Tag Archives: Craft

IOU a story that works: Narrative Debt

money-currency-piggybank-9479498-l

I first came across the term ‘Narrative Debt’ in the appendices to the extended edition on the Two Towers DVD and it struck a chord with me. As a pantser I work with narrative debt all the time, so I understood the concept; I just didn’t have a name for it.

To my mind it is a variation on ‘Chekov’s Gun’. Anton Chekov said, ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it is not going to be fired, it should not be hanging there.’

Which is a tad prescriptive.

But it also has more than a grain of truth in it.

Not surprising. He was, after all, a great writer.

However, a gun can hang on the wall for an entire novel and still not go off, because the protagonist can’t reach it. He/she might be trying to reach it, they might even get their fingers on it, but the antagonist might stop them pulling the trigger, or they might have unloaded it at some point, or the protagonist might die just as they reach the gun.

The writer’s job is to not  forget that the gun is there, because the reader won’t. ‘Hang about, they’re in the library. There’s a .357 Magnum in that drawer, in the desk that he/she is standing behind. They put it there, you muppet, just shoot the bugger.’  It is best not to make readers think of your hero as an idiot, unless you intend them to think of the hero as an idiot — which is a difficult trick to pull off.

Narrative debt means, to me,  ‘Don’t cheat the reader’. [Caveats apply]

Don’t neglect to tell them something of importance that the POV character would know. (Jack Reacher novels: ‘Echo Burning’: Reacher takes a phone call, gets a one-word answer to a question, but the reader doesn’t know what the answer is until much later.)

Don’t drop in something out of nowhere to fix a plot problem and just leave it there without going back and working it into the plot earlier. (His Dark Materials ‘Amber Spyglass’ too many to mention)

Don’t let a plot, sub-plot, or character just fizzle out and disappear without some kind of closure. (Jason and the Argonauts: Heracles just wanders off halfway through the story and never returns.)

A writer can of course get away with all these things from time to time, (Child and Pullman are very good writers, and Jason and the Argonauts is a couple of thousand years old as a story) but they have to know what they are doing (not entirely sure what the hell Pullman was doing if I am completely honest, very irritating book that). They can’t just do it because it is easier than building a story that works. A writer owes a reader a story that works, that is the contract between the two: ‘Give me your time and I will give you a story worth reading.’

Narrative debt sometimes makes the writing process a lot harder. Tough. That’s the job you sign up to when you decide to become a writer. If you want to just make stuff up that makes no sense, then become a politician (and even they need Spin Doctors to make their nonsense sound reasonable).

A story that works is satisfying. It doesn’t have to tie off every single plot thread in a neat little bow at the end, but it does have to keep its promises to the reader.

I build stories via characters, so most of my narrative debts accrue from interactions between characters and from what I do to them in the process of telling the story.

If I have a character that hates another character and at some point they have to make a decision as to whether or not they save that hated person from some jeopardy, then they have to think about it. They won’t suddenly overturn their entire dynamic with that character just because the plot requires it of them. To be fair, in a first draft they might, but then I will go back and fix it in the second. It is what second drafts are for, fixing plot holes like that.

And usually it is already there in the character, because I know my characters. I treat them as real people. What do you mean you don’t? Oh right, you worked on ‘Lost’ and ‘Heroes’.

In Kinless, I have a character called Kihan. He turns up in the story and makes a decision to do something for this land that he does not know and has no connection with, which will probably result in his death. Several beta readers pointed out that he had no reason to do this in the first draft. However the fix was already there, he had a perfectly valid reason for doing this, it was in the narrative debt relating to the character. He did it because of who he was, what he had been through, and what he wanted to be. And all this leads to what he becomes.

But narrative debt is also a structural thing.

Lovers have to love. Enemies have to fight. Stories have to make sense. A story is a construct. The writer is choosing what to put in and what to leave out. The writer is making choices all the time. The writer’s choices are the story.

Let’s go back to ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Gollum, as a character, had to get his hands on the ring. Aragorn had to become the king. Saruman had to get his come-uppance. Frodo had to be utterly destroyed by his quest to destroy the ring. Those things had to happen because that is the nature of storytelling.

Gollum gets his hands on the ring and in the process destroys it (still the best damn scene in the book). Aragorn had to face up to his fears and surmount them. Saruman betrayed everything he stood for and lost everything because of this betrayal. Frodo had to suffer to get the ring to Mount Doom and such suffering remains with a person. And all the other characters had their own journeys to complete too.

That is narrative debt.

If the ring was destroyed without Gollum getting his hands on it then he would just be an ineffectual monster who was easily defeated. If Aragorn did not grow a pair and step up then he would be an ineffectual hero. If Saruman did all that he did and got off scot free then what is the cost of evil. And if Frodo did all that he did and returned to his previous life without a care, then what is the cost of heroism.

It’s a debt.

It’s a contract with the reader.

The writer makes the deal, ‘Read my story and I won’t let you down, I won’t treat you — the reader — as an idiot, I’ll pay off on the debts my story accrues.’

Otherwise, the reader might as well read Hansard.

 

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

5 Comments

Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Storytelling, Art, and Craft, Structure and Plot

In Praise of Editors: from first draft to last it is always a blast

flying-trapeze-10473049-l

I write pretty good prose first time up, but I want my finished work to fall somewhere between pretty good and perfect.

Pretty good, ain’t good enough. And perfect ain’t possible.

And that is where my editors come in.

First up strike the beta readers, who aren’t editors as such but people who read the first draft and go: ‘Did you really mean that?’ ‘What is all that about?’ ‘I like this guy?’ ‘Is this even English?’

So I collate the comments and sigh and grin, and redo it, rework it, retype it all again. That is the end of the first draft and off it flies to my structural editors, who are skilled story-tellers.

They proceed to tear my story apart: ‘Cut this scene.’ ‘Move this to here.’ ‘Use her flaming name.’ ‘This flows like a puddle of water drying in the sun, get it fixed.’

So I rework the whole thing, cut and paste, make the story drive straight from the page into the reader’s brainpan. Then I read it all through, aloud, for flow and shift and change and make it work. That is the end of the second draft and off it goes to my copy-editor, who is a professional of many years experience.

She proceeds to tear my prose apart: ‘That sentence is so convoluted I can’t even see where the thread begins, let alone ends.’ ‘The rule of three is a powerful rhetorical tool, but you don’t have to use it every other flaming paragraph.’ ‘I have not a clue what this thing you just mentioned is doing. What is it for, can you clarify it a bit.’ ‘All that fighting is lovely and all, but should I be yawning?’

So I take the prose apart, make decisions, fix clarity issues, and then read it through, aloud, for flow, again.

And I enjoy every single moment of the process. From first draft to last I am grinning and nodding — and wincing and scratching me poor benighted head as I work out how to fix something that I didn’t even know was there.

 

As a writer, I am always reaching, stretching, taking a wild leap into the dark. I am pushing the boundaries of story and structure, of prose and rhetoric, trying to make the work the best it can possibly be.

And my editors, all of them, are my safety net when I fall short.

Editors are not just there to catch your mistakes, they are not just checking for typos, a freaking machine can do both those things.

Editors are there to make your story fly and your prose sing. If you don’t enjoy being edited then either:

You have the wrong editor.

Or

You should pull your head out of your arse and smell the coffee. Film-makers say that they make their film in the editing suite, because that is where they make the choices that define the flow, the mood, the feel of the movie. Writers make their stories in the edits, in the drafts, where they define and clarify, rework and retype, fix and polish.

And without editors to shine a light you may as well get a trained monkey to do the job, because you is working in the dark, old son.

 

Image attribution: Every stock Photo 

1 Comment

Filed under Drafting, Editing, and Revising

So who the hell’s head are we in now?

manipulated_cutout_blue_18645_h

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

1 Comment

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

Structure is not a Formula

structure_iron_green_443945_h

A formula is a precise mix of ingredients put together in exactly the same way to achieve the same result every time. Which is fine for cleaning agents, but not so good for stories because a formula is easy to see working in a story.

The ‘Ordinary World’ beginning. Oh look he’s a farm boy feeding the chickens. Oh look she’s a cop just going on shift. Oh look he’s a rich playboy waking up from another night of excess. Oh look she’s a CEO dealing with the board.

Yeah, that opening is so stale it’s beginning to stink.

The ‘Refusal of the Call’. Oh look he/she is not going to do whatever it is we know he/she is actually going to do (or there won’t be a story) because he/she is scared/has responsibilities/is an anti-hero (and therefore doesn’t care, until of course they do and that there is their arc all neat and tidy in the formula for you to use)/it goes against their sense of loyalty and duty.

Whatever. Because we’ve seen it a million times before.

It’s easier to see in films of course, because screenplays are simpler than novels (they have to be, the complexity comes from the choices that the actors and director make) but it is much more pernicious in novels, because there are no constraints of time or budget in a novel — so why the hell limit yourself to a formula?

I’m not saying you can’t have an ‘Ordinary World’ opening, or a ‘Refusal of the Call’ moment, or any of the other elements that go to make up a formulaic story (‘The Dark before the Dawn’, ‘The Death of a Beloved character ‘, ‘The Disastrous Mistake’, ‘The whatever-some-writing-teacher/blogger/author.about.writing-used-as-a-shorthand -because-it-made-teaching-the difficult-easier’). These are tropes, archetypal story-telling techniques, they work, but they are not structure, they are not essential, they are just tricks.

Structure is not a trick. Structure is an essential. Without structure you don’t have a story, you just have a series of unconnected events or, worse, a linear progression of things that just happened to happen.

So what is the difference between structure and formula?

In a word: Flexibility.

A structure is not just the parts themselves, it’s not how the parts connect, it isn’t even the arrangements of the parts. A structure is all those things. (Which is what makes it so difficult to explain, which is why writing teachers go for the easy short-hand, which is why structure should be a life-long obsession for a novelist. You ain’t ever done with structure, there’s always more to learn).

Look at the photo at the top of this post. More than likely that is a bridge, or it might be the Eiffel tower, or something else that leaves the skeleton of the structure exposed. Because an arrangement of steel or iron girders is the basic skeleton of a lot of structures.

You can use it to build tall, like the aforementioned Paris landmark, or broad, like the aforementioned crossing point over a river. You can cloak it in concrete and build a skyscraper, or a low-rise block of flats, or an office block, or a factory. You can cloak it in sheets of metal and build a warehouse or aircraft hangar. You can build schools, hospitals, sound-stages, army bases, anything really, all using the same basic structure and all looking completely different because they have completely different purposes.

Don’t mistake vernacular (like the brutalist or modernist eyesores) for structure. The structure, the skeleton, is flexible, because it is not a formula.

A formula has structure because it too is an holistic whole, but it is the same holistic whole every time. It is one version of a structure repeated ad infinitum like those suburban housing estates where every house is a rabbit hutch, but you can choose the colour of the doors. To make them ‘more individual’ you might be allowed to choose from 3 or 4 basic floor-plans and tweak them a bit, but really they are a formula based on how much they cost to build against how much they can be sold for.

I’m sure you, like me, have got lost in a suburban estate at some point. It’s because all the houses follow a formula, but you already knew that, only you probably said ‘Everywhere looks the same as everywhere else’, or words to that effect.

Personally, I like the seven-act structure in my work, because it gives me all the flexibility I need. I can write a circular story, or an action/adventure story, or a love story, or a Thriller, or Fantasy or Science Fiction, or any other genre — except the Literary genre of course, they think structure and plot are four-letter words and they are only half-wrong (as always).

However, if you look up seven-act structure on the web, as I have (and I was quite disheartened by the experience) then people talk about twist-points, pinch-points, or (dear god in heaven, no) reverses, which is only talking about the ‘connections’ between the parts (acts).

It isn’t talking about the acts in terms of what the acts are supposed to do. The first act of a seven act structure is the introduction, the second act: the set-up, and so on. It isn’t talking about how the parts are arranged within the structure. You can break a structure up, rearrange the parts, make it a non-linear narrative, and — so long as the structural integrity is preserved — the story will still work.

Pinch-points and twist-points are just the points where the acts meet, they are the joints between the girders (if you will). Reverses are just one single bloody form of joint. Start talking about reverses (or rising/declining tension for that matter) and you have begun to turn a flexible structure into a rigid formula.

Because you aren’t talking about structure in the abstract any more. You are making the abstract concrete, which is not what structure is. It is like saying that the steel frame of a building will always have identical stresses, identical requirements, no matter what the terrain, or the purpose, or the artistic intent behind the architect’s vision.

Okay this is getting a bit long now, so I’ll stop there. As Louise said, on July the Thirteenth [http://firedancebooks.com/blog/?p=344] (which directly inspired this blog) ‘Structure… well you can talk about that for ever. So I won’t.’

I of course will, because I quite like talking forever J.

Structure is incredibly important in novels. It’s what makes them stand-up rather than flop around on the floor like a jellied mess of ‘things just happened’.

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.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

Licence and attribution for image: Everystockphoto

3 Comments

Filed under Structure and Plot

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/

2 Comments

Filed under Caveats and Rules

PK’s Jaundiced Futurism: On Enhanced E-books Alternate Endings

Enhanced e-books will be a boon for non-fiction. Video, interactive diagrams, the ability to update in the light of new information or research. The possibilities are endless.

Fiction…umm…not so much.

I can see hypertext novels coming back into fashion, though they will have to do away with those bloody irritating links — not very conducive to immersion having every character name and artefact highlighted. I can see illustrations becoming prevalent, though there is a point beyond which the novel becomes a graphic novel. I can even see interactive databases for the more extreme world-building; think of Tolkien’s appendices as a searchable database.

All that I can see being useful for storytelling.

But I’ve read a few posts recently, on blogs and writing news aggregation sites, where high muckity-mucks in the publishing industry also mention ‘Alternate Endings’ as an enhancement.

Why? How does betraying the story count as an enhancement?

There are essentially three forms of storytelling now current in our culture. Interactive games, the media (films, television, graphic novels, radio, audio books) and text (novels, shorts, twitter, blog-stories, and so on. There are slight differences in distribution, but the medium is still text-based).

In games, alternate endings are a great idea. The player is the protagonist in the game, he or she is the one making decisions about how they play, so it’s not a bad idea to make those playing decisions affect how the game ends.

Play the game through, shooting everything with the biggest gun you can get. Not a bad way to play a game for the first time: while you work out how the game engines work. Play it through again, but being kinder to the game environment and to all those realistically detailed creatures you can kill. Some people claim to play Grand Theft Auto while going out of their way to avoid running down the virtual pedestrians the game designers place all over the virtual streets. I have no idea why you would do that, it isn’t supposed to be a simulation of driving in the city, but some people are just strange.

Between those two extremes, there are a multitude of possible choices that the player can make and each choice could affect the ending of the game. All good. All useful. All enhancing the experience and making you want to play the game again. If only to collect all the endings in the same way you used to collect gold rings when playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Obsessive, yes, but games can make you a tad obsessive — that’s part of their appeal.

In the media, mostly films it must be said, alternate endings are sometimes DVD extras. Twenty-Eight Days Later is the one that immediately springs to mind. No spoilers, for those who have not seen it, but I preferred the bleaker ending. I remember watching the film and feeling cheated by the ending they actually used. It felt forced. Please note this is before I even knew the alternate ending existed; once I found that on the DVD, I was even more irritated by the Hollywood ending they chose.

But, and this is important, films (and I suspect TV) are created in the editing suite. They are not created during principal photography. The actual filming simply gives the director options when the film is finally cut together. So much so, that many fine movie actors deliberately avoid giving the same performance in every take. They ‘wilfully’ (as Ian McKellen said about Ian Holm — when making Lord of the Rings) vary what they do to give the director options in the cut.

This is where the alternate endings that end up on DVDs come from. From this exact same process. The director may film more than one ending, because they don’t know how the story is going to play out, they don’t know if the pacing will work, they don’t know if the producers will accept a bleak ending, they don’t know until they have made the film. And since the ending is filmed and done and dusted, well you may as well stick it on the DVD as an extra. That’s a no-brainer.

In text — well novels really, yeah…look, I know these publishing execs have a great deal of experience and are, obviously, very smart people, but…um…have they any idea about how a novel actually works?

Just in case they need a heads-up, I’ll explain.

This is how a novel works. Every scene, every scrap of dialogue, every piece of action, every bit of fore-shadowing, every character interaction, every bit of weather, every setting, every damn thing that survives the editing process and ends up in the finished novel does service to the plot and make the ending of the story emotionally satisfying to the reader. That is a novelist’s duty. We don’t always manage it, but that is our aim.

Alternate endings will destroy what we have tried to create. They will make whole sections of dialogue nonsensical or irrelevant. They will make action scenes seem trite and unrealistic (because if we need alternate endings we can’t kill off characters that need to be killed off because we need them for the alternate ending). They will make foreshadowing a series of red-herrings that are never explained. They will make character interactions bland and boring (because everything will have to be left open to allow for different endings). Even the weather may have to be moderated so there are no extremes just to help keep the ending open. And of course settings will have to be rendered either very sketchily indeed or in so much detail that every single possible interaction between the character and the environment is possible.

Most importantly of all, we will be breaking our trust with the reader. Clever is not the same as honest. A writer seeks honesty, honesty to the prose, to the plot, to the characters. We seek to show the truth through the prism of our own understanding. Readers know this, that is why they read books instead of watching a film or playing a game.

Alternate endings are clever, even philosophical profound. Hmmm. Would they be nihilistic, existential, or solipsistic? I suppose that would depend on the author.

I’m not saying that a genius writer at the top of their game could not write a novel where the different endings actually enhance the story, where they alter the way it is read, where they change the way the reader understands the world. But I seriously doubt there will be many novelists of that calibre alive at any one time.

So, publishers, please, for the sake of the art-form I love, and the craft I have learned, and for my own sanity, stop talking about alternate bloody endings for novels.

Unless of course, you want to write the damn thing yourself.

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.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

Leave a comment

Filed under General rants., Jaundiced Futurism

Has SF Lost Something over the Decades?

A friend of mine used to run a second-hand bookstore on eBay. Then he wrapped it up and was intending to take his unsold stock to the tip. This is sacrilege to me—you do not throw books away, never ever. I now have two—yes two—copies of the Da Vinci Code to prove this. My friend (hmmmm, that might be overstating the case here) slipped another copy into the job lot of books he gave me. Oh how I laughed. And I still can’t bring myself to throw ‘em in the bin.

I said I’d take any Speculative Fiction books he was going to toss. So a few hundred or so came my way. I was slowly working my way through them when I stumbled on some SF magazines from the 60s. Specifically New Worlds #107 from June 1961 and Galaxy #81 from August 1960.

So I read them.

And started thinking.

Have we lost something over the decades? Have all the writing courses , and latterly writing blogs, created an imbalance in the actual writing? Has fiction as a whole gone too far in the direction of literary quality and forgotten the basic rule of writing fiction: first tell a good story?

If you ever get a chance to read some old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, do so. This is just before the New Wave came crashing into the party. You see a similar sort of disconnect with early 1980s SF, just before Cyberpunk spiked the wine with acid, but this disconnect between Golden Age and New Wave is really quite marked because up until that point literary concerns were subservient to the ideas.

The stories in these magazines are good, strong, well written, with clever ideas behind them. Apart from Brunner, Pohl, and Tubbs, they are written by writers I have never come across before—though they might be pseudonyms for famous writers, that sort of thing went on a lot back in those days. These stories were not collected into anthologies. These stories were considered average, normal stories of their day.

The science is, naturally, old fashioned; the cultural aspects can be a little disconcerting; the ideas are tropes that have now been mined to death; and the pace can be a little slow, but I think the average level of story-telling ability is higher than I see now in various modern SF magazines and sites. I was sucked into the stories, reading on to find out what happened next.

Yes, these are rather muscular stories, but they do drag you along. Modern SF, not so much. There are of course reasons for this.

We know all the tropes. We don’t have to explain them, we just point to the version of the trope we are using and get on with the writing. But this means that the idea quotient is lower so the literary quotient has to go up to raise us above the slush pile. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I favour clarity in the prose over pyrotechnics, because I think pyrotechnics are no use if the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene or comprehend the idea, but I do try to write great prose; I love it when somebody says, “cracking line”, or even better quotes a line back to me.

However, I also try to write good stories, with strong characters, and clever little ideas.

The lack of need to explain how a trope, like say faster-than-light drives or time travel, works in your universe (its a warp drive, its hyperspace, its the grandfather paradox, its quantum time leading to parallel worlds) frees up the writer to concentrate on other aspects of the writing. But what we forget is that these are tropes only to those of us who have read a large chunk of what came before. We forget that we should explain at least some of it for new readers to the genre. And in those explanations are spaces for new variations, new ideas, new plot lines.

Great prose is all well and good but without a great story it is essentially onanism as a spectator sport.

Read some old SF sometime. Those writers knew how to tell a story.

 

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.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

Leave a comment

Filed under Genres and other foolishness, Storytelling, Art, and Craft