Tag Archives: clarity

So who the hell’s head are we in now?

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Transitions between scenes, between acts, between storylines, are an important part of storytelling. They ease the reader from one place to another without making their eyes stop as they pause to try to puzzle out where the hell they are.

But in multiple POV storytelling, transitions are vital.

Who? What? Where? When?

Those four questions have to be answered at every transition from one POV to another.

Why?

Because transitions orientate the reader. They tell them: WHOSE head they are in, WHAT is going on, WHERE it is happening, and WHEN it is happening.

The biggest problem with Multiple POV storytelling, and the reason why they tend to be longer stories than those using a single POV, is the transitions. You always  have to reset the scene if you are using scene-breaks between POVs.

You can’t just switch and hope the reader keeps up. Clarity, always clarity, who/what/where/when needs to be absolutely clear at all times to the reader.

You don’t really want to confuse your reader with the simple stuff, do you?

If you are using POV shifting or Omniscient-head-hopping  then the Where, When, and What are taken care of by the initial Transition into the scene, but you still have to be absolutely clear about Whose eyes the reader is behind.

Think of it like speech attributions. When writing dialogue you have to attribute the lines to a character. You can sometimes do away with the attribution if it is obvious who is speaking, but it does have to be obvious.

It is the same with POV transitions, you can avoid the attribution of a POV but only if it is obvious and it is rarely that obvious. Err on the side of caution and let your editor tell you if it is unneeded.

Don’t go commando if you’ve forgotten to put your jeans on too.

With the more usual (these days) technique of using scene-breaks between POVs, you have to reset the entire scene, every time.

Even when using fast-cutting techniques, in a battle-sequence for instance, the reader still has to be told where on the battlefield the character stands, what is happening immediately around the character, and when all this is occurring.

There are dodges and tricks you can use to avoid too much set-up. It is a fast cut after all. You can avoid the When portion by having a scene every so often that orientates the reader in time, which avoids having to say, ‘three minutes later’ and other clunky phrases.

But clarity is everything. Clarity is the only real rule in writing. Be clear, don’t leave the reader guessing; unless of course you intend to leave the reader guessing, but don’t be ambiguous by mistake. Readers really don’t like that and your book might well make a nice dent in their wall if you irritate them too much. (Ah eBooks, the joy of throwing a crap book across the room will soon be gone from human experience. Shame that, I think its good for the wallpaper, it’s certainly good for the soul.)

Transitions should ideally take place in the first paragraph of a new scene, or as close as possible to it. And the first thing the reader needs to know is WHO. That is a vital bit of information because it orientates readers to the plot. If they know whose head they are in, then they know the back-story, they know that character’s (apparent) role in the story, and therefore they don’t have to think about this stuff.

They can think about all the other good stuff you are putting into the story scene instead.

After Whose head, the reader needs to know Where and When. If the scene is taking place in the same location as the previous scene then you just have to make sure the reader knows it is the same location. If it is happening immediately after the previous scene then, again, you just have make sure the reader knows this.

But if the location has changed or the time has changed then you have to orientate the reader. You have to tell them Where and When. This is like the establishing shot in a film. Is it a room, a moor, a bridge? Is it dawn or night, or day? This stuff is why multiple POV stories are longer, because this is description and no matter how efficient you are at description it takes up words.

Then there is What. This is not about what happens during the scene, because that is the purpose of the scene. It is about what is happening when the scene opens. Is it in the middle of a fight, a love-scene, somebody having a cup of tea. The scene will play out from there, but there is always an initial What, that helps to set the scene.

The easiest way to do this, and this is about as clunky as it gets because it’s an example, so it is deliberately obvious, is:

 David thought about Mary while he walked across Blackfriars Bridge in the moonlight.

David thought = David’s POV or WhoDavid is thinking about Mary = WhatBlackfriars Bridge = WhereMoonlight = When.

Then you can slot all the descriptions and so forth into the scene as usual. The reason that Multiple POV takes up space is because you have to describe it all as the POV character sees them. You can’t go on what another POV character has seen because the reader doesn’t know if this POV character has seen the same thing.

Another reason multiple POVs take up room is because you can’t keep using lines like the one above. Some writers do, some successful writers do, but I’d hardly call it craft. That’s like nailing four roughly equal lengths of wood to another wider piece of wood and calling it a table. It’ll do the job, but it is hardly crafted with loving care.

 The glimmer of the moonlight shone into David’s eyes, reflected from the surface of the Thames, but he hardly noticed. Mary. What should he do about Mary? He turned right onto Blackfriars, the steel cold beneath his hands, when he stopped and stared out over the glimmering river. Did he have the right? Should he do this? Mary. What was he to do about Mary?

Neither is that to be honest, I just knocked it up for this blog. But after an editor has got hold of it, after I have revised it a few times, then it will be crafted with loving care and then — if I’m lucky — it will sing.

Transitions are incredibly important, so make them sing from the page, make the reader barely notice that they are reading a scene-shift.

Because another thing about scene-breaks is that they are where a reader will put the book down and go off to do something else before returning to the book. Scene-breaks and chapter-breaks are like opening lines, so make them sing, but make them into transitions too.

(If you are writing in the Literary Genre, where stories are supposed to be ‘difficult’ and hard to read, just ignore all this. This ain’t art; this is craft. Leaving the reader constantly guessing about all this stuff might well win you a Booker, so go for it — just don’t think writing crafted novels is easy in comparison, it’s the exact opposite.)

 PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

  Image attribution: every stock Photo

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Filed under Narrative Modes and POV, Storytelling, Art, and Craft

My Caveats

These are my caveats, which I have formulated over decades. One is personal, but the other two are universal. I suggest all writers engrave two and three upon their brain-pans in indelible, glow-in-the-dark, neuronal script.

  • Caveat One: I may not know what I’m blathering about.
  • Caveat Two: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong.
  • Caveat Three: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

Caveat One is obviously personal. This caveat is on my twitter account (@PKgesic) and also goes in the signature of any forum I join. I’m just warning people that I may be talking utter nonsense and they should really check it out for themselves rather than taking my word for it. I will quite happily pontificate on subjects ranging from the theory of mind to why the world economy is so messed up and what the hell is going to happen next. On most of these subjects my knowledge is autodidactic and therefore may be very very wrong. It doesn’t stop me spouting, but it should give people pause before they swim with the flow of my babbling opinions.

The caveat is not entirely personal however. I’ve never met an opinion I didn’t like to deconstruct and everybody else should do the same. Never take anything as read – no matter how worthy and respected the source.

Caveat Two is a result of too many writing rules being thrown at me on various writing sites. I suspect a lot of these rules began life on agent and editor sites, even in submission guidelines: this is what we do not want to see. Then bloggers, and other people who like something as complicated as reader taste simplified, took them up as battle-cries in the war against creativity. Yes, you can get all these things wrong, but that doesn’t mean they are rules.

Note: I am not talking about the rules of grammar here. Punctuation, word-usage, sentence structure, and so forth are essential for clear prose. Clarity of prose is essential for understanding. Comprehension is essential for…well, everything really. Ambiguity in your plotting is fine, everybody likes an unreliable narrator, but you really shouldn’t leave your reader scratching their head over your sentences. There are of course stylistic choices and flourishes you can use, but grammar is not something you can simply ignore.

Caveat Three is really just a warning.

If you read — for instance — ‘Show Don’t Tell’ on a website then you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that that person is talking out of their arse. If they give an example, which turns one word into fifty, then they ate a really hot curry and you are about to suffer the after-effects.

Only if they say something like ‘It is best to show rather than tell, because it places the reader in the scene. However, telling does have its uses’  are they actually speaking out of their mouths (yes, I know they are actually posting to a blog and not speaking, but once you start using a metaphor you really should follow through to the bitter end. In my humble opinion of course). The same goes for adverbs, dialogue tags, and any of the other myriad little things a writer should bear in mind when writing or revising.

I am as guilty as anybody else of saying ‘you should always’ or ‘you should never’ in critiques and edits, because sometimes the person you are critting or editing really needs to know that having a different dialogue tag after every single piece of dialogue is somewhat distracting to the reader. A certain amount of firmness is needed at that point. But my caveats are always there to let the writer know that everything to do with writing is subjective.

There you go, an insight into my philosophy of writing. Which I suppose counts as an introduction.

A version of this was posted to ‘of Altered States’ as part of my introduction to that site: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Century or decade? Who knows?

This habit of using the **00s to refer to an entire century is really quite irritating.

It’s a good idea for your prose to be clear. The story may be ambiguous, the narrator may be unreliable, but the readers should not be scratching their heads about what the sentences actually mean.

1800s (for instance) could refer to a single decade (1800 -1809) or the entire 19th century. I have to look at context to figure it out. And these days writers sometimes don’t even supply the context.

I know it must be hard to remember that 18** happened in the 19th century (I’ve fallen foul of this myself. It can be embarrassing) but that is no excuse for sloppy ambiguous writing that leaves the readers scratching their heads.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Why Her World Shouldn’t Fall Apart

What makes Speculative Fiction (SF) — Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, or any of the many sub-genres — different from other forms of fiction?

Simple really: in SF the normal everyday experience of the reader and writer need not apply — the position’s already been taken by ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone. Weird stuff happens and as a writer you have to make sure that only the weird stuff you mean to happen…um…happens. You don’t want to add an entire other level of inadvertent weirdness through sloppy phrasing. Keep your weird under control with accuracy. And a bullwhip.  And maybe some cream puffs, because ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone are notoriously lactose intolerant.

Other genres (OG) have their own sweet irritations, but in SF you have to be precise, very precise.

In the OG the line, Her world fell apart, is a little melodramatic, maybe a little clichéd, possibly a little meh. Soap opera stuff, not a deal breaker with the reader, just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Come on, pal, entertain me since you can’t write a decent sentence. Full plot-speed ahead and damn the conjugations.”

But in SF you have to allow for the margin (as Samuel R Delaney put it) that her world might literally fall apart. Poof, Earth gone, everybody floating in space, wondering whose turn it is to put the cat out, where the cat is, and why exactly can they still breathe if the world is in tiny pebbles all around them?

Another classic example of this sort of line.

He threw his eyes down the road, remember Tom Cruise doing this in Minority Report?

Well, to be accurate, he dropped his old eyes down a concrete corridor, chased them as they bounced and skidded and squirted out of his clumsy hands until finally he just managed to catch one of them as it tumbled down a drain. Carefully scooping it up and then merrily using that very same eye to open a biometric lock. He must have corneas made of diamond — well, I suppose he is Tom Cruise after all.

You throw your *gaze* down the road (and that is still a dodgy line in any genre (AG)) not your eyes. And if you have delicate organs covered with a material, which can be scratched by a SPLINTER, and then proceed to play football with it, it is entirely possible that an extremely sensitive device that has to look through that self-same material to see either the iris (or worse the retina) might, just might, throw up a false negative, don’t you think?

Don’t write her fingers pierced his bicep, because they might if she has talons.

Don’t write he was overcome with the fragrance of the flowers unless you mean he passed out.

Don’t be sloppy.

Think about what you are saying, take each word literally and make sure they say precisely what you mean them to say.

This is of course good advice in OGs as well as in SF, but it is right up there with adverbs and said bookisms in the world of the weird. Getting this stuff wrong makes you look like an amateur, it means you haven’t thought it through.

Now, maybe editors don’t care these days, maybe this is considered pedantic, maybe the X-Factor is the finest TV programme ever produced.

But do you really want to take the chance of an editor sighing, hitting delete, and then the “Thank you…but…” lands in your inbox, just because you couldn’t be bothered to rephrase an already sloppy line?

Just saying.

Take it or leave it,

So sue me (no, please don’t do that, that’s not what I meant at all).

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Filed under Genres and other foolishness, Style and Voice