Thursday, September 24, 2015

Point of View - What's Right and Wrong




The great Chinese ruler, Mao Tse Tung, once said, 'In order to break the rules of a system, one must first learn and understand them.' (Okay, I paraphrase - he was actually talking about Communism.)

But so it is with POV in fiction. 

Learn the rules first, then you can break them.

I get so many emails from writers asking how they should deal with point of view that I thought it might be interesting to discuss the subject here.

The truth is, there's no right or wrong way to do things - but there are guidelines that, if you adhere to them, will mark you out as a good and competent writer. 

Similarly, if you ignore them (without understanding what you're doing) then you'll most likely come across as an amateur.

Before we go on, let's make sure we know the terms of reference.

For most fiction, you have 4 basic alternatives.

1. First person, where everything is told from the limited POV of the protagonist - the classic 'I' story. 

Good because you can get right inside the feelings and motivations of the main character. 

Bad because only the narrator can propel the plot - that is, nothing can happen that the hero is unaware of.

2. Third person, where the writer (and reader) follows the action through the actions of one protagonist. 

Good because you can get inside and outside of the character, describing a rounded personality with some objectivity.

3. Omniscient, where the writer can describe the actions and inner feelings of all of the characters from any point of view that seems appropriate. 

Good because of its flexibility. 

Bad because it is open to abuse and mishandling.

4. A combination of all of the above.

Now, most aspiring writers have little trouble with options 1 and 2 - the limitations are relatively obvious when you use them. 

It's in the 3rd option where writers start to flounder.

Consider this piece:

Jenny thought about what he'd said. He was right, she was lonely and would do anything to stop him from leaving. Finally, she said, "Do you care at all?"

"Of course." Don looked away, trying to contain his angst. Should he tell her about Debra? He wanted to but knew it would only make things worse. He chose to lie. "We've grown apart, Jen..."

Gwen entered the room. Instantly, she could tell something was wrong. She scanned the lovers' faces and decided to leave them to it. Head bowed, she left.

This is fairly typical of the kind of inexperienced writing I'm sometimes asked to comment on. The writer desperately wants the reader to know all sides of the story, thinking that this creates drama and intrigue - but simply put, it doesn't. 

It creates confusion for the reader. 

What's called 'head-hopping' makes a reader uneasy for one main reason:

Identification. 

Readers want to relate to one character at a time - it's human nature. 

Therefore, it would be unnatural for a character to know what another was thinking. 

Indeed, it's NOT knowing what the other character is thinking that goes a long way to creating drama!

The practice of 'head hopping' has all but been eradicated in most modern literature but is still prevalent in some romance, especially during love scenes. 

Sometimes the romance writer is so keen to let the reader know that love (or whatever) is being reciprocated that they abandon the line between two points of view and merrily leap from one brain to another, sometimes, I find, to the point of nausea!

Note this: just because something is or was common practice, doesn't make it right. 

Writing is a craft and we, as craftspeople, should surely learn from the mistakes of the past and seek to improve our writing techniques.

Agatha Christie was famous for her head hopping - you might be in a room with Miss Marple and half a dozen others and never knows whose head you would end up in! 

This gave the reader the illusion they knew the innermost thoughts of characters. 

I say illusion because Christie did it to mislead - she was never totally honest with the reader - for good reason: she wanted to hold back the identity of the killer till the last page!

This kind of deliberate misdirection - the type that 'cons' the reader - is frowned upon nowadays. We modern writers have to be cleverer than that.

There's a famous scene in Carrie, which Stephen King mentions in his book On Writing. 

Most of the book is told from Carrie's POV but there's one scene where Carrie leaves the room and the POV jumps, without a break, to her mother. 

King says he did this deliberately - to jolt the reader into accepting a particular plot point. 

This is a fine example of breaking the rules when you know them.

Despite the challenges for the aspiring writer, the modern trend is towards alternating chapters of third person omniscience and occasional forays into first person, not exclusively limited to the protagonist.

But why is the most challenging of styles now the norm?

One word: TV. 

Without so much as making a framed suggestion, television and movie scripts have forced us to think in terms of objective omniscience - a state where we are privy to the actions of most of the lead characters actions and reactions in real time. 

This works so well because it reflects the way we have come to view reality - a linear series of interactions that lead to a believable outcome.

It's little wonder that most modern novelists concerned with 'willing suspension of disbelief' now use the same format - where each chapter introduces new characters whom we get to know and understand before moving on to another situation or group of individuals that we implicitly expect to have something to do with the plot.

But in the actual writing, where should we place the point of view? 

We should already understand that in any given scene we should identify with one character at a time - but which one? 

The best advice I ever received was that scenes are most effective when told from the POV of the person with most to lose.

For example, in a love scene, the partner with most at stake emotionally should be your focus. Similarly in a thriller, the hero who's about to lose his life, his lover or his livelihood through his actions should be your focus.

In literary novels, your focus should be on the character most affected by the unfolding story. 

In fantasy and science fiction too, you'll have noticed that the story is more often than not told from the POV of the hero charged with saving the world, the spaceship or the poor hapless villagers.

Follow this particular guideline and you won't go far wrong.

Then, later, when you understand the power of placing the POV in the right place, can you feel free enough to experiment - by deliberately moving the focus around. 

Dickens was good at this. He would focus his attention (and thereby the readers') on unsympathetic characters from time to time to heighten the effect of returning to the protagonist.

Modern authors too - like James Patterson and Thomas Harris - will occasionally tell parts of the story from the POV of the killer. 

To give us a sense of menace, madness and revulsion so that we identify more strongly with Clarice Starling and Alex Cross when we return to them.

To conclude - my advice is that you choose to write scenes, chapters, sections etc. from one POV at a time. 

And if you do feel the need to change POV midstream, have the courtesy to place a blank line in the text to alert the reader to the change!

Best regards and keep writing!

Rob Parnell
Your Success Is My Concern

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Murder Your Darlings

(According to Google this is my most popular article - something short I wrote back in 2003. It's reproduced in over 160 places on the Net and even gets a reference on Wikipedia as a qualified information source. Cool!)

“Murder your darlings” was a phrase first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (or Fitzgerald or Faulkner or Nabakov or even Stephen King, depending on who you believe).

They're all referring to what you might call your “best bits.” The “bits” you should edit out of your work.

As Elmore Leonard once said, “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”

The theory is that writing you’re particularly proud of is probably self-indulgent and will stand out.

You might think this is good. Wrong.

You will most likely break the “fictive dream.”

(This is the state of consciousness reached by readers who are absorbed by a story.)

And breaking your reader out of this fictive dream is a heinous sin!

Editing out “the best bits” is the hardest thing a novice writer has to do – after all, isn’t it counterproductive to write good things down only to cut them out?

Look at it this way…

When you start out, every word you write is precious.

The words are torn from you.

You wrestle with them, forcing them to express what you’re trying to say.

When you’re done, you may have only a paragraph or a few pages – but to you the writing shines with inner radiance and significance.

That’s why criticism cuts to the core.

You can’t stand the idea of changing a single word in case the sense you’re trying to convey gets lost or distorted.

Worse still, you have moments of doubt when you think you’re a bad writer - criticism will do this every time.

Sometimes you might go for months, blocked and worrying over your words and your ability.

There is only one cure for this – to write more; to get words out of your head and on to the page.

When you do that, you’re ahead, no matter how bad you think you are.

After all, words are just the tools – a collection of words is not the end result, it is only the medium through which you work. In the same way that a builder uses bricks and wood to build a house – the end result is not about the materials, it’s about creating a place to live.

As you progress in your writing career, you become less touchy about your words.

You have to.

Editors hack them around without mercy.

Agents get you to rewrite great swathes of text they don’t like.

Publishers cut out whole sections from your books as irrelevant.

All this hurts – a lot.

But after a while, you realize you’re being helped.

That it’s not the words that matter so much as what you’re trying to communicate.

Once you accept that none of the words actually matter, and have the courage to “murder your darlings,” you have the makings of the correct professional attitude to ensure your writing career.

This is a tough lesson to learn.

But, as always, the trick is… to keep writing!

Rob Parnell

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Theme & Premise - What's the Difference?


I was asked this question by an esteemed subscriber this week and thought it might make an interesting article.

In the publishing and movie industry the terms theme and premise are bandied around liberally - and it's assumed that writers know the difference, even if agents, publishers, and marketing people are not so up on the precise meanings.

Basically the premise to a story is your starting point, the idea behind it - its reason to be.

I've heard members of writer's groups ask the question: "Can you write a story without a premise?"

I would have to say you could try - but fairly soon you'd run out of things to say. You need a premise to give a story legs.

Besides which, most writers are able to sum up what their story is about - or going to be about - in a short sentence of two.

So what makes a premise?

Mostly an intriguing idea, a what-if scenario or a juxtaposition of two disparate notions fused together.

The premise is usually an 'original' idea - in that it's sufficiently different from other ideas - already written and explored - to warrant further interest.

Theme is altogether different.

The theme is the overall thrust of the story - what it explores. It's the end result and may have little to do with the premise.

Unlike the premise, your theme doesn't need to be particularly original - there are only around a dozen or so themes to explore anyway.

How about some examples - to help clarify all this rhetoric?

Take Romeo and Juliet. The premise is two young people from warring families fall in love. The theme is star crossed love leads to tragedy.

What about Harry Potter? The premise is a young boy discovers he's a wizard. The theme is anyone can become a hero.

The Da Vinci Code: the premise is that the Catholic Church has a secret agenda. The theme is that it's time to change the way we feel about organized religion.

Pride and Prejudice: the premise is that a feisty young woman needs to find a husband. The theme? Love conquers all.

The premise to Crime and Punishment: a young man kills an old lady for her money. The theme: sin leads to redemption.

As you can see, theme and premise are usually related but not always in a way you'd expect.

When people ask you what your story is about, they normally want you to explain the premise first, followed by your theme.

Writers have a tendency to think in themes - especially when they're working on a story - but themes are fairly dull to relate. The premise is the interesting part - the thing that excites a listener or reader.

When pitching a novel or a screenplay to a publisher or producer, focus on the premise.

Consciously write and rework a sentence or two to get the premise into a short and snappy description of your story.

If you don't have a compelling premise, chances are you won't generate much interest in your story, no matter how good it is.

That's the reality of the modern world: distillation.

Learn how to distil your story ideas into sound bytes, and you'll go far.

This practice has a downside.

Sometimes you'll be talking to a movie producer and she'll say "Got any ideas for stories?" So you pitch the premise to your most beloved story.

Time passes while she considers it.

"What else have you got?" comes the eventual reply.

This is not because the idea is bad but more to do with their personal bias or commercial expertise. You can pitch another premise and she'll like that one - and will then listen with interest to its theme.

The modern media focusses primarily on the angle - the sidelong glance at a topic that piques the interest quickly. This is not such a bad thing for the writer, so long as you understand it and use it to your advantage.

It's not unusual to end up working on a project where you pitch a premise that you haven't begun writing yet.

You're encouraged to develop the idea because the premise is compelling.

You may, like many writers, have only one or two themes that you explore in all of your work.

But the trick is to make those themes seem fresh and exciting by having a premise that makes readers want to read on.

I hope this helps your understanding of theme and premise.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Give Your Characters Attitude



The other day, a writer friend of mine told me her publisher recommended she read a certain book to get the flavor of what they liked to publish. 

Eager to know, my author friend rushed to find the book and devour it... only to feel slightly disappointed - and confused.

She wondered what it was about this book the publisher liked. 

The story wasn't great. 

The writing was average. 

Some of the pacing seemed awkward. 

Then it hit her. 

It was the ATTITUDE of the protagonist that gave the book its appeal. 

The hero was feisty, quick to anger, even spiteful and yet somehow lovable.

It's no secret that I believe the key to good story telling is 'character'. 

It should come before everything else - before plotting, before story, even before putting pen to paper. 

If your characters aren't real to you, their stories will never work.

And while I've spent much time elsewhere talking about the importance of creating believable characters, I don't think I've given over as much time on their 'attitudes' as perhaps I could have done.

So let's do some exploring, shall we?

Think of some classic fictional characters. 

What's the first thing that comes to mind? 

Their physical appearance? 

Rarely. 

It's usually their demeanor, isn't it? 

Their unique way of interacting with the world - yes, their attitude towards what they do.

James Paterson's Alex Cross is a great character because he's all heart. 

He loves his family and truly values friendship - and takes his psychopath's activities very personally!

Patricia Cornwall's Kaye Scarpetta doesn't respond well to being patronized or underestimated. 

She's also way too protective of her niece. 

Notice too that she gets much more critical of her partner's habits as the series progresses.

The Da Vinci Code's Robert Langdon is intrigued by mystery and secret symbols. 

Interestingly, despite being a simple college professor he seems to possess almost superhuman powers of endurance. 

In Angels and Demons, for instance, he actually falls out of a plane without a parachute over Rome... and survives with barely a scratch!

I think Harry Potter's appeal has much to do his ordinariness. 

He never believes he's capable of what he has to face. 

Everybody and his dog knows he's supposedly destined for greatness but he doesn't ever seem quite ready for it.

The next time you're inventing (major and minor) characters, don't just imagine their physical attributes, try to give them depth by wondering what they would be passionate about or, conversely, have little interest in. 

What would annoy them - or thrill them?

Give them short term and lifelong agendas, things they are committed to achieving or seeing come to pass. 

These are the things that will help with your plotting. 

Once you know what one of your characters would definitely NOT do, your stories will begin to take on a life of their own.

Remember, never impose a story on a character. 

The best stories come out of the main character's conflicting agendas.

For example, it's not enough to have some anonymous killer trailed by any old ordinary detective. 

The killer must be fully realized - there must be very good reasons (if only in his own mind) why he does what he does. 

Similarly, for good fiction, the detective should be motivated by much more than just 'doing his job' to make a story like this compelling.

Once we know the killer hates women and perhaps himself, and that the detective is terrified of losing his wife to him, then we begin to care about the outcome.

I think one of the reasons Hollywood movies work so well is that the big stars come with a ready made attitude. 

We all know what to expect from actors like Jack Nicholson, Brad Pitt, and Scarlett Johansson. 

No matter what characters they play, we sense their attitudes, their strength and depth, even though we know they're only acting!

So, the message is that during character development, try to imagine being inside the head of your character. 

Don't just give them attributes, histories and agendas, go the extra mile and give 'em attitude!

Rob Parnell
Your Success Is My Concern


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