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Do You Like Your Stories Up Close and Personal?

Lonely man on pierContinuing from last week’s article drawn from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelists’s Guide, we look at the pros and cons of using the first-person technique in storytelling.

Despite its restrictions, the technique has many strengths to commend it.

When The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951 readers were so convinced of the actual existence of Holden Caulfield, the story’s fictitious narrator, that they scoured the streets to find him. The author’s use of youthful speech patterns, exaggeration, present tense, and slang imbued the work with a sense of fluency and authenticity that would be hard to create through the more common third person past tense narrative.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my soon to be released novella, concerns the struggle of an aging theoretical physicist, Benjamin Vlahos, to unite two grand theories – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – in one grand theory of everything.

Additionally, Benjamin is haunted by the loss of his wife that occurred thirty years previously, blaming himself for inadvertently creating the chain of events that led to her death. To make matters worse, one of the most powerful cyclones to ever threaten the coast of Northern Queensland in Australia is closing in.

As these events wind ever closer together, interspersed with fragments of memory, theoretical speculation, and a haunting sense of loss, the narrative becomes increasingly nostalgic, ethereal, and tense.

I chose to use the first person present tense for the following reasons:

1. The technique lends itself to a colloquial style which encourages a sense of collusion between the reader and Benjamin. We are made privy to Benjamin’s hopes and fears in a more immediate and direct way than is otherwise possible.

2. Because this style uses natural, fluent, speech patterns, it is less likely to descend into pretension, pompousness, and purple prose. It is also a lot easier to read.

3. Since I’m addressing the reader directly, I do not need to use intrusive speech tags. This suits a story of introspection that is driven by emotion and the tension of physical peril caused by the approaching storm.

4. Secondary characters are richer precisely because they are projected from a single viewpoint. When the young Benjamin, thinking back to his youth, says of his uncle, ‘I wished I was bigger so I could pack his bag and shove him out of the house,’ we experience this through the eyes of a six year old child and forgive him his prejudice.

5. On the down side, the protagonist has to be in every scene and the thoughts and feelings of other characters have to be filtered through his viewpoint. But again, because characters are experienced through the heart and mind of our protagonist, we are given more opportunities to explore his soul through his misunderstandings, and through irony, pathos, and humour.

5. Another criticism is that the technique forces the repetitive use of ‘I’. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, however, the frequent use of the word adds to the sense of pathos, stasis, and eccentricity of the protagonist, as seen below:

‘I wipe my reading glasses with my handkerchief to ensure they are free of smudges, squeeze them back on my face, and tilt my equations this way and that. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s. I make sure my pluses are not really minuses resulting from a lack of concentration. I sip another cup of coffee and spread more syrup over my waffles before I study the math again.’

Summary

Use first person, present tense narration to invoke a powerful sense of authenticity, immediacy and intimacy.

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Why Writers are Dr. Frankensteins

Man superimposed with galaxies and cyclonePeople often ask writers: Where do your characters come from? Where do you look for them? How do you select them?

The truth is that characters are most often stitched together from bits and pieces inspired by the people we have met, united by a common premise and animated by the necessities of plot.

And, like Dr. Frankenstein, writers pour themselves into their creation. We infuse our characters with our spirit and have them play out our hopes and fears.

But like Frankenstein’s monster, our creations sometimes rebel. They take on a life of their own. The result is no longer the sum of its parts. This is when our voice takes over, shaping the narrative. Some call this the muse. For me, this voice is a phantom conductor molding the numerous notes into a seamless symphony.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos, is a man struggling to marry Quantum Theory with General Relativity. At the same time, he is haunted by the death of his wife, a tragedy that occurred years previously – something he never got over.

My protagonist is drawn from many sources. A beloved math teacher in high school, a cousin in Greece, friends and neighbours in South Africa, England and Australia, several famous physicists whose biographies I have studied. There are even elements of myself in him. My love for mathematics, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics is no secret.

But ultimately, the character will remain a corpse unless I breathe life into him. This breath typically takes the form of bestowing him with human purpose.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has one impossible goal. To travel back to the past and prevent his wife from dying. It is this inner obsession that brings the disparate aspects of his personality together and drives the story forward. Without it Benjamin is a mere assemblage of traits serving the plot.

Summary

Assemble your characters from a variety of sources, but infuse them with life by providing them with a powerful purpose.

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How to Cope with Bad Reviews

ImageBad reviews tend to bother new writers more than they do old hands.

When that first stinker slams through the shiny wall of good reviews, fledgling writers tend to get down in the dumps. Some reach for the bottle. Others threaten never to write again.

The truth is that hardly anyone escapes mean-spirited, opinionated and downright nasty reviews. They seem to come out of left field when least expected. What’s worse, they appear to get things wrong — to be fundamentally unfair to the work.

My advice to writers feeling this pain is to determine whether the review is pointing to something that needs fixing, or whether it is skewered and willfully misleading.

This is no easy task. One needs to take a step back and calmly and objectively analyse the review. Once you have extracted the truth, record useful comments down in a notebook under a heading such as Things That Need Improving — for example: tighter control of theme, more authentic characters, a more distinctive voice, and what not.

Throw the reviews that are intended to crush your spirit into the trashcan where they belong, but be careful not to mistake those with an overly defensive, head-in-the-sand attitude. It takes courage, determination and a steady hand to fish out the nuggets of truth that may be lurking under the sea of negative comments.

Remind yourself that even the most popular and respected authors have garnered bad reviews.

I’ve recently reread Paul Harding’s exquisite 2010 Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, and was surprised to find it had garnered a high ratio of 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the novel is one of the most emotive evocations of old age, the act of dying, and memory I have ever read. It is the sort of writing that stays with one forever.

Writers should take strength from that: If a Pulitzer winning novel of such power and magnitude has so many detractors, who are we to moan about ours?

Summary

Salvage what is useful from a bad review and discard the rest.

Scene Checklist

Checklist

Scene Checklist:

As one of the larger units of story construction, effective scenes make for effective tales. In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge, provides us with a concise list of what to look out for in your scenes.

1. How does your scene contribute to your protagonist’s outer and inner journey? Remember the outer goal is extremely important in a story. Rumination (inner journey) is not sufficient to drive the visual thrust of your story. We need to see the protagonist engaged in outer struggles, if we are to understand his inner conflict too.

2. Does your scene, like your story, typically have a beginning, middle and end? Your scene ought to establish, build and resolve a situation. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some scenes are short and are transitional in nature, intended solely to bridge other more important scenes, but as a general rule, this piece of advice holds true.

3. Does your scene propel the reader into the next? Causally linking one scene to the next at the level of the inner or outer journeys makes for compelling tales. In Outrageous Fortune, the scene of two women in the morgue is resolved only when they realise that the body is not that of their lover. But the end of the scene results in their decision to find him, which, in turn, drives the scenes that follow.

4. What is each character’s objective in the scene? Without an objective the scene is rudderless.

5. What is each character’s attitude in the scene? Each character wants something, overtly or covertly. (How does this want tally with that character’s need? ‘Big’ scenes ought to explore and reiterate the tension between want and need.) This want, together with that character’s personality traits, creates an attitude, a motivation. Additionally, characters bleed feelings: they are sad, nostalgic, angry, bored, scared, or turned on, etc. These feelings are revealed directly through dialogue or more subtly, through subtext and action. In Moulin Rouge Satin’s declaration that she does not love Christian, a lie she utters in order to save his life by having him leave, is shot through with irony, sadness and a sense of tragedy.

6. Do many of your scenes contain action, not just dialogue? Talking heads are best left to television soapies and past masters such as Ingmar Bergman. Of course, dialogue is perfectly acceptable in scenes, but stories benefit from the injection of telling action, from small acts such as the lifting of an eyebrow, to the landing of a punch. Imagine your screenplay with the sound off. Is the meaning of a scene still apparent through the action of your characters? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you’d be better off culling as much dialogue as possible. Unless you are Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino, your screenplay should not be talk-heavy.

7. Does your scene serve multiple purposes? Does your scene achieve as much as possible to keep your audience or readers emotionally involved with your protagonist and her journey to her goal? Does it reveal character background, motivation, conflict, anticipation, curiosity, credibility and identification or empathy? Does it contain foreshadowing, premonitions and the like? Again, not every scene can be cramp-packed with the above, but pivotal scenes clustered around and including your turning points, pinches, and midpoint, certainly can.

Summary

A scene checklist focuses our attention on the important elements your scene ought to contain in order to be affective.

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Pic by AJ Cann http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7454/9568156463_86087625dd_m_d.jpg
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

How to Create a Strong Dramatic Premise

Lightbulb figureA great story premise lies at the core of most successful stories. Of course, an excellent premise that is not rendered effectively through good characterisation, emotive storytelling, good pacing, a sense of verisimilitude, and the like, can’t carry the tale on its own, but it is a good place to start.

What follows below are four simple guidelines for coming up with a winning premise that maximises your chances of writing a successful story.

1. Make the premise as extraordinary and unique as you can:

Rehashing old ideas from past novels and films results in unoriginal and predictable stories. The premise of Jurassic Park was unique at the time, and the box-office receipts proved it.

2. Insure that the premise statement is clear and contains a strong set-up and pay-off:

Here’s and example: A pedantic and inflexible hospital director’s daughter is abducted by an ex-surgeon who has been struck off the register for malpractice and whose child failed to qualify for a liver transplant and died as a consequence. (Set-up)

This is intriguing, but it’s not enough to motivate the story. Here’s the pay-off:

The hospital director is told by the kidnapper to find a liver for his own daughter, who has had hers removed by the kidnapper and is being kept alive by machines, within two days, or she’ll be allowed to die.

3. The concept must evoke dramatic questions:

In this example, such questions are indeed evoked: Will the hospital director manage to find a liver for transplantation and save his child? Will the kidnapper live up to his word? Will the hospital director become a more compassionate and caring man, or will this experience fail to change him?

4. The premise evokes the entire story in its essential form:

Steven Spielberg defined high-concept as a short pithy sentence or paragraph that allows one to hold the entire movie/story in the palm of one’s hand. A strong story premise does the same sort of thing. In the above example, we know the kind of story we’re in for. That’s not to say that it is predictable and devoid of twists and surprises, only that we know the type (genre) of story we’re about to experience.

Summary

The story premise is a short description of the entire story in its essential form. Coming up with a premise that is unique, contains a strong set-up and a pay-off, and generates dramatic questions beyond itself, affords the writer a blueprint for writing a successful story.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.