Month: November 2018

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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