Monday, December 28

Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)


First, a caveat. In the following I say things about ‘all X,’ for example, ‘all main characters,’ but of course statements like that are generalizations. There are wonderful stories that do not fit into the patterns I describe.[1] 

That said, I think reading about the hero’s journey is valuable even if the stories you are interested in would traditionally have been described as more literary. After all, there are patterns, rhythms, to good storytelling regardless of the story being told. And while I do wholeheartedly agree that there are more ways for a story to express these patterns than are described in the hero’s journey, I do believe that the hero’s journey IS one way to access those patterns.

The Importance of a Good Stake (Punny ;)

I've already discussed the importance of having goals and the inevitable conflict that follows from that (blog post: Storytelling). But the amount of conflict depends on how high the stakes are.

Think of it this way, if you bet the price of a coffee on your sports team winning a particular match you wouldn't care as much about the outcome as if you had bet your entire rent for the month. (Not that I’m recommending that!)

Stakes and Suspense

Goals--especially diametrically opposed goals like the ones I’ll talk about, later--are important because they create conflict, but this conflict means little without high stakes. The stakes control the suspense. Low states, low suspense. High stakes, high suspense.

Stakes are the possible consequences of a course of action. What will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal? What will happen if she doesn't?  

For example, let's say we have a character, Rob. Rob is on a diet, he wants to lose 20 pounds before his brother's wedding. Here are two versions of the story:

Version 1

Possibility A: Rob loses the 20 pounds and doesn’t have to rent a tuxedo.

Possibility B: Rob failed to lose 20 pounds and had to rent a tuxedo.

The story question: Will Rob lose 20 pounds and not have to rent a tuxedo or will he fail and be forced to rent a tuxedo for his brother's wedding?

Either way, so what? Why should we care? I don't know about you, but I don't have strong feelings either way about rented tuxedos!

Let’s increase the stakes.

Version 2

Rob makes a bet with his brother that if he can't fit into his tuxedo in time for the wedding he'll pay for the wedding. But paying for the wedding would wipe out Rob’s savings and he wouldn't be able to fulfill his lifelong dream of climbing Mount Everest. And if he doesn’t fulfill his dream of climbing Mount Everest he will be depressed, stop making friends and develop an unnatural addiction to Cheetos.

Now we have:

Possibility A': Rob loses the 20 pounds and so not only fits into his tuxedo but is able to fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Afterward, Rob starts a new blog to share his experiences, meets lots of other cool people and lives a meaningful life surrounded by those who care about him.

Possibility B': Rob fails to lose the 20 pounds and so not only has to rent a tuxedo but can’t fulfil his dream of climbing Mount Everest. Rob becomes depressed, never blogs, becomes addicted to Cheetos and dies alone.

Here’s our new story question:

Will Rob be able to lose the 20 pounds before the wedding and fulfil his dream to climb Mount Everest or will he fail, pay for his brother's wedding, become depressed and die alone?

That's a better story question. Obviously the example is tongue in cheek, but hopefully it illustrates the point. 

As soon as Rob has something with emotional weight to lose, we begin to care more about what happens to him.

In order for this to work, though, the possible consequences of a course of action must be clear.

-- --

That's it for now! I'll try and get Part Two of this miniseries up tomorrow or the next day. I'm blogging a draft of my new book on writing, so your input on anything I write would be greatly appreciated! If you think I'm wrong about anything I say, please let me know! I enjoy discussions about writing. Thanks for reading.

Cheers.

Notes:

[1] 
I went looking for examples of stories that I didn’t think easily fit the form of a hero’s journey. For example, Pulp Fiction. Yes, Pulp Fiction is a film, but… See Note 2, below. Anyway, I came across the article, “Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey,” over at NarrativeFirst.com. (I looked for the author’s name, but couldn’t find it. My apologies. If anyone knows the author’s name please tell me and I'll add that information.)

Although I disagreed with some things in the article, I liked this part:

“There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis.

“Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don't. There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” 

I really liked the author's style and wit. I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the article (I’ve listed it in Further Readings).

But, anyway. The hero can, and often does, fail to achieve his goal. One of the ways the hero can fail to achieve his goal is that he fails to transform. To my mind, though, the hero’s transformation does not guarantee success. That said, I liked the comment that stories are about solving problems. Yes! Agreed.

Also, I liked the comment, “There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.” Of course, it depends on what one means by better. What is the criterion? Perhaps I’m going too far afield, but is the criterion subjective (I liked this story better than that story), or objective? 

I favor the idea that there is an objective aspect to such a criterion. Let’s say we have two stories. Here’s the question: Could one story help someone live a better life than the other story? For example, if we had two identical populations, and one took the first story as a myth and the second took the second story as a myth and we ran the simulation over 1000 generations, in which population would individuals have lived more meaningful lives? And we could run this entire experiment many hundreds or thousands of times. Would one civilization be much more successful than the other? Of course, such an experiment isn’t possible.

Anyway. I do think that is why we are fascinated with stories. It’s why a character’s goals matter to us, it’s why stakes matter to us, it’s why we care about endings. But I’m open to people disagreeing. I love those sorts of conversations.

[2]
Books versus films. I regard a book as a way of carrying a story around in the world. Similarly, I regard a film strip--or these days a thumb drive containing an electronic file--as another way of carrying a story around in the world. Of course there are differences. In a book bits of ink form letters which form words and when read images unspool in the theater of the mind. In a film images are displayed on a flat surface and they flick by so quickly that our eyes and brains are fooled into seeing motion. Sure, films--flicks--generally don’t require the viewer to bring the same mental equipment to bear to unspool a story as books do but, in terms of the story told, I don’t believe there is an essential difference between the media.

Or, to put it another way, a book or film is a medium/container for a story in something like the way a body is thought to be a medium/container for a mind. It’s the story that is the essential thing, not the specific form in which it exists in the world. Or something like that. At least, that is one way of thinking about it.

Further Reading:

Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey, over at Narrativefirst.com.

Friday, December 25

Storytelling


My Dad was an amazing storyteller. Because of him, I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about stories, thinking about whether there’s something that great stories have in common.

There is: the hero’s journey. (Also called the monomyth.)

I started blogging about writing in 2010 because I believed that, as Seneca wrote, "by teaching we are learning." My blog grew from that quest.

The sort of stories I focus on are genre stories. Those are the kind of stories that keep decent hardworking folk up until indecent hours, unable to put their book down until they find out what happened, whether the hero or heroine rescued their love, recovered the treasure, saved the day. 

The key to writing good genre fiction is to create suspense. Which means creating complex, compelling, characters, putting them in an interesting yet hostile setting, introducing believable opposition with clear stakes, and wrapping it all up in a well thought out plot.

So...simple. ;)

Genre

I know it’s an obvious point, but stories within the same genre have a common structure. An example: for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will be a sleuth and they will uncover various clues. Some of these will help the sleuth nab the murderer, some won't. Certain characters will be red herrings and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at the end of the story the sleuth will reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how they uncovered the suspects' lies to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

Murder mystery stories are a subgenre of mystery stories, but the divisions and subdivisions don't stop there. There are many different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more demanding set of requirements. A cozy or whodunit (think of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above as well as a logical, rational solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions. The focus is on the mystery of the murder itself--how it was accomplished--as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. It is crucial that the storyteller plays fair with the reader and tells them everything the sleuth learns as he or she learns it. A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and its solution and more on action and gritty realism. 

I'm not going to go through each genre and give a detailed map of reader expectations. What I'm going to do is talk about a structure that is common to all good stories, regardless of genre. At least, that's the plan. 

A Three Act Structure

Most stories can be broken into three acts.

Act One—The Ordinary World—First Quarter

Act One is where you introduce your characters and the world they live in. As the story unfolds, readers find out more about the characters as they interact with each other as well as with the world around them, both physical and social. We see their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The most important character in all this is the hero because the story revolves around his quest. That's what a story is, fundamentally: a description of a character's pursuit of a goal.

The Inciting Incident And The Call To Adventure

The Ordinary World of the hero is static, at least in the beginning. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence. The hero exists in a state of imperfection. He isn't happy but he's afraid that if he tries to change anything things will get worse. 

During the Inciting Incident something happens that changes the hero's world. This change will eventually effect the hero and shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality, that must be addressed. This is the problem the hero seeks to solve, the wrong he seeks to right, when he answers the Call to Adventure.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the namesake character is an ogre who says he wants to be left alone in his swamp. Of course, what he really wants is for people not to make up their minds about him before they meet him. He wants to forge some sort of connection with others, but he's afraid of being rejected because it happens so often.

When Lord Farquaad exiles legions of fairytale creatures to Shrek's swamp (this is the Inciting Incident), Shrek's solitude is stripped away. This sends Shrek and Donkey off on a mission to confront Lord Farquaad and convince him to send the fairytale creatures somewhere--anywhere--else. But Lord Farquaad has another idea. 

Lord Farquaad proposes (this is Shrek's Call to Adventure) that if Shrek conquers the fire-breathing dragon and frees Princess Fiona from her imprisonment in the castle, that he will grant Shrek's wish and clear his swamp. Shrek accepts and, in the process of accomplishing his mission, falls in love with the princess. Now Shrek has another goal, to tell the princess he loves her. What prevents him from doing so is his fear of rejection. This fear is what Shrek has to overcome if he is to achieve his goal and win Fiona's hand in marriage.

The Lock In

At the end of the first act the hero is locked into their quest. He has a moment of realization and understands that if he takes up the quest he must leave his ordinary world behind. It is important that the hero understand the stakes involved and, despite the dismal odds of success, choose to take up the quest knowing that, if they do, there is no going back.

In Shrek, when Lord Farquaad gives Shrek his Call to Adventure, Shrek has a choice: accept or not. But archers perch atop the walls ready to shoot him dead if he refuses. After that, Shrek is locked in to the quest. 

In Star Wars when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, massacred by storm troopers, he understands there is no going back. His ordinary world is gone. 

I think the most obvious case of the Lock In is The Matrix. At the end of Act One Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill or the blue pill. The red pill will change Neo's entire world and show him the truth he has always searched for. The blue pill will restore the status quo of the Ordinary World. His choice is irreversible.

Act Two—The Special World—The Middle Half

At the end of Act One the hero answers the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the Special World. Here everything is different, strange, reversed. The hero's strength (usually characters have at least one strength) isn't going to serve him as well here, perhaps it even puts him at a disadvantage. 

In the first part of Act Two the hero goes through a series of Tests And Trials, most of which he fails, and he makes new acquaintances, both Allies and Enemies. It is also here, at the beginning of Act Two, that the B-story starts. Some of those the hero meets will become his staunch allies and will join his quest while others will become his enemies. This time of Trials and Tests is also a time of Fun and Games. In a movie this is where you often have a feel-good montage.  

The first half of Act Two often contains a moment of bonding. If there is a romance, the hero and his love interest may deepen their relationship. After all, the hero is about to confront the villain and, perhaps, pay with his life. If there is no romance, the story will likely still contain a moment of bonding between the hero and their sidekick, a pause, a girding of the loins, as well as a review of the stakes. What will happen if the hero loses? If he wins? Who will it effect? 

The Midpoint

Finally, the moment of confrontation has arrived. The Ordeal has begun. Since we know the stakes of the battle we watch anxiously as the hero risks everything to defeat his foe. The confrontation between the hero and his nemesis can be a physical one but it needn't be. Sometimes they are each going after the same item. In the movie Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy loses the ark to Dr. RenΓ© Belloq, his nemesis. In Star Wars, Luke discovers the Death Star.

Regardless of whether a physical confrontation occurs, the Midpoint represents a sea change in the story. Where before the hero was passive, now he is active. This doesn't occur all at once, but the Midpoint marks the change. Often this change occurs because the hero receives information. This information could be about the villain. It could also be about the nature of the Special World and the villain's--as well as the hero's--place in it. 

After the confrontation at the Midpoint the stakes of the battle get cashed out. If the hero is successful, he will get a reward. If the hero isn't successful then usually this is just the beginning of the grief that rains down upon him and those he cares about. Often, if the hero fails at the Midpoint he will also fail at the Climax of the story. Similarly, if the hero wins at the Midpoint he will likely win at the Climax.

Regardless of whether the hero wins at the Midpoint, the stakes go up. Way up. The hero hasn't resolved the conflict, he has increased it. I can't stress this enough. Where before it was only the hero's life at stake now it is also the lives of the hero's allies. Perhaps, by the time we reach the Climax, even the lives of his loved ones back home--as well as, perhaps, the world or even the entire galaxy!--will lie in the balance. 

Another important change that occurs around the Midpoint is that now it's not just the villain who is driving the story forward, it's also the hero. You even see this in stories that have a non-traditional structure, stories such as The Usual Suspects.

Disaster

Toward the end of Act Two matters have radically changed, and for the worse. There is often a Major Setback, quickly followed by an All Hope Is Lost moment (or, rather, by a series of them where each is more intense than the one before). As the name implies, something occurs that transforms the hero's world, or his view of it, and brings him to his lowest point.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the Major Setback comes when Shrek overhears Princess Fiona talking with Donkey. Shrek misunderstands who Fiona is talking about and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Fiona thinks he is ugly and unlovable. Since he was working up the courage to tell Fiona he loved her, this revelation comes as quite a blow.

The All Hope Is Lost moment comes shortly after Shrek is cruel to Donkey. Of course we, the audience, know Shrek is acting as he is because he mistakenly believes Donkey was deriding him. Shrek tells Donkey to go away, that he isn't welcome in his swamp again, ever! This is Shrek's lowest point. As a result of his own actions, Shrek has become estranged from the two people who care about him most.

Act Three—The Return Home—Last Quarter

After the All Is Lost moment the B-story is usually resolved. Because of the way the B-story ends, an important change occurs in the hero and he is able to resolve his inner conflict as well; this often takes the form of an epiphany. The hero then uses this revelation to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate try to achieve his goal. 

 I don't mean a superhuman ability--though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be. But whatever it is, the ground must have been laid for it, otherwise it would be a cheat. Perhaps the hero is now, finally, able to think clearly. Perhaps the hero lacked empathy but now understands how other people feel.

Whatever the case, something fundamental within the hero changes and, as a result, he is able to defeat the villain and achieve his goal. (I should mention, though, that not all heroes have an internal conflict. If there is no inner conflict, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero who lacks any significant internal conflict.) 

(Note: Though, having said this, one of my readers quite rightly pointed out that Indiana Jones starts out the movie doubting that the power of the Ark is real. By the end he knows it is. So his is a journey from ignorance to knowledge.)

One way of describing this point in a story, this beat, is that the scales drop from the hero's eyes. He thought he knew how things were, but he didn't. To use Shrek as an example again, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He was dead wrong. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before, he decides to risk rejection and ridicule and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example. At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's The One, and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes and he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and this realization transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. Neo triumphs over The Matrix and becomes The One. 

I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it. 

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

Aftermath

In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of his adventure? What was his reward? Or, if he failed, what was the cost of his failure? This is where any loose ends are tied up.

Caveat

I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there's only one story structure. As Chuck Wendig says, every story has a unique structure if looked at in all their particularity. No one can look at the structure of a story and say, "That's wrong!" just because it's different. The bottom line is: If a story works, then it works.

The structure I've talked about, above, is one I've been thinking about and working on for a while now. I think that it describes over 90% of the stories I've read, listened to, or watched; or at least parts of it do. That's because it looks at a story abstractly. It is a web of generalizations and so is almost guaranteed to get something right! 

As I write I like to think about the structure of the story I'm working on and make it explicit. Often, if I feel something is wrong with a story but I just can't put my finger on it, I go back to basics and study various story structures in an attempt to puzzle out what the problem is. I think that's the bottom line. If something helps you, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Let your own sense of what is right for you be your guide.

Recommended Reading

Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D. James.

Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at litreactor.com.

Le Guin’s Hypothesis, at Book View Cafe by Ursula K. Le Guin.

On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery

How To Write Like Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules.

Wednesday, December 9

A Theory of Story


What makes a story seem real? What gives it verisimilitude?

I'm trying out a new idea or perhaps just putting a twist on an old one. I'm not sure if you'll agree with me and if you don't that's okay! I would be interested in what you think.

A Theory of Story

Stories are nothing new. I think in our earliest days as a species we were already telling ourselves stories, stories that helped us understand the world around us. But certain stories were better than others at doing this. Over time, one can imagine that the stories that were better at helping people succeed in the world were favored. They spread.

There are two things here: First, some sort of theory, some sort of idea about how the world works, Second, there is what is actually out there in the world.

And there are levels here. In real life I tell myself stories about molecules and atoms and subatomic particles and I expect that out there in the world there are things that these ideas, these theories, more or less refer to. The theory has some ‘traction’ on what is out there, on whatever it is that impinges on my senses.

These two things, these two levels, let's call them A and B.

A) What is

When we write a fictional story we take one step back. We’re no longer talking about an objective reality. We are the gods of our stories, creating worlds from whole cloth. As creators we get to invent whatever we want. 

Broadly interpreted, what we create is what we call the setting of the story. What is the physics of this world? What is the politics like? What sort of biological systems exist? Do gods exist? Does magic exist? If so, how does it work? And so on.

B) Human (or other) machinations

Then there is what I’ve called some sort of theory of the world, some sort of story--or stories--that the characters tell themselves about what is true, about what are the best ways of getting what they want. 

My point is that these two constructions (A & B) are related, and that things will turn out for a character better or worse depending upon how well they hook into each other. 

The Idea

So here’s my idea. This is an oversimplification, but for every major character, they will have ideas about what the story world is like. Now, you will have made the story world--the setting--in a certain way so there are only two possibilities: your character will be right about how the world is or they will be wrong about how the world is. 

Let's call "alignment" the degree to which how the character sees the world aligns with or agrees with how the world really is. I think that a character's degree of alignment is relevant to the kind of character they are. 

If there is a high degree of alignment, if how the character sees the world more or less matches up with the character's ideas of how best to get on in the world, then chances are the character is either the protagonist or someone helpful associated with the protagonist such as his sidekick or his mentor.

On the other hand, if there is a low degree of alignment, if the story they tell themselves about the best way to get on in the world, is at variance with how the world really is then chances are the character is either the antagonist or someone associated with the them such as their sidekick, mentor, minion, and so on.

Here's how this idea, or these ideas, relate to the notion of verisimilitude: A character's degree of alignment needs to be matched up to the kind of character they are (for example, protagonist or antagonist) in order for the story to feel real, or at least, in order for the story to feel satisfying. [1]

In what follows I try to unpack this idea. [2]

Luke Skywalker

For example, Luke Skywalker. He is a young man working on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm, but he is a skilled pilot and wants nothing more than to head offworld, fly fast planes, and have adventures. 

In a way, that is every teenager, ever. 

And then something unexpected happens (The Call to Adventure) and Luke is asked to go on an adventure to help the rebel alliance and save a beautiful princess. This is everything Luke has ever wanted… And he says “No.” Why? Luke says he has a duty to his aunt and uncle and he can’t just leave them to run the farm on their own.

And this is consistent (or so I would argue) with Luke’s character. Yes, he wants to go off on an adventure, but then why hasn’t he? He could have left and gone to school even though his uncle and aunt didn’t want him to. He stayed because he was grateful to them and because he loved them.

Let’s break this down into (A) and (B).

B: The parts that are important here are Luke’s attitude toward his aunt and uncle, his belief that duty matters--this shows how he feels toward those close to him and it shows that he loves his family. He is loyal. He puts the needs of others above his wants. 

A: Also, we get a peek at the political world of the story, at that part of the setting. There is an Empire (bad, repressive, brutal killers) and a resistance (fighting for life and liberty). And, of course, given what we know of what kind of character Luke is, we aren’t surprised that he sympathizes with the resistance BUT refuses to join because he recognizes his duty to his aunt and uncle.

So I would say that Luke was a good character in the sense that we are given a certain setting (the external world filled with rebels and stormtroopers) and a certain kind of character (loyal, courageous, a bit impatient) and how that character acts in that world makes sense. We have a character with a good goal and a close fit with reality.

More Examples


The Evil Queen from Snow White

As I mentioned, not all characters, though, have a close alignment. An example of a character with a distant alignment and a bad goal is the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

I think this is often true for antagonists; that is, they often misrepresent the world to themselves. Why? It often happens that a certain way the world is radically disappoints them. Often this disappointment is due to what we might consider a character defect.

The Evil Queen, for example, has a magic mirror that always tells her the truth. So here we have (A), how the story world really is. And the queen, who we are told is vain, asks the mirror who is the fairest in the land, and one day she is told that it’s not her. Instead, it’s her step daughter.

It seems to me that we all realize that people age and beauty doesn’t last forever. At a certain point the queen had to know she wouldn’t be the fairest in the land. But, what’s her reaction? Does she react in a way consistent with this truth, with reality? Not so much. She tries to kill Snow White so she will, once again, be the fairest in the land. 

I think this is very effective at setting the queen up as an evil character. I mean, what is her long term plan? As she continues to age her beauty will continue to fade so what is she going to do, kill all the pretty young women in the land until she’s the only female left? That shows she doesn't care about the people in her community. 

Also, and as you know, this is another mark of an antagonist: her goal is a bad long term goal. As I mentioned, her beauty will inevitably fade but, more than that, putting her entire focus on being the most beautiful is a selfish goal. She isn't trying to accomplish anything that will help her community or the broader world.

But the Queen's behavior (exaggerated though it is) is believable, it’s plausible, because she is vain and intentionally not thinking things through because that would be traumatic for her, it would uncover certain errors in how she understands the world around her. (I’m not saying that most of us haven’t had a moment of vanity here and there, but hopefully none of us carried things quite this far! ;)

Cypher from The Matrix

Let’s look at one more character: Cypher from The Matrix. Like the Evil Queen, Cypher wanted to deny reality. What he wanted to be true and what was true were at variance, and since he couldn’t change reality, he decided he would change his beliefs about reality, he would rather accept a lie as true than accept the bitter dystopian reality that the world actually was. And so he betrayed those who had been his friends to their enemies and exchanged the bitter truth for a pleasant lie (although it is hinted that Cypher’s actual reward for his treachery was death). 

Conclusion


I'm not sure whether this has been one long waffle or if I'm beginning to get at what might be an interesting idea. But I thought I'd share! Let me know your thoughts, and good writing!

Notes:


1. Here I don't say anything about, for instance, the protagonists arc. At the beginning of the story there will be some distance between at least one of the protagonist's beliefs and how the world really is. For example, Luke Skywalker is naive. This was the result of a lack-of-fit between how he viewed the world--his ideas about how to best get on in the world--and the way the world really is (I'm including the social world, other characters, in "the world" since they are, perhaps, the most important aspect/part of the world/setting).

Similarly, I think the same applies, only reversed, for the antagonist. Perhaps at the beginning of the story the antagonist's ideas of how best to get on in the world more or less match up with how the world really is, but over the course of the story they will become more and more divergent.

2. In a future blog post I want to incorporate into this analysis the idea of a character's goal, whether it is good or bad. Broadly speaking, I would say that a character's goal would be considered a good goal if it helped the hero's community and/or his entire world and bad if it would harm them. So this would yield a 4x4 matrix. On one axis we have good and bad goals and on the other we have a close and distant alignment. I think this is how the combinations break down:
a) Close alignment & good goal --> protagonist
b) Distant alignment & good goal --> fool
c) Close alignment & bad goal --> nemesis
d) Distant alignment & bad goal --> big bad
Anyway, I may have more to say about that in a future post.

Friday, December 4

7 Tips for Keeping a Journal

7 tips for keeping a journal


I have started journaling again. I kept a diary when I was a teenager, but then my diary mysteriously disappeared and I lost interest in the artform. A friend and pen pal got me started again and I’ve found it helpful, both in my personal life and my writing.

I wish I'd never stopped. I wouldn’t have to puzzle over, “What day did that happen?” Also, it keeps me honest about how I’m doing emotionally. It can be easy to think, “Oh, sure, my mood has been pretty good this week,” but then I review the record of my days and see, yeah, not so much. But it has also helped me spot patterns and that has been useful because it lets me know what has helped improve my mood.


Journaling has made writing easier. I’ve found that the more I write the easier it is to write.


For me, journaling is closer to fiction writing than to non-fiction. For example, here is a sentence I wrote a couple of days ago, “The sun had tucked itself under the horizon.” It’s playful. I was trying to describe something and that image popped into my head. Journaling has given me permission to play because it's informal and completely private. Like a first draft, no one else will see it. Well, except that they will, since I mine the record of my daily life for story nuggets that could amuse. 


If you don’t journal and would like to begin but are finding that difficult I suggest writing to a pen pal. You will find yourself running out of material quickly and will soon begin to mine your daily life for anecdotes. Journaling has made my daily walks much more fun because now I look for events that could blossom into a story the way a hungry crow looks for worms. A random interaction with a stranger on a sidewalk can turn into a mini-adventure. 


But like just about everything worthwhile there is more than one way to do it. If I could go back and whisper tips into the ear of my former self, here’s what I would say:


7 tips for keeping a journal:


1. Pick a time of day to journal.

I tend to review my journal in the morning. I read over the last entry in it and try to remember more details, or I try to express a thought more clearly. When I've gotten to about ten pages--this takes me about two weeks--I'll read the whole thing over and think about turning it into a letter or essay.


2. Nothing is too minor.

Throughout the day, I jot down anything that was interesting or made me smile. It can be something as simple as a funny thing that happened in line at a supermarket, a cute thing a cat did or a joke that popped into my mind. 


3. Memories.

After I had been journaling for a couple of weeks certain memories would bubble up to the surface and hang out. I’ve begun turning these errant strands of memory into journal entries. Maybe one day I can turn one of them into an essay. For instance, I wrote something about the advantages of being organized. BTW, I am not at all organized and have pretty funny anticodes because of it. Now if I could only find where I put them… ;)


4. Be kind to yourself.

Don’t stress if you don’t make a journal entry every single day. I often skip days because nothing happened, just a lot of time whooshing by while I did mundane things. And other days I’ll write two pages. It’s all good.


5. Experiment.

I don’t know if I’ll keep this up but I’ve been keeping a record of my running. This is more for my own personal motivation. For years I jogged 5k a day but I stopped around the beginning of this worldwide virus thing. I’m getting back into it again but I know it's easy to quit. I find that if I do something each and every day for about two weeks it becomes a habit and I start to feel odd if I DON’T do whatever it is. So, for the next two weeks I’m committing to recording my runs in the hope that this will help keep me on track.


6. Give yourself permission to write drivel.

I hope that doesn’t sound harsh, but as anyone who writes regularly knows, sometimes you’ll have a day (or two, or three, or …) where you feel that words are not your friend. They assemble on the page in ugly ways and refuse to say what you would like. I find that when this happens I just have to write ugly. Usually I'll come back to my scribblings days later and conclude that it wasn't too bad. Besides, if I don't write even if what I write is ghastly, then there will be nothing to revise.


7. Protect your journal.

You probably don’t want anyone else reading what you’ve written without your permission. I don’t have a lot of recommendations here except, if you can, password lock the file and change the password often. Failing that, you could keep your diary on a thumb drive and keep the drive someplace safe. Sometimes lockets have places inside them to put things. If you had a tiny thumb drive and a large locket, it might fit.


Thanks for reading! 


References:

Here are some articles I consulted while writing this article:



Monday, October 19

Writing: A Support System for Life

"... the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies ...", Stephen King

What is writing? Stephen King has a very simple answer: It’s the art and craft of telling stories on paper. But what is “the art and craft of telling stories on paper” and can it be learnt?

King believes that, if you’re a writer, then you can get better, but if you’re not a writer then, Sorry, it’s not gonna happen. 

King writes,

“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Personally, I believe that anyone with sufficient interest in writing can learn to get better. But, of course, not everyone is going to have sufficient interest. Stephen King, like Ray Bradbury, wrote millions of words before he was published. It takes perseverance. And those who don’t love writing probably won’t persevere. 

By the way, I'm going to talk quite a bit about Stephen King in this article because he has, more than any other writer, helped me write better. That's my goal: to be better today than I was yesterday. (I'm not saying I achieve that! But it's a goal.)

What is writing?

In order to talk about how to become a better writer one needs, I think, to say something about what writing is.

Is there any one thing that writing is? Perhaps. According to Stephen King, writing is telepathy. That is, it is the sharing of thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps, though, there is just what writing is for me, what writing is for you, what writing is for Stephen King, what writing is to Neil Gaiman, and so on.

I don’t see anything wrong with looking at writing like this, but I think that what writing is for any one particular writer is going to have something in common with all writers. What is that thing? 

Writing as manipulation.

I agree with King that writing is the sharing of thoughts and ideas with a reader, but I sometimes wonder if that goes far enough. We are communicating ideas to the reader, but with a desire to achieve a certain end. For example, when a writer creates a book of jokes, his intention is to make his readers laugh. When a writer pens a thriller, she wants her audience to be curious, apprehensive, frightened, and generally caught up in the suspense.

In this view, writing has to do with the manipulation of a reader's emotions. I hate to put it like that because I don’t want anyone to think of writing as Machiavellian. If one accurately communicates a certain idea or set of ideas, it is usually going to be the case that certain thoughts and emotions follow. For example, when Luke’s family's farm is burnt to the ground in Star Wars IV: A New Hope one can’t help but feel Luke’s horror as he sees his relatives’ smoking corpses.

Writing is different for each of us.

As I said, writing is a bit different for each of us. For me, ‘being a writer’ means turning my thoughts, ideas, emotions, wishes, peeves, hatreds, and loves into something shareable. For me, writing is sharing an experience with my reader.

King writes:

"Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip." (Stephen King, On Writing)

I really like what King says here. Yes, I can't help but be the kind of writer I am. 

In my everyday life certain things make me happy or sad, certain things make me angry, certain things make me laugh like a lunatic. I'm unique, and that this-ness is and should come out in my work. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve my writing. Since writing is the communication of thoughts and ideas, there are better and worse ways of expressing them. And we, each of us, can get better.

So! That leads me to: 

Nine things you can do to become a better writer:


1. Read.

Stephen King believes that in order to write one must read.

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. (Stephen King, On Writing)


2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself.

Just the other day I was talking to a writer about writing. I do that occasionally, and I always come away looking at the craft a bit differently. 

Sometimes it’s just the realization that not every writer thinks about writing the way I do. Some writers write with the desire to communicate certain thoughts, certain ideas, perhaps even certain emotions to their reader. Other writers write because they are telling themselves a story. If they like the story, good. If other people like the story … Well, great, but that’s not the point. The story will sell or it won’t. Selling is better than not selling but that doesn’t change what they write.

I guess, thinking about it now, I would say that the latter kind of writer -- one who writes what they like and their only concern is the story itself -- is more of an artist than I am. I chew my fingernails and pace the floor when my story is read by others. My first question is a breathless, “What did you think?” But, really, it would be much healthier to just write the story for myself, edit it for the world and then let it go. If readers take to it, great! If they don’t … Well, I should already be working on my next story.


3. Edit for the world.

There are two things here. First, write the first draft for yourself but write the second draft for the world. Second, the first draft will tell you what the story is and what it isn't. On your second draft, take away all those bits that don't belong. (Yes, this is where another bit of King's advice comes in: kill your darlings.) [1]

King writes:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he [John Gould] said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

“Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.” (Stephen King, On Writing)


4. Backstory

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Whenever I think about backstory I think of Aaron Sorkin’s advice:

“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.” (Aaron Sorkin, from Aaron Sorkin On How To Write A Gripping Monologue)

You want to only give a reader background information when they want the information. The background information needs not only to be relevant, but you want the reader to be sitting on the edge of their seats eager to know the information.


5. Be brutally honest

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, The Body)

Writing isn’t easy. It requires bravery. I believe that the very best writing needs honesty the way humans need oxygen. That said, no uncomfortable admissions or confessions are required, just be honest about how things seem to you and try to say them clearly. That’s usually awkward enough.

And if that is accompanied by a bit of poetry, by a bit of style, so much the better.


6. Art is there to enhance our lives, not the other way around.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I love this. The purpose of life isn't to create great art, the purpose of great art is to create a good life. Art enhances life, it helps us understand ourselves as well as others. If we're really lucky art helps us come to grips with this great nebulous thing that we sometimes gesture toward by mumbling about “the human condition.”


7. You will have critics. Ignore them.

“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“I have spent a good many years ...—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Tell yourself a story, a story that is unique to you, and enjoy yourself. If no one else likes the story, that’s fine. It will happen. Start writing your next story.

Stephen King knows more than I ever will about writing but, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that my best stories were written quickly, in the heat of the moment. Yes, that initial draft was followed by a number of others, but the story itself, the first draft, was written quickly. And I think that’s key. Checking on a date, or the spelling of a name, etc., is important, but it can break the flow and let doubt in. And, who knows, whatever it is you wanted to research may be a detail that is nixed in the next draft.


8. You will fail. Shake it off and keep writing.


If you try your best to succeed at something, anything, one thing is inevitable: failure. The key to living a moderately happy life is not to let the failure paralyse you. Shug, learn what you can from the failure, and move on. If you send a story to a magazine and it isn't bought, if a book you publish sells only the one copy that you bought, accept that and move on.

"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing— the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.

"When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around. The writer who is serious and committed is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various stock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likely to provide a good return. If it could indeed be done that way, every novel published would be a best-seller and the huge advances paid to a dozen or so “big-name writers” would not exist (publishers would like that)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

Don't measure your own success or failure by what other people do. Measure it by where you are today compared to where you used to be.

Above all, don't let fear of failure stop you from doing what you love.


9. The adverb is not your friend.

Stephen King makes no secret of it, he does not approve of adverbs. And for good reason! As he points out:

“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, more than is decent. And the more I ponder it, the more I agree. No matter how much you would like to be on congenial terms with all parts of speech the truth is clear: adverbs are traitors. It seems they’ll help you express yourself more clearly but they won’t. If I need an adverb to explain things to a reader then I haven’t done it right.

For example:

a) She looked at him, puzzledly. 

b) Squinting at him, she frowned.

I like to see things when I read. “The man walked down the street.” I see this, and in seeing it I understand it. If I squint at someone and frown, there’s something I’m trying to figure out. 

The first sentence, (a), tells us that someone is puzzled and asks us to do the imaginative work. What would happen if we took “puzzledly” away? We would have no idea that she (whoever she happens to be) is puzzled.

Now, I’m completely positive (and, yes, I did that on purpose!) that you will find my own work (as is King’s work) riddled with adverbs. The point is not to excise them from one’s speech, but to make sure they’re not doing the heavy lifting. (And, yes, definitely, this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. ;)


That's it!

Thank you for reading! If I have written something that encourages you to write, I will consider this time well spent. I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you again soon. πŸ˜€πŸ‘‹

My home on Twitter: @woodwardkaren


Notes:

1. Stephen King on killing one's darlings:

"... it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

2. I thought this was a good article: 22 lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer, by Maggie Zhang.


Saturday, October 3

Free Indirect Discourse: What it is and why you should care


What is Free Indirect Discourse and why should you care?

Do you have a favorite author, one who is able to grab you on the first page, immerse you in their story world and release you only when their tale is over? For me, that author is Stephen King.

That was how I read The Dead Zone, It, Carrie, The Stand and many of King’s other novels. Misery was a bit too much for me -- the scene where fan Annie Wilkes hobbles Paul Sheldon did me in for a while but I couldn’t stay away for long.

My question: How does King do this? How does he immerse readers in his world so quickly and so totally? Here’s what I think: It’s his use of free indirect discourse.

What is Free Indirect Discourse?

Free indirect discourse is a way of presenting a character’s voice in such a way that it is partly mediated by the voice of the author or narrator. Or: It is where the character speaks through the voice of the narrator.

There are two things here. First, free indirect discourse has to do with the way in which the thought is expressed and, second, it also has to do with the narrator’s voice bleeding through. 

Let’s take a look at each of these.

1. No reporting clause.

Let’s look at free indirect discourse by contrasting it with different modes of writing:

Quoted/Direct Speech: The child lay on the mat and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

Reported/Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat and wondered where the cat was.

Free Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat. Where was the cat?

As you can see, there is no reporting clause in the last example, we are presented with the thought itself in all its naked glory. (Also, the tense is shifted from the present tense to the past tense.)

2. The narrator’s voice intermingles with that of the character.

Free Indirect Speech blurs the boundaries between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s report. As a result, the reader feels as though they are being given direct, god-like access to a character’s mind, to their motivations.[2]

As Jen Miller writes in her article, “Teaching Under the Dome”:

“Such a technique provides a very useful shortcut for giving readers the personality of a wide range of characters in a short period of time.”[1]

Free Indirect Discourse in Graham Greene’s Short Story The Basement Room

A friend, RLL, recently introduced me to the work of Graham Greene by way of Greene's short story, The Basement Room. What drew my interest was how quickly Greene immersed me in the story, how quickly I bonded with his characters. In fact, my reaction to this story made me think of my reaction to Stephen King’s work.

Briefly, The Basement Room is about a child of seven who is left on his own for a fortnight with only Mr. and Mrs. Baines -- the butler and his wife -- to mind him. The child, Philip, has been looking forward to the freedom this arrangement will bring. Unfortunately, Philip soon learns that Mrs. Baines is worse than an entire gaggle of nannies. She becomes a jailor and he and Mr. Baines are her prisoners.

It seems to me that Greene uses free indirect discourse to overcome some of the limitations imposed by seeing much of the world through the eyes of a young child.

For example:

Philip took the slice of Dundee cake in his hand and munched it round the room. He felt very old, independent and judicial; he was aware that Baines was talking to him as man to man. He never called him Master Philip as Mrs. Baines did, who was servile when she was not authoritative.

Baines had seen the world; he had seen beyond the railings. He sat there over his ginger pop with the resigned dignity of an exile; Baines didn't complain; he had chosen his fate, and if his fate was Mrs. Baines he had only himself to blame. (Graham Greene, The Basement Room)

Here it seems to me that we’re not just getting Philip’s thoughts, we’re getting the narrator's -- and possibly the author’s -- as well. Philip’s thoughts seem to be viewed through the lens of a more mature mind. 

Here it seems that Greene has deliberately run his character’s thoughts, Philip’s thoughts, together with the narrator’s report in such a way that it is difficult to tell which it is. As a result, we get a more intimate peek inside of both Mr. Baines and Philip.

Free Indirect Discourse & Stephen King

Let’s look at another example, this time from The Shining by Stephen King.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [so-and-so].

Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk- under the circumstances.

Ullman had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Ullman was the type of man who would file such lapses away in a mental Rolodex for later consideration. (Stephen King, The Shining)

At the end of the second paragraph we get this sentence: “There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.” This is obviously Jack Torrance’s thought filtered through the report of the narrator and, because of this, it tells us quite a bit about Jack Torrance and gives us a sense of intimacy with the character.

Here’s another example from the same book:

"Your daddy may not be back until suppertime, doc. It’s a long drive up into those mountains."

"Do you think the bug will break down?"

"No, I don’t think so." But he had just given her something new to worry about. Thanks, Danny. I needed that.

The last sentence seems to be a direct report of the character’s thoughts without a reporting clause. As a result, it has an immediacy, an intimacy, it would otherwise lack. We are, essentially, getting a first person report but with all the flexibility that writing in the third person provides.

Free Indirect Discourse in More Recent Work

I peeked at the books at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. Most of them had been written in the first person, but there was one, “Total Power” by Kyle Mills, that began like this:

A light mist condensed on Sonya Vance’s windshield, turning the forested mountains around her into smears of green. Clouds had formed beneath the bridge she was driving across, dense enough that it looked like they would catch her if she jumped. 

Tempting.

"Tempting" -- the sole word in the last paragraph -- is an example of the character’s thought merging with the narrator’s voice and, in so doing, it reveals to us Sonya’s mental state. Precarious. 

Tips For Using Free Indirect Discourse in Your Own Work

1. Third Person Perspective

In order for a character’s thoughts to merge with the narrator’s you -- of course! -- need a third person narrator. But you can use either a limited third person or omniscient viewpoint. Of course an omniscient viewpoint, while it gives you the greatest flexibility, also gives you the most rope to hang yourself! 

2. Season to taste

I’ve been scouring my favorite books looking for examples of free indirect voice. It seems authors use it to heighten intimacy with a character who might otherwise not be as transparent (for example, a young child or someone with an unusual viewpoint) or someone unpleasant like Jack Torrance in the Shining. 

Also, if you are using a limited third person viewpoint and your character is on the verge of becoming unconscious, using free indirect voice might help add intimacy and richness of detail.

Do you use free indirect discourse? What do you think of the technique? 

Notes:

1. Teaching under the Dome: Life in a Small Town, Characters, and Narrative Point of View, Site: Fantasy Matters

2. Baktin talks about heteroglossia which is the “presence of two or more voices or suppressed viewpoints in a text or artistic work.”

Bakhtin argues that the power of the novel originates in the coexistence of, and conflict between, different types of speech: the speech of characters, the speech of narrators, and even the speech of the author. He defines heteroglossia as "another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way" (1934). (Wikipedia, Heteroglossia)



Wednesday, July 22

Jung and the Hero's Journey: The Disaster (Part 5)



In my last post I talked about The Call to AdventureToday I want to talk about a very important part of any story: the hero’s descent into hell, otherwise known as entering the Special World of the Adventure.

I should note, though, this isn’t the low point of the story. It IS, though, a point of stark contrast between the ordinary world and the strange new world he now finds himself in. Just think of Luke Skywalker in the Mos Eisley Cantina.


Why do I call this the descent into hell? Because—and this is where Jung’s insights into human psychology are so relevant—if the Special World doesn’t give your protagonist the equivalent of a panic attack then you’ve done it wrong! Okay, that’s hyperbole, but there’s truth in it.


The Special World is alien to the hero. It is inside out and upside down. The hero has no idea how things work there, what the social norms are, what sort of accomplishments are looked up to and which are despised. Yes, sure, eventually this shock will give way to a feeling of awe, acceptance and perhaps even (brief) happiness, but in the beginning it engenders terror -- and perhaps curiosity -- in the hero. All his senses are on fire. He is equally attracted and repulsed by this new world.


For instance, in the movie Collateral a hitman, Vincent, convinces Max, a cab driver, to drive him around off the books for the rest of the night. When a corpse falls on Max’s car and Max learns what Vincent does for a living, Max’s ordinary world dissolves into chaos. 


Max had a comfortable life. Like most of us, he had dreams, dreams that would likely remain just that. Then Vincent comes into Max’s life and everything is turned upside down. Put another way, Vincent shatters the fantasy world Max is living in and wakes him up.


Let me develop that analogy.


In a sense, the ordinary world is a dream. It is comfortable but it’s no longer true. In Collateral, Vincent plays the role of a devil, destroying Max’s carefully constructed world and, in so doing, forces him to face the truth: if Max continues as he is then his dreams will never come true. Why? Because Max is scared of change. He’s stuck in a rut and he’s too scared of the dark to risk shattering his nice comfortable world.


The Special World is, in a sense, a metaphor for the terror that comes from having our comfortable lies ripped away, it comes from our being forced to see the world as it is as instead of how we would like it to be. 


(If you are familiar with the Tarot, especially the Rider Waite deck, I see this journey from the Ordinary World into the Special World of the Adventure as nicely represented by the Tower card.)


If the hero has a chance to prepare for his journey into the Special World then things generally go better. But even then it’s going to be a rough ride (for example, Neo in The Matrix.)


That’s it for today! I’ll talk to you again in the next few days. In the meantime be well and good writing!


Say "Hi" on Twitter: @WoodwardKaren


Monday, July 20

Jung and the Hero's Journey: The Call to Adventure



Hi! Sorry that I haven't posted in a while. Lately I've been making videos about writing, but I've missed posting here. 

Today I would like to talk about the Call to Adventure.

If there is one plot point that is common to all stories it’s the Call to Adventure. Why? Because all stories—at least all narrative stories—are ABOUT something. They are about someone, the hero, overcoming (or attempting to overcome) various increasingly troublesome obstacles in order to achieve a goal. Further, the attainment of this goal would make both the protagonist and his community better.

For example, in the movie Alien Ripley wants to kill the monster in order to save both herself and everyone else -- although by the end “everyone else” amounted to the cat!

The relation between the Inciting Incident and the Call To Adventure


In the last three videos we looked at, first, the hero’s original condition, his status quo as well as the rules society expected the hero to follow. Then something happens, something that significantly and irrevocably changed the hero’s world. Further this change was like the release of an arrow, one heading straight for the protagonist's heart.

I’ve used Star Wars: A New Hope as an example so I thought I would continue with it.

In Star Wars, Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s diplomatic craft in an attempt to find the plans for the Death Star. This prompts Lea to hide the plans in R2D2’s memory along with a holographic plea for help, a hologram which Luke glimpses. 

This change in Luke’s world -- as well as his glimpse of a mysterious and beautiful Lea -- causes him to follow up with Old Ben, at which point Obi Wan asks Luke to help him bring the plans back to Alderaan.

I hope I've communicated something of the relationship the Call to Adventure has to the other parts of the story.

The Inciting Incident is the anomaly in one’s carefully constructed map of the world -- it is the crouching dragon. The call to adventure, on the other hand, is an explicit offer to the hero to do something about it.

One More Thing: The Cost/Sacrifice


Accepting the Call to Adventure will involve a significant sacrifice on the hero’s part. When Obi Wan asks Luke to help him take the blueprints to Alderaan Luke is both very excited by the prospect and reluctant. Yes, Luke is a skilled pilot and has always wanted to leave the backwater world he grew up on to explore the galaxy but that would mean leaving the only place he had ever known. He didn’t want to leave his friends, his droids, his nice safe life.

The Call to Adventure always demands a sacrifice. In Luke’s case, it would mean leaving everything he knows and loves behind. This is why the hero usually refuses the call.

In my next post I will talk about rejecting the call to adventure and how that usually ends in disaster.

That’s it! Thanks for reading, I'll talk to you later. Good writing!

I've made this into a YouTube video:

#amwriting, #writing, #writingcommunity #writingtips #howtowrite

Saturday, January 4

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice

10 Ways to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How to Develop Your Writer’s Voice


How would you go about developing your distinct voice?  And what is voice, exactly?[1] Obviously the way Stephen King tells a story, his use of language, is different from the way, say, Isaac Asimov told a story. And both of these are different from the way Margaret Atwood writes. For example:

Margaret Atwood


“On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.” (Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake)

Stephen King


“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.

“The house - mansion, actually - was cold and quiet. The only sounds were the low snap of the fire on the big stone hearth and the low whine of the November wind outside.” (Stephen King, The Cat from Hell)

Isaac Asimov


“He [Gaal] had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.” (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)

I wanted to also give you a sample of Neil Gaiman’s work -- the first section of Neverwhere -- but that would have made this post too long! But, hopefully, from these three samples you can extrapolate what I mean by a writer’s voice.

Developing Your Writer's Voice


Of course I’m just gesturing toward the idea of a writer’s voice. You need to read many stories by the same author to be able to hear that author’s voice. Similarly, to understand what different SORTS of voices are possible it helps to read dozens, hundreds, thousands of books by various authors. And it helps enormously if your reading is eclectic, don’t just draw from one genre and don’t just read fiction.

For example, in the excerpt I gave from Stephen King’s short, The Cat from Hell (one of my favorites), he has a particular voice and he’s (of course) speaking through a specific narrator. King’s voice will change slightly from story to story in part because each will likely have a different narrator. That said, after you’ve read a few of Stephen King’s stories you get a sense of what-stays-the-same even across books.

Okay, so that’s what I have to say about a writer’s voice. Now I want to get to the real meat of this article: how to bring out the best in YOUR writer’s voice.

Let’s face it, some writer’s voices are more interesting, exciting, irreverent, funny, and so on, than others. Sometimes I would like to try and make MY writer’s voice more exciting. So … what could I do to kick things up a notch?

Chuck Wendig’s Voice


I’m writing this post because of Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terribleminds. I love this blog! CW has good advice for writers (except the part about eating bees) and I enjoy his strong writing style.

(BTW, Chuck Wendig’s blog, every inch of it, is NSFW because of adult language. You’ve been warned! Here’s the link: Terribleminds)

Okay? Onward!

10 ways to a bolder voice


Our keyboards have a delete button for a reason.

If you attempt to make a sentence better by trying out one of the techniques, below, and the sentence is so hideous it hurts your eyes, just delete it!

But, who knows? You might create something playfully creative, something that will make your readers laugh, something you wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. I think it’s valuable to try something new-ish or slightly uncomfortable (and, yes, I’m talking to myself right now!).

What I’m going to do is look at a few excerpts from Chuck Wendig’s work and then I’ll attempt to puzzle out what Chuck Wendig did to make me really like that bit of writing. (By the way, I’ve left links at the end of this article to every single article I quote from.)

Quotation 1


“Oh, and I still get bad reviews. I still get rejected. Writing is hard. Easier for me than many. But still hard. And publishing is harder. Publishing can be 'passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra' hard. It can be 'pushing a rock up a hill until the rock rolls back down onto you and then vultures eat your fingermeats but now it’s time to push the rock again, dummy' hard.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

Okay, so, here are a few things I noticed in this passage:

1. Take it over the top.


Take something innocuous, a nothingburger of a sentence or idea, and double-down on it. Then triple down. (“pushing a rock up a hill …”)

2. Be bold. Be honest.


To say that I’m shy would be like saying statues don’t move a lot. It’s true but something of an understatement. Writing requires boldness. Fearlessness. Honesty. (And pen names. Pen names are good!)

CW writes: “... I still get bad reviews.” This is honest. No one likes getting bad reviews, much less announcing the fact that one’s work has received bad reviews. But I think that truth, all sorts of truth (personal, moral, scientific, and so on), is crucial to good writing.

BTW, there is, occasionally, a price to pay for boldness and honesty. I think Chuck Wendig is insanely talented and brave, but I need to include this link to show that, while these qualities can be great for creating bingeable prose, bad things can happen.

3. Punch your reader in the face (Metaphorically!!)


As we’ve seen, CW writes: “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard.” This metaphor is in-your-face. It’s kinda uncomfortable. A little … gross? But that’s the point! CW’s writing isn’t tame. And it isn’t expected. I guess that’s another way of saying it’s creative. He ruthlessly mashes ideas that have nothing to do with each other together to create something new, interesting and -- if you actually did it -- possibly criminal!

Quotation 2


Chuck Wendig writes:

“What I mean is this: the things I say at this blog and in my writing books is just advice. It’s not right. It’s also not automatically wrong. It’s just advice. It’s like if you ask me about sneakers and I’m like, “I wear these sneakers called Hoka One Ones, and they’re really great.” They are a real sneaker. I actually own and wear and love them. They’re great for me. It’s true. It’s like walking on air. It’s improved my running. They’ve ended my plantar fasciitis and also ended other associated running pains. And they might be great for some of you. For others? You might f****** hate them. But these shoes are what I know and so I will recommend them if you ask. Hell, even if you don’t ask.” (Chuck Wendig, Writing Advice is Bull****)

I could have paired that quotation down, but I didn’t because it’s true and helpful.

4. Talk directly to your reader.


Notice that here, CW is talking right to the reader. He set up a mini-scene. The Reader has asked him a question about sneakers and he’s replying. And the reply makes a clear point in an entertaining way. I’ve noticed that this -- conversing with The Reader -- is a characteristic of CW’s blog posts. That is, he easily drifts into and out of using dialogue to communicate with The Reader. (Stephen King does this as well, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

ALSO, notice that when CW writes, “Publishing can be ‘passing pumpkin seeds through your urethra’ hard” he is talking to you, Dear Reader. Well, not really. I think he’s talking to a hypothetical reader. Most people write with some one person in mind, either real or imagined.

But still. When a flesh-and-blood person like yourself reads this, it feels more immediate, more personal.

Maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, but I think sometimes using dialogue is … Well, I think it’s understood that the writer is NOT talking to YOU per se, the writer is talking to a reader (Dear Reader) … when this happens I have in mind some one person who could be either real or imaginary. But still, it’s a little bit like you and I -- reader and writer -- are sharing a moment together. (But not in a weird way! Hopefully.)

Intimacy encourages interest.

Quotation 3


“But I present you with this to consider:

“I do not much care for Tolkien’s work.

“No, no, put down that broken beer bottle. Relax. I recognize that I’m the outlier there …” (Chuck Wendig, An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice)

5. Poke your reader.


This builds on my point, above, about talking directly to Your Reader to create more of a sense of intimacy.

Good writing evokes emotions in your reader. When I read CW’s writing, above, I smiled. I have to admit my first reaction when I read “I do not much care for Tolkien’s work” was, “What! That can’t be true,” but then I read on and instead of being grumpy with CW I smiled. Which is good! In general, if you can make your readers smile, you’re doing something right.

I don't want to take us too far afield, but I've noticed that many of the people I enjoy talking with at cocktail parties open with a good natured poke, something that evokes mild tension/conflict. For example, I walk everywhere and as I walk I listen to podcasts. My friends will often poke me about wearing ugly headphones (they truly are hideous but the sound is amazing). That poke, that friendly jab, sparkes friendly verbal sparring.

Of course readers can't poke you back, but I think that injecting mild tension into your prose can make it more readable. Conflict is king.

Quotation 4


“Junk can be wonderful. Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout? Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream? They’re junk, too. Ever seen a kid play with an empty box? An empty box is junk. But what they do with it — I mean, it’s a pirate ship, a boat, it’s knight armor, it’s an action figure base. Some junk is just trash, admittedly. But some junk is artful. Masterful. Just because it’s old — or cobbled together from various pieces — doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it junk.” (Chuck Wendig, The Rise Of Skywalker)

6. Ask Your Reader questions.


In the above quotation from his post, “The Rise of Skywalker …,” Chuck Wendig is talking to The Reader and he’s asking questions. “Have you ever seen a junkyard? An old-timey one …”, “Have you ever eaten a cookie, or had ice cream?” (And, yes, this is a good use of parallelism, but I’m trying not to get sidetracked!)

When I’m asked a question I perk up and pay attention. Now, of course, Chuck Wendig doesn’t know me, has never met me much less asked ME a question in real life. But, as someone who has read the above he kind of has. That is, as I read he is sharing his ideas with me -- and everyone else!

Remember the Holodeck on Star Trek? That's how I think our brains work. (See what I did there? lol) In the Holodeck you don't just see images, you're IN another reality. It is immersive.

We don’t just view ideas like images, we engage with them. They are us, we are them. Now that doesn’t mean that every time you think of pain you are in pain (that would be awful!) but if someone asks a question, even if it’s not directly to you, it's a bit like someone throwing a softball at you. Your hand automatically comes up and grabs it. (It's a little bit like saying, "Don't think of a white bear." You just did! Right? You can't read that sentence without, in some way, engaging with the idea of a white bear.)

Similarly, if someone asks 'you' a question, it engages you on another level. At least, that's what I think! Please let me know if you disagree.

7. Be vivid.


Staying with the same quotation from “The Rise of Skywalker …,” it is almost like Chuck Wendig is plucking images from his mind and popping them into ours. Take the sentences: “Have you ever been to a junkyard? An old-timey one with appliances and cars and secret treasures buried throughout?”

That’s vivid! You can SEE it. You can grasp that idea. Then, when you’ve both got (more-or-less) the same idea in mind, he can talk to you (The Reader) about it. It feels like you’re having something like a real conversation with the writer. (And no, I’m not encouraging readers to transition into stalkers!)

(BTW, Stephen King talks about this weird idea-sharing thing in his book On Writing. The chapter heading is “What Writing Is.” (For those who have already read the book, it’s where King talks about the white rabbit.))

Note: I thought about including this as a separate point but thought that might be dangerous. Here's what I want to say: If you have more-or-less mastered the basics of grammar, then don't get hung up on always writing grammatically correct prose. Before your manuscript goes out into the world, have a competent editor look it over, but when you're writing -- especially if it is informal writing -- don't be afraid of sentence fragments if you think one will help you to vividly communicate an idea or feeling. For example in the above quotation CW writes: "But some junk is artful. Masterful." And it works. (THAT's the ultimate criterion: Does it work?)

Quotation 5


(a.) “I see this meme every so often.

(b.) “‘You can’t teach writing.”

(c.) “That is a hot, heaping hunk of horseshit and you should get shut of that malodorous idea.

(d.) “Anybody who puts this idea forward is high-as-f*** from huffing their own crap vapors, because here’s what they’re basically saying to you:

(e.) “‘I’m a writer/artist/creative person and I’m this way by dint of my birth — I was just born naturally talented, a*******! — and it can’t be taught so if you’re not born with it as I most graciously was, then you’re pretty much f***** and f*** you trying to learn anything about it and f*** anybody who tries to teach it and you might as well give up now, you talentless, tasteless, cardboard hack. Now kiss the ring, little worm.’

(f.) “Writing is a thing we learn. Which means it is a thing people teach.” (Chuck Wendig, A Short Rant on the You Can’t Teach Writing Meme)

8. Vary the length of sentences.


There’s a lot to unpack in the above quotation. It is an excellent example of how to inspire emotion in readers, and I’m going to get to that in a moment.

Right now I’d like to focus on how Chuck Wendig varies the length of sentences. Really good writers (from what I can tell) tend to vary the length of their sentences. They will have one, two, three (etc.) long sentences in a row and then pepper the page with a few short ones that condense or funnel the energy of the text. The short sentences bring the point home -- pow! Like the knockout punch of a boxer.

In Quotation 4, look at paragraph (e.). That paragraph has only two sentences. The first is LONG and it is packed with inflammatory language. Then the second, much shorter sentence, drives the point home (‘Now kiss the ring, little worm’).

Of course, CW isn’t saying this, he’s saying that people who feel like this are insufferable, but through his use of language he does a very good job of inspiring The Reader to intensely dislike them. And inspiring strong emotions in our readers is a BIG part of writing.

9. Over the top insults.


As I just said, I love the way Chuck Wendig ended the dialogue: Now kiss the ring, little worm. That is so outrageous it makes me laugh. It’s effective!

This gives me ideas for my own work. If you create a bully and you would like The Reader to want your protagonist to give the bully a black eye, then give the bully a speech that ends like this.

Chuck Wendig is very good at creating emotional hooks -- even in non-fiction!

10. Swear words are emotional.


Okay, I feel like there’s an elephant in the room, so let’s discuss this. Chuck Wendig swears a lot and, by their very nature, swear words are emotional.

Many people (most people?) feel that swear words are naughty. For some people, the very act of reading a swear word can feel transgressive -- forbidden. And every interesting thing ever (e.g., the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter novels) is forbidden. Or … well, at least MOST are.

I don’t use swear words in my own work because, for me, that would be like trying to learn to juggle while using dynamite. For Chuck Wendig, it works. I love his blog posts and I try to learn from them.

You have your own style, something that is expressive of who you are as a person. And, as you continue to read and write you will change and so, naturally, will your style. And that’s very cool.

Thanks for reading! (If you are Chuck Wendig then … Thank you! I hope you’re not upset that I examined your non-fiction writing in this way. I’m a huge fan. πŸ˜€ I would be interested in your feedback, if you have any.)

In Closing ...


Many times I’ve tried to puzzle out how I could write with a bit more boldness, a bit more flare, a bit more color. That’s why I began writing this post. So I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a tip or three you could share about how to improve a writer's voice?

What I'm doing/reading:


Right now I'm not reading any fiction. Later today I'm going to study two blog posts (this one and this one) and work on a YouTube script (about something totally unrelated). BUT I should read more fiction. Does anyone have a book they could recommend?

Resources:


The following links lead to articles by Chuck Wendig and can be found on his fabulous NSFW blog, Terribleminds.

The Rise Of Skywalker, And How Star Wars Is Junk.

Writing Advice Is Bullshit.

An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice.

Tips On Horking Up Your Novel’s Zero Draft.

A Very Good List Of Vital Writing Advice — Do Not Ignore!

A Short Rant On The “You Can’t Teach Writing” Meme.

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"The 5 Love Languages is as practical as it is insightful. Updated to reflect the complexities of relationships today, this new edition reveals intrinsic truths and applies relevant, actionable wisdom in ways that work."

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Notes:


1. What is a writer’s voice?

I was going to talk about the difference between a writer’s voice and a writer’s style by giving their definitions. But I’m not going to do that. First, I don’t think the difference between them is important to the points I’m making. Second, understanding the difference between these two notions wouldn’t help anyone understand what a writer’s voice is.

Chuck Wendig and Stephen King each have a strong voice, and they are two of my favorite authors. As you read the quotations, above, you’ll be able to FEEL the between their voices. I think that a writer’s voice is more felt/experienced than thought about/understood. It has more to do with the heart than the head.