Month: February 2018 Page 1 of 2

Think Like a Librarian: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Hope Prisoner of Zenda cover.jpg

The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure story from 1894.  Unlike a lot of the fiction written in that time period and earlier, the language isn’t laborious to read, and in fact is quite witty.

The book is most famous for its plot setup:  two men who resemble each other meet.  One of the men is a commoner.  The other is the heir apparent of the country in which they find themselves, and about to be crowned.

Something happens to the heir, preventing him from being crowned.  But being crowned is essential; otherwise, the king might lose his throne entirely.

So the second man, who really does closely resemble him, pretends to be the heir and gets crowned in his place, while trying to untangle the politics threatening the true king.

The action is fast and exciting; there is, as in The Princess Bride, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…no giants, though.

In fact, an entire tradition of fiction arose out of The Prisoner of Zenda, called “Ruritanian fiction” after the country of Ruritania out of the book.  Ruritanian fiction involves a fictional, nostalgic European country playing host to a tale of adventure fiction, often involving royalty and inheritance.

I would recommend this book for early teen and up.  The language isn’t simple, but it’s not difficult either, and most of the concepts are presented very smoothly.  The action happens quickly.  There is violence, but nothing is described in graphic detail.  Look to The Prisoner of Zenda for a catchy adventure that doesn’t need a lot of context to enjoy.

Looking for more book recommendations?  I always include more in the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Sign up here.

Pacing, Part 12: If not the Hero’s Journey, Then What?

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

I just spent the previous post in the series ripping apart the Hero’s Journey, or at least the fact that it’s not the end-all, be-all that some writers make it out to be.

But if you’ve spent the last umpteen years memorizing and internalizing the Hero’s Journey and it’s not all that’s out there, what is?

I’m going to skip over the content of various plots so we can focus on just the form for now.

We touched on this in the Amontadillo posts: you can add different elements to a plot in order to fill it out or strip it down, as the story demands.

What are these elements, if they’re not things like “the mentor” or “moment of death”?

  • Beginning/Setup.
  • Setting.
  • Character/Character arcs.
  • Try/fail cycles.
  • Backstory.
  • Demonstration.
  • Summary.
  • Reversals/plot twists.
  • Subplots.
  • Spinning wheels.
  • Climaxes.
  • Endings/Wrapups.

A lot of these are somewhat arbitrary; you can always rename them, remove them, or add more.  You get to build the structure that you want to build–and you can build new tools, consciously or otherwise, in order to get that done.

Which ones do you use for any given plot, though?

This is something that goes beyond the scope of the series.  I will talk a little bit about beginnings, so you can see an example.  And then I’m going to need to start wrapping up.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

Pacing, Part 11: The Hero’s Journey.

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Here are the stages of the Hero’s Journey:

  •  Departure.
    • Call to Adventure.
    • Refusal of the Call.
    • Supernatural Aid.
    • Crossing the First Threshold.
    • Belly of the Whale.
  • Initiation.
    • The Road of Trials.
    • The Meeting with the Goddess.
    • The Woman as Temptress.
    • Atonement with the Father.
    • Apotheosis.
    • The Ultimate Boon.
  • Return.
    • Refusal of the Return.
    • The Magic Flight.
    • Rescue from Without.
    • The Crossing of the Return Threshold.
    • Master of Two Worlds
    • Freedom to Live

Wait…aren’t those the stages you’re familiar with?  That’s because what’s being taught as “The Hero’s Journey” or the monomyth currently…isn’t.

The Hero’s Journey doesn’t apply to every story; it doesn’t really even apply to the ones that people say it’s being used on–a bajillion Hollywood movies, for example. What most people use is an adaptation by Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.  His structure in its earliest format became commonish knowledge in 1992.

The point being here is that the plot events impose a certain pacing on a story.  The same number of events, in the same order (more or less), the same trials, the same resolutions.

Whether that’s the most appropriate pacing or not.

You can struggle to push that template onto “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it would screw up the story if you tried to write the same revenge story using the Hero’s Journey plot.

I’m making a big deal of this because continuously using the Hero’s Journey is something that will leave you blind to pacing at the plot level.

Stories shouldn’t be built the same way, even at the plot level.  Every story has an appropriate plot that fits it.

And that plot is not consistently the Hero’s Journey.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

Pacing, Part 10: The Cask of Amontillado, Part 3

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Now that we’ve looked at words, sentences, dialogue, and paragraphs…let’s look at plot.

Plot has pacing, just like everything else in writing.  The number and type of events in a plot add another layer to the pacing, beyond words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and scenes.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) has multiple characters and plot lines in every book.  Some of the characters have an arc throughout the book; some of them have arcs that span across books.  Some of the POVs don’t last very long; their arcs are interrupted and end in death.

“The Cask of Amontillado” has one POV character, no more than a handful of words of backstory, simple characterizations, and few, if any, of the usual structures that you’d find in a Joseph Campbell plot.  It’s under 3,000 words.

Here’s the plot:

  • SETUP:
    • My friend finally crossed the line, and I determined to have my revenge.
    • I never responded to his insults; he didn’t realize that my emotions had turned.
    • He was a genuine conoisseur of wine.
  • HERE’S HOW IT WENT DOWN:
    • I met my friend at Carnivale while he was drunk.
    • And told him that I had some exotic damn wine that only he could really be entrusted to drink.
    • His greed got the better of him, despite his cold.
    • Greed and buffoonery drove him forward.  I tried to make him go back, see?
    • Forgive me my little jokes, hints to my victim as to what was to come.  It amused me.
    • He just stood there while I locked him up.
  • THE CLIMAX:
    • Even after I locked him up, I asked him one last time if he wanted to leave.
    • No, no, he wouldn’t have it; he’d rather have the Amontillado.
    • I started bricking him up.
    • Then he started to sober up.  First he was silent.  Then he tried to escape.  Could not the man apologize for what he had done?
    • I continued.  He screamed, either at me or for help.  I was frightened, and may have poked around a bit with my rapier.
    • He kept shouting; I tested the wall, and it was secure all right.  I started yelling back.
    • With one stone left, he tried to convince me that it was all a joke.
    • I never joke.
    • He demanded that I free him for the love of God.
    • He never once apologized, I’ll have you know.
  • THE WRAPUP:
    • I finished walling him up.  I felt kind of bad, but here I am, fifty years later, a free man.  RIP, my friend.

No try/fail cycles, no twists and turns, no real wordcount.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

 

 

 

Pacing, Part 9: A Cask of Amontillado, Part 2

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

That damned cask of Amontillado.  Does it even exist?  Is it what Montressor toasted Fortunato with, at the very end of the story?

No matter.  We only ask ourselves questions of pacing today.  All your questions shall be answered.  (Spoilers!  Do Part 8’s exercise first for best results.)

  • The story is 2371 words long, just shorter than a normal short story.
  • The paragraphs vary, from one to 161 words.
  • The paragraphs cluster together, with groups of long with long or medium, very short with short, a bunch of mediums together.  A change from long to short tends to have a medium paragraph as a kind of buffer.  Contrast this to a lot of other writers’ pacing at the time, with unrelieved stretches of long paragraphs.
  • The longer paragraphs happen at the setup and in the climax.
  • The opening starts with longer paragraphs summarizing the situation and the narrator’s outlook and determination, then gets shorter as we move into the present action.  The ending has several long paragraphs as the narrator gives the friend every last chance to apologize, but he does not.  Then the ending speeds up as the last options as exhausted.  The final paragraph is medium long as the narrator contemplates his return to normalcy.
  • The sentences in the long paragraphs have about 20 words each, or the long end of medium length, with lots of commas to make the structure “feel” weightier and longer than it is.  There is a mix, however, of some shorter 10-wordish sentences, especially toward the ends of the longer paragraphs.
  • The dialogue sentences are quite different than the narrative ones–showing the gap between the narrator’s thoughts and words as he sets up his trap.
  • Of the two characters, the narrator has the longer dialogue sentences.  Fortunato is generally one or two words.  A drunk buffoon.
  • Of the two characters, the narrator has the more complex sentences.  “My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchresi–” This bit of dialog has a comma, periods, a semicolon, and an em-dash. A good, at-a-glance judgment of how complex a sentence is, is in how much, and how varied, is its punctuation. (See what I did there?)
  • Fortunato’s complex words:  Amontillado (repeated from narrator), impossible, Luchresi (repeated from narrator), engagement (repeated from narrator), nevertheless, distinguish, extensive, brotherhood, masons, ignoramus, excellent, palazzo.  The narrator’s are too numerous to mention.

The quality of the words, the length and structure of the dialogue, the length and structure of the sentences, the length and arrangement of the paragraphs all contribute to the content of the story.  The story could not be told as well in another way–this story isn’t just well built or assembled at every level, but it’s well designed at every level, with the right materials used at every level as well.

For the most part, as readers, we aren’t aware of this level of writing.  If we have any awareness of it, it’s noticing a particularly apt sentence here and there.

And yet we know when a story hits on all cylinders–as long as it’s a type of story that we’re able to enjoy.

Is this a technique used mainly by literary writers?

Hell no.  Take a look at any given bestselling romance novel by a long-term pro.  You’ll find exactly the same tricks being used.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

 

 

Think Like a Librarian: Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

22288

Haunted is a collection of short horror stories tied together by one story that threads together the others.  I do not recommend this collection for anyone who isn’t already a horror fan.  If a reader has any concerns about gore or offensive material, then I wouldn’t recommend this.  This is a much more challenging book than Fight Club, and liking Fight Club isn’t a good predictor on whether a reader would like Haunted.

The general idea is that a patron of literature has offered a small group of amateur writers the chance to get away from it all in order for each of them to write their masterpiece; however, no one will know where they’ve gone and they won’t have any contact with the outside world.

The writers who become involved with this effort are not, shall we say, on the up-and-up, and look forward for the chance to disappear for three months, even more than they look forward for the chance to write without being disturbed.

Which is just as well, because disturbed is what they get.

This collection contains Palahniuk’s infamous short story “Guts,” which is supposed to have made several people faint with how repulsive the story is.  The story is one of the finest examples of gross-out horror that could ever be envisioned, not even barring Stephen King’s work, but I believe the real cause of the fainting is that the story starts off by telling the reader to hold their breath!

Terrible things happen, and I have to warn you not to look for a happy ending.

To put it mildly.

In addition, don’t expect the supernatural.  Palahniuk finds enough horror within the human species to satisfy without turning to something outside it.

I would recommend this book for older teens and up, people with strong stomachs only.  The book is darkly funny, and is really the most vicious of satires rather than horror–but it almost requires an understanding of how horror works in order for the satire to work.  Reading this book will make things like Saw and Hostel look like lightweights; it may also introduce darkly cynical horror-movie buffs to the enchantments of satire as a literary art.

Incidentally, the cover on some of the print versions glows in the dark 🙂

Looking for more book recommendations?  I always include more in the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Sign up here.

 

 

Pacing, Part 8: The Cask of Amontillado

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

It’s a big jump, going from “The Quick Brown Fox” to Edgar Allen Poe, but I think we’re ready.

Take a moment to look at the story, here.  Whatever you do, don’t stop to read it.  Bah!  Just skim through it.  We’re just going to look at form and not content for now.

Take a look at:

  • How long the story is (you can always copy/paste the story into a word processor document and count the words, if you like).
  • How long the paragraphs are (ditto).
  • The pattern of long vs. short paragraphs (long-short-long-short, or long-long-long-short-short short, etc.).
  • Where the long paragraphs are (in the beginning? in the middle? in several places?) vs. where the short paragraphs are.
  • What are the paragraph patterns at the beginning and the end of the story.
  • Do long paragraphs contain long sentences, short sentences, or a mix?
  • Are the dialogue sentences longer or shorter than the descriptive ones, in general?
  • Of the two characters, who has the longer dialogue sentences?
  • Of the two characters, who has the more complex sentences (that is, the sentences with the more phrases in them)?
  • Who has the longer words?

As a rule of thumb:

  • The average length of a word in English is 5 letters.
  • The average length of a sentence in English is 15-20 words.
  • A line of printed text is about 10-15 words in a book.
  • A medium sort of paragraph in fiction is about 3-5 lines, or 30 to 75 words.
  • A medium-length short story is about 3,000 to 6,000 words.

Imagine that very short paragraphs of 10 words or less are yellow, short pararaphs of less than 3 full lines are green, medium paragraphs of 3-5 full lines are blue, longish paragraphs of 5-7 full lines are purple, and very long paragraphs are red.

What are the main colors used in this story?  Would the pattern be mixed or consistent?  What is the longest stretch of one single color?

If you’d like, now you can stop to read the story.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

 

 

 

 

Pacing, Part 7: The Quick Brown Fox

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

We’ve just looked at words.  Now let’s look at phrases.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Our phrases here are:

  • The quick brown fox
  • jumped
  • over
  • the lazy dog

or however you want to slice that.  Up to you.

The speedy umber vixen hurdles the apathetic pooch.

This is a different version of the first sentence, using different words but the same phrases.  The units are the same; they’re attached the same way.  It’s colored a little bit differently than the first sentence, sure, but it means essentially the same thing.

The speedy umber vixen, the farm’s femme fatale, hurdles the apathetic pooch with a grace that justifies her pillage.

This is a different version of the first sentence, using different words and different phrases.  The units are not the same.

  • The speedy umber vixen
  • the farm’s femme fatale
  • hurdles
  • the apathetic pooch
  • with
  • a grace
  • that
  • justifies
  • her pillage

Again, you can slice this up as you like.  Not only are the words generally longer or more Frenchified, there are more of them in total, in bigger structure.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

You can’t communicate the same content–that the fox is the heroine of this story, admired by the narrator, despite the loss of the eggs–with the original words or the original way the phrases were structured within the sentence.  It doesn’t mean the same thing.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  She stole a dozen eggs over the last week.  Nobody could catch her.  Nobody bothered to try.

It’s not to say that short words and short, straightforward sentences can’t make for decent writing.  It’s just that the content changes, depending on the materials you choose, and how you choose to stick them together.

The speedy umber vixen, the farm’s femme fatale, leapt her skinny ass over the apathetic dog, praying that this time she wouldn’t get caught, not with four kits back waiting for her at home.

The easiest way to think of pacing at this level is that the form reflects the content; however, it’s not always straightforward.  If that was the only consideration, then the sentence above would have to be short, even shorter than the original sentence–it’s a short, smooth jump that the fox is making.

But there are other considerations.   More on that later.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

 

 

Writer Resources: On Robin Williams’ Comedy

(public domain photo)

The video “How Robin Williams Makes Us Smile” is from a solid YouTube series by Ryan Hollinger on movies, games, etc., and I particularly like the creator’s perspective on horror.

This video explains just what the title says: how Robin Williams makes us smile.  Hint:  he’s honest about his emotions.

As I was watching this, I realized that I’m not a “pantser” writer, but an improv writer.  I set up the word processor and let the characters do improv.

Looking for more writing resources?  I’m adding a new writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

Pacing, Part 6: Dog

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

All right, let’s get out a thesaurus and look up dog.

pup, puppy, bitch, cur, doggy, hound, mongrel, mutt, pooch, stray, tyke, bowwow, fido, flea bag, man’s best friend, tail-wagger

As well as a list of dog breeds.

Affenpinscher, Afghan hound, Afghan shepherd, Aidi, Airdale terrier, Akbash, Akita…

Each of those words has a character of its own.  It not only denotes something (that is, to serve as the word “for” something) but connotes, or implies, some other things.  A cur is not man’s best friend, for example, even though both denote some king of dog.

In addition, each of these words has, to go back to the woodworking metaphor, a particular sound that it makes, a particular face that it makes you make, when you say it.  A currrrrrrr literally makes you make an angrier, growlier face than straaaaaay, which almost makes your face smile.  (Check a mirror.)

The words also have lengths: cur, stray, man’s best friend.

Your word choice here is the base level of material with which you build your story.  You can treat the word sincerely, ironically, or with other tones–you can call a beautifully groomed Pomeranian a cur, for example.

How do you know what words to choose?  We’ll get to that…

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén