Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Excursus: A Narrative in Review and Neil Gaiman

Looking at my two posts from last week I hope you enjoyed observing the techniques I have been teaching you for the last month. Hopefully this lesson, coupled with Thursday's post will further cement your understanding of good story writing.

Today's lesson focuses on part one of the short story. Here I wanted to make a point about dialogue.

Dialogue should be able to do two things at any given moment, that is build a mental image of the character, while revealing the world. When this is accomplished the reader will feel immersed and filled with the story's atmosphere. A great example of this I found today in Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors short fiction anthology. The very first story, Chivalry, among others, does a great job at showing how well an author can take a limited amount of words, and use them to build an atmosphere. Mrs. Whitaker in the narrative is clearly an elderly, though independent minded woman, which we know far before we find out her husband has long since died. It's the moment she finds the Holy Grail, and her meticulous, intimate knowledge of the antique shop that tells us she is concerned with age and novelty. This is all revealed in her language which is precise and to the point. It illustrates her clarity in age and the preservation of her wit, which is informed and outgoing.

In last week's short fiction we can get this from our characters: Stanley and Running Wolf.

Stanley's impetuous treasure hunting and exploration is well illustrated in the asides but a good way to build out a character's personality without always relying on exposition is employing the use of narrative pace. Imperative language ('Get to the car! or Stop that!) implies tension. Also, using brief, intermittent phrases in quick succession will drive home this mood of desperation. This is offset by Running Wolf's cool mindedness, who speaks in full, thought out sentences. Clearly he is simply observing the situation rather than becoming emotionally invested in Stanley's drama. This observational tone also conveys apathy.

Another aspect of this interlude is the use of conceptual science fiction to build the atmosphere. Sometimes authors want to lay out the whole deal right on page one, giving names, places, power figures, etc. Here I am not explicitly coming out and saying that the genre of the story is Science Fiction. Instead I use key words that require the reader to research themselves, forcing them to become involved in the narrative. Gliese is a real star and Vela, a real constellation, and therefore serve as atmospheric details but without explicitly pinning the story down as science fiction. On Thursday's post I will show you how I shift the nature of the science fiction from conceptual to philosophical, thereby providing it with some depth that gets the reader more interested in the world.

For now though I hope you enjoyed this analysis of last week's previous piece. Stay tuned for my discussion on the later half of the piece Thursday.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Interlude Part II

This is a continuation of the shirt story of my last post. Next week we shall discuss in length the techniques I employed in this narrative. For now, I hope you enjoy!

It was when my arms began to feel cold, that I knew my time was coming. Wolf was still at my side, hazily looking off into the martian sky, waiting for my spirit to release. His face, fading away into a grey haze of overexposed film, was the last thing I saw as my eyes rolled back into my skull.

I looked down again over my body, as Wolf placed his hand over my chest in mourning. I was dead. With the care of a mortician, Wolf placed a thin white gown over my body, stood up, and began to walk away into the jungle, back to the pod. I couldn't help but feel angry. His apathy was subtle, outrageous.

When I turned around, a glowing creature was standing there, looking down at my body unassuming, and then looked back up at me with serene expectant eyes. When I saw it, two sets of lids opened revealing  it's other eyes.

"Welcome to Ptob."

My head bobbed drowsily, suddenly feeling weak. I could understand him, somehow enriched in death beyond my reasoning. Slowly he extended his hand towards me, beckoning me to step forward.

 "What are you?" I asked.

"I am of the ether, an inhabitant of Ptob."

"I'm dead," I countered, "You can't be real. Probably just the last of my neurons firing away before my brain dies."

"A reasonable conclusion, but I fear you are among the living. Our people long ago learned to shed our mortal coil. We exist beyond now, suspended in the ether."

"So you killed me to communicate with me?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. Our people wanted to welcome you."

"But now I'm dead..."

"Death is liberating. Embrace it. Come home to us."

"No thanks," I said looking down at my body in apathy, "I would rather not. This is too much."

The creature looked sad for a moment, looking down again at the body. Extending a hand over it, I suddenly felt a pull at my chest. It burned and flowed through my veins like ice, and like a weighted pillow, I fell into my body. There I awoke in a sweat, the world flooding my senses. Again I was alone in the jungle.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Due to the nature of writing tutorials, I wasn't able to really come up with anything for this week. What I have decided to do is instead write a short narrative using the hints and tips I've given you this week in two parts. I am writing this on the fly with no preparation, to show you that given the right foundation, you too can write comfortably. 

"Fucking thing bit my hand! Is it bleeding? I can't tell..."

"The venom will travel slowly into your heart now. I told you this was a bad idea."

"Just get the car, now! What are you standing there for?"

"I'm keeping you from falling into a ditch. These woods are dangerous."

Strange tidings from the outer realms bid me a cold greeting as I slump down into the hedge. Behold what man can do; that we are capable of astounding things. The mission was a failure, and my guide could not encourage me any longer. Coming here was a mistake. I was a fool to believe.

When I saw her orbiting Gliese I knew in my heart there was more to her than they had told me. Vela was the key to a new world. I could find it there, I just needed a ship. FTL was the new buzz in the Conglomerate, the hope of a new world, but I was wrong. Now I was dying, feeling the foreign microbes crawling up my veins, tearing my cells apart. It was only a matter of time before I would decay and see the world fade away 36 light years from earth.

"What will happen now," he said taking my wrist between his coarse fingertips, "is that your heart will die. All I can do is sedate you, and ease the pain."

"Don't... please. I must know what the end will be for me."

"If you wish. I just hope they don't come back. Savages..."

"I hope the irony of that isn't lost on you, Running Wolf."

"Don't patronize me Stanley. This world will be more than mine, one day. The people will sing your song, and I shall conduct it."

"Hold my head up, Wolf. I want to see the stars, just in case."

To be Continued...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Writing Good Back-stories, Christopher Nolan Style

I think the success of the recent Batman Trilogy can be pined to one thing: a good back-story.

This may seem sundry, but it's true, and explains why in every single Superman movie we are forced through a sequence of footage detailing the same origin story. But it's necessary for this to happen, and this is why: We need to be involved with the character's origins, otherwise we can't track who they are and how they change in the narrative.

That's right, back-stories illustrate and establish something called narrative pacing. In the first Batman film, the film begins in medias res in the Chinese prison camp, and then puts the viewer through a sequence where Bruce pull's his name (literally) from the mud and simultaneously becomes the Batman. I think the reason why this back-story was so successful was probably in part due to its novelty, because in the previous  back-story the Batman is motivated by revenge and then executes the idealized justice we all crave. Nolan's Batman is thoughtful and intelligent, and entices the viewer to rebel against Bruce's Crusade and his dubious ethics.

How to execute this in a story, that is another question.

Narrative is a little different in a book, because, unlike film, there are no camera settings or light arrays that can be used to alter the mood and emotion in writing. However, when writing a good back-story you can get creative in how you overlay it into your writing. There are two approaches that I have seen work the best.

The "weaving" technique I prefer for its more subdued approach. This is where a back-story is inserted into the narrative through conversations that the main character has, or rather thinks in his consciousness. It would look like this:
Randal woke up, brushing a rough comb through his black wavy hair, waiting for the alarm clock to chime. The crack in its face was thin, barely a sliver, a reminder of his father's shaking. The tremors would come at any time, even at night. It was only a matter of time before the clock would strike the ground. He remembered reading 4:34am when they finally took his father.

Here, it is the clock that acts as a narrative vehicle to tell the story of Randal and how his father died.

The second technique has no name for it, mostly because I am not clever enough to make one. Laying back-story can simply be explained outright, in the form of narrative exposition, like seeing the Star Wars reel move up the screen with all the text ready to tell us what has happened. This again might not be as interesting, but It can be iconic. Neil Gaiman takes this approach in Stardust. The narrative begins with exposition that lays out what the core of the book will consist of, primarily in the town of Wall and the Faerie market, thereby explaining Tristan's uncanny origins. This also establishes the dichotomy between fantasy and reality which comes into play throughout the book. If you've never read it, I highly recommend checking it out.

Anyways, that's in a nutshell what makes a good back-story. Hope you found it helpful!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ground Breaking

When you are writing a book having a few documents on your computer will help greatly in collecting your thoughts. I think the best place to start is getting your plot laid out.

Even when publishing a book, especially when writing a proposal, it is expected that you have a plot outlined before you begin your writing phase of your manuscript. So what you should do is get together a word document and write a basic summary of the direction of the book. This will be a good guide to start with but try not to follow it religiously, otherwise you'll miss out on some good organic writing moments. Usually a plot outline will consist of a paragraph of information laying out the primary "beats" of that chapter. If you've ever read comic books, beats are essentially scenes that your book will consist of. No matter how James Joycey your book is there still are beats that compose the primary arc of your narrative. Construct a cohesive sequence of beats for your plot outline, maybe a sentence each and then repeat for each chapter until you have it all laid out.

Another essential step is collecting whatever scraps of detail you have and putting them down on paper/word document for storage and recovery. This process is where you get detail intensive. Where I start is composing a mission statement for the book, what I desire to accomplish most in the writing process. Afterwards I build a map of where the book will take place. This is incredibly important. A map is what establishes your world, making it interactive and relatable. Without such a map you will never really ground your character. The opposite is also true. If you want your world to be ethereal and confusing, it's best not to create a map, otherwise it'll seem artificial and too structured to be real.

Characters are the next step.

 Write short biographies for each character, including their names and occupations. Also include their descriptions and certain perks that make them who they are. Below is an example to get you brainstorming what this would look like in your document.

Ray Wilks - 35 year old auto mechanic, honest and forward about his lack of discipline. Has a 20 year old girlfriend with perky breasts who thinks that Ray will someday own his own shop. He is fit but lacks altheticism, smokes and owns a yellow, rusted Dodge Charger. His father used to beat him growing up; therefore, Ray goes to church, which he believes will make him good and moral. He is not intelligent, but knows cars with a surprising level of expertise. His favorite hat is orange with white racing stripes which wrap over the top of his head. 

The description is not supposed to have any sort of internal conflict or character building elements. This will come later.

For the rest of the document I put in relevant information concerning the world. What are its politics like? What are the "issues" the world battles with? Are there opposing forces that try to shape the world contrary to its current form? Ask these questions and document them. This will help a great deal when writing.

Again this not an exhaustive overview but my hope is that you will use these brief examples to better articulate your writing. Until Thursday, I hope your writing continues well!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Personal Flair

Sometimes the best writing is birthed over time.

I think a good writer needs to have a solid amount of life experience before they start writing because in order to create genuine characters, these characters must be empathized with, which means you must have a certain level of familiarity with the things they are going through. Here is where the crazy writing cliches originate from, like sitting in a coffee shop for 8 hours watching people, or crashing funerals to see what death really looks like.

Artists excel in this style of research. Many I know take anatomy classes just so they can learn the muscle groups in their subjects faces and therefore produce more realistic work.

So when I say that good writing comes from life experience, sometimes being a good writer out of college just doesn't happen. Sometimes you need to get out and work a shitty job to get a raw sampling of emotion. In this blog, however, I will give some tips on how good writing can be produced out of life experience.

Certain people just like to swear. I never really endorsed this style for the reason that not all people swear as much as literature would make it seem. Generally swearing is reactionary, like when the character is scared or startled, or hits himself on the hand. Moments like these are places where use of profanity can help to build a realistic character. Thinking about what your friends are like and how they swear will help to produce realistic characters that don't speak like stereotypes.

Another thing I do is pay attention to the mannerisms of people in retail stores. The Apple Store is the best, because in my experience there we find lots of pretentious assholes who make very animated expressions. Now, putting this in your book is a little different than the previous example. What I want you to do is to note these expressions, and then try to describe them. The better you get at doing this, the higher the likelihood that you will be able to execute good character descriptions and mannerisms from real life.

Lastly, my favorite exercise is watching opera, or anything staged in a theater. A good actor must over emphasize their movements on stage, that way from a distance they can appear more lifelike. This is because when you are hundreds of feet away, it's hard to distinguish the subtle emotions of someone you can barely see. Getting to know these lively displays of gestures and actions will help you better describe what characters are like from real life experience, because just like acting on a stage, a reader will only explicitly detect what you make explicit.

That being said, happy writing. And if you enjoyed what I've written, refer a friend to my work, or keep posted for more!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hungering for Plot in the Hunger Games

The Hunger Games was a movie that I particularly enjoyed this year for its performances and overall dystopian concept. What I thought was also interesting was the plot development, particularly how it interacted with the viewer's suspension of disbelief, and its direction. There will be spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the movie then avert your eyes!

The main arc of the movie concerns a young woman named Katniss Everdeen who volunteers herself in place of her sister for a nationwide ceremony where teenagers battle to the death for some unknown offense several years prior. While I was impressed with the overall conceptual development of the movie, I wasn't very surprised with how the movie turned out. This is what we will be talking about today.

When developing a plot, generally our immediate tendency is to throw ourselves into the narrative. This means that we ourselves become some auxiliary part of the arc and as a consequence we desire to make things that we want to happen to occur in the narrative. In The Hunger Games, our protagonist possesses the rudimentary elements of a conflicted character but lacks credibility. I think this is because the author has inserted her will into the novel, wanting her to do things that I believe a woman in that situation wouldn't actually do. While its true that young children thrust into an environment of mutual distrust may join together to fight for their survival, the likelihood of this happening is doubtful. What I think was happening was that the author was trying to make peace with something buried in her subconsciousness or simply setting up an improbable love interest later on.

Now when the opening titles began, I had most of the plot figured out. If the book is about a woman taken out of her element but that shes in love with the boy back home, she will most likely either be forced into a position to fake an interest in someone else to survive or turn more and more inward as her innocent heart is corrupted by the brutalizing nature of the games. These kinds of books seem more concerned with commercial viability than wanting to dive deeper into the characters, and thinking ahead helps to conceive a more thoughtful narrative.

The secret to writing a good plot arc requires a desire to create suspense without being cliche. If the games are about a death match, then of course the primary protagonist will live, and probably there will be something special concerning her origins so that unconventional things will transpire such as a second survivor from the same district. The key to making our plots more dynamic is letting the character more freely interact with their environment, like secondary characters or institutions inside the book's universe. Without sounding too much like a critic it would have been more interesting to put Katniss into situations that made her think beyond herself and contemplate why the government in her world did the things they did. There could have been characters that were insular or diversely integrated into the world that she would have interacted with. Her reactions would help to build the realism of the conceptual world along with strengthening her character's multiple dimensional. Also, this would give more opportunities for conceptually building on the political themes of impending insurrection.

The point of all this is: good plots center around the characters and how they mingle with the themes that are presented to them throughout the book. The Hunger Games as it stands is an interesting book/movie, but lacks much of the depth it could have had. A good plot will work with the intrigue of the characters as they move it forward, whatever that may look like. Now, as a writer it's up to you to weave the plot together, but give the characters a stake in the game, so to speak.