Thursday, October 31, 2013

In the Middle with Mystery

In the Middle with Mystery


Something I used to tell my students about fiction is that fundamentally, a short story is about the day something different happens. Often, when a novice writer begins a story (or even novels) it is with an overview of the norm for their character. Frequently, they never get beyond the normal stuff to the “something different” and they wonder why their story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. When writing teachers talk about starting in media res, they mean skipping this normal stuff and getting to the beginning of the different stuff. For example, when writing about a car wreck: instead of going through what a character has for breakfast every day before going to work, even though it might seem like you’re building up tension or expectations, start at the car wreck, which is different from usual. If there’s important information in the usual activities, you can cover it in flashback or summary later, or perhaps show the character’s attempt to return to normalcy the next day, which fails, thereby inserting tension into the normal routine. Also, starting with that break from the routine gives the story some action, some tension, and maybe some mystery, since you’ve now opened up the character’s world view. Before, everything was humdrum and the same; now, there’s a whole new world of possibly terrifying possibilities to explore.

(Another idea to keep in mind about the above scenario is believability. Extraordinary occurrences are difficult for readers to believe in a work of fiction. A tornado suddenly swooping down in the middle of a story is hard to sell to a reader. Opening or ending with these extraordinary events is much easier to swallow, since the focus of the story is now on the extraordinary event, whereas before, the event seemed to interrupt the story.)

Usually, this “normal stuff” I’m talking about isn’t necessary to the story at all. It’s a kind of clearing of the throat for a writer, or prewriting. If a story were a rap song, this would be the part where the rapper talks about how good the song he’s about to rap is going to be. Sometimes, the rapper never actually gets to the song since he’s so busy talking about how good it will be. Novice writers, also, frequently never get to the story because they expend their energy and momentum prewriting and exploring their character. This is fine to do, but it probably doesn’t belong in a story.

Similarly, writers will often open with a character (though it frequently isn’t even specified that a character is doing it) contemplating some image or idea, maybe the weather, maybe something s/he sees. There are instances where this can work effectively, I’m sure, but for the most part, it’s simply more prewriting. Get to the change, the “different,” the problem which is the source of tension as soon as possible. Another handy rule of thumb is to get to dialogue as soon as possible, as well, as in probably on the first page. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but it’s a good general idea to get your characters talking (and doing things) ASAP. It is through interaction with other characters and the environment that your characters are truly revealed.

It’s tricky because on the one hand we’re talking about tension or maybe even pacing but on the other hand we’re talking about structure (an argument could be made we’re even talking about tone). It’s important to remember that all of these things are intricately linked, and tinkering with one affects the others.


One of the most effective forms of tension comes from the reader’s expectations. Similarly, mystery is an element that will keep readers reading and is very important in a story. When I say “mystery” I don’t mean the genre, and the conventions thereof. But I do mean the same basic idea. Mystery occurs when the reader isn’t handed every piece of information, but rather has to work things out for themselves. Nothing draws a reader’s interest like mystery. But first let’s talk about how this can be a bad thing.

Mystery draws attention to an idea, and therefore, that idea will really stand out in the story. So it’s important that the idea SHOULD stand out. Weak descriptions or confusing elements may create mystery that’s unintentional. Some information should be given as quickly and simply as possible. Here’s an example: I used to hate to dump character’s names on the reader. I wanted the name to be revealed naturally, through dialogue or the like, but this wasn’t always easy to accomplish. That meant I might withhold a character’s name for several pages, so that when I did finally give it, one of two things happened: 1. the name lost all significance and the reader was probably confused about who I was talking about. 2. the character’s name became a mystery which, therefore, seemed really important, when in reality, I was just being an anal stylist. It’s much better to just bite the bullet and give the name in an obvious way immediately and then move on, unless there’s some reason to create mystery around the name. (Giving the character’s name in a natural way really soon is the best approach, of course.) Similarly, poorly described elements can be imbued with mystery for no intentional reason, which shifts their significance within the story. Of course, mystery can also go too far and a story might become obtuse, which is often off-putting for readers.

So what’s good about mystery? Mystery lets the reader play the game of putting together clues and figuring things out. This is the most significant way to indulge active readers. Allowing mystery in a story also demonstrates to the reader that the author respects and trusts the reader TO work things out, which is always a plus.

Again, not everything should be a mystery. Often, minor though significant details (like the character’s name…) should be given soon and clearly. But major ideas, especially big themes, probably shouldn’t be stated. This is where mystery is most effective. A character’s true motivations and desires can definitely stand to have a touch of mystery, though these should be things a reader CAN discern. Remember: mystery simply means being subtle, not completely withholding information.

-CL Bledsoe

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Style

This is something, up with which, I will not put.
-Winston Churchill, to an editor attempting to change one of Churchill’s sentences that ended with a preposition.

When most of us think of style, one of two things comes to mind: either Isaac Hays in his gold caddy singing the theme song to Shaft or Strunk and White’s atrocious writing style guide. When I say style, regarding the writing of fiction, I mean a little bit of both—though let’s put aside Strunk and White and focus on grammar and style guidelines that actually work. “Style” in fiction writing really refers to several elements, including diction, the author’s voice, clarity of expression, and sunglasses. Gold ones. Worn at night.

So let’s talk about Strunk and White, briefly. The thing about grammar rules that they screwed up and that a lot of folks don’t seem to understand is that grammar rules should make sense. Each one serves a very specific purpose, though their approaches may be individualized; each one is trying to help the writer achieve clarity of expression. That’s it. Grammar rules exist to help you make sense to the reader as clearly as possible. So if the rule doesn’t make sense, it probably wasn’t explained well, probably because whoever explained it to you didn’t understand the rule’s actual purpose, probably because they learned the rule from Stunk and White. I’m not just being cute, here; Strunk and White have done real damage to style by their confusing and often contradictory advice. My advice is to always abide by the rule of what expresses your intended meaning most clearly, regardless of any other rule or suggestion. (Remember that most of the writers who are generally recognized as brilliant tend to have fairly idiosyncratic writing styles, i.e. their writing breaks established rules or simply create their own.) (Grammar rules are, also, based on popular usage, believe it or not. Or rather, they change based on popular usage, in much the same way as language, itself, changes. But again, we’re not trying to be avant garde, simply clear.)

So when Strunk and White say don’t ever use passive voice, you don’t have to use semicolons to link two complete sentences if they’re short, all these fuzzy rules, ignore them. Sure, passive voice is often unclear, but sometimes it works. So do what works in that situation. Be precise. Understand what the rules truly mean. If you do that, you won’t have to break them very often, but when you do, it will matter.

**Blues for the Oxford Comma, An Aside

Nothing brings writers and humanities educators to blows as quickly as an argument about the Oxford Comma. I have no idea why this is such an affecting issue; I just know that they’re wrong. In all seriousness, let’s examine it: the Oxford Comma (or serial comma) is the comma placed (or not placed) before the conjunction in a list. So: I went to the store for bread, milk, and eggs. People with a journalism background will say it’s unnecessary because the conjunction separates the items and performs the same duty as the comma would. This isn’t exactly true. Commas separate. Conjunctions join, even in a negative sense. So eliminating that last comma joins the last two items in the list. (Kind of like saying: I went to the store for bread, as well as milk and eggs. “Milk and eggs” are linked more closely, in this sentence, than bread. But why? That’s never made clear.) The counterargument to this is that readers are big boys and can figure out what the writer meant. Well sure, of course they can, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sloppy writing. Proponents of this argument are admitting that they don’t value precision in their writing, and that’s not something I’m prepared to do, personally. I’m not saying I’m a perfectionist, but I do attempt to say what I mean as exactly as possible.

Most style guides argue for the serial comma, unless they’re geared towards journalism. Excising that serial comma was first done to save space. That’s the only reason, really. Space matters in a printed newspaper column. Okay, let’s give them that one. I could mention that printed newspapers are going the way of the cassette tape or Myspace profiles, but I’ll let that go. This idea of precision is what’s important, here. The missing serial comma might make an astute reader pause for the tiniest millisecond, but that matters. (Also, the idea that most readers won’t notice is insulting to readers and frankly shows a real disconnect from the audience.) The reader isn’t so much confused as s/he has her faith in the writer shaken. And, again, the argument against the serial comma is simply an argument for laziness.***

So now that we’ve established that grammar rules should help us say exactly what we mean, let’s talk about diction, itself. Word choice is, like, so important and stuff. Like totally. Diction helps writers accomplish just about everything in a story. And poor diction gets in the way of doing this. Word choice in a story establishes a tone for the piece. If it’s in first person, the narrator “chooses” the words, so those words must reflect his/her background, education, social status, etc. If they don’t, the story fails. Even if the story is in second or third person, it’s probably a fairly close POV, which means the language should still reflect the POV character’s background, education, etc. etc. at least somewhat. The more the diction does reflect the POV character’s milieu, the more cohesive the story will seem to the reader. (This is a subtle thing. You can tell the reader “This takes place in Savannah, Georgia,” but that really means practically nothing. Using word choice to make the story truly feel like Savannah, Georgia, is much more effective.) This attention to detail is, really and truly, one of the things that separate a novice from an expert writer. Remember that, as a writer, you’re trying to create a captivating world, a dream that the reader can get lost in, so that world needs to draw them in. Word choice is one of the primary ways to do it.

Of course, this means you have to know a whole hell of a lot about your characters, right? Well, sort of. You have to bluff the reader into thinking you do, anyway, and do it convincingly enough that they think they know a lot about the characters too. This is all about details and sunglasses. (See how I brought those back?)

A man enters the examination room wearing a white coat and a stethoscope. He glances at the patient sitting on an examination table, sees that she’s overweight, and sneers a little, almost unconsciously, before returning his gaze to his charts.

Okay, let’s examine this snippet. First, it looks like a doctor, so we’re halfway there. Next, see how he behaves. He’s arrogant, lacking in a certain amount of humanity. It’s not that surprising that a doctor might exhibit these qualities, since doctors do deal with life and death frequently, after all. I could’ve given all sorts of details and doctor jargon to try to make this believable, but instead, I went straight for character development, which is much more effective. Frankly, I know very little about medicine, but I know people. When they say “write what you know” that’s what they mean. Writers know people. Write people. The reader doesn’t really care about whether the “doctor” in the snippet knows how to use the stethoscope properly.

* * *

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Tension

I’m a teepee. I’m a Wigwam. Stop it; You’re Two Tents.

I had written numerous stories, attempted a couple of disastrous novel drafts, and studied writing for quite some time before I really understood what tension was. It had been explained to me repeatedly throughout school in various English classes and even a few creative writing classes, but it was only when I finally wrote a story that really utilized tension, only when I felt the tug of the current of tension pulling my story towards its conclusion, that I truly understood how important tension was. I don’t remember what story I was actually writing, but once I felt that pull, I had an epiphany. Suddenly, the piece I was writing was actually a story, as opposed to just being a sketch, an experiment.

Tension has to do with expectation on the part of the reader. In its purest form, tension drives the reader on; the reader is hooked and simply cannot stop reading because s/he HAS TO KNOW what happens next. Tension keeps the pages turning, and that’s the A#1 goal of a writer. (Some might argue this when it comes to post-modernist writing, but I disagree with that argument. Very experimental, even openly antagonistic writers are still attempting to connect to an audience, it just might be a very specific audience. Even anti-writing attempts to pull the reader forward through shared mockery.) Tension comes from a few very specific places. Fundamentally, tension arises from the plot. A character has a problem, a need, a desire. That character tries to address that issue, but there are obstacles in the way of his/her success. The question of how and if s/he will be able to overcome those obstacles creates tension.

But obstacles aren’t enough. And too many obstacles which appear random won’t keep the reader reading. The obstacles should be organic, which means they arise from the plot. In a down-to-earth sense, that means they should’ve been hinted at in some way. Perhaps they represent a theme that has been established. And, of course, they should be interesting. (Remember that if the reader doesn’t care about your characters, they won’t really care about the obstacles. They might even root for the obstacles rather than your characters.)

**There is a certain genre of stories that follow this pattern of thinking in which the protagonist is intended to be disliked by the reader. These are usually comedies. The problem with these stories is that a different kind of unintended tension can occur. The tension can then come from the reader’s expectation and hope that the character fails, the infamous scheudenfreude. This is really a lose-lose situation because on the one hand, if your character doesn’t fail, then the reader is disappointed, but if the character does fail, the reader is still disappointed because now the reader feels a little bit like a schmuck. There’s no real emotional payoff, here. These kinds of stories are very difficult to pull off. Lolita is a good example of one that works. The reader begins to realize at a certain point that the narrator is a despicable human being, but he’s so convincing that we forget, sometimes, and are sucked in by his charm, and, of course, he lies about how terrible he is. (This is rather a postmodern book because the tension is more between the reader and the author than the story itself, in some ways. Or maybe the tension is between the reader and himself.) (Of course it can be very fun to see a despicable character suffer for a moment. The film Bullets Over Broadway is a good example. When Jennifer Tilley’s character is finally shot, we laugh and cheer because she’s been ruining the story for so long. But she isn’t the main character.)**

But what we’re dancing around, here, is the question: what gives tension that realistic feel? To use film as an example, we’ve all seen action films in which there are many explosions, obstacles abound, and yet we care not one bit. Why? Well first, we have to have that likeable character so we, as readers, care whether the character overcomes his/her obstacles. There are lots of ways to achieve this and remember that even a scoundrel can be enjoyable to read. Then, we need established themes. These are the concerns of the story, what it’s really about. The novel High Fidelity is the story of a man who runs a record shop who decides to investigate all of his past relationships in order to see what went wrong and whether there are any commonalities. He’s an obsessive character, obviously, and a collector, so obstacles can easily arise from these themes. Music is a motif which can be explored to produce more obstacles. Love and human relationships are what the story’s really about, of course, and the idea of hiding from true connections. These themes are established early on and explored throughout. The book is also funny, which isn’t exactly tension but keeps the reader going a bit, and the obsessiveness of the character (especially regarding music) is interesting, which also keeps the reader going a bit.

Another major factor to consider is tone. An attack by beautiful, unmarried ninjas throwing sharpened CDs probably wouldn’t work in High Fidelity because it violates the tone of the story, the milieu of the novel’s world, even though it includes the motif of music and possibly the theme of love, eventually. (And yet we see this kind of sloppy writing in movies all the time.) When we write a story, we create certain rules, mostly borrowed from real life (gravity, people die when they’re shot in the head, etc.). When these rules are violated, it throws off the reader’s understanding of the world of the book, and it kind of ruins the story. If the rules don’t matter, why should I care? But it isn’t as obvious as breaking fundamental rules (like gravity suddenly doesn’t apply); breaking the tone ruins the story for the reader, also. The clearest example of this occurs in period writing. Approaching a period piece without observing the intellectual, philosophical, social, technological, etc. sensibilities of that period destroys a story’s credibility. One little slipup can ruin it for a reader. And these slipups are often intended to create tension.

A Brief Interlude Dealing with Postmodernism

To understand postmodernism, we have to understand modernism. Essentially, modernism involves experimentation in form, tone, approach, etc. in order to entertain the reader. A modernist text might include different forms of writing (a stage script within a story, for example). These forays usually arise from the plot, though; they aren’t simply random, and they are really intended to enhance the story. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. It often utilizes formal invention, but its purpose is more intellectual than modernism. In postmodernism, the tension arises between the reader and the story’s form, rather than necessarily from the actual story. There are other characteristics of postmodernism we’ll gloss over, such as the convention that postmodernism usually tells the reader how to read the story. So if we examine Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire we see, formally, an introduction, a long poem, and, following the poem, a long series of endnotes. The poem, itself, is fairly straightforward, and if we believe it, the introduction is also fairly straightforward. It’s in the footnotes that the true story arises, and the reader begins to question the “author’s” veracity. It also depends on what order we read the sections in as to how we perceive the story. Ultimately, the question becomes who wrote the poem, who wrote the endnotes, and how are they related? The tension, here, comes from the reader’s trust of the author and the story. It’s a kind of game, a puzzle, this story, and the tension comes for the reader in whether or not we can solve the puzzle. The story, itself, becomes secondary (mostly because we don’t believe it anyway). But let us not forget that even in this highly experimental masterpiece of fiction, there is still tension. The reader is propelled forward by the mystery of the book (more so than he would’ve been if the story was presented in a more linear, straightforward fashion).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ryan Bradley's The Waiting Tide Blog tour

Ryan Bradley is touring blogs for his new book The Waiting Tide. For Murder Your Darlings, he interviewed himself...

RWB: We talk a lot, but it's nice to have you here in this formal setting.

RWB: Thanks, it's a pleasure.

RWB: I'll dive right in. You write a lot about sex, both in your fiction and nonfiction, but you insist that there's a difference between writing erotica and writing that includes sex. Is there really a difference?

RWB: There's a difference to me. I write about sex because sex is a basic part of being human. We all have bodies and the vast majority of us (above a certain age) have sex actively or have had sex. It's probably the most universal human experience beyond something like breathing. We all think about it in one way or another. Even people who have chosen abstinence are thinking about sex, maybe not the same way, but the choice not to have sex is still an issue around sex. I don't think it's something we should be shy or ashamed about. But I think the biggest difference between writing about sex and writing erotica is that erotica approaches sex as fantasy, whereas I try to write about sex as a reality.

RWB: The Waiting Tide, which is an homage to Pablo Neruda, is very sensual and passionate. Your fiction is quite different. Even the book's publisher was surprised when he first read the collection. How do you reconcile the two?

RWB: Do they have to be reconciled? Aren't we all multi-facted people? My fiction tends to be more aggressive and volatile because of the stories I'm telling. It's hard to write a story about tragic life circumstances, violence, human frailty, whatever, without being more raw. When I write poetry I'm trying to explore something else, it's less about telling a specific story than dealing with a particular moment, thought, or feeling.

RWB: As someone who writes poetry (I'm sure we feel similarly about the label of "poet") you're faced constantly with the decline of interest in the form. Why do you think poetry is ignored and/or disliked, and why do you think it's important that people continue writing and publishing poetry?

RWB: Poetry is a hard sell. It hasn't always been that way, but it's hard to imagine it ever becoming a mainstream thing again. Which means that we have to embrace the niche nature it has developed. But I think poetry is misunderstood on a fundamental level. People have preconceived notions of what poetry is and they dismiss it without really exploring it. There's poetry out there for everyone, just a lot of people don't seek it out. But it is integral, I think, that poetry be fostered as much as possible. It's tough when you see the sales side of poetry, which I've seen as a writer and as a publisher, but that can't be a deterrent. In fact, as a publisher it makes me want to publish more poetry. Because damned if I'll let sales sway what I think is important. Poetry is important for so many reasons, one of which being that it teaches us a lot, not just about the content of individual poems, but about writing. You want to learn economy of language? Poetry is a good place. Jonathan Franzen could learn a lot about editing by studying some poetry.

RWB: Now Franzen’s going to have you killed.

RWB: He’ll never see this, he’s afraid of the internet.

RWB: Good point.

RWB: It’s been a while since you wrote a poem. What’s up with that?

RWB: My writing comes in segments. When I’m writing fiction I have a hard time switching gears to poetry and vice versa. But I also took a number of months off from writing most anything except for occasional essays.

RWB: So, you’ve been writing some fiction again? Any details you can share?

RWB: Thanks for that shameless setup to let me discuss something new. I just finished a novella called Winterswim. It’s set in my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. I turned it into the publisher it was written for, so now I’m just hanging tough waiting for word on whether or not they like it enough to publish it.

RWB: Sweet. Before we end this I asked some friends to come up with questions they might ask you to ask yourself. So let’s do a little lightning round. First up, one of your coworkers wants to know why you eat a bagel with peanut butter for lunch every day?

RWB: It’s an obsessive compulsive thing. I have a lot of food related compulsions and I go in cycles with lunches. Sometimes I eat the same lunch for years.

RWB: Weirdo. A friend on Facebook asks: In every writers life there is a turning point. A moment when cumulative events push a work from obscurity to greatness. When do you think that point will be for you? Is that a hard date or are you willing to fudge it a week or two?

RWB: I thought it was going to be like five years ago. At least. The world is having a hard time catching up to how famous I am in my head.

RWB: What’s up with that? Seriously! Anyhow, your publisher’s publicity intern would like to know why your poems are so saucy.

RWB: The saucy stuff is what makes life worth living.

RWB: Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for doing this, man.

RWB: No problem, it was a blast. See you later.

* * *

Ryan W. Bradley has fronted a punk band, done construction in the Arctic Circle, managed an independent children's bookstore, and now designs book covers. He is the author of a story collection, PRIZE WINNERS (Artistically Declined Press, 2011) and a poetry collection, MILE ZERO (ADP, 2013). He also co-authored the collaborative poetry collection, YOU ARE JAGUAR (ADP, 2012) with David Tomaloff. His novel, CODE FOR FAILURE was recently re-released by Civil Coping Mechanisms. He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Plot

Plot is what happens in a story, as in the series of events that create (hopefully) a pattern of progression leading to a conclusion in the story. To examine it further, let’s break it down to the basic building blocks of a story. A character has a problem. Obstacles get in the way of him/her addressing the problem. The major obstacle is presented by the antagonist, either consciously or unconsciously. The journey, the progression of steps the protagonist undertakes to address this problem is the plot. Usually, these steps take place in scenes (“scenes” are located actions, or actions that take place in specific, defined locations. These locations might be described thoroughly or partially, depending on their relevance to the plot).

As the series of actions progresses, the plot traditionally intensifies. Tension helps keep the reader interested in a story, but it’s not the only thing that does so. (Also, there are certain stories in which the plot doesn’t intensify. This is a kind of experiment, done purposefully, and is often less fulfilling for many readers. Basically, in these instances, the tension of the story comes from the experiment, not the plot.) By tension, I mean the obstacles the protagonist faces become more difficult to overcome. At the same time, the protagonist’s need to address the problem also intensifies. This is also called Rising Action. (The tension comes for the reader in the question of whether the protagonist will be able to overcome these obstacles and address his/her problem.) As the plot intensifies, as the protagonist’s efforts intensify, the plot rises to an ending, a conclusion which is surprising but inevitable.

Traditionally, going back to Aristotle, the accepted form of a plot is one that has three parts: a beginning, middle, and an end. In the beginning, the protagonist is introduced. In the middle, the problem is introduced and the protagonist struggles with the obstacle/s. Finally, in the end the protagonist reaches some conclusion with his/her problem, and we have the resolution. The more recent structure we’re probably all familiar with from film and the like is the five act structure, which is similar to Aristotle’s form but more developed. The most familiar version of this is probably the ABDCE form: Action, so we begin en media res (“in the middle”). Think of a horror movie which opens with the monster dispatching some unlucky, fornicating teenagers. B is for Backstory, which gives the reader some information on the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the story. Development reveals the problem the protagonist must overcome and moves him/her towards it. Climax is when things come to a head. This is when the protagonist faces the final obstacle and either overcomes or doesn’t or…some variation thereof. This leaves us with the Ending. This is our denouement in which the story is essentially over, but things have to be wrapped up. Maybe there are some small plot threads that need to be resolved. Maybe the reader would just like to know what happens next. These are just basic forms that might get you thinking about structure; don’t feel obliged to follow them. Bear in mind that especially the ABDCE form is very common, and therefore predictable. There are many variations on structure. Basically, the story often determines its own structure, but knowing the basics can help with that.

4 Common Problems with Plot:

1. There is none. The piece is a character study with no rising action. This means that the protagonist lacks clear motivation, so there’s no problem to overcome, or the importance of the problem isn’t spelled out. There is also likely no antagonist representing a clear obstacle. This can be subtle; the protagonist’s need to overcome whatever obstacle just might not be clearly explained.

2. There’s too much. The piece is all action with no introspection, so the reader doesn’t get a clear understanding of the characters beyond basic human drives. I can’t help but think of action movies, whose characters are usually flat. Die Hard is a good example of an action movie that avoids this, however; John McClane is a cop, so when the terrorists take over the building, he’s compelled to act. Also, he’s having some marriage problems, so the fact that his wife is held hostage is another huge problem for him. These ideas are developed throughout the movie, so even though we end up with an over-the-top explode-a-rama, we still have an idea who the main character actually is. Of course, on the flipside, I can’t help but think of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels in which characters might stop in the middle of a battle to discuss historical war strategies, which is, of course, absurd and breaks the rising tension. (And then one of them steps on a twig when trying to be sneaky…)

3. The actions/obstacles veer from a true progression towards the conclusion. This means there are unnecessary and distracting elements in the story which take the reader away from the protagonist’s struggle with the obstacle. The Shaggy Dog Story is an example of this, in which a lot of information is given but it doesn’t really add up to a story. This tends to be an unpleasant read. Of course, the greatest, most successful example of this would probably be Laurence Sterne’s epic, hilarious The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which is a post-modern novel written before modernism in which the narrator attempts to share his life’s story but never gets beyond the age of four or so due to his constant digressions. In these digressions, he manages to thoroughly characterize his family and several neighbors, and manages the whole thing with a great deal of humor. I give this example to demonstrate that any rule of writing is meant to be broken, but it must be broken very well to pay off.

4. Something’s missing. Finally, the progression isn’t complete. The reader is unsure how we got to this point in the story. I could list any number of action movies as examples of this, again. One common version of this form is the Deus Ex Machina, or “God from the Machine.” (This refers back to the descent of a god in Greek tragedies—the god descended from a machine onto the stage to solve whatever problem was happening on stage). This is a story in which we have all this buildup, and then suddenly, from nowhere, a character comes in and solves all the problems at the last minute, which means that everything we’ve been reading up to this point has been unnecessary, i.e. pointless. This tends to piss off the reader.

Tips for Plot:

1. Don’t force it but don’t forget it.
-Try to let the plot develop naturally but don’t forget that the reader appreciates there being a plot.

2. Outline after the fact.
-This can help, once you’ve finished a draft, to make sure there aren’t any extraneous scenes or missing scenes. Many writers will jot an outline before they write, and that’s fine if that’s how you work. Most writers then ignore that outline while they actually write, preferring to let the story develop naturally. Going back after you’ve finished a draft and just jotting down a quick list of scenes and what they accomplish can help with revision.

3. Complications
-An enjoyable story needs complications (obstacles) but these shouldn’t be forced. They should also be paced so that they are satisfying for the reader. Trivial complications will feel forced, whereas too strong of a complication too soon can come off as overwhelming.

4. The conclusion should be surprising but inevitable.
This is a little harder to define. The ending should be inevitable because you’ve been building to it the entire story, but it should also still be somewhat surprising because it isn’t totally obvious. If there’s truly something at stake for the protagonist, then his/her final decision/action could, theoretically, “go either way.” Again, this is a difficult concept to state clearly, but it’s important for the ending to be satisfying.

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: POV


Point of View (POV) in fiction refers to the perspective from which a story is told. There are three basic types of point of view, first person, second person, and third person, and each of these have subtypes. First person POV means that a character in the story tells the story. This offers an opportunity for the author to really revel in the character’s voice and share a great deal of information about that character, subtly. The character’s word choices, the things s/he chooses to share, and the things s/he actually notices all tell the reader a lot about that character. There are two types of first person POV: omniscient and limited. First person omniscient POV means the narrator has access to information that s/he wouldn’t normally have, especially information only other characters might have, such as their thoughts and feelings. This usually implies that the author has some connection to the narrator, or maybe is the narrator, though there can be ways to work around this. Usually, though, first person omniscient is a difficult POV to pull off because the reader often finds it unbelievable that the narrator would have access to certain information. There are ways to work around this, of course. First person limited means that a character narrates the story but only has access to information that s/he would normally have. This can be an especially “limiting” perspective because the only information really available to the reader is that which the narrator knows. On the flip side, this can add mystery and be used to further characterization, and it does usually add believability to the story.

It’s tempting for novice writers to always use first person because of the inherent benefits, but it shouldn’t be overused. Because of its limitations, it can be alienating and even annoying to the reader. And if the narrator doesn’t have a distinctive voice, first person perspective is kind of wasted. If the voice isn’t distinctive, the writer should use third person and take advantage of the opportunities that offers.

Second person POV is an oft-maligned, little understood perspective. Instead of the “I” used in first person POV, second person uses “you.” This POV addresses the reader. This can be unsettling to many readers and is therefore rarely used. Probably the most successful usage has been in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books for young people. There have been many novels, also, written in second person (Bright Lights Big City, by Jay McInerney), though it’s rare for these to achieve mainstream success, and many other novels will lapse into second person occasionally, especially in dialogue. Colloquially, we often will use second person in dialogue when telling stories: “You work all day and get home to a dirty house and a bunch of ungrateful kids…” The thing to understand about second person narration is that it basically acts as a kind of colloquial first person, usually. When the narrator (or storyteller) says “you” s/he really means “I.” As with first and third person POVs, second person can be limited and omniscient but it has the same limitations and/or advantages of first or third person limited and omniscient. Second person creates a distinctive feel in a piece of writing, and because of that, if handled well, it can be very engaging, once the reader gets over the shock of its strangeness.

Third person POV is probably the most common POV. Basically, there is no narrator, or the author is the narrator. A third person limited POV is the most common. Often, it follows a character closely though it doesn’t delve into his/her thoughts. This is called a “close third” POV. Currently, this is accepted as the most realistic POV. Close third allows a fairly close narration, even slipping quite close to first person at times, and also allows the author to add details that the POV character wouldn’t necessarily know, usually handled in a third person POV description of another character’s actions, but is limited by not being omniscient. Third person omniscient is rarely used these days but was quite popular in centuries past. One of the main reasons it has fallen out of favor, other than the lack of believability, is that it often verged on solipsism for the author. Authors tended to ramble, when using this POV, which also turned off readers. It has been done beautifully, of course. It’s important to remember that these are all guidelines, not rules, and that anything is possible to do well. But there are reasons things are usually done certain ways.

Now let’s talk about who is actually doing the narrating. There are two main characters in 99% of stories, the characters between whom a problem exists, which is what the story is really about. More on this later. These characters are known as the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is the one with the problem; the antagonist is the one in the way. Sometimes the protagonist is referred to as the “hero” of the story, but this is a little too simplistic. For one reason, the protagonist might not be a hero; s/he might be deeply flawed or in the wrong or what have you. In Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, anyone would have a hard time labeling Humbert Humbert a “hero” but he is most assuredly the protagonist. He’s also the narrator, which is a quick and dirty but not always reliable way to figure out who the protagonist is. (Jay Gatsby is the protagonist in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, though Nick, his neighbor, is the narrator.) But often the narrator is the protagonist. The antagonist, on the other hand, is the person (or sometimes place) that gets in the way of the protagonist solving his/her problem. Some refer to this as the “villain” but that’s also a pretty limited view. The antagonist isn’t always bad and isn’t always trying to make things difficult for the protagonist, and maybe isn’t even aware what’s happening. Life, as they assay, is complicated and so is fiction. And one thing to remember when talking about characters in a story is that every character thinks s/he is the hero. Very, very rarely does anyone do things for nefarious reasons, really. Even then, it’s usually mitigated by all sorts of other complicated motivations. This is good because readers don’t really like obvious, stock characters or situations, but it means more work for us.

There are also a couple types of narration we haven’t touched on: unreliable vs. reliable. Reliable narration means the reader trusts the narrator’s perspective and doesn’t doubt the veracity of what the narrator says. This can be complicated, if we delve too deeply. Remember the lesson of Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove” (often confused with “Roshomon”) or Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, both of which feature seemingly reliable narrators who offer differing, at times contradictory, versions of events; basically, it’s difficult to pin down reality because it’s filtered through the senses and experiences of its observers. But let’s not go too deep since we didn’t bring our shovels. The other end of the spectrum is the unreliable narrator. This is someone who, for whichever reasons, the reader doesn’t trust. Usually, this distrust grows over the course of the story or novel and is the basis for some big reveal on which the plot is hinged. The possible drawback to unreliable narrators is that the reader can be put off by this. It calls into question the reality of the story and this can be off-putting. And so, to be done well, unreliability in a narrator must be mitigated and clear, many would say.

Getting back to that perspective idea, it’s important to realize that any perspective in a story is influenced by something. Even a third person narration is influenced by the writer’s own preconceptions, choices, etc. The key is to be aware in order to allow these choices to be purposeful.