Things Seen and Unseen

Let’s talk for a minute about point of view. In fact, we could talk about point of view for considerably more than a minute, because it’s a complex and many-layered thing – not to mention being, for some writers, the key to making everything else click into place. (For other writers, the key might be something else. Nothing about this job is universal, except maybe that if you don’t write you won’t ever have written.)

I’m assuming right now that if you’re reading this you’ve already absorbed Point of View 101: Third Person, First Person, and the Weird Stuff. (I’ve blogged about those already, here and here, if you want a quick refresher.)

What I’m thinking about now is a bit more subtle – it’s one of the failure modes of point of view.  Point of view is implicit in a narrative, even if it isn’t directly specified, and sometimes the narrative “sees” things which nobody is observing.  This results in clumsy writing, or in writing which, while not precisely clumsy, nevertheless has an off-center sort of wrongness to it that can have a cumulative effect on the reader’s sense of immersion in the story.

An example:

As Joe looked at the kitchen door, it was angrily thrown open.

There are a couple of things wrong with that sentence, starting with having the active observer relegated to a subordinate clause, and the important action – the throwing-open of the door – occurring as an agentless passive verb. (Who is throwing open the door? The narrative doesn’t let us see them.) Those wrong things, though, are made worse by the point-of-view failure we get in that adverb “angrily.”

Anger is an emotion, a state of mind; somebody is experiencing it as he/she/they throw open the door.  But we don’t see the door-opener, so we’re not in a position to draw inferences about their state of mind.

Fixing that sentence requires either showing us who is on the other side of that door – As Joe looked at the kitchen door, Jane angrily threw it open – or replacing “angrily” with a verb, or verb+adverb, that doesn’t have an implied state-of-mind attached – As Joe looked at the kitchen door, it was abruptly thrown open/jerked open.  (In this case, I’d probably go with the latter fix; that is, if I didn’t decide to rewrite the whole sentence from scratch, and possibly the paragraph it was part of as well.)

In a similar vein – don’t refer to a character as holding onto something with a white-knuckled grip if that character is wearing gloves.  Nobody, including the character, can see the knuckles in question.

As a general rule, when you’re writing description, it’s always good to pause every so often and query yourself:  Where is the (named or just implied) viewer standing?  Is everything you’ve just mentioned visible from that point?  If you’re doing the verbal equivalent of a tracking or panning shot, is your observation moving smoothly from point to point, or is it jumping around at random?*

Point of view may not, as I said at the beginning, be the key to everything.  Nevertheless, if you’ve got a good handle on point of view, you’ve probably got most of your other ducks lined up and quacking in formation as well.

*Yes, there may be occasions when you want a sense of jumpy and random observation.  But there, too, point of view rules:  your reader is going to draw inferences from that jumpiness about your observer’s probably-confused state of mind.

Thought for the Day

A piece of fiction is a carefully-crafted series of lies told to the reader, which the reader agrees to believe for the duration of the story.  Anything that threatens the fragile nature of this agreement is bad.

This is, for example, why it’s necessary to do your research – if you get something wrong that your reader is in a position to notice, the reader’s ability and desire to continue playing along with you is going to be compromised. The same goes for poorly-motivated characters and plotting by incredible coincidence.

It’s just one of the many oddities of the writer’s craft.  We are, or at any rate ought to be, scrupulously honest and careful about the small stuff, all in service of a bald-faced falsehood:

Listen. I’m about to tell you a true story….

The I’s Have It

As a general rule, when you’re writing in first person, it helps to know the narrator’s assumed reader or listener – that is, the fictional person or persons that your fictional speaker is speaking or writing to.  Some first person narrators sound like a person telling their story to a single curious listener, at some comfortable time after the fact; some sound like they’re addressing a group; others use devices such as diary entries, voice recordings, letters, and the like to suggest that the story is being assembled or recorded for posterity in some fashion.

Some first-person voices are hallowed by tradition.  There’s the reader-I-married-him voice of the Gothic novel, as exemplified by Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous narrator in Jane Eyre, and by the never-named heroine of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.  There’s the noir-tinged private-eye voice of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe; and the confessional voice of the contemporary memoir.

The first person is not without its pitfalls, however.  Some readers hold it in visceral disregard, often so intense that they simply will not read a story if they see that it’s written in the first person.  Other readers react badly to dissonance between the perceived gender of the narrator and the perceived gender of the author.  They are unable or unwilling to suspend their disbelief long enough to accept a male narrator in a story with a female by-line, or vice versa.  And if you’re planning to kill off your viewpoint character in the end, first person will make it a hard sell.

(Well, you could always have the story being narrated by their ghost – it’s been done before – but it’s tricky to do that and still maintain suspense.  Also, some portion of your readership will inevitably be disgruntled at what they perceive as an underhanded bit of literary trickery.)

As always, weigh what you want to accomplish by using the first person against what you may lose if you don’t pull it off as well as you’d like, or if some portion of your readership is put off by it, and make your choice accordingly.


The Muse at War

It’s possible to go through an entire writing career without having to send your characters off to war.  But even in the most unlikely of genres – “sex and shopping” summer beach novels, or literary novels set in darkest Academe – an unexpected plot turn can have your characters heading for the sound of the guns (or the clash of swords, depending upon the era and the tech level), and next thing you know, there you are, smack dab in the middle of a pitched battle.  You may even, if you’re working in some of the more speculative genres, have to make up a battle from scratch.

How, then, to make the ensuing military engagement, if not realistic, at least credible?  There are a couple of reliable ways.

One way, of course, is personal experience.  If you have it, you know already that you do, and you might as well get all the use out of it that you can.  About the only thing you need to remember is that fiction has to be believable, whereas reality is under no such constraint.

The other way, of course, is research.  There’s research done the slow way, when you read political history and military history and Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and the memoirs of a lot of people who got out of their various wars alive and wrote about them afterward, and play a lot of war games and maybe do some historical re-creation on the side, and then put all of that together to synthesize your battle.

Then there’s research done the fast way, where you steal a battle outright.  This is especially useful when the military aspect of the plot isn’t the main thing – maybe you’re more interested in the romance, or the politics, or the class/race/gender/whatever issues – but you’ve nevertheless found yourself in a corner of the story where the only way out is through this enormous set-piece battle that you somehow have to write.

What you do, at that point, is pick a historical battle from roughly the same era-and-tech-equivalent as your fictional one, and shamelessly use the terrain and maneuvers and eventual outcome of that battle as the template for your own.  It helps to pick a relatively obscure engagement – more people than you suspect are likely to recognize the double-envelopment of Cannae, or the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg – and to pick a single point of view character and stick as much as possible to just what he or she is experiencing.

And then you don’t tell anybody what battle you stole.  If some fan writes you a letter, or corners you at a convention or a book signing, and says, “Hey – wasn’t that space battle in Book Two of your trilogy a rip-off of the Battle of the River Plate, only in space?”, you can give them a big smile and say, “Why, yes, indeed!  How clever of you to notice!”

Wheels and Gears

I’m not going to talk here about “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” stories, because that’s a distinction made by critics, which is to say, from the outside looking in, whereas most writers find plot and character to be so thoroughly intermingled that talking about one as though it excluded the other feels pointless.

It is fair to say, though, that some stories have more in them by way of external incidents than others do, and that one of the tricky parts of writing a story like that is fitting all of the incidents together into a smoothly-working vehicle that carries the reader to whatever place it is that the writer wants them to go.  (Where that place is doesn’t really matter; it could be a quiet moment of personal epiphany, or it could be the final battle in the desperate struggle against an invasion of machine intelligences from an alternate dimension.  What’s important is keeping the reader headed that way, and not letting them wander off into fretful speculation as to why the protagonist is so dense, or how the interdimensional travel equations might really work.)

One way to put the incidents together is in a simple sequence:  one incident, or plot thread, or bit of narrative plays out from start to finish, and then the next one in line begins its run, and so on until the end.  This is particularly useful in long-form or serialized works, and like a lot of apparently simple things, it’s easy to do a mediocre job of it and hard to do an excellent one.  Good arc-based television, and good comic book series, give examples of how the trick is done.  The primary technique is to start cueing up the next incident before the current one is finished, so that the teeth on the gear of the current arc mesh with the teeth on the gear of the upcoming one without a jolt.  (I could say something about making certain to use bigger and bigger gears as you head toward the overall climax, but that would probably be straining the analogy beyond its natural limits.)

The other way to put incidents together effectively is less like gears than it’s like a braid.  You’ve got a sequence of incidents leading up to Plot Element Solution A, and another sequence leading up to Plot Element Solution B, and possibly a third leading up to Plot Element Solution C, and all of them have to fit together to make up Overall Plot Solution D.  This is good for one-shot stories, where you’re planning to finish the tale and get out; it’s also good for mysteries and thrillers and caper plots, or for any kind of story that requires more than one angle on the action, whether internal or external.

The tricky bits in braiding a story are first, figuring out just how long to stay with one thread before dropping it and picking up another one for a while (too short a time, and your readers are going to get whiplash; too long, and they’ll either grow impatient and skip ahead to the next bit with their favorite character or plot element, or they’ll get so engrossed in the current bit that they’ll forget what they’re supposed to be remembering about all of the others); and second, keeping track of which characters are doing what things when, and making certain that the characters in one thread don’t know about things in other threads that they haven’t been told, just because you-the-author know those things already.

Making charts and timelines can help with the second kind of tricky bit; about all that helps with the first kind is practice, and maybe the knowledge that even the pros don’t get to stop wrestling with it, because every story is different and there isn’t a magic formula that can be applied to get the answer.

You try something, and you see if it works.  And if it doesn’t, you try again.

It’s the trying again that’s the key.

Gently Does It

Or, yet another cause of reader disgruntlement.

Readers – especially readers of fiction — don’t like being pushed to a particular conclusion.  They want to feel like they got there all by themselves.

Writers, on the other hand, often have specific conclusions that they want their readers to reach: this character is good and noble, and should be loved and respected; that other character is bad and wicked, and deserves whatever bad fate is coming to him or her; this course of action is socially useful and morally desirable and worthy of emulation; that other course of action is thoroughly despicable and morally bankrupt, not to mention just plain tacky.

The urge to make all of these things crystal clear to the reader is a hard one to resist.  But resist it we must, lest our stories end up sounding like the adventures of Goofus and Gallant of Highlights for Children fame.  (Surely I’m not the only person out there who as a young reader used to fantasize about staking out the insufferable Gallant over an anthill?)  I’ve talked before about the dangers of over-subtlety, but this area is one of a handful of places where the big danger lies in the other direction.  When you’re luring the reader to your desired conclusion, you need to be subtle as all heck about it – plant the necessary clues well in advance, but don’t point at them while you’re doing it, and for heaven’s sake don’t have your protagonist monologue about your conclusion afterward.

If you find it hard to tell whether or not you’re being over-obvious – and most of us do, at least some of the time – the answer is the same as it is for worrying about being over-subtle:  Find a trusted beta reader, preferably one who’s coming at the story cold, and ask them.

Then trust their judgment and fix the problem.

Besetting Sins

All writers have them – those prose tics they exhibit when the going is either too fast, or too slow, for them to notice the word-by-word; those all-too-easy-to-fall-back-on scenes and tropes that can take the place of carefully-crafted or character-driven plotting*; those personal or political agendas that will take advantage of an unguarded moment to turn sneaky fictional persuasion into open polemic.

One of my own sins is a horror of being too obvious about things.  Taken too far – as will happen, sometimes, despite all efforts to the contrary – this results in a story that lacks clarity because a lot of the necessary connective bits only exist inside my head.

So I’ve had to make a rule for myself:  When in doubt, spell it out.

It’s a useful rule, at least if you’re me, or if that particular writerly sin is one of yours, as well.

Generally speaking, I find that if I have to ask myself, “Self, are you perhaps being a bit over-subtle right here?”  the answer is usually, “Yes.”

Also – as I tell myself from time to time – don’t worry about being too obvious.  It’s actually fairly hard to be too obvious, and if you are being too obvious, trust me, your editor or your beta readers will let you know.

(And if you’re Vladimir Nabokov or James Joyce or Gene Wolfe, then you’re playing a different game altogether and a different set of general rules apply.  Also, you’re probably well beyond needing advice from me on anything, though possibly a good recipe or two might still be useful.) 

*Not that “carefully-crafted” and “character-driven” should be taken as mutually exclusive!

More Than Meets the Eye

It’s time to talk for a minute about description.

A story needs description, as part of the process of enabling readers to re-create the imagined world of the story inside their own head.  In science fiction and fantasy narratives in particular, description does more than just paint a picture of a slice of contemporary consensus reality – it’s part of the world-building, the process by which the writer calls into being a fictional milieu which is not part of contemporary consensus reality at all.

Most journeyman writers can manage telling the reader how things look and sound.  We’re used to filtering our experiences of the world through the senses of sight and hearing, and those details come easily to mind.  But effective description needs to involve all the senses, including smell and touch and taste.  In practical terms:  if your characters are standing out in the snow in the middle of a snowstorm, their feet are going to be cold.  And if they’re in the common-room of a busy tavern, they’re going to be smelling the burning logs on the fire, and the sweat of the patrons, and the scent of whatever good stuff is cooking.

(A quick tip:  If you really want your description to connect with the reader on a straight-to-the-animal-brain level, go for the sense of smell.  The right remembered scent – the fishy, salt-water smell of the wind off the ocean; the crisp, almost spicy smell of birch logs burning in a wood stove; the smell of nervous sweat and recirculated air in the cabin of a jetliner that’s waited for too long on the runway – can carry the reader exactly where you want them to go.)

Bear in mind, though, that lush sensory description can get overdone.  There’s no need to give absolutely everything in your narrative the detailed treatment –save it for things that are important to the story because they advance the plot, illuminate the theme, or reveal character.  Because if everything gets the detailed-description emphasis, then nothing is going to stand out.

The Inverse of Robert Burns

The Scots poet Robert Burns wrote, famously, of being able to look at oneself as an outside observer:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae
mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion…

For writers seeking to create believable and well-rounded characters, however, another important question to ask is, how does a character see him-or-herself? 

This question has more than one side to it.  The more obvious side, perhaps, deals with a character’s secret self-doubts and hidden shames:  the heroic leader who is inwardly convinced that he’s making a bombastic fool of himself every time he has to make an inspirational speech; the charitable volunteer who secretly hates the good works they do out of a sense of duty.

On beyond that, however, is another question:  what is the character’s heroic self-image?  That is, when they’re thinking of themselves in the best possible light, the one that they’d want to have shining on them in their most flattering biography, what do they see?  This is especially helpful when creating good antagonists (since as I’ve probably said before, very few people actually think of themselves as deliberate, conscious villains.)  The rapacious industrial robber baron may see himself as a captain of industry, risking his personal fortune on daring projects that will add to the wealth of the nation and an increase in the public weal; the usurper of the throne may see himself or herself as the only person bold enough to take decisive action before the current ruler drives the whole country off a cliff (and in some versions of the story, he or she might actually be right, and not be a villain at all.)  And the world is  chock-full of CEOs, generals, heads of state, and more petty tinpot bosses than you could shake a stick at, who look at themselves in the mirror every morning and see, not a heartless jerk and a menace to society, but the man (or woman) who can make the hard but necessary decisions.

If there’s a danger to this two-pronged approach to creating well-rounded and believable antagonists, it’s that you may well end up with an antagonist who’s sufficiently well-rounded and believable that some of your readers will end up liking them.  Please don’t consider this a failure on your part; be flattered, instead.

After all, in the real world, even bad guys have friends.  So if your fictional baddie garners a friend or two among your readers, then you’ve come just that little bit closer to creating an effective secondary reality in your story.

It’s the Little Things

It’s a generally-accepted truism that what makes for good, effective description is a combination of careful observation and a keen eye for the telling details.

What isn’t said so often is that you have to be careful which telling details you pick to use, and when you decide to use them.  Your readers have years of training in the grammar of fiction, both popular and literary.  They know quite well that some details have an extra job to do, and some of those jobs are hallowed by tradition.

For example:  In the real world, anybody can have a cough.  But in the world of fiction, things are different.  If the coughing character is lucky, all that a cough will do is alert somebody to his or her presence when that presence ought to remain unknown.  Characters in long or arc-based fictional formats have no such good fortune, however; for them, a cough almost always foreshadows a lingering and probably fatal illness within the next few chapters or episodes.

Similarly, people in the real world have occasional disagreements and even sharp words with their nearest and dearest without having the entire relationship fall apart as a result.  In fiction, even a mild exchange of the “I thought you had the car keys!” variety tends to become the harbinger of breakups to come.  (This may be why the obligatory “this is a happy family” scene that precedes so many disasters in film and television tends to be so sappily anodyne – anything else would be over-interpreted by the audience.)

A full catalog of all the possible traditional telling details would take more time and space than I have here.  All I can say is, keep an eye on what you’re showing the reader, and make certain you’re not accidentally foreshadowing things that aren’t going to happen.