Friday, June 29, 2018
I was recently granted the honor and privilege of helping a World War Two veteran put the polish on a book describing his wartime experiences in the Pacific. As he wishes to remain anonymous until the time of publication, I will refer to him as Tom. And Tom had quite a story to tell.
Now, the most important thing was Tom telling his story in his own words, his own voice, with his own recollections. My role in this is part editor, cleaning up any their-they’re-there issues and such, and part guide, making the story as gripping as possible. Tom wrote everything. I applied the tools of a writer – particularly the tools discussed in this blog.
The first question that might come to mind is, “How can those tools apply to non-fiction? There is only one way to tell the truth.” There is some validity to that, but not as much as one might think. In the broadest sense, the basic parts of storytelling are very obvious. The story conflict is obvious – World War Two. It’s autobiographical, so we know our main character does not die. We know exactly who the hero is, and Tom fits right in as the character who becomes a hero through his actions during unthinkable times. And having different story techniques, like the Unreliable Narrator method we've discussed, would contradict the entire process. However, other tools can very much be applied, and this post is about a powerful one – foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is a technique where we hint at what is to come. This can be through the symbolism and examples representing events that repeat themselves, or the use of dialogue hinting at a change further along in the story. We will get to all of these in time, but this post is about the non-fiction genre. In non-fiction, symbols, examples, and metaphors may never have happened. However, a very powerful use of foreshadowing is to reveal a part of the story in advance, then go back and tell the story leading up to that point.
I recently finished Bryan Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts. Mr. Cranston talked about growing up in California amidst a troubled family dynamic, coming of age, jobs and adventures, his introduction to acting, and all the struggles before he made it big. That alone is enough to make for a good read, and I am sure fans of Bryan Cranston would not be let down. But what made it truly intriguing was that he didn’t tell the story that way. Rather, he used a little foreshadowing to draw in the reader, and they were hooked.
Even though Bryan Cranston grew up in southern California, the book opens during the filming of a particularly intense scene from Breaking Bad. His infamous character, Walter “Heisenberg” White, is watching someone die and choosing to not save them. Mr. Cranston then explains the personal shock that overcame him during the filming of this terrible scene, and how it shook him to his very core. The description of the moment is surreal, traumatizing, and deeply disturbing, and it all emerged from the kind of person he tried to be his whole life.
The next chapter then goes to his early days growing up in California and his whole life narrative.
By telling the story out of order for just one chapter, the reader is drawn in. The reader experiences an intense, dramatic moment, and wants to know more. Furthermore, when the next chapter is about a child living in the LA Valley, the reader wants to know the path that led from A to B. A seed has been planted. The reader knows that life will lead to that point, and wants follow whatever path goes there. The truth has been preserved, yet the storytelling has been improved because of one little bit of foreshadowing.
This brings us back to Tom, who grew up in south Chicago during the Great Depression. To tell the story of his life from a kid skipping stones across the filthy Cal-Sag river all the way to a Navy Petty Officer in the Pacific makes for a fine story, and very much worth reading. It’s a story that needs to be told, a period of life few people these days would ever understand, and an attempt to comprehend what happens when an innocent man serves thirty months in Hell. People would read that. Someone might even by the story rights.
But what if the first chapter was sin mid-November, 1944? The story starts with Tom and his buddy walking down a beach outside the harbor as the tide comes in. The water is dark-red and too thick for the waves to foam. They see the water is awash with fuel oil and human remains from a ship they lost the day before, the Pacific slowly returning the remains of the dead. Tom goes to the shoreline, kneels to the water’s edge, and says a prayer for all the lost souls.
The next chapter is a young Tom skipping stones across the Cal-Sag during the Great Depression.
Both are the same story, but you tell me – which one would you read first?
Monday, June 25, 2018
Sometimes heroes are overrated. The first hero I ever followed was Underdog, that classic animation from long before my time. In real life he was the humble, lovable shoeshine boy, but when trouble arose, he became the invincible Underdog, saving Polly Purebred from gangsters like Riff Raff and Simon Bar Sinister. Only later did I realize he popped speed in every episode. That pill habit kind of took something away from my hero. I hope Underdog got clean.
However, an anti-hero never has the problem of disappointing us with behavior that fails to meet such high standards. The anti-hero barely has any standards, or they are not standards we would typically consider virtuous. Maybe they act out of self-interest or greed, or possibly out of a warped sense of duty, but they are not role models.
This, however, does not mean they are evil. The important part of a well-written anti-hero is that the end result of their actions is positive and acceptable to the reader, even if the route to get there was unethical, morally questionable, or very uncomfortable to read. Murderers do not make interesting anti-heroes. Vigilantes, however, offer an alternate form of justice for the reader to consider and decide upon.
Anti-heroes have shown up throughout historical literature, and the great ones quietly leave an indelible mark. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye was the quintessential frustrated young man, but before him was a lineage going back to Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby, the playful title character from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the dubious Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. These characters all take a very different route on the hero's journey, but in the end we appreciate traveling with them.
One form of anti-hero is the warped ethicist. Such a character follows a strict ethical code, but one that does not reconcile with social norms. These anti-heroes are often written with an eye toward social or political protest, or to highlight some hypocrisy in the world. Such a story is very fun to write, but the writer is strictly contained by the anti-hero’s code and all that it implies. When they are created and this code is defined, the character becomes complex and satisfying as the reader sees how such a code affects every aspect of their life.
In Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter series (of which the Showtime series Dexter is based), our anti-hero, Dexter Morgan, is a psychopathic serial killer. Typically, this is not a likable character type. However, he follows a strict code to control his impulses, and focuses his need to kill on criminals who have slipped clear of the justice system. He also pursues social normality, trying to live beyond his illness and understand love and social connection. With these traits, the reader understands the character’s humanity and vulnerability, all while considering whether his vigilante behavior is ultimately just. (Clearly, anyone who does not like stories of people taking the law into their own hands will not be fans.)
Possibly the most frequently written about anti-hero is Death. Yes, Death. The Grim Reaper. The Oarsman. That guy. While frequently portrayed as terrifying and even evil, Death has often appeared in literature and movies with a humanized side. My personal favorite portrayals of Death as an anti-hero are in the Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser series, Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man, and particularly Neil Gaiman’s comic, Death: The High Cost of Living. As Death is portrayed as someone who makes sure the world doesn’t overpopulate, who gives Life some value, and who cares about and even appreciates all the people he is obliged to take, the reader is given a fresh perspective on the world.
Nowadays, most anti-heroes are found in the comics – Deadpool, the Punisher, etc. – and we can just leave them there. But the spirit of the anti-hero can be very powerful in the written narrative, because it can leave the reader thinking about the conclusions the character came to, whether some greater good was served, and if they agree with it.
And it doesn’t matter whether or not they popped pills like Underdog.
Friday, June 22, 2018
I am very fortunate that my life is surrounded with a Rogue’s Gallery of odd characters – power nerds and humble geniuses, street-savvy saints and white-collar gamblers, and enough cigar-smoking, smack-talking, dice-shooting troublemakers to fill the holding cell at 26th and California. So with all these characters orbiting about, one would think I could write a book for each one of these people. In some cases, yes. Most, however, don't make it. The main reason they are left out is no matter how flamboyant the heroic main character is, no matter how much they stand out on their own, a story does not emerge from a person’s character or their heroism. It starts with the story.
In the simplest sense, people like their heroes to be bigger-than-life representations. Superman should be super, Wonder Woman should be wonderful, Captain Marvel should be marvelous, and the more the better. But in writing a story, our hero – the main character – shouldn’t start out like that. The main character should be like us. They should be someone with flaws and doubts, with bad habits, phobias, and any other human fault we want to include. That’s when the opportunity to be the hero takes them on the adventure, often kicking and screaming.
We see this most clearly in the epic tales: In the Lord of the Rings saga, Frodo Baggins dreams about adventure, yet he has never left the Shire. Only when the Ring awakens and danger presents itself does Frodo head out, and reluctantly at that. He is the hero of the story, but he is hardly heroic at first. Rather, the story drives the character. The reader is drawn not by Frodo’s heroism, but how as the story moves him, he becomes the hero.
But this counts for any story. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, our main character starts off by literally entering a whirlwind of conflict with her family, suitors, the church, and Russian society. We understand her more by witnessing her growth through these events. And even though this story is (spoiler alert) ultimately tragic, we are more impressed with the hero for how she took on the challenge.
Our main character becomes the most real and easiest to relate to when they go through change, especially when change is thrust upon them. Change is unsettling, and the closer that change hits to a character’s core, the better. If our hero is a career woman, the action starts when she gets laid off. A happily complacent family man becomes interesting when he experiences divorce or some other separation from his wife and kids. At that point, the character is adrift, and the adventure to reclaim some kind of life begins.
Of course, this can be flipped around, to where the hero is living a problematic life but has not addressed the surrounding troubles. In this case, the character develops as the increasingly troubled situation builds, and the reader hopes the hero can change in time to salvage everything. My favorite version of this is Humboldt’s Gift, where writer Charlie Citrine lives a well-to-do but increasingly empty life. The relationship with his mentor, Von Humboldt Fleisher, offers an opportunity for Charlie to find satisfaction in his career, but can he finally realize this?
So, when you create the hero for your story, start with the character. The story should prompt this character to grow and change, even if not for the better. The important part is how they fit into the story, how they are affected, and what they have become by the last page. If you want to write a story with a chain-smoking power nerd with a fondness for Russian poetry, so be it. But if none of those traits fit into the hero’s journey, just make them a supporting character who leaves after Chapter Eight. They won’t mind.
Next post: The Anti-Hero. Far more entertaining to write, but a very difficult beast to maintain.
Monday, June 18, 2018
…tension. It’s tension. The anticipation of what might happen next. And yes, I concluded the last blog post with a “to be continued” as the simplest example of the purpose tension serves in our writing.
There is often confusion between conflict and tension – the two are not synonyms. Where conflict is the basic opposition in the story that gets us to read it, tension is what gets us to turn each page, to read a book until 2 a.m., to think, “Well, just one more chapter.” Conflict gets a person to check out a book, tension gets them to read it cover-to-cover.
The classic formula for tension is built around one factor: risk. What is at stake? Does our main character have any skin in the game? What is the cost of action or inaction? If there are no consequences for the actions of our main character, do we really care about what they do? Do we care about who they are? Personally, when I meet people who are not held accountable for their actions, they annoy me and I move on. So why would I want to read about one?
The level of risk can range from simply choosing the wrong sandwich at the deli all the way to life or death. In the thriller genre, tension enters as quickly as possible – the first chapter, or even the first page. A thriller is all about high-stakes decisions, lives on the line and actions with immediate consequences. The prisoner-on-the-run style is a good archetype to follow: The escaped prisoner’s every move is a risk as the authorities pursue him, trying to take him in dead or alive. Therefore, every choice has high stakes – stop for a rest and he might get caught, but keep running and he might be too tired when the bloodhounds are set loose. Constant, page-turning tension.
But not every story is a thriller, and not every book should get a boost of energy by bloodhounds or an unexpected car chase. Tension can be as simple as a character preparing to tell his daughter that the dog died, or a boss who has to fire her best friend. Readers can relate to these easier, so the situations draw in interest. And as these moments are extended, the tension builds. If the parent has to wait until his daughter gets back from school, it gives him time to fear how horrible this will be for her, and the reader fears it too. The boss who has to fire her best friend might have to wait until her friend returns from vacation, leaving her to reminisce about all the years they worked together. She dreads that moment, and the reader dreads what she has to do as that moment approaches ever-so-slowly.
Now we have developed suspense.
Any time tension is prolonged without conclusion, the result is suspense. This can be done over the breadth of a novel or limited to just one sentence, but however it is done, it affects the reader.
Consider this paragraph:
“I stood before the door to the old house. I didn’t want to enter. I wouldn’t. My hands shook. I couldn’t move. My brow dripped with sweat. All the bad memories came back. I forced myself to turn and leave.”
It’s an okay paragraph. There’s tension because it’s a decision. We understand very quickly that the character doesn’t want to go in, and in the end, the character doesn’t. Surprising? Suspenseful? Meh. It would’ve been a surprise if the character entered anyway. Otherwise, it’s just so-so. But if we remove intentions and leave our audience guessing until the end, we have turned tension into suspense. Here’s a new version:
“I stood before the door to the old house. My hands shook, I couldn’t move, and my brow dripped with sweat as all the bad memories came back, and I forced myself to ….”
To what? The first example leads to an obvious conclusion, but the second one carries a nervous tension throughout the paragraph and perhaps several more. We can guess at the action coming next, but we do not know what that decision will be until those final words, and we need to have that answer! That’s suspense.
Grammar/style note: one other thing that helps build suspense is sentence structure. In the last example, the first paragraph is eight little sentences, each a simple description, but on their own they do not make much of anything. The second paragraph, however, is just two sentences. More importantly, the sentence describing the character’s decision-making process is a long, continual build of descriptors leading to the final conclusive act. As one long sentence, it does not offer the reader a chance to breathe or rest. They read through without a break, all the descriptions building up, compounding on each other in an escalation to one final conclusion. This is called a suspended sentence, a style trick used exclusively for building suspense from a character’s important decisions.
And if it helps, the character still turned away from the door.
Friday, June 15, 2018
No matter who we are, no matter what we read, every story demands a good fight. Everything from the simplest character sketch to the longest series benefits from a fight, and perhaps several. Fights are as old as the written word itself and have found their way into literature in most every culture.
To be clear, my reference is not to the standard fight – punching, kicking, body slams, bloody knuckles and broken noses. The simplest understanding of a fight is a conflict between two forces, often but not always in opposition. And this exists in most anything worth reading. The most primal example is the conflict we all understand – good versus evil. While this can be portrayed in many ways, classic literature is full of examples where this struggle pulls at the heart of the story.
However, the conflicting forces do not have to be such black-and-white opposites. An easy example is when many characters fight to control one item. The different sides may each have their own motives, but it is up to the reader to pick a side. This is best portrayed when the one item represents power, and the more powerful the better. Anything that can put characters into motion is a great way to get the conflict going.
Of course, blurring the lines between right and wrong is a fine way to set things into motion. What about the conflict that arises when the pursuit of justice runs afoul of the rule of law? Authors of private-eye novels have never missed out on a paycheck when they followed this formula, and neither has anyone who wrote legal thrillers, even though they approach this disconnect from opposite sides. And as for those books that show both sides, well, that’s some good reading.
And why should it have to be two or more characters doing the fighting? One character can be faced with a situation that challenges them deeply, and makes them doubt everything they believed. Internal conflict is a very fertile ground for writing, as most every reader has experienced this intimately. Should someone hold to one’s values or sell out for a paycheck? Take the easy road or risk a new route? Spare someone’s feelings or tell them a difficult truth? The more difficult the better.
When it comes to personal conflict, my personal favorite is any scenario where the character confronts an undeniable fact that conflicts with their deepest beliefs. When someone finds out they’re adopted. When an atheist faces God. When a scientist discovers the Earth is flat. When a rational person finds out professional wrestling is not fake. Such a mind-blowing, core-shaking, fact-erasing revelation forces the character to rediscover the world, to suddenly live in uncertainty.
This change doesn’t have to be destructive. The Harry Potter franchise is based on a child discovering a life he never knew existed. The YA (young adult) fantasy genre dating back to the 19th century is deeply rooted in the discovery of a new world and grand adventures. This is still conflict, but our main character is more than willing to embrace it (even though trouble comes later).
The most important part of conflict in writing, however, is that it shows us something about the character. Think of this in real life: We go about our daily routine, getting the same morning coffee, the same commute to work, the same work, the same route home, etc. Watching a person go through their routine doesn’t reveal much to us except for whether they put cream in their coffee. Once change is introduced – the coffee store is closed, their car won’t start, work changes – then conflict has been introduced and we see how that character responds. Twenty years of the same work routine is often far less interesting than the one day where everything went wrong.
Once you develop your source for conflict, you are ready for next important element, which is…
(to be continued)
Monday, June 11, 2018
I am a balding man, the remaining hairs turning from brown to gray as the season of my life changes. Age is finding its way across my forehead, underneath my eyes, and definitely around my midsection. While my smile still carries a youthful mirth, a fatigue weighs down its happiness. That mischief in my eyes has dulled over the years, a flicker that once said, “I have a great idea for a prank,” now can only mutter, “If only I were younger.”
Yes, that is a fair description of me from one particular point of view. However, for the purpose of this blog, it’s a pretty useless description. It might be good writing, but what does it actually say? And more to the point, why should my loyal readers care?
Most of the regular readers of these posts want to work on their writing, which means they want their advice to come from a writer. Nothing in that description suggests the trappings of an experienced writer – it sounds more like the laments of a depressed alcoholic (which I insist I am not). There is nothing in that description that would inspire a writer to write.
But how does anyone describe themselves as a writer? If I wrote an accurate piece of what I looked like hunched over my laptop, fretting over each word of this post, it would be a description of a writer – but only as a verb; a man writing. No, a writer is more than that.
When we describe people, we should first follow the rule in the last blog post, “The Emotional Description”: What is important? Does a great writer have to be bald? Graying? Wrinkled and aging around the edges? The answer is no, but then we consider another rule: If these features are worth mentioning, can we introduce them in a way that makes us think of a writer? Can we put physical descriptions into a writer’s context?
Looking at the original description, we have the balding, graying guy. If those are important qualities, we should rewrite them to fill in the character traits. With a few spins on the writer premise, we can describe an actual writer:
“His hair thinned further with every draft he rewrote, every stack of editor notes he fought to address. The constant corrections pushed the hairs from their follicles, the surviving ones turning gray from fear of the next set of revisions. Every new story weighed on him, draining his energy, deflating his expression, all while he sought that elusive success.”
“He was about writing. Creating the stories, thinking about them, the process never left his mind. Did he get a prescription to fix his thinning hair? Shop for dyes to color in the gray? Such trivial things didn’t matter. The burden of the years took its toll, but fixing them could wait until he had written his fill of stories; a day that would never arrive.”
We have now drawn a sketch of a frustrated writer and of an obsessive writer, both while maintaining the physical traits from the original description. And as we get more creative, we can add other features of the character into the same piece. A mention of a wife, and he’s married. A wife and kids – Boom! Instant family! Going to see his ex-wife and kids – divorced, and fertile ground for more description.
Any time we have an opportunity for description, we have the chance to really create a multi-dimensional image. A few well-placed words can make the most mundane thing leap off the page, and it will add a richness to the story that the reader will notice.
Friday, June 8, 2018
The other day, I drove by the house where I did most of my growing up. The changes were modest – some new paint, flowers replacing our old bushes by the front window, a clean concrete driveway; nothing dramatic considering the decades that had passed since I called it home. No major additions, no bold transformations, just that same old split-level, three-bedroom house with all the trees in back. So why did it look so different?
The most obvious change is that it looked smaller. Obviously, it hadn’t shrunk in the thirty-odd years since I moved out. Rather, I had grown. Not just taller, but more aware of the world’s relation to that house. I learned how most houses in the suburbs had gutters, yet ours didn’t. I will never know if my parents chose to ignore them or couldn’t afford them. All I know is we had water-worn grooves in the lawn below the eaves, an autumn rain leaving a moat around our house. I never cared as a kid. Now it stands out.
The proudest feature of my house was the assortment of trees out back. Between the house and the back hedges, our private forest rose high above the house, competing for dominance on the suburban horizon. From the highest part of the tallest tree, I could see our entire suburb and even beyond, a reminder of the vast world ready to be explored once I escaped the tensions inside our house. Back then, those trees and tall hedges protected me from the world. Now I wonder if they were trying to protect the world from all the troubles we went through growing up.
This little description about a house, gutters, and trees has created a sensory framework for a place you likely have never seen. Some little visual cues have been thrown in to start off the process, then the details come in not with color and shape, but with feelings and emotional prompts. In fact, this description lacks description. The reader, however, creates a very detailed scene from those few cues.
Any scene we want to describe and any mood we want to create should be guided by our descriptive focus. If a mood is to be nostalgic, then it is important to describe how things have changed, and perhaps have been lost. If that nostalgia is a happy recollection, the adjectives can be brighter, jumpier, happier; switch that direction for a sense of dread or tension.
In the above paragraphs about my house I didn’t make any references to colors, but I am sure the mental image created by the reader filled in those blanks. Grass and trees are green, so that appeared. Concrete has its own look, so no need to explain there. As for the house, flowers, etc., everyone has their own color for a house, so their mental image becomes color-by-numbers. Chances are the reader’s mental house won’t match the color in my mind, but it will have a color, and that’s the most important part.
Details are not as important as we give them credit for. In the 19th century, some authors had an irritating habit of describing with brutally meticulous detail every nook and cranny of a scene, even when the details had no connection to the plot. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables used this technique to such an extent that someone could probably reconstruct the entire house and all seven gables from just his narrative. And while the attention to detail was impressive, the reading could be boring. Many authors used this technique simply because they were paid by the word, but it became fashionable and a real trial to read.
So for now, focus on the important details. If you describe a house, is the color important? Is the color a factor in the plot? Can the color be described in a way that enhances the mood of the scene? If it’s just some irrelevant color, don’t spend time on it. Don’t discuss the window locations if they aren’t relevant or exceptional. Now, if the house is painted electric blue and has no windows, that’s clearly worth mentioning because it’s so exceptional. But unless there’s relevance, let the reader use their pallet to fill in those colors, and give them the details they need to know.
And my house was painted olive drab, dark like a worn-out GI’s jacket after he came back from liberating Europe during World War Two. But that detail wasn’t important to the story.
Monday, June 4, 2018
While my last post got a surprising amount of traffic over the weekend, I received some feedback (plus notes from a few angry Star Wars fans) that it made more movie references than writing references, which seemed unusual for a blog about writing. Well, the movie focus was by design, because it leads to this post. This is a writing exercise that helps the writer focus on the important details within a scene, and it all starts by examining a scene from a movie.
First off, a disclaimer: Books are better than movies. The written word plays off the imagination, challenges the reader to put that brain to use and fill in all the details. Stories tap into those deep fears and wild ideas that we barely understand ourselves. Movies can thrill and chill, but I have yet to experience a scene that matched the tension of a long walk through the dark, abandoned, Holland Tunnel in Stephen King’s The Stand.
Now that I’ve clarified things, here’s the exercise. Think of a scene in a movie that really stands out in your mind. One that you know by heart. Replay it in your head until you can feel the mood, until you get the rhythm of whatever events are going on. If there’s dialogue, recite it to yourself. Listen to how your voice changes to emulate those actors.
At this point, ask yourself how you would write such a scene. What are the parts worth describing? You have the entire visual in your head, but what details make it your favorite scene? If it’s the dialogue, is the surrounding scenery even important? If it’s an action sequence, who needs words? And if it’s the pacing of the scene, how can your words match the speed of a movie?
A classic scene early in Pulp Fiction involves Samuel L. Jackson (Jules) and John Travolta (Vincent) interrogating some young men in an apartment. Most people know the importance of this scene relative to the plot, but what makes it so memorable? It isn’t the apartment – that’s a non-starter. The people being interrogated aren’t that important either – we know it doesn’t end well for them and we don’t care. The takeaway of this scene is the dialogue, which is where the writing should focus.
The first thing that comes to mind should be, “There is no way I can write something as well as Samuel L. Jackson can perform it.” Fair enough, but by writing the scene as a narrative, you can see the techniques that make it stand out (other than just pouring on the exclamation points). To reflect Jules’ domination of the conversation, use constant interruption to make the talk one-sided. His speeches are long but his actions can be written quickly and decisively. Describe his looks with aggressive adjectives, but make the verbs simple to show controlled anger. Here’s just a piece from the part where Brad is in a chair being questioned by Jules and Vincent, while Brad’s friend is on the couch:
Brad holds out his hands, trying to contain the increasingly volatile situation, “I just want you to know how sorry we are that things got so f***ed up with us and Mr. Wallace. We got into this thing with the best intentions and I never–”
With a slight turn, Jules puts a bullet through the guy on the couch, then casually returns back to Brad, who falls silent, shaking with panic. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Jules says sarcastically. “Did I break your concentration? I didn’t mean to do that. Please, continue. You were saying something about best intentions.”
Brad only stammers, his wide eyes fixed on his dead friend.
“Oh, you were finished,” he continues, each word deliberate in its delivery. “Well, allow me to retort…”
This narrative distills the scene to the basic components. We don’t need to know what Brad or the guy on the couch is wearing, we don’t labor on where the latter was shot. Our attention is on Jules, who dominates the narrative. And for those who know this scene, the “retort” totally takes over.
When we think of any scene in our mind, we need to know what part needs to be written about. In my next post, I will show this as far as description is concerned, leaving out dialogue and allowing visuals to be done with narrative and with emotion.
Now I’m going to rewatch Pulp Fiction.
Friday, June 1, 2018
Spoiler alert: I talk about book and movie plots. Apologies in advance.
One of the first big jolts I received from the movies was when Darth Vader revealed that he was Luke’s father. Luke’s response was about as surprised as mine – shock, horror, denial. This was a wonderful scene, but what really made it pay off was that it had been set up by a character we trusted – Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Devout Star Wars fans will argue about whether or not Obi-Wan was truly lying when he said that Luke’s father was killed by Darth Vader – maybe it was a metaphor, a symbolic death, blah-blah-blah. The point is, Obi-Wan led us to believe something that was not factual. We, the viewers, trusted Obi-Wan and fell into a false confidence that Luke lost his father and Darth was to blame. Once we believed that bunch of Jedi BS, the big reveal was now all the more amazing because we also realized Obi-Wan had not just led Luke astray, but he lied to us! His loyal viewers!
In writing, this is called the Unreliable Narrator, and it is a powerful, wicked tool. It can be used in third-person, where a trusted source provides information that is deceptive or wrong (Obi-Wan). However, as a writing device, the first-person deception is very powerful. The reader relies on that one perspective, so one shift of facts can change everything.
Think of the classic whodunit mystery with a detective out to solve a murder. Our detective interviews the suspects and takes down their stories and alibis – this is the external storytelling. Internally, the detective starts considering what makes sense and what doesn’t match the evidence. But since everyone interviewed is a suspect, the reader focuses on their stories, and stays in the mind of a detective looking for the lies. Three-hundred pages later, we have the killer. Simple enough.
What happens when the detective’s perspective is unreliable? Perhaps the character is an alcoholic and prone to lapses in memory. In that case, parts of the story are absent to the reader (as well as the detective). Maybe the detective is leaving out other suspects – a friend, a spouse – to avoid facing up to the fact that those people might be hiding their own crimes. Or, for the very skilled writer, the big twist after those three-hundred pages is that the detective IS the killer, trying to hide the crime by making a case against an innocent person! Now there’s a surprise, as long as your writing supports it all the way through.
There are plenty of different turns and takes on the Unreliable Narrator – usually when the reader is immediately shown how the main character cannot explain events. In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, our protagonist, Rusty Sabich, is the prime suspect in a murder. We find out he is an adulterer, which makes him less than trustworthy, and then the evidence against him becomes so overwhelming that any reader might question his innocence. The reader is led to believe that Rusty is the unreliable element, and the writing leads us to start making conclusions that the facts may not support. Read the book for the big reveal, or at least watch the movie (along with The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, or at least The Empire Strikes Back for other examples.)
This technique is not easy. It requires a lot of attention to detail, since even with false narration, the actual events have to be real, and the final reveal has to be both surprising and satisfying to the reader. It might sound like a deceptive way to write, but it is a great example of just how powerful writing can be.
And sorry about revealing the identity of Luke’s father.