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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.

Talkies, Part 1

In the late 1920s, the talkie films were born. This was the new age. Suddenly, many of the old great silent actors couldn’t compete — all that miming and slapstick wasn’t much use any more. Others, who may not have had Charlie Chaplin’s propensity for silly faces, could now charm the audience with the power of their voice.

Dialogue is a tricky thing. Some people get it, others don’t. And it’s not just a challenge in talkie films, it’s a challenge in fiction writing.

Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about dialogue. What role should it play in my writing? How can I get it to play that role? If I want to write good talkie novels (which I do) it’s essential that I get the hang of this. Today I’ll focus on that first question: “What role should it play in my writing”. Here are some of my thoughts.

To start with, I’ve realised that dialogue needs to serve a purpose. Well, duh, you say: everything should serve a purpose. And yet, too often, my dialogue serves no story purpose at all.

So what’s the goal of dialogue? I don’t want to box us in and create imaginary rules, but it seems to me that most of the time, dialogue serves one (or more) of three main objectives: to portray character, to advance the plot or to create a certain effect.

  1. The importance of dialogue to portrayal of character is difficult to overstate. In a well-written story, a character’s speech tells us so much about them. For one thing, their accent and grammatical choices can tell us about where they are from and about their socioeconomic background. We’ve got characters like Hagrid in Harry Potter whose accent tells us that he is rustic, outdoorsy and perhaps hasn’t had a high level of education, which seems to fit perfectly with his role as Hogwarts gamekeeper. (And I’m sure someone with a greater knowledge of Britain’s accents would be able to more accurately place his geographical heritage). But dialogue can be used to show so many other aspects of a character. Are they outgoing or shy? Are they smart or foolish — or smart in some areas and foolish in others? Are they friendly and caring for others or are they selfish? Are they “talkers” who say things they don’t really mean (think Isabella Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey)? Do their actions contradict their words (think Brutus, in Julius Caesar)? Do they have superstitions (think Basta, in Inkheart)? All of these aspects of character, and more, can be shown effectively through dialogue. So when you write dialogue, don’t let it just be random words that could have been said by anybody — use it to create a powerful image of a particular character.
  2. Dialogue can also be handy in advancing the plot. This is usually because it allows the characters to discover new information — information that radically alters the course of the story. Think of Radagast arriving in An Unexpected Journey and telling the company about the evils in Mirkwood. Or Gale’s words to Katniss at the climactic close to Catching Fire, providing the plot-twist that catapults us into the final book. If you can advance the plot through dialogue, do so. (Nevertheless, not all plot advancement needs to — or indeed, should — be precipitated by dialogue).
  3. A final purpose of dialogue is to create or perpetuate a particular effect that the author wants their story to possess. In some stories, this is a sober, chilling effect — think of the The Dark Knight Rises: “it will be very painful… for you”. In other stories, the author wants to go for a humorous effect, and dialogue is an important means of creating that humour — think of Harry Potter, where jokes told by the likes of Fred and George go a long way to providing welcome laughs in a pretty dark story.

These three objectives are each, on their own, very important in a story, but dialogue can be used most effectively if it helps us meet multiple objectives simultaneously. Sometimes, the sole purpose of piece of dialogue is to develop character, or advance the plot, or create humour. Most great dialogue, however, will do two of those, or even all three. If you’ve read Catching Fire, think again to the ending: that last piece of dialogue doesn’t just catapult us into the final book, it also shows something about Gale’s character — and it perpetuates the grim, suspenseful tone of the series.

Now — and this, I’ve realised, is important — though dialogue should always serve a purpose, the fact that it does serve a purpose doesn’t meet it belongs. Sometimes, all of the things accomplished by dialogue can be accomplished even better without it. I learned this lesson in the short story / novella I wrote this year. At one stage, I tried to introduce a new character, together with an associated plot-point, through dialogue. The dialogue served the purpose of character development and plot advancement to an extent, but after a while I realised it still wasn’t the best thing to do. In the end, I decided to use narrative exposition to introduce the character and the situation, both because it would make things clearer for the audience and because it would contribute to the darkly reflective tone of the story.

In the end, then, for dialogue to be successful, it needs to serve a purpose and it needs to serve that purpose better than straight-out exposition, or any other means. This seems like a no-brainer, but I think too often I rush into writing dialogue without considering whether it’s necessary. My goal is to be more discriminatory in my use of dialogue, and while this won’t happen overnight (certainly not in my first drafts — and I’m okay with that), hopefully in time I’ll perform this discrimination subconsciously. Talkies are tough, but I don’t want to be a silent actor.

This has been Talkies, Part 1. Come back in a week or two for Talkies, Part 2.


Unrealistically boring characters

I think sometimes we over-fictionalise fiction.

I am not talking about our tendency to write wholly outlandish or unrealistic stories. I am not bashing high fantasy, or science-fiction, or Roald Dahl. In fact, I am not talking about ways in which we try to make our stories too interesting by forsaking reality, rather I’m talking about the ways in which we let our stories become boring by failing to capitalise on the amazing things that happen in real life.

Specifically, today I want to talk about this in relation to characters. I’ll tell you straight up: I write terrible characters. Nearly all of my characters seem, to me, to be flat, boring personas who walk around saying obvious or irrelevant things and who can’t so much as crack a joke. I have never succeeded in writing a Dustfinger or a Boromir or a Neville Longbottom — not even a Fred or George Weasley.

Why is this? I expect there are many reasons, but I think a major reason is that I have failed to appreciate and to capture the wonderfully wide variety of characters I have encountered in real life.

You may feel like you have had a relatively dull, uninteresting life. But when you think about it, you will probably find that you can tell far more interesting stories, far more fascinating pieces of information about your life, than you thought you could. They may not be stories which will change your listener’s life, but if you tell them right, they will certainly keep people interested. What about the fascinating people you have met? How many interesting people are there in your life?

What about the man you’ve met who knows at least thirty languages, possibly closer to fifty? What about your friend who was deposited out of the window of his car when it flipped over several times, but was unhurt? What about the pastor of your church who came third in a beer brewing competition?

You could get even more basic — rather than thinking of the fantastic accomplishments or fascinating stories, think of personalities.

What about the lady who always seems to be talking? If you tell her a story, she’ll always have a similar story or experience to tell straight back to you. Or what about your grandmother who feeds you nonstop every time you go to visit her? Every time she sees something she thinks you’ll like “on special”, she’ll buy it and send it to you — though you live thousands of kilometres a way. Or what about your grandmother’s friend who is equally generous? She is very old and overweight, has multiple joint issues, a weak heart, and yet continues to cook “Meals-on-Wheels” for people frequently. And, interestingly, she drives pretty fast. (contradictions are key to interesting characters)

All of these are people that I know, despite the fact that I used the second person, but I’m sure you can think of just as many fascinating people with fascinating stories that you know. Now that I’ve got started I can think of so many more.

Once you realise the rich reality that you are faced with, you may be able to better incorporate that into your fiction. As David Corbett says in his article “How to craft compelling characters”, “the best inspiration often comes from within us—and from our experiences with people in our lives”. In other words, take all those fascinating people, those wonderful idiosyncrasies, those fantastic stories, and use them to inspire your fiction. Give your imagination some material to work with — use your imagination to aid and abet and transform the rich experiences of real life into something new, but something just as authentic and exciting.

Just as we should take advantage of those wonderful real-life characters in order to inspire our fictional ones, so should we take advantage of our own real-life thought-processes and emotions in order to write realistic and powerful thought-processes and emotions for our characters. In the same article, David Corbett says “It often surprises me how frequently writers, especially young writers, fail to explore the rich veins of emotion they possess in their own lives, so they can translate that to their characterisations”. He recommends thinking about important emotional experiences we have had so that we can create them more effectively in our characters. For example, think about your “moment of greatest fear”, your “moment of deepest shame” and your “worst failure” — and think about more positive emotional experiences too (if you plan to give your character any). It seems to me that even if the low-point that the character in your novel experiences is wholly fictional, you can make it far more powerful by thinking of your own feelings during similar (if much less severe) situations.

So I think there are two applications of this post for me. Firstly, I want to take greater note of the personalities, the idiosyncrasies, and also the stories of people I know. Possibly I’ll write portraits describing them or even short stories involving them. In this way I will become keenly aware of how fascinating real-life people are, and I can build on that to make far more interesting and realistic fictional characters. Secondly, I need to think more about how I would feel in my characters’ shoes. More specifically, it would be good to think of situations that I would find very difficult — very shameful, very fear-inspiring, or whatever — and try to put my characters in those situations. Show no mercy to your characters. The day when my reader’s gut is wrenched because they actually care about my character, and the things my character suffers actually means something to them — that day I will consider myself to be a half-decent writer.

I hope that this post is as useful for you as it has been for me. For some reason I have written it predominantly in the second person, even though these are ideas for myself more than for anyone else. If you have any thoughts on this, please do comment. You may also like to read the David Corbett article, linked to both here and above, which I found quite useful even though his commonly used Blanche Dubois illustration fell flat, me never having read the book.