Category: How to study fiction (Page 1 of 3)

How to Study Fiction, Part 22: The Fall of the House of Usher

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.

Usher’s house keeps falling down, falling down, falling down!

Today’s adventure in wrecking Poe-etic houses is about content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of the sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order that they are?

Here’s the opening paragraph from “The Fall of the House of Usher” again:

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words – 5 punct.) I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Now, if you’re a beginning writer, one of the pieces of advice you receive is to not make every sentence the same length.  Yay!  Good advice.

But why?

The explanation you get is that it sounds weird and kind of boring/monotonous if your sentences are all the same length.  Fair enough; they do.

But that’s not the only reason.  Now that you’re an intermediate writer, it’s time to dig a little deeper, because going, “You should always have sentences of different lengths” doesn’t tell anyone what lengths of sentences to have, or why.  Should you have a range of long (20+ words) to super-long sentences (sky’s the limit), or a range of super-short (under five words, for example) to medium-length (fifteenish word) sentences?

And why?

Different sentence length do different things for a sentence, so it’s not like you can go, “I use longer sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security.”  Hemingway used short sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security; Agatha Christie used a variety of lengths to do the same.  This false sense of security, it’s everywhere!

So how do you decide?

Let’s look at the first sentence again:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

The bare minimum content of this sentence is:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.

Next sentence:

I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

Bare minimum content:

It was depressing.

Third sentence:

I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

Bare minimum:

Not even poetically depressing.

Fourth sentence:

I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

Bare minimum:

Just depressing.

Fifth sentence:

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

Bare minimum:

Bleah.

Sixth sentence:

What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

Bare minimum:

Why did I even feel that way?

Seventh sentence:

It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

Bare minimum:

No idea, but I couldn’t shake it.

Eighth sentence:

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

Bare minimum:

Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel.

Ninth sentence:

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Bare minimum:

But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

To put the bare minimum interpretation together, here is the basic content of the first paragraph:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.  It was depressing.  Not even poetically depressing.  Just depressing.  Bleah.  Why did I even feel that way? No idea, but I couldn’t shake it. Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel. But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

If you haven’t taken a moment to reread (or type in!) “The Fall of the House of Usher” lately, please do.

Throughout the story, the narrator sees–but doesn’t seem to understand–that the Usher family, and his friend in particular, have been engaging in self-destructive, irrational behavior, which probably includes incest.  The whole story, or at least one aspect of it, might be said to be an exercize in providing clues to the reader without ever resolving the mystery per se.  Why did the House of Usher fall?  What ruined it?  It’s a mystery, says the narrator.  Uh-huh.

But then again, I’ve been working a lot on how to add clues to a mystery; thequestion, “How can I hide something in plain sight?,” has been much on my mind.  So that is the aspect I’m going to address here, because it’s what’s obsessing me, not because it’s the One True Answer.

What you find, if you choose to do an independent analysis, will likely be different.

When I look at the content of the paragraph, I see a clue that’s hiding in plain sight.  The unnamed narrator sees what he sees, but, because he can’t explain it logically or doesn’t like what it implies about his feelings, tries to explain it away.  “Shut up, intuition!” says the narrator.

As I continued studying the story, I then kept an eye out for that kind of pattern and saw it everywhere.  Usher gives a hint and the narrator explains it away.  Over and over again.

I did not pick up on this the first time I read this story, or the fifth.  I typed it in, was therefore forced to slow down, and, when I started looking for patterns, had dragged up what I had understood subconsciously the first time to a conscious level so I could actually see it.

The way the sentences are written are readable, but not simple.  At some level, I suspect Poe wanted the reader to be able to read his story, but be at least a little distracted.

His sentence-by-sentence description focuses on the house.  The visuals of what he describes are the house.  But that really isn’t what the content is about–the content is about the narrator’s feelings.

Why doesn’t Poe focus on the narrator’s feelings?  Why does he uses his style to distract from his content?

From my perspective (which isn’t objective, but is in answer to the question of “how to hide things in plain sight” that I brought with me to this study), this story is about distracting oneself from unpleasant truths.

The content of the first paragraph is about distracting oneself from an unpleasant truth; the style distracts the reader from the unpleasant truth that sometimes we distract ourselves from unpleasant truths.

The lengths of the sentences are used as a tool to help accomplish the content of the story.  The two shortest, clearest sentences say, “Why did I feel this way?” and “Dunno.”  That which is clearest is also the most misleading.

So, to sum up what I learned about sentence lengths in this paragraph:

  • Poe may be using super-long sentences to screw with his readers.
  • Watch out if a sentence looks relatively straightforward.

Do you need to write this way?

No!

But you may want to steal the technique once in a while.  Studying like this is not about learning “the right way” to write, or even to analyze.  It’s about learning different techniques that you can then steal, period, end of story.  If your subconscious is like, “Ugh, I don’t even care,” then you won’t end up with the same analysis.  Your subconscious–your muse, if you will–will take you elsewhere.

The important part of studying any work at this level is to follow your muse, not mine.  Some authors will align their content and their sentence style so that their sentences make their content obvious.  Other authors, like Poe, will set up unreliable narrators (as in this story–who can trust a guy who lies to himself?).

What I want you to take away here is that asking, “Why are the sentences in this work the way they are?” is a question that can lead to all sorts of unexpected techniques which you can then steal.  Don’t limit yourself to saying, “Because they’re easy to read” or “Because you should vary the lengths of your sentences.”  That is often not the whole story.

And, as a reminder, don’t even think about this stuff while you’re writing.  It’s for analysis only.  Your muse will steal what it wants and use it when it wants.  Mostly where you’ll actually be conscious of this is when you’re editing and go, “Oh, I shouldn’t screw with that long sentence…I need it to lie to the reader” or whatever.

The more you know, the less you’ll screw up your work during edits.

Next time:  Let’s look at some paragraphs.  What are Poe’s paragraphs like in Usher?  How long are they? Do they vary?  I’m going to say they’re super-long off the cuff, because when I was typing them in, I kept going, “UGH JUST KILL ME I WANT TO STOP FOR THE DAY BUT I SWORE I WOULD FINISH TYPING IN THIS PARAGRAPH AND THAT WAS LIKE THREE KINDLE PAGES AGO.”

But let’s look at them anyway.  Who knows what we’ll find?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 21: The Fall of the House of Usher

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.

Today, in “Let’s pull The Fall of the House of Usher to pieces,” we’re going to work on sentences.

  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?

Last time, we discovered the Poe uses a lot of different, medium-length words, but none are super-long or complex (which wasn’t what I’d expected, personally).

I’m expecting a lot of super-long, super-complex sentences.

You can find a link to the Project Gutenberg version of The Fall of the House of Usher here.

I’m going to use the first paragraph as our example again, but I’m doing to insert  a line break after every sentence.  “Punct.” is short for punctuation marks; I’m not counting apostrophes and hyphens.

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words – 5 punct.) I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

That first paragraph is 403 words, 9 sentences, or about 45 words per sentence.  I used to be a technical writer and editor.  Our sentence-length guideline was to stay at 20 words or fewer; 20 words was considered a long sentence at the outside edge of what a reader could pay attention to without losing the train of thought.

It would be easy to accuse people of being poorer readers or just less intelligent in general these days.  Let’s not.  There are plenty of texts from the same time period that have long sentences and which make my head hurt, and I’ve studied philosophy from that era with relative ease.  Something about how Poe wrote made his long sentences easy to read.  Not as easy as a short sentence, but easy enough.

First, let’s take the lengths of the sentences:  they vary.  The longest sentences are separated from each other as well.  So it’s not a constant stream of super-long sentences.  No, it’s super-long sentences interrupted by merely long ones 🙂

Next, let’s look at how much punctuation there is, as being an indication of how complex a sentence is.  The longer sentences have more punctuation.  There are 55 punctuation marks (not including apostrophes and hyphens), or about 6 marks per sentence.

Here’s what I did on the paragraphs above, from “That first paragraph…” to “…about 6 marks per sentence”:

  • 212 words total.
  • 4 paragraphs, or about 50 words a paragraph.
  • 15 sentences, or about 14 words a sentence (the longest is 36 words; shortest, 2).
  • 28 punctuation marks, or about 2 per sentence.

I would consider my ordinary blogging style pretty complex, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Poe.

Please note that in the last paragraph of the original tale, while the narrator is staring into a tarn (a small mountain lake) and looking at the reflection of the House of Usher, he stops to say, “I reflected,” because apparently Poe couldn’t leave a good pun alone.

In the above paragraph, from “Please note…” to “…couldn’t leave a good pun alone,” there is one sentence of 48 words.  There are 9 punctuation marks, much higher than for my natural writing style.  And yet it’s not impossible to read.

  • My best guess here is that Poe used a lot of punctuation marks to help keep his sentences readable.
  • My best guess, which unfortunately may not be accurate, is that Poe’s punctuation marks, much like the sections of a plastic pillbox, helped keep his words organized.

In modern times, we tend to use shorter sentences with less punctuation.  Because we’re more direct?  Or because we tend to break down more complex sentences, starting with the same words we would have used, had we packed everything into a single sentence?

Maybe punctuation density is important!  Poe’s, for that first paragraph, is ~7 words per punctuation mark. Mine, for my more natural writing selection, is about one per 10 words.  Maybe Poe’s denser punctuation makes his long sentences easier to read–and it’s punctuation density, not sentence length, that we should be measuring.

(If I haven’t recommended it lately, a lot of the discussion here points back to what I learned in Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.  Why is one writer’s style different than another’s? Why choose one pattern of writing over another?  The book has the answers.)

To conclude, Poe’s sentences are super-long and super-complex, as anticipated.  But they’re written with sufficient clarity to still be readable today.  This may be due to his skillful use of punctuation.

Next time:  Content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of those sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order they are?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 20: The Fall of the House of Usher

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.

So let’s start breaking down “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Please note that I realize that you didn’t actually type it in, despite all the times that I’ve advised you to do so.  This series of increasingly-complex posts is at least partially about convincing you to try!

As beginning writers, we tend to accept writing advice from an actual, working writer (or even just someone who speaks with authority) as being from on high, not to be questioned.

As intermediate writers, that’s a big no-no.  A lot of good writing advice will not work for you.  If you listen to it, it can wreck your career.  You can find out whether it’s good or not by testing the advice in your own writing, or testing the advice against the work of writers you love.

If you think typing stuff in is laborious…it is.  But it’s less laborious than trying to write several novels using someone’s technique to see if it works for you.

Maybe that should be a side note: of all the things that you can do to support your career long-term, listening to other people’s advice without questioning and testing it isn’t it.  Critique group giving you advice that doesn’t make sense?  Type in some of your favorite writers’ work and see whether that advice applies to what you want to write.  If it doesn’t, that advice may not be for you.

Let’s go down the list from last week on basic-level analysis:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?

Here’s the first paragraph:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

In order to study the lengths of the words here and what kind of vocabulary that Poe uses, you could use one of several different techniques.  You might make a general impression after typing in a passage.  Or you might run the paragraph through an analysis program that counts word lengths and how many unique words there are.

For this example, I’m going to go with a middle route.  Here, I removed the words that make the sentence make sense–words mostly there for grammar purposes.  We need those words to help analyze the sentence structure, but, because they’re pretty common to every sentence, we don’t need to look at them as indicators of vocabulary. For example, “the” isn’t the world’s most exciting vocabulary word, and it doesn’t tell us much at this level.  Let’s leave it out.

So, removing the “grammar” words that stick the sentences together but have no real personality of their own, we’re left with the following:

whole dull dark soundless day autumn year clouds hung oppressively low heavens passing alone horseback singularly dreary tract country length found shades  evening drew view melancholy house Usher know first glimpse building sense insufferable gloom pervaded spirit feeling unrelieved half pleasurable poetic sentiment mind receives sternest natural images desolate terrible scene mere simple landscape features domain bleak walls vacant eye windows rank sedges white trunks decayed trees utter depression soul compare earthly sensation properly dream reveller opium bitter lapse life hideous dropping veil iciness sinking sickening heart unredeemed dreariness thought goading imagination torture sublime paused think unnerved contemplation mystery insoluble grapple shadowy fancies crowded pondered forced fall unsatisfactory conclusion doubt combinations simple natural objects power affecting analysis lies considerations depth possible  reflected mere different arrangement particulars scene details picture sufficient modify annihilate capacity sorrowful impression acting idea reined horse precipitous brink black lurid tarn lay unruffled lustre dwelling gazed shudder thrilling remodelled inverted images gray sedge ghastly stems

I tried to remove duplicate words, but I may have missed a few.

When I thought about Poe’s writing before typing it in or analyzing it, I would have guessed that he used big vocabulary words to the point of being confusing and annoying.  I had this impression of Poe as pretentious.

When I looked at the actual words he used, however, I found that, while the vocabulary he used wasn’t simple, none of the words he used were so sesquipidalian as to be frustrating to read.  My impression is that the vocabulary is in line with Gothic novels of that era.  Another impression is that Poe uses polysyllabic words because they sound right.

I’m going to call this a medium to medium-high vocabulary, thoughtfully used.

  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?

The narrator seems like a generic “Gothic” narrator, a fellow from some anonymous but well-bred place in Britain.  Poe was from the United States.  I suspect Poe removed as many U.S.-sounding regionalisms as he could, but didn’t really understand U.K. accents.  He may have also “aged” the language a little to make the 1840 story sound like it happened even earlier.

Jane Austen was writing satires of Gothic novels in 1816, with the original Gothic The Castle of Otranto being written in the 1700s and purporting to be a “discovered” manuscript from the 1500s.  Trying to sound old-fashioned and mysterious was an accepted mode of writing, one that readers liked.

Another side note: What you notice will differ.  That’s just part of your fingerprint as a writer.  What you notice about a work reflects the way you see the world and how you write about it.  Don’t take my word for what’s in Poe’s work:  it should be different for you.  Your high school English teacher may have been authoratative about what books meant, but I’m not!  This example of analysis is more to show you that you can connect your subconscious to your conscious understanding of a story, and of writing in general, than to tell you what to do.

In addition, please note that you do not need to follow the same process every time:  when you type things in, you do not need to analyze the individual words.  When you feel confident that you have a feel for the kinds of words that an author is using, then you can stop thinking about the individual words–until you find an author who uses words in a way that doesn’t make sense. Then take a deeper look.

Next time, more on sentence analysis.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 18: Intro to some case studies on Poe

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.

I really like looking at Edgar Allan Poe stories, not just because of the dark, Gothic subject matter, but also because he is such a nerd when it comes to structure.  I’ve been typing in a number of his stories lately.  I started with “The Cask of Amontillado” a while ago, but I think I’ve talked enough about that story by now.  Maybe I’ll type my analysis all up in one place when I turn this into a book, eh?  But the latest spat of type-ins started in November with “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  I’m working on a Gothic novel about a house and thought typing in Poe would help me stay in a Gothic frame of mind:  long, twisty sentences, thick paragraphs, big vocabularies, foreboding statements galore!

But of course I found more than that.  I think the reason that Poe is so interesting on a structural level is that he was also, perhaps even primarily, a master poet who worked in formal verse, uniting form and structure as he went.  (I suspect that one day he noticed the fact that a repeated word first becomes distorted, then loses meaning, in a process known as “semantic satiation” and decided to write horror poems in which both meaning and sanity decline simultaneously.  Check out “The Bells” for a good example.)

In his stories–as I’m rediscovering, in even more depth–Poe unites form and content so smoothly that sometimes it’s difficult to notice when it’s happening.  It is that smooth.  But once you see it, it’s like having a hidden image pop out, and you can’t un-see it.  Poe wrote some serious, dark-minded stuff…but often in his darker stories is a hidden joke buried in the structure.

Note, I’m going to take the stories in kind of the same order that I studied them, which doesn’t follow publication order, but rather my whim.  I could put them in order, but then I’d have to explain Poe-analysis things in story A when really I discovered them in story B.

When I start studying a story, I start by typing it in, basically until I get bored.  With short stories, I usually type the whole thing in–with novels, not so much.

Things I start looking for, more or less in order:

  • The feel of the sentences:  length, content, vocab, structure (short and direct, or long and twisted? lots of punctuation or not much? what kind of punctuation?).
  • The feel of the paragraphs:  length, content, structure.
  • The shift between the opening and the middle of the scene (going from setup to action).
  • The try/fails of the middle, how long they are, how many of them.
  • How the scene wraps up, how long it is.

At that point, I stop and ask myself what I liked or didn’t like about the scene, and what, if anything, else I noticed.  I also make a note of the POV character(s), any head-hopping, and try to sum up what happened in the scene, in general.  Why were all the elements of the scene in that scene and not another one?  That’s the general question I’m trying to answer.

Then I’ll move along to the next scene, either until I’m done or until I feel like I’ve picked up the author’s techniques in that part of the book.  I’ll keep re-reading (I never start studying until after I’ve read the story, and re-read it if it hasn’t been lately) until I get to something where I go, “WHAT WAS THAT?  HOW EVEN.”  Which is pretty often, honestly; if it sounds like I know everything about how stories get written sometimes, it’s mostly just because I’m running off at the mouth.  There is such a huge amount to learn, I don’t know if anyone can grasp it all.  It’s pretty normal to get intimidated once you start opening up the hood on these stories and tracing where the wires and gears all go.

A note about novels:  I’ll sometimes set up an excel spreadsheet so I can study how often POVs show up (for example, in Game of Thrones), or what types of endings each scene has throughout the book. It’s sometimes easier for me to see patterns when I can color-code them.  So if I’m working on a novel, I’ll make notes as I go, like, “What’s going on with all the POVs here?” and look at it later in a spreadsheet.

When I’m done with my first pass of a story (and answered any questions I might have via spreadsheet for novels, if necessary), then I’ll step back and go, “Why did the author make the structural decisions that they made?”

I cannot recommend attempting to make that kind of analysis without doing the typing.  It’s always tempting to try to pick something apart without really understanding it, but, when it comes to analysis, you can only reach as far as your pre-existing prejudices when you do that.  Type it in.  Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about is a freaking magic trick, and you won’t be able to see how it’s done without practicing it yourself first.  No matter how clumsy it makes you feel!

As I said last time, most of the time (especially in novels), you want to go with a structure that is pretty normal for the genre and subgenre you’re writing in.  Once you’ve pulled apart a few stories that fit that mold–the pop song structure of fiction–then it starts to become obvious when something is or is not following that mold.

The answer to the question, “Why did the author write to fit the mold?” is pretty simple:  they wanted to meet reader expectations.  They didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel!  The answer to the question, “Why didn’t the author write to fit the mold?” is usually pretty interesting, though:  it’s generally to solve a problem that they couldn’t solve within the mold, or to show off.  Sometimes both.

Next time, we’ll get into “The Fall of the House of Usher,” what a douche Usher was, and how Poe made everyone think that it was a story about incest without the narrator ever going there.

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 17: Structure, Part 5

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.

What order should you tell your events in?

We’re back to talking about szuchet and fabula (see this post).  You have a choice between presenting the events of the story in different ways.  Here are just a few of your options:

  • In strict chronological order, with no summaries or flashbacks, and with no foreshadowing.
  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.
  • With part of the novel split between the present and part between the past (parallel stories).
  • With a small part of the novel in the present and a larger part in the past (or in another world, for that matter), a.k.a. a “frame story” or “story within a story.”
  • With the prologue out of order, as in one scene that foreshadows most of the events of the book (a few scenes might follow the point where the book catches up to the prologue).  “It all started when…”
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at very nearly the same time.
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at different times.
  • A story told in reverse order.
  • A story told with most events in order, but in clusters that are not in order (Pulp Fiction).
  • A story told through several completely separate episodes, with or without a frame story (variations on a theme).

There are more possibilities.  Most popular fiction books will follow the same structure, though:

  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.

Most books present the setting, characters, and problems of the plot, move the plot forward a bit, stop to bring a few things into perspective via a flashback or a summary (and repeating the pattern of moving the plot forward, then explaining the important bits of What Has Gone Before), then increasingly shift to no more backstory while layering in some foreshadowing as we approach the climax of the book.

There is nothing wrong with that as a structure.  It’s like the structure of a modern pop song:  we all know it, even if we never really think about it, and intellectually we know that a lot of pop songs “sound the same,” but we will vehemently protest if anyone claims that Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is very nearly the same thing as anything by The Rolling Stones.  There’s an intro…some verses…a chorus…a musical interlude somewhere in the middle…more verses and the chorus…and some kind of ending.

Pop songs all follow kind of the same template. It’s all about how you use it.

Most fiction, most of the time, needs to have a real reason to deviate from the usual sort of structure.  Some deviations, like having multiple plots running at the same time across multiple characters, are so common in certain genres that they’re taken for normal.  For example:

  • The structure of many modern romances is to have a his-and-her plot, two main plots running in parallel part of the time and together part of the time.
  • The structure of many high fantasy novels is to have multiple plots running at the same time, with characters who start out together, split apart, check in with each other/get news of each other periodically, but all come together for the climax of the book, which is some huge battle.

Those structures aren’t requirements, but they can become expectations.  And most of the time, you want to meet the readers’ expectations…because then they’re ready for you to knock their socks off with something surprising.

Which is to say that what order you tell your events in:

  • Depends on your story.
  • But should be pretty normal most of the time, unless you have a major reason to do so.

Find out in what order events are usually played out in the books in your genre and subgenre.  Copy that.  If and when that doesn’t work for you, try something else.  Some experimentation may be called for.

You will know when you’re on the right track because, when you’re done with the draft, you can step back and go, “The content of the story fits the weird order I put the events in.   Huh.”

The biggest part of making this kind of structural decision is knowing what your options are–and that requires a lot of reading.  It can require some really challenging reading, too, if you want to wander off the beaten path.

I’ll probably repeat this again later:

The more original you are, the more studying you have to do.

You have to know what most readers expect most of the time, and you have to know it as well as any hack writer knows its ins and outs.

And, if you’re trying something the reader doesn’t expect, you have to have far more tricks up your sleeve than you will ever actually use in order to be able to select a good one.

If you want to build something new, you have to know even more:  you have to know every trick in the book.

And that means reading–and comprehending on a structural level–a huge number of books.

This is probably a good place to remind you that reading at least the top 100 books in your genre is probably a good idea–if you want to write books to fit reader expectations.  And that reading the top 100 books in another genre is a good idea if you want to write a book that surprises your reader.  If you want to be truly innovative…good luck!

Next time, I think I may work on a few case studies on structure.  I’ve been typing up a lot of Edgar Allen Poe lately because he has such interesting structures, and the stories are out of copyright–so it should be okay to quote them extensively here.

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

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.

Free book and other curiosities here.

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!

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

 

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.

Free book and other curiosities here.

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!

If you love me (she said, melodramatically), sign up for my newsletter.  Free book, book recommendations for the month, sales announcements, bad puns.  Click here.

 

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.

Page 1 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén