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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.

Time-saving Tips, Post #1: Outlining (and Black Riders)

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts aimed at helping me (and you) to save time. I fully realise the irony of world-class time-waster Leinad writing this series, but really what I am doing is trying to identify my own bad habits so that I can correct them. If someone else can benefit too, that’s a plus.

Today I want to talk about the dangers of writing overly thorough outlines. I am not talking primarily about writing outlines for works of fiction (I suspect, with fiction, the “correct” amount of outlining varies incredibly from person to person and from story to story). Instead, I am talking about writing outlines for school essays, blog-posts or whatever else you may be writing that requires a structured and logical approach. The common advice we hear is that we should outline so that our writing is structured and logical. But like so much good advice, taken too far to the extreme, this is bad advice. I have a tendency to take it to that extreme.

A typical two page English essay, for me, might take somewhere around 4 hours. This would be taken up by:

  1. thinking about the question
  2. jotting down points that could be used to answer the question
  3. trying to think how best to organise these points
  4. writing a brief chronology (one point per paragraph)
  5. writing a very detailed outline
  6. following the outline to write the essay
  7. giving the essay a quick edit (but only a quick edit because by this stage I’m running behind on my schedule)

In the end, my four hours gets me a pretty average essay. Not only does everything move slowly but, because everything moves so slowly (ostensibly for the sake of increasing quality), my mind has time to wonder to other matters, not related to the essay, slowing things down further. Two important things have to change.

The first thing that has to change (this is before I even begin) is that I have to move more quickly with my thoughts. Go into brainstorm mode. Don’t sit placidly waiting for the profound thought to come to you, chase the profound thought over hedges, through weeds and into ditches and don’t stop till you catch it. If you wait for profundity to come to you, you’ll be swamped by irrelevant and dangerously unproductive thoughts. (Think of Frodo: if he goes on to Rivendell by himself, he’ll find Gandalf — if he waits for Gandalf, all he will get is Black Riders)

The second important thing is not to write an outline which is a “For Dummies” book about my essay. After all, am I such a bad writer that I cannot write a good essay unless I’ve already half-written it in the form of the outline next to me? In practice, what this means is that I should vastly truncate step 5.

In September, for pretty much the first time, I had to write several essays in exams. In each of these essays, I wrote only an extremely brief outline (basically the brief chronology mentioned in step 4). Did this cost me dear in the quality of my essays? Not at all. I received full marks on the essay in my History exam, for which I had 60 minutes to handwrite probably 1200 – 1300 words. This was significantly better than I had scored on other history essays during the year where I had spent many, many hours planning, researching, outlining, writing and editing. Thus, while some kind of an outline is important (depending somewhat, even in non-fiction, upon your personal style), the actual writing is of far more consequence. We know how to write, so all we need is a brief reminder of our topic and of the main points we will use to support our viewpoint on that topic.

This is probably all complete common sense, but believe it or not I have got it wrong again and again. Maybe you don’t have the same problem as me. If so, don’t take this post as a warrant for stripping back the time you spend outlining if you don’t need that. Too much planning and you waste time, but no planning and your essay could turn out as long-winded and unfocussed as this post. The moral of the story is not “plan less” but “plan the right amount”. Usually I plan too much; for this post, in an attempt to shrug off all hypocrisy, I didn’t plan enough.

Also, beware of the Black Riders.