Is this what dying feels like?

On Wednesday, I wrote a short story for a past exam paper question, in preparation for my end-of-school exams in October. The goal was to practice quickly writing a good story, as well as to produce something I might be able to adapt for my actual exam. The story I wrote, however — together with a Quora answer I read yesterday — did more than that. They taught me something very important about changing between points of view in a story, and about story-telling in general.

The question I attacked on Wednesday was this:

“Romanticism — a revolutionary search for feeling.” Using two imaginary voices, illustrate this concept.

Can you imagine opening your exam paper and finding yourself with just one hour to come up with a story for that question? Fortunately, for this practice, I was able to spend a good deal of time thinking about my story before I actually sat down to write. Nevertheless, I ran across a difficulty I had not anticipated. I found that changes in viewpoint character are really, really hard.

Before I tell you how I found it hard, let me tell you about the story I wrote. My story was set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars (at which time the country was just a collection of un-unified states). A father and his son are passionately nationalistic and want to fight, not only to expel Napoleon, but eventually to unify all German-speaking peoples. However, a problem arises. Just as they are about to leave, the son falls very ill. The father leaves without him, and the son is left ailing at home. The story switches back and forth between the two characters (who take turns narrating in the first person) as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that the son won’t be able to fight.

So: how were the POV changes hard? Well, they were hard in that I found it very difficult to keep the story flowing through the changes. With each change, the story seemed to grind to a halt. There didn’t seem to be much reason for the narrative to keep moving.

Let me show you how I ended the son’s first turn of narration, and see if you agree:

“For now [for the time-being], I would observe the subtle beauties of the German country, and feel the pain, as great as the pain in my chest, that I could not fight for its unity.”

Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s a terrible sentence — really sappy, and clichéd, and boring, and all the rest of it — what’s wrong with that? Well, to me it sounds like the end of a story. It smacks of resignation. Everything has happened that will happen, the character has made all the actions he can make, and now he’s just resigned. Nothing is happening. There is closure.

That, I think, is exactly the problem — there is closure. The fact is, there shouldn’t be closure at this stage in the story.

There should always be unanswered questions, or problems that require not resignation but an active response. Resignation might be an alright emotion to finish up with (depending on the story), but it’s not an alright emotion to leave a character with if you ever mean to come back to him. If you want to come back, there has to be something happening for you to come back to.

So: right before you change POV, make sure something happens to your viewpoint character — something that demands a response. Don’t leave him sitting quietly in a garden.

Now, that would have been the extent of this post, if not for a brilliant answer I read on Quora yesterday which suggests that this applies much more broadly than just to POV changes. The question (which can be found here if you have a Quora account) was “How does one become a better story-teller?” and the brilliant answer I read was given by one Marcus Geduld. He gave many different tips in his answer, but two sections in particular related quite specifically to what I’d been thinking about. The first section was entitled “What happens next?” and the second was “Keep the mystery ball in the air”.

In “What happens next” Geduld points out a critical ingredient in story-telling — an ingredient that novice story-tellers (including me) often leave out. That ingredient is the creation of questions, and the delayed revelation of answers. To illustrate this concept, let me quote a section of his answer:

The number-one ingredient for a story is the tension of an unsolved mystery. Stories set up questions and delay answering them. The simplest example is a question in the first sentence with the answer delayed until the second sentence:

“You know who Bob’s favorite singer is? Meatloaf!”

That’s not a very interesting story, I know, but compare it to this:

“Bob’s favorite singer is Meatloaf.”

The first version evokes (just a little) tension. The second doesn’t.

Just a short snippet there, but the implications for story-telling are profound. It causes me to think, really, that the word “story-telling” is one big misnomer. You are not, in fact, telling the story — at least, not in the plainest, most straightforward manner. You giving the reader teases, little bites — inviting them to question what happens next. You are making them interested by not telling the story, and thus arousing their curiosity.

In his next section “Keep the mystery ball in the air”, Geduld expands on what he has said. This questioning, this evasion of directly telling the story, should continue throughout. From beginning to end, the story-“teller” has to engage the readers’ curiosity. So with every question that is answered, a new question must be asked. With every POV change, a mystery must be created surrounding the character we just left. With every moral dilemma solved, the character must be presented with a new moral difficulty. When there are no longer any questions, the story is over.

Going back to my practice short story — I was so disgusted with my first attempt that I went back two days later and tried again. This time, I mostly remembered to invoke questions at the POV changes. It’s still not a great story (and I was yet to read that Quora answer at this stage), but it’s an improvement. And I think the biggest improvement is the POV change I showed you before. The second time round, rather than having the son sit resignedly thinking about nature, I had him set off to join his father — despite his sickness. This is how I ended the segment the second time round:

“My breath comes sharp and painful. The ground swings crazily up to meet me with each step. My vision blackens. What is this? I wonder. Is this a weakness that can be overcome? My vision blacks out totally. Is this what dying feels like?”

Obviously, this still isn’t perfect. You can still tell that I’m writing at top speed, and that the story really lacks polish. But don’t you think it’s a much better way to leave my character than sitting resignedly in a garden? Which segment-ending would you rather come back to?

So story-telling, I think, is largely getting your reader to ask one long series of questions. Engage their curiosity. Ask: “You know who Bob’s favourite singer is?” “Is this what dying feels like?” Don’t give them closure until you’re done.

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About Leinad

Leinad, also known as Keras the Unknown (Keras for short), also known as Thevarul, is an MK who likes to run, read, write and play board-games.

Posted on September 14, 2014, in My Thoughts, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Aha, this. First of all, one thing you mentioned is very close to what I have said once or twice: promises are important. Except that’s not what I mean to comment on. The real thing you echoed was the idea I introduced in my romantic tension post a couple weeks back— if left to its own devices, a romance will resolve itself in five minutes, Disney-style. That’s what your Quora (I think that’s right— I don’t know what it is) guy was saying, by delaying the answer to the question. That’s what keeps a story alive, you’re right.

    The other thing is the actual point of your post: viewpoints. I found myself getting really annoyed at viewpoint shifts in Robert Jordan’s fourth Wheel of Time book— with several viewpoints, spread across the world, he has to have some way to switch between them. He tends to stick with one character for about five chapters in a row, following their plot for a little while, then he switches to another character. However, when he switches, he leaves them right at the moment when you most want to keep reading about this character. So a character decides on a plan of action that you’re really curious about— and he switches viewpoints. Another character has a plot twist and finds out that one character is behind a certain attack— and he switches viewpoints. By the time we get back to the first character, we’ve lost our curiosity and just want to hear about the latter character. It’s unfortunate, but I’m still on the lookout for other, more successful viewpoint changes.

    That said, I can say without a doubt that ending a viewpoint’s segment with a promise instead of a conclusion is best. Excellent post, and nicely hooking first paragraphs.

    • I don’t know why I had to approve this comment: you’ve commented on my blog heaps of times before. I wonder if I changed my settings unintentionally…

      Anyway, that’s interesting — this does link closely with what you said in the romantic tension post. I read that post and found it very useful, but I didn’t think about the fact that it would be applicable to more than just romance sub-plots.

      I haven’t read The Wheel of Time, but I have experienced (to an extent) what you’re talking about. On the one hand, if you leave a character when nothing’s happening, you’ll never want to go back, but on the other hand, if you leave them at a critical moment, you won’t want to leave — and then you might still not want to go back because you get hooked with the next character. Do you think a way to get around this might be to keep the turns shorter? Since my story was a 1 hour hand-written exam piece, each turn of narration was pretty short too (varying from 300 – 600 words or so, I’d guess). This might not work so well in epic fantasy though.

      But yes, thanks for linking this in with promises — that’s something to remember. I’ve been thinking about promises a good bit lately (I started listening to “Writing Excuses” 😉 ).

      Oh, and Quora. Quora is a question-and-answer site I started using recently (sort of like Yahoo answers and Wiki answers, I think, but better). You can tell them what topics you’re interested in and they’ll email you popular answers to questions asked in those topics. I’ve read a lot of fascinating answers on Quora.

      • I’m not sure what the answer is with viewpoints. I’d like to figure it out, though.

        I’m glad you’re listening to Writing Excuses. It’s a great resource.

        I’ll check it out. Thanks.

      • One of these days I should read, or reread, a book that does viewpoints well, and analyse it. Actually, I am reading Inkspell to my sister at the moment, and that does viewpoints fairly well, but we’re just going through the book so sloooooooowly. So it’s a bit hard to analyse.

        It certainly is.

  2. Nice… Sounds interesting, and good point! 🙂

    • Thanks 🙂 And thanks for visiting!

      • 🙂 Sure.
        I’ve been working on short stories from time to time… would you mind looking them up on my blog? One is called “Unknown Soldier” and there’s another one I THINK I posted but I can’t remember what I called it…. *sigh*

      • Sure, I’ll have a read of that when I get a chance (probably tomorrow). Are you looking for a critique or just a bit of extra readership? Maybe I should post some short stories here from time to time… I’ve written quite a few lately, but mainly for school and not on topics I think my (few) readers would be that interested in.

      • Mostly a critique. So far, most of my short stories have been VERY short (about 500 words max.,) and I’m beginning a slightly longer one that I think will need more work and critique.
        I don’t know. I posted a sample chapter from a sort of sci-fi/psychological thriller project and all of a sudden I had four likes on the post and three new follows. And that’s only in about an hour.

      • OK, I’ll go give it a read now. For myself, I find “very short” is often a good thing, because it forces me to actually write well, and to rely not the quality of the words, not the quantity. (Something I am not skilled at.)

        Well, most of my stories for school aren’t sci-fi / psychological thriller — most of them this year are either about the concept of belonging or about the Romantic movement (or they embody Romantic ways of thinking). But still, I might post something some time — especially once I finish school and start writing stories more just for fun.

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