there was hope.”
  • The important part isn’t making the reader feel like what they read is “a complete book.”  Each book should have, as previously discussed, a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  Even high-fantasy sagas have steps that the characters have to take in order to reach their final goal; stop the book at the climax of the first, or second, or seventeenth set of steps.
  • The important part in this type of series is to reaffirm to the reader what exactly got accomplished in this book, how the reader should feel about that, and the expected tasks ahead.

An example, this time from Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny:

I would never rest until I held vengeance and the throne within my hand, and good night sweet prince to anybody who stood between me and these things.

The sun hung low on my left and the winds bellied the sails and propelled me onward. I cursed once and then laughed.

I was free and I was running, but I had made it this far. I now had the chance I’d wanted all along.

A black bird of my desire came and sat on my left shoulder, and I wrote a note and tied it to its leg and sent it off into the west.

It said, “Eric—I’ll be back,” and it was signed: “Corwin, Lord of Amber.”

A demon wind propelled me east of the sun.

The character states his goals and the stakes.  The character then states how he feels (curse then laugh), which is how the reader should take it, too.  The character states what he has accomplished (freedom, a chance).  The character threatens someone else, so we have that promise of what will happen next.  Then we get a little foreshadowing about how his goals will come out:  he’s going forward, but maybe his plans are not going to go as expected and may even be co-opted by something else.

You might want to think of the wrap-ups in an ongoing, overarching series as status checks rather than wrap-ups.

At any rate, try the easy, obvious solution when you’re ending a story: check in with all your plots and subplots in reverse order of importance while stating how things ended for the characters involved in that part, then kiss off the audience on the last line with something that tells them how they should feel about the events of the story.

A good wrap-up can take a lot of words, and that’s okay.  You aren’t belittling the reader or giving them something they don’t want.  Readers want to feel strongly about stories.  You’re allowed to help them along.

What’s up next?  When we’ve been looking at scenes, what we’ve really been looking at is structure on a micro level.  We’re going to look at macro-level structure next.  I’m going to just call it “structure,” though…

A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. TURN TO PAGE 87 TO GO DOWN INTO THE BASEMENT ALONE.  CLICK THE WONDERLAND PRESS NEWSLETTER SIGNUP LINK TO HAVE SOMEONE GO WITH YOU.  CRREEEAAAAAK.

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 13: Scenes, Part 5. Endings.

I would like to note that the real reason I have this complicated numbering scheme is so I don’t forget what the heck I’m doing!  This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Endings.

There are two types of endings to cover here:

  • The ending of the individual sections of a story.
  • The ending of the story as a whole.

These endings have to accomplish two entirely separate things:

  • Make you want to keep reading (before the end of the story).
  • Feel satisfied by the end of the story (at the end of the story).

There is also a special case, the end of a story that is part of a larger series.  These series can be:

  • Episodic, or more focused on the story in each individual episode,
  • Over-arching, or more focused on an overarching story that spans across episodes,
  • Or a combination of both, with an over-arching story interrupted by standalone episodes, also known as “monster of the week” episodes.

We’ll cover the kinds of considerations you might need to take into account for series, but it will really depend on what you’re trying to do.

Today we’ll cover…

Endings of sections of a story

There are several places that you’ll need to write endings within a story:

  • At the ends of chapters.
  • At the ends of scenes within chapters.
  • At the ends of mini-scenes within scenes within chapters.
  • At the ends of beats within mini-scenes (if any), within scenes, within chapters.

Just as with beginnings, a lot of the wordcount of your story is going to be dedicated to endings, maybe a fourth of it–but it won’t all be at the end of the book.

The ending of most of the sections of your book will perform the following functions:

  • Tell the reader the results of the latest try/fail (see Middles for more information).
  • Tell the reader, if the results of the latest try/fail aren’t going to be told quite yet, that they will be told later.
  • Tell the reader what to expect coming up next, if not already covered.

This sounds kind of dry, but the implications can get exciting:  characters can have literal cliffhangers, black out, have someone sneak up behind them…

The point being, that the endings of every part of your story before the last one should all point toward some event further down the road in your book.  Why do readers keep reading?  Because they want to find out what happens next.  Most of the endings in a book are just exciting or subtle reminders of what will happen next.

Let’s go back to “The Cask of Amontillado.”  Here’s the opening paragraph:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled –but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This is a beginning paragraph, so it does count as part of the beginning.  However, because Poe was such a smart guy, the end of the paragraph also has an ending.  Here, he hints that what will come next is a tale of revenge in which the avenger gets away with it.  This is also called foreshadowing.  

If you ended every structural unit of your story with foreshadowing up until the last one, you would not go far wrong.

The second paragraph, if you care to read it for yourself, is much the same way as the first.

Another good example is in The Princess Bride (the film version).  When Vizzini sees that the Man in Black is still climbing up the cliff, he tells Inigo to kill the Man in Black.  The end of that scene is a hint toward what will happen next:  a swordfight.

“He’s got very good arms,” says Fezzik.

“He didn’t fall?  Inconceivable!” says Vizzini, slashing with his dagger.

“You keep using that word,” says Inigo.  “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

They all look down.  The man in black is still climbing.

“My God.  He’s climbing.”

“Whoever he is, he’s obviously seen us with the princess and must therefore die.  You–” Vizzini puts the tip of the dagger on Fezzig’s shirt.  “Carry her.”  To Inigo, he says, “We’ll head straight for the Guilder frontier.  Catch up when he’s dead.  If he falls, fine.  If not, the sword.”  He sheaths his dagger and begins walking away.

“I’m going to do him left-handed,” says Inigo.

“You know what a hurry we’re in!”

“It’s the only way I can be satisfied.  If I use my right, over too quickly.”

“Oh, have it your way.”

And off Vizzini goes.

Something to note:  You don’t have to exactly tell the truth in your foreshadowing.  In fact, the more you tell about what’s going to happen next, the more your audience will expect things to not happen quite as foreshadowed.

If a plan is spelled out during a scene, especially at the end of a scene, you’re almost guaranteed to have something go wrong.

For example, in the above scene of The Princess Bride, it is strongly hinted that Inigo will win the swordfight.  Vizzini spells out the plan:  if the man in black falls, fine; if not, the sword.

However, Inigo loses the swordfight.

It’s perfectly okay for foreshadowing to not be exactly what was foreshadowed.  In fact, this is how you make something both expected and surprising.

The end of the scene in The Princess Bride starts when the characters look over the side of the cliff and see that their latest try (to cut the rope that the Man in Black is climbing, and therefore drop him off the cliffs) has failed.  They are seeing the results of their try/fail.  Then the reader gets a promise of what will come next: a swordfight.

Each “try” in that sequence has its own beginning, middle, and end:

  • They see the ship following them and try to outrun it.  They fail.  The end of that scene leads to the next try/fail, climbing the cliffs:  “Whoever he is, he’s too late! See?  The cliffs of insanity!  Hurry up!  Move the thing!  And that other thing!  Move it!”
  • They arrive at the cliffs of insanity and begin climbing, hoping that the Man in Black will be too weak to follow them.  Haha, no.  The end of that scene leads to the next try/fail, trying to outclimb the man in black: “He’s climbing the rope.  And he’s gaining on us.” “Inconceivable.”
  • They try to arrive at the top of the cliffs before the Man in Black can catch up to them.  (They succeed, but the overall outcome of the scene is in suspense, so there are a bunch of witty lines to show time passing and suspense building.)  The ending lines show that they’re still in suspense about whether they’ll make it or not: “Did I make it clear that your job is at stake?”
  • The arrive at the top of the cliffs and cut the rope, hoping that the Man in Black will fall.  He doesn’t.  “Inconceivable!”

Part of the reason the “Inconceivable!” line is funny is that it’s used for several try/fails, only for the try/fails to reveal that the Man in Black’s success, no matter how inconceivable, is real.

This is just a couple of examples of how endings can be used to draw readers from scene to scene.  Each author seems to have a different way of handling this, ranging from the dramatic to the subtle, the action-based to the emotional-based, and the straight-up truthful to the completely wrong-headed or false.

When an author stops to tell the audience what is about to happen, it doesn’t a) slow the audience down, or b) bore them.

Over and over again throughout The Princess Bride, the action stops to tell the audience what to expect next.  It’s not boring to get a hint about what happens next–it’s exciting.

There’s nothing like the moment when Watson tells Holmes in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,”

My dear fellow, I would not miss it for anything.

We, as readers, don’t want to, either.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to split it up.  Next time?  The endings of stories!

A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. TURN TO PAGE 87 TO GO DOWN INTO THE BASEMENT ALONE.  CLICK THE WONDERLAND PRESS NEWSLETTER SIGNUP LINK TO HAVE SOMEONE GO WITH YOU.  CRREEEAAAAAK.

 

 

How to Study Fiction: Part 10a: Scenes, Part 2a

Ugh…I should have written this earlier.  The number is my guesstimate for where this will go eventually.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scene structure terms.

I’m going to be using some terms about scene structure that may not be familiar, or that may not be used exactly as other writers have been using them.  These are terms that I developed for my own benefit as I was studying novels and short stories.

I found that breaking down books into smaller and smaller parts helped me see what the author was trying to do.  It can get really overwhelming, trying to sit down and say, “How did the author pull off this one cool thing in that book?!?”

I made up and adapted some terms so I could take smaller bites.

For the purposes of this blog series, I’m breaking down stories into the following:

  • Scenes, which are groups of text between one blank row and another, and which have a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Chapters, which are groups of text that has a first-level header line, such as “Chapter 1” or “1,” and which may cover multiple scenes or only one scene.
  • Sections, which are groups of text that covers multiple chapters.  May also be called “Parts” or “Books.”
  • Mini-scenes, which are bits of text within a scene that has its own beginning, middle, and end and has a change in time, setting, or the characters in that section.
  • Beats, which are bits text that has a beginning, middle, and end but is connected by transitional material within a scene or mini-scene.
  • Transitional material, which are bits text that transitions the reader from one unit to another unit, usually a beat or a mini-scene.  This is often a summary.

I may also use the following term in my movie examples:

  • Sequences, which are series of related scenes as a character tries several different tactics to achieve the same thing.

A chase “scene” is often a sequence covering may different locations and different tactics as the characters attempt to outwit each other.  For some reason, in movies this tends to be told through different scenes, while in fiction this tends to be mini-scenes within the same scene.  I’m not sure why that is.

Text, for our purposes, can either be summary or real-time.

  • Summary text sums up things that happened.
  • Real-time text demonstrates things happening.

For example, if a flashback is summed up in a few paragraphs or as an aside in dialogue, it’s summary text.

If a flashback is played out in a scene with dialogue, action, and description, it’s real-time text.

I don’t know if anyone else is using these terms the way I do–but I’ve found that I needed them to help identify pieces of structure.  Summary text is often used as transitional material; scenes are often in real-time.

The rule of thumb that is given to beginning writers is to “show, don’t tell.”  And, for the most part, that is a good rule of thumb–for beginners.  For intermediate writers, it’s important to be able to summarize actions to move the book along at a reasonable pace.  Do we need to know about each characters’ morning routine in detail?  When is it better to skip a morning routine entirely?  When it is better to summarize?  When is it better to write the scene out?

These are judgment calls that intermediate writers have to make all the time, and the rule “show, don’t tell” doesn’t really help at all.  Different writers will make different calls on these questions:  some writers love to write all their backstory in real time.  Others summarize, summarize, summarize.  Some writers love to connect beats and mini-scenes with transitional material; others don’t.

This is what I’ve observed from my studies:

  • If you want to lie to or mislead the reader fairly, write in real-time.
  • If you want the reader to take something for granted, summarize.
  • If you want to draw attention to the events of a scene, write in real-time.
  • If you want to focus attention elsewhere, summarize.

If you want to show that one character is taking something for granted (but that the reader should have some doubts about the statement), have them summarize the situation in conversation.  You can see this all the time in mystery and crime novels.  The investigator questions someone.  That person makes a statement.  Something about that statement, the investigator thinks, is off.

Most backstory involves conflict.  It’s possible to turn any summary into a real-time scene with conflict in it, and it’s possible to turn any scene, no matter how dramatic, into a summary.  Especially when you need to sum up the events of book 1 in the beginning of book 2…

Back to Endings next time!  Sorry about the side note!

Live, die, rewind… The Clockwork Alice

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 12: Scenes, Part 4. Middles.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Middles.

The middle of a scene is where you get into all that nice, juicy conflict.

I know, I know.  A lot of writers have heard the advice to start in the middle.  However, that just means “don’t take forever to get to the story, don’t start with the Big Bang or the birth of the character as a baby or even with the first event that is relevant to the story, because that’s what backstory is for.”

But to rush into the middle of a scene without first having a beginning is disorienting.  Long-term professional writers don’t do it.  Write a beginning to set up the character, setting, and conflict of every scene before you get into the middle; otherwise the reader is going to get lost.  It doesn’t have to take a lot of words.  Just do it.

Okay, you’ve had your lecture.  Go read the section on beginnings if you missed it.

Middles are made up of conflicts.  The conflict can be obvious.  It can be subtle.  But every middle has a conflict.  If the conflict isn’t obvious, watch for something horrible to happen to that character in the next scene or two. Some writers like to put in a happy moment, successful moment, or reconciliation between characters before they kill that character off [cough Joss Whedon cough].

And sometimes, in more literary stories, the characters don’t have any conflict.  It’s the reader who is supposed to be conflicted at all the surprising non-conflict that the characters have.  A good example of this is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the main character decides to take his revenge…and has zero issues carrying it out.

(I really like that story, sorry.  I’m just going to keep using it over and over in this series.)

So.  You’re not a beginning writer anymore, and you’ve stopped taking terms like “conflict” for granted.  What is this conflict, in practical, fictional terms?

A conflict is when the main character attempts to do something and is prevented by some element of the story from doing so.

The conflict can come from a variety of different sources:

  • The character themselves (internal conflict).
  • Other characters.
  • The environment.
  • An interruption.
  • Fate/bad luck.

As long as it stops the character from accomplishing what they set out to do–even if it’s something good–it’s conflict.

In the case of stories where there is no outright conflict (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), the conflict comes from upsetting the reader’s expectations in some way.  These stories are generally pretty short, around three thousand words at most–at least, the ones I’ve been able to spot in the wild are that short.  It’s hard to sustain tension without in-story conflict.

The way that the character can be prevented from accomplishing their goals can vary as well, and this can be critical:

  • The character can try to accomplish something, and fail. (Try/Fail.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, succeed, and still have things turn out worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and be interrupted. (Interrupt.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and how it all came out can be held in suspense. (Suspense.)

These are just the main conflict outcomes that I’ve been able to identify from my studying, by the way.  There may be more.

Here are examples of these four outcomes, from the movie The Princess Bride:

  • Inigo tries to stop the man in black from following Vizzini and Buttercup.  He fails.  (Try/Fail.)
  • Buttercup tries to find out the truth of whether Humperdink told Westley that she wanted Westley back. She succeeds and finds out that Humperdink didn’t send his four fastest ships and has in fact been lying to her. This gets her locked up and Westley tortured.  (Succeed But Worse.)
  • Fezzik tries to walk down the hallway of the castle with Westley.  When Inigo screams for him to knock down a door, he does so–however, when he comes back, Westley is gone. (Interrupt.)
  • Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo look over the castle gates, which are guarded by sixty men, and discuss their plans, which, by the way, they don’t spell out in detail.  The scene ends with Fezzik saying, “I hope we win.” (Suspense.)

There is also a great suspense scene that ends with an interrupt, which shows that you can get clever and combine conflicts:  When the shrieking eels are circling Buttercup in the water (suspense), suddenly, we are interrupted by the Grandfather telling the Grandson that “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”

If the scene hadn’t been interrupted, it wouldn’t have been as exciting–Princess Buttercup tries to escape but propels herself deeper into danger (Succeed But Worse), only to then be rescued.  As it is, the interrupt from the Grandfather is such a reversal of expectations that it’s funny.  (If it was a trick that was pulled more than once, however, it wouldn’t have been as entertaining!)

The middle of a scene can get quite complex.  It can have one long conflict.  It can have multiple short conflicts.  It have have a few short, then one conflict.  It can have conflicts within conflicts.  The pattern of conflicts is up to you.  Different writers tend to have difference preferences for types of conflict, lengths of conflict, and how many conflicts they string together in a scene.

Which conflicts should you choose?  It depends on the story.

Mostly, go with your gut instinct.

But if something isn’t working, ask yourself, “Does this conflict reflect what the story is about at this point?”  For example, if the story is about something that just goes on and on and the scene has only one short conflict and it ends in a complete and utter failure, does that reflect something that goes on and on?  If the story is about an internal conflict and the scene focuses solely on an external conflict, does that reflect the story?

But if it’s working, don’t change it, even if the reason you wrote the scene that way isn’t immediately obvious.  Your subconscious may have plans…

Next, I’m going to talk about endings.  First the kind of ending that makes you move from one scene to the next, and then the kind of ending that makes you put the book down happy yet wanting more.

Just before Black Monday in 1929, a secretary discovers magic…and the swindlers who use it. Read it here.

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 11: Scenes, Part 3. Beginnings.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Beginnings.

This is my weakness, really.  I’m terrible at beginnings, or rather I have been.  My attitude has always been, “My readers are smart; I shouldn’t have to tell them everything…and then tell them everything again…and again…”

I started out as a poet, see, and readers of poetry hang on your every word.  They let words sink in.  They ponder.

Readers of fiction don’t ponder until after they put the book down, really, which ideally they have read in a single, rushed sitting.  Kind of the opposite of poetry, in which you know it’s a good poem if you can’t finish the stanza, because the poem has triggered so many emotions and memories that you have to process them first.

So:

I have a problem with not adding enough to my beginnings.  Some people try to shove in too much (the “wait wait let me explain my entire world to you before the characters get to do anything” people).  And both groups, I think, can end up getting burned by early criticism and try to do the exact opposite.  Overkill abounds.

For a good beginning, I think the point of balance is:

  • When you tell the reader what they need to know to get through the scene with everything making sense, but not more than that.
  • Lines that “promise” that there will be more information on areas where the reader doesn’t need to know something yet, but will clearly be curious. (Ironically, these go in the endings of things–which we’ll talk about later.)
  • Anchoring everything through your POV character’s POV, rather than getting ranty or explainey as an author.

What the readers need to know:

  • Who are the characters involved, especially the main character and (if different) the POV character (as in a Holmes/Watson duo).
  • What the setting is, including time frame, location, and any attitudes/rules about the way the setting will be treated (for example, the UK of a James Bond movie has different attitudes and rules than the UK of a Dr. Who episode).
  • What is going on, including enough of what went on before the start of the scene/story to get us up to speed.

I’d also like to note that readers need to know this stuff…a lot.  Often.  As in the words that cover this information are probably about a quarter to a third of the book.  Not the first third of the book–this stuff has to be scattered throughout every chapter, every scene, and every try/fail of the book (more on try/fails next time).

At the beginning of the book, you have a lot of “beginning” information to cover.  Then, every time you change POV characters, introduce a new character, change scene locations, or add a plot twist or new information, you also have to have more “beginning” information.

Let’s look at an example, the movie version of The Princess Bride.

  • There is a scene introducing the boy, his mom (who never shows up again; she’s just there for the boy to whine at and to deliver the information that the grandfather is going to be there), the illness, and the boy’s love of sports and video games.
  • There’s another scene introducing the grandfather, the book, the boy’s opinion about same.
  • There’s another scene introducing the farm, the girl, the farm boy, and their relationship.
  • There’s another scene deepening their relationship, and the two begin to kiss.
  • Whoah!  The rules of the story have changed, and the boy interrupts to demand that the grandfather explain the rules of the story.  “Is this a kissing book?”
  • The story resumes and the girl and the farmboy split apart so the farmboy can seek his fortune.
  • But news comes to the girl of his death, and she announces that she will never love again.
  • Five years pass, and the girl has become a princess, about to marry Prince Humperdink, and we’re shown (and told) that she doesn’t love him.

All of this stuff is the beginning.  We only start getting to the action of the plot when Vizzini tries to kidnap her.

However, the action of the plot (the middle) also has a beginning.  The beginning of the main plot, which is “try to rescue Buttercup,” goes like this:

  • The princess is abducted.
  • Vizzini explains that he is kidnapping the princess in order to start a war between Florin and Guilder.
  • The three kidnappers’ characters are introduced, so that we like Inigo and Fezzik, but not Vizzini.
  • The princess tries to escape from the ship and is threatened with death.
  • The story is interrupted by the grandfather as the rules of the world appear to change.  The princess doesn’t get eaten at this time–but someone might get killed.
  • The grandfather gets back to the story, the princess is “rescued” by her abductors.
  • Inigo spots someone behind them, but isn’t sure who it is.
  • The kidnappers flee to the cliffs of insanity (new location), climb them, and cut the rope.
  • Vizzini tells Inigo to kill the person following them, then catch up.

Now we’re at the main action of the main action.  Yes, this whole “beginnings, middles, and endings” thing gets a bit complicated and may seem repetitive (but if done right, the reader won’t notice).

The main action of the story is Westley’s efforts to rescue Princess Buttercup from marrying Humperdink.  The story isn’t over until he has definitively rescued Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.  Everything up to this point has been setting up the rescue of Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.

But wait!  There’s more beginning.

  • Inigo paces around, watches the man in black climb with painful slowness up the cliff.
  • He throws the man in black a rope.  He climbs up, after some bits of dialogue that establish more of Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black climbs to the top and is about to start the main action of the main action of the main action of this scene, when he is interrupted by Inigo, who wants him to rest up.
  • They have more conversation to establish Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black says, “You’ve been more than fair,” etc.

Now the action begins, and they begin to fight.

However, each beat in the action has its own beginning as well.

  • They both pose with the sun setting behind the man in black, at the edge of the cliff.  (Beginning.)
  • Inigo takes a few slashes with his sword, which the man in black easily dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo pauses, circling his opponent. (Ending.)
  • They both pose, now with the sun setting behind Inigo, at the edge of the cliff. (Beginning.)
  • The man in black attacks Inigo, using the same moves, which Inigo easily, but less easily, dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo smiles.  (Ending.)
  • Inigo begins another exchange, this time more complex.  (Beinning.)
  • The two play back and forth, demonstrating their basics to each other, but it’s clear that this won’t be over very quickly. (Middle.)
  • The camera transitions to a wide shot, showing the setting around them.  (A bit of setting interrupting a slow spot in the middle, to help give it a little structure.)
  • The swordplay continues, as if it could go on all day like this. (Middle.)

This is the beginning of the swordfight (made up of several tiny beginnings, middles, and endings of its own).  This part of the fight is more about establishing who is more skilled (not clearly either at this point), how they both fight (the man in black remains a mystery), and isn’t about combat and winning so much as it is about feeling each other out.

The beginnings continue on a regular basis throughout the fight:

  • Inigo begins analyzing the man in black’s technique.
  • The man in black begins driving Inigo back, even though Inigo has demonstrated all this learning.
  • Inigo begins driving the man in black backward after he switches hands.
  • The man in black compliments Inigo at the top of the ruined tower, before switching swords.
  • Inigo goes after his sword.
  • The man in black throws away his sword.
  • Inigo asks, “Who are you?”
  • They begin fighting again.
  • The man in black holds the sword at Inigo’s face after disarming him the last time.

What’s happening is that in order to keep the fight from becoming one big blob of action, the beginning/middle/ending structure is being applied to break up the fight into smaller sections.  Unless there’s a reason not to, this is generally how stories work: people’s brains can only take in a few bits of any one thing at a time.  In order to reset the brain so we don’t get confused (as you would if this were a real swordfight!), the story is broken up into smaller and smaller parts.  The beginnings help keep the viewer from getting confused or–even worse!–getting bored with the action.

We need to know:

  • Where each part of the fight happens in relation to the rest of the fight.  Why didn’t Westley fall off the cliff when Inigo had him pinned to the wall?  Where did that wall come from? We know this, because we were shown the fight up the stairs, then a shot of the ruined tower, and then Inigo pins Westley against the crumbling wall.
  • The “rules” of the fight.  Inigo doesn’t just fight Westley.  First Inigo studies Westley using a simple bit of technique, and only then does he get more intense.   Also, we know that Inigo is supposed to kill Westley, regardless:  this sets the expectation that this is a life-or-death fight.
  • What the characters are like.  We learn about Inigo’s character (he doesn’t want to kill a weaker opponent but will if he has to, and wants a good fight more than anything else at this point).  We learn about Westley’s character (he holds back until he must use his full technique in order to move past Inigo).  We learn that they are both masters.  (And, later, in the beginning of another scene, Humperdink confirms this, which tells us about Humperdink’s character.)

Because we know these things, the fact that Westley cracks Inigo over the head to save him at the end of the scene is both a surprise, and yet makes perfect sense.  The expectation of this being a life-or-death fight was set in the beginning, more than once–but it wasn’t set by Westley.  His goal was always just rescuing Princess Buttercup.  We just assumed that it would require death in order to do so, because Inigo’s goal was to kill Westley…after a good fight.

When you’re studying a scene:

  • Look for new locations, characters, and information being introduced, especially if it’s right before a fight or argument, a conflict of some kind.
  • At the beginning of a chapter or scene, look for the first action that has something at stake for the main character.  That’s the start of the middle–everything before that must necessarily be a beginning.  But it has to be an action; saying that something will be at stake isn’t action.
  • Watch for paragraphs of nothing but description.  They often are used as a structural element to reset the reader’s brain and mark the beginning of a new attempt at solving a problem.
  • Look for small talk that goes nowhere; it can be used as a beginning, too (Agatha Christie does this a lot, and it’s all over the mystery novel Fletch, too).

As we look at beginnings, middles, and endings, please notice something: beginnings aren’t just the start of a story, or a chapter, or even a scene.  They’re all over the freaking place!    But that doesn’t mean they have to be long, drawn-out, or repetitive.  Even though such a huge amount of The Princess Bride is dedicated to beginnings at each level, as a viewer you barely notice it, because the beginnings cover slightly new information, or someone else presenting the same information but in a different way, every time.  A good beginning doesn’t feel laborious.  It just feels comfortable, like you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.

And that’s your goal, as a writer.

Next time, we cover the middles…

Once upon a time, the fae came to earth to engineer the perfect changeling…then the Others began to shatter their world.  Are the fae here to save us from their fate…or to replace us and avoid their own? Click here to find out.

 

 

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