Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: tips (page 1 of 3)

Story Structure: Opponents In Fiction

Every interesting hero in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the hero interesting. The hero learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the hero’s great weakness. The hero deals with their own great weakness and grows as a result.

The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.

– John le Carre

Continue reading

Purple Adjectives, Plain Adjectives; Every adjective has a home

ON PURPLE PROSE

Apart from the fact that certain types of writing demand flowery language — a subset of the romance genre being a case in point — there are other uses for the sort of prose which otherwise reads so beautifully that it draws attention to itself. Sometimes such language has the unintended effect of drawing the reader out of the story. At other times there is a reason for it.

The Idea Of Perfection cover

 

This is the opening of Chapter 12 from Kate Grenville’s The Idea Of Perfection:

Out at The Bent Bridge, the men were having their smoko. They had got the fire going, twigs crackling under the billy, the flames invisible in the brilliant morning light. Smoke drifted away blue under the trees and turned the slanting sunlight into great organ-pipes of powdery light.

In a story set in the Australian bush, this paragraph almost seems out of place, with its excess adjectives (brilliant, blue, great) and alliteration (slanting sunlight) and its grandiose metaphor (organ-pipes) and original but tenuous use of ‘powdery’ rather than ‘dusty’. But the prose continues like this, with an abrupt change in tone:

The red-headed one they all called Blue opened his sandwich up, showing the flap of grainy grey devon inside. He had caught the sun across his bare freckled back and his eyes were bloodshot.

Er, yuk, he said, and peeled it off the bread.

It was stuck like wallpaper.

He flung it into the fire where it lay across a stick, curling, darkening, starting to sizzle. He stuck the two slices of bread back against each other.

It now becomes clear why the first paragraph had been so beautifully written: To contrast with the earthiness of the men working on the bridge.

The ‘red-headed one they all called Blue’ is an example of typically Australian irony, in which case colour is mentioned now for a different effect — to bring us back to the reality of ‘Australia’. The Australian-ness of this man is continued with the colour red — his freckles, his bloodshot eyes. There is no longer any glamour associated with adjectives of colour.

The devon sausage sounds even more disgusting than it is when contrasted against the ‘organ pipes of powdery light’, especially since ‘powdery’ is a word that could equally be used to describe devon, albeit with a completely different emotional outcome.

The dialogue, too, of ‘Er, yuk’ portrays unembellished laconic disgust, with its harsh ‘k’ sound.

‘It was stuck like wallpaper’ is another kind of imagery — a simile this time — but it has a quite different ring to it, because wallpaper is such an ordinary thing found in old houses, whereas ‘organ-pipes’ conjures up a cathedral with its high ceilings, spirituality and melodious sounds.

Next we have the colloquial verbs of ‘flung’ and ‘stuck’; Germanic-derived words which emphasise the harshness of the environs.

All of this works much better, of course, because it occurs in opposition to a flowery opening paragraph, which shows off the author’s flair for language, but with an end in mind… other than showing off.

ON PLAIN PROSE

The Beasts Of Clawstone Castle cover

Critique groups will often advise beginning writers to avoid meaningless adjectives such as ‘nice’ and ‘good. But again, sometimes these adjectives are used for a reason. Take the following introduction to the heroes of The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, by Eva Ibbotson:

The children lived in a ground-floor flat in a pleasant part of South London. Their parents were funny and clever and nice, but they were apt to be a little bit frantic because of their jobs. Mrs Hamilton ran an experimental theatre which put on interesting plays but kept on running out of money, and Mr Hamilton was a designer and had to have good ideas about what people should do with their houses.

  1. The parents are not important to the story. The author’s job at the beginning of the story is simply to get them out of the way. If the author were to give examples of ‘funny’ and ‘clever’ and ‘nice’ then the story would be about the parents and the action would be suspended.
  2. The repetition of these fairly meaningless adjectives underscores the fairly meaningless lives our protagonists lead at the beginning of the story. Since their lives are uneventful and their home is sheltered, the only way they will grow as people is by leaving their secure and uneventful environment to go on an adventure elsewhere.

Must Heroes In Children’s Books Be Likeable?

Anyone can see from reading reviews at Amazon and Goodreads that there is a swathe of the reading and book-buying public who do not like to read books with unlikeable characters. If they’re going to spend 300-600 pages with someone they want that someone to be the kind of character they’d happily invite over for a cup of tea. Their reasons for reading: To enjoy the experience.

Another type of reader doesn’t have this requirement. This kind of reader can sound a bit more hi-falutin because, after all, you can’t read a lot of the classics if you start with the requirements that your characters have to be likeable.

Here’s a brainstorm of what I personally ‘like’ in a character:

what-i-like-in-characters

James Wood makes clear his own position, criticizing the type of reviewer who seems to think that:

Artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of–or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.

How Fiction Works

This definitely has me thinking about picturebooks, and how certain readers require that any wrongdoing in a picturebook must be punished, lest children think that it’s okay to steal hats, or whatever.

IN WHICH LIKEABILITY ABUTS FEMINISM

A few years after James Wood published How Fiction Works, novelist Claire Messud was asked by a journalist to comment on why the main (female) character in her novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t very likeable. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that her response to Publishers Weekly sounded so well-thought through it was almost prepared; after all, James Wood and Claire Messud are married. I think they may have discussed this issue at some point, with Messud adding to the conversation that female characters are judged more harshly for being unlikeable, as are women in real life.

Unlikeable The Problem With Hillary

Lena Dunham spoke on the issue of likeability after criticisms that her characters in Girls are unlikeable:

I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham, quoted here.

Lena Dunham

If we take the enduring success of books such as Lolita, it’s clear that in literary works — the kind that take years or decades to write — the kind that will get reviewed in major publications, you don’t have to write likeable main characters and you may still make your mark.

If you are a self-published author on Amazon, however, the nature of user reviews suggest that likeable main characters sell more copies.

And if you aspire to be a popular author for children, that likeable hero rule is even tighter… for better or for worse. In fact, even in popular Hollywood films heroes have to have a ‘moral weakness’. In other words, they have to be treating other people badly in some way (too tied to their job to spend time with family etc). But this does not seem to be a rule in children’s books, especially those for young readers. Heroes for children only need a ‘psychological weakness’ (shyness, anxiety, hyperactivity, a tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths, trouble handing in homework, etc.)

How To Write A Likeable Hero

We identify most strongly with characters we feel sorry for, worry about, or like and admire.

— Michael Hauge

It’s not actually that hard. There is even a checklist. This is from David Freeman, John Truby, Robert McKee and Howard Suber: Continue reading

Mirrors and Reflections 09: Reflection Characters

What Is A Reflection Character?

This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation.
— David Hauge

The reflection character is an ally.

(The reflection itself is often called the ‘Shadow In The Hero’ when a hero’s weaknesses and strengths are mirrored in a nemesis rather than in an ally.)

Mentors As Reflection Characters

A typical role for a reflection character is that of mentor to the hero – a teacher, trainer, coach or therapist whose job is to give the hero the skills necessary to achieve his goal.

On the subject of mentors, mentors often die in films. It’s only when we get rid of the mentor that the hero is given the opportunity to show what they have learnt. A common trick is to put a young innocent person between two mentors and making them pick between them. This is a test of character.

In film, reflections who are teachers are usually introduced after the beginning of the story – often around the first key turning point. This allows the reader and audience to become acquainted with the reflection as the hero does, rather than having to fill in the blanks of an existing relationship, as with a “best friend” reflection who has been aligned with the hero for some time.

Raison d’etre

To make it credible that your hero can achieve both what he wants and what he or she needs, you want to give him some help in the form of a reflection character.

The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.

Tips For Creating A Good Reflection Character

These initial exchanges illustrate a critical element of creating an effective reflection character: There must be lots of conflict between hero and reflection. Even though the reflection is the hero’s ally, teacher and friend, it is the reflection’s role to push the hero beyond his limits, challenge the hero’s poor decisions or weak actions, and repeatedly criticize and cajole the hero toward doing what is necessary to achieve his or her goal.

At some point in the story, the hero MUST reject the reflection character completely; and ultimately the reflection must remain loyal to the hero in spite of this hurtful rejection until the hero returns and aligns with the reflection once again. (This corresponds to Truby’s step: ATTACK BY ALLY.)

Examples

The King’s Speech — Speech therapist Lionel Logue embodies all the characteristics of an effective reflection to the film’s hero Bertie (later King George VI).

The Matrix — Morpheus

Karate Kid — Mr Miyagi (and later Mr Han). Mr Miyagi is also a trickster (mentor + trickster) because he gets Daniel-san to basically do all his most annoying and time-consuming tasks so he can sit back and tend to his bonsai.

Good Will Hunting — Sean (mentor)

My Best Friend’s Wedding — George

True Grit — Rooster Cogburn is a reluctant mentor

Shrek — Donkey is always looking at the bright side of everything, trying to work it out. Donkey is well known for acting annoyingly and irritatingly towards other characters, especially Shrek. One night, during camp, Donkey asks Shrek why he hates everyone so much, and Shrek angrily reveals that everyone judges him a scary monster before getting to actually know him, and Donkey acknowledges that he already knew that there was more to Shrek’s character when they met. Donkey begins to notice a romance between Fiona and Shrek, despite their denials. So Donkey is that upbeat friend who brings Shrek out of a fug and counsels him romantically.

Up — Russell to the old man is similar to the relationship between Donkey and Shrek. (When it’s a rom-com and the gender is different it’s called ‘Manic Pixie Dreamgirl’.)

Dirty Dancing — Baby Houseman and Johnny Castle (dance teacher mentor)

Silence Of The Lambs — Clarice and Hannibal (mentor)

An Officer And A Gentleman — Zack Mayo and Sgt. Foley (mentor)

Scarlett and Rayner

Nashville — Rayna James is mentor to Scarlett due to her greater experience in the country music scene. Rayna is much taller than Scarlett, which is interesting because in film mother figures are often taller than daughter figures even though in real life daughters tend to be the same height or even a little taller than their mothers. Their common nemesis is Juliette Barnes, and the character web is interesting physiologically because from behind at least, Scarlett and Juliette go by the same description — they are both small with long, blonde hair. Juliette is the fierce, conniving and much more successful version of Scarlett in the first few seasons.

Jennifer Melfi

The Sopranos — Tony has a therapist, who eventually works out that he’s playing with her, and that you can’t fix a sociopath with therapy but you can enable one.

Reflection Characters In Children’s Literature

Matilda — Miss Honey. If Matilda keeps reading and studying, she’s likely to become a Miss Honey herself one day.

Miss Stacey — to Anne of Green Gables. Actual teachers as reflection characters are common in children’s literature, probably because this is the period of people’s lives where teachers are important.

The Witches — grandma to the first person narrator. Grandmama is the original witch hunter, but the job of exterminating them all is left to the grandson.

 

 

Not Really Related

Your Dog Is Your Mirror cover

This is a non-fiction book cover that scares the hell out of me.

Aerial Perspective Depicted With Line Art

There are various ways of depicting aerial perspective.

  1. Change the colour. (Background scenery such as distant mountains tend to look more blue.)
  2. Change the opacity. (The further away, the less vivid the colours.)
  3. Make use of blur. (Background scenery might be more blurry if you want to draw attention to your foreground image.)
  4. Darken foreground lines.
  5. Change the amount of detail.

 

thick lines

Here’s a rather extreme example of line thickening in the foreground.

 

Or, you can stylize your illustrations, making up your own technique.

  1. Use white lines as background scenery.
  2. Use unfilled objects (with dark lines) as background scenery.
Heidi

white lines forming a gesture of mountains in the background

The Snow Queen

thin white lines for the background building, thicker lines for the trees in the middle ground, full colour for the children in the foreground

Rootabaga Stories

In Drahos Zac’s illustrations for The Pied Piper, there may be ominous reasons for avoiding the sepia fill on background buildings: The inhabitants of those particular buildings may have already died. This theory holds up when you consider some of the foreground characters are also left unfilled. This feels reminiscent of ghosts.

Pied Piper Drahos Zak drahos zak2

Here, Maurice Sendak does something a bit different.

The Wheel On The School

Levels of Detail In Literature

NOVELS

Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail.[…] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Wood then goes on to explain that although all this surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

In the end it doesn’t really matter about any distinction between what is real and what is signified, because “realism can be an effect and still be true”. Wood describes Barthes’s attitude towards realism as “sensitive, murderous hostility” and that’s the only reason why he insisted on this “false division”.

SHORT STORIES

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver explains that even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

— Raymond Carver, On Writing

PICTURE BOOKS

Modern picture books convey all of their detail in the illustrations and none in the text. The text is for conveying the story structure. There are few exceptions to this. Once the text starts to describe the picture, what you now have is an ‘illustrated story’.

Tips and Tricks from Muriel Spark

The Finishing School

In this novel, Muriel Spark takes a swipe at hack writers and aspiring novelists. All of the characters are cliches and stereotypes, working well as a comedic ensemble to convey Spark’s own ideas on writing. We are to read most of this book as irony. Failure to do so would render it dry.

Rowland marvelled as he read her essay. How slick and self-confident these young people were… How they could cover the pages, juggling the paragraphs around on their p.c.s and never for a moment thinking that any word could be spelt other than the way they wanted it to be. Tilly ‘dansed’ with her friend from ‘Nipall’. Why not? Rowland thought. She will always have an editor to put her story straight.

A common but inaccurate perception that editors exist solely to copyedit the genius of writers, who do not need to learn the basic tools of writing, but whose talent is glowing enough to shine through their basic errors.

‘Watch for details,’ Rowland had often said. ‘Observe. Think about your observations. Think hard. They do not need to be literally true. Literal truth is arid. Analyse your subject. Get at the Freudian reality, the inner kernel. Everything means something other than it seems. The cat means the mother.’

A poke at writers who dress plain things up with figurative language which gets in the way of the story.

‘I’ve changed my mind, you know, about the book I’m writing. It won’t be a novel. It will eventually be a life-study of a real person, Chris. At present I am accumulating the notes.’

True writers just get on with finishing what they’ve started. Rowland will never finish his novel because he can’t decide on what he wants to write about.

‘He hasn’t got a publisher yet,’ said Rowland. ‘That’s the sine qua non of a book.’

Characterisation

Rowland’s pompous side is underscored by his use of Latin. He could have said ‘prerequisite’, a perfectly acceptable English term but he must show off his classical education, as many hi-falutin writers tend to do.

Muriel Spark also manages to have a go at publishers who seize the opportunity to publish work by very young authors who have a platform because of their age; talented writers who nevertheless get carried away too soon, wanting their first draft made into a movie; authors who rework the plot of an existing classic; writers who use big words like ‘antiguous’, causing others to look it up; and close-readings of Thomas Hardy.

The Humour

Muriel Spark has a wonderful, acerbic tone and I enjoy her humour because it is not the kind that slaps you in the face.

Nina is conducting her comme il faut class (a class about social etiquette – the French only making it seem more pretentious than it already is). Like Miss Jean Brodie, Nina has firm but very biased ideas about such things, and embarks upon a lecture:

‘Be careful who takes you to Ascot,’ she said, ‘because unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.’ (As if rich husbands couldn’t possibly be crooks.) … Your man is bound to be a crook, bound to be. It teems with crooks…’

‘My dad doesn’t go to Ascot,’ said Pallas. (Meaning to point out that his father is therefore, proudly NOT a crook)

‘Oh I didn’t say all crooks went to Ascot, only that there are plenty of them at that function.’ (Implying in a most pragmatic way that even though Pallas’ father IS a crook, that doesn’t mean he has to go to Ascot – wonderfully twisted logic.)

But much of the humour comes from the setting – the most pretentious setting anyone could dream up – a finishing school in Switzerland. The formal language echoes the formal, pompous setting. Spark even hyphenates ‘to-day’ in the old-fashioned way.

Narration

The novel begins with Rowland opining about how to set the scene in a novel. The novel is written in omniscient POV, zooming in and out from the mind of Rowland, the 29-year-old principal of the finishing school, and aspiring novelist.

Spark makes good use of free indirect style:

It was early July, but not summery. The sky bulged, pregnant with water.

Here, it is not the narrator speaking, but obviously Rowland. Muriel Spark knows that such an image will provoke laughter and she directs our laughter towards her pompous character. This is exactly how Rowland would see the sky, in his melodramatic, overwritten way.

Key Words And Phrases in Middle Grade Fiction

Some screenwriters refer to these as the ‘third track’ of dialogue (with the first two tracks being ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’.

Key words, phrases, taglines, and sounds are the third track of dialogue. These are words with the potential to carry special meaning, symbolically or thematically, the way a symphony uses certain instruments, such as the triangle, here and there for emphasis. The trick to building this meaning is to have your characters say the word many more times than normal. The repetition, especially in multiple contexts, has a cumulative effect on the audience.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

We all know people in real life who […] use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

A variant on the arc phrases also occurs in a lot of middle grade fiction.

Key Words and Phrases In The Narrative Voice

In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which explains the significance of the title.

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.

Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.

The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life.

The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:

You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.

Likewise, Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce was written concurrently with the screenplay. Both the screenplay and the book came to fruition, my point being that the book was the first written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.

In this book, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…

 

An Unusual Phrase Associated With A Character

Sometimes the main character has a distinctive phrase rather than, as in the above examples, the (first person) narrative voice.

Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.

Joan Aiken’s raven, Mortimer, squawks “Nevermore!” in reference to the classic poem, which is funny because the stories are slapstick humorous whereas the poem is gothic horror. Apart from making squawk type sounds this is the only word he knows. Aiken adroitly contrives a surprising number of occasions in which he can use it.

 

Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing

Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.

Still, writers are often warned against word echo, which means writers shouldn’t use a particular ‘word with personality’ more than, say, once in any novel length work otherwise the word calls attention to itself. As Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates though, even (possibly) unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.

 

A metaphor is like a simile

Metaphors are privileged areas for lying: by granting authors these limited flights of fancy, readers kid themselves into believing that what is not figurative in a text is somehow ‘truer’.

– Jason K. Friedman in Goth: Undead Subculture

Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor.

Some good metaphors

From Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly (by Dave Eggers), set in Tanzania:

A woman on the tour bus has ‘leonine hair, frayed and thick, blond and white’.

Tanzania = lions = good metaphor because it reflects the setting.

Here’s another from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates), describing Frank’s place of work:

At first glance, all the upper floors of the Knox Building looked alike. Each was a bit open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions. The upper panels of these dividers, waist to shoulder, were made of thick unframed plate glass that was slightly corrugated to achieve a blue-white semi-transparency; and the overall effect of this, to a man getting off the elevator and looking across the room, was that of the wide indoor lake in which swimmers far and near were moving, some making steady headway, others treading water, some seen in the act of breaking to the surface or going under, and many submerged, their faces loosened into wavering pink blurs as they drowned at their desks.

There are several different metaphors in the paragraph above (fire and mazes included), though those first metaphors don’t really jump out because they have become a part of the language. (‘A maze of corridors’ has become cliche – though we shouldn’t despise the cliche too much – it gets its meaning across.)

The extended metaphor of the sea of swimmers is particularly well done, because, although I’ve seen similar open-plan offices in my life, I had never made the connection that the workers in such an office are like swimmers. When Yates describes how each is at a different stage of submersion, I think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it looks’.

But the true brilliance of this extended metaphor is how it relates to the theme. Frank Wheeler’s mediocre suburban life is itself a form of slow drowning, even though at first glance, this cruisy job feels like a day at the beach.

The Sea = Frank Wheeler’s Workplace = A slow drowning disguised as a harmless environment = A very good metaphor because it echoes the theme.

A Bad Metaphor

Perpetrator: me.

My story is set in contemporary New Zealand. High school students are in a car, making their way to a school ball. Comment below comes courtesy of a writing group critter:

Streetlamps flash-danced by, [1] and neon signs and traffic lights and ordinary people making their way to ordinary places. Why couldn’t everyone have this much fun, every night, everywhere?


[l1]Nice echo of Katherine Mansfield here, but I’m not sure of the purpose of it.

Exactly. There was no good reason  to include ‘flashdance’ in a contemporary story for young adults. Not when the setting is New Zealand. Not when flash-dancing should get the reader humming ‘What a feeling!’, if anything at all.

Flashdance = America = 1980s = bad metaphor. I took it out.

Related

Drag it Out: How to Use Extended Metaphors for Maximum Effect from Lit Reactor

Richard Dawkins Speaks About the Problem with Metaphors at Patheos

How To Structure Any Story

‘Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.’ There are far more complex explanations, of course. […] Jack discovers a beanstalk; Bond learns Blofeld plans to take over the world. The ‘something’ is almost always a problem, sometimes a problem disguised as an opportunity. It’s usually something that throws your protagonist’s world out of kilter — an explosion of sorts in the normal steady pace of their lives: Alice falls down a rabbit hole; Spooks learn of a radical terrorist plot; Godot doesn’t turn up.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Though John Yorke’s definition of ‘story’ is a wide one, the following is John Truby’s seven step structure for creating memorable stories which feel complete — not like mood pieces, not like character sketches, not descriptions of setting but complete narratives we remember for a long time.

Weakness/Need

What’s psychologically wrong with the hero?

How is the hero treating others badly? (Moral weakness)

What does the hero need in order to live a better life?

Sometimes these needs are called ‘dramatic needs’.

You may have heard the term ‘lack’ to describe this portion of characterisation. That’s Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s word. Another word commonly used is ‘flaw’. But I really like John Truby’s breakdown of the lack/flaw into both moral and psychological weakness because it’s really easy to forget the moral weakness, and so much better when you don’t.

Do children’s stories always feature a main character who treats others badly? You probably already know the answer to this: No, no they do not. In a series like A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, the main characters function as avatars for the young readers (both boy and girl readers, notice), and the characters around them are full of weaknesses — and are also much more interesting than they are.

Desire

What does the hero want? (In this particular story… not in general.)

If you think in terms of ‘inciting incidents’, the desire becomes clear to the main character and to the audience after the inciting incident. That’s what the inciting incident is for. A specific type of inciting incident is Hitchcock’s ‘MacGuffin’. This is an inciting incident which the audience has completely forgotten about by story’s end.
The best inciting incidents subvert readers’ expectations.
Inciting incidents aren’t always so easy to pick as an ‘explosion which rocks the main character’s world’. It can be much more subtle.
  • The protagonist will be alerted to a world outside their own.
  • They will make a decision on how to react to this and pursue a course of action that will precipitate a crisis. 
  • This will force them to make a decision propelling them into a whole new universe. 

The main character will come up with their first revelation somewhere in here.

All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you’ll have a scene.

— Aaron Sorkin

At this point you may be thinking hang on, what if the character doesn’t want anything and that’s the point? A lot of coming-of-age stories are about teenagers mooching around, for instance. A good example is Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. These characters are defined by what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

With these characters something must happen externally. They have to be forced into action, even if it’s in a vain attempt to keep everything exactly the same as it was before. Often in realistic fiction it’s the annoying mother or a teacher on their tail. In a fantasy/thriller there’s a much wider range of villains who can enter the story to turn a character’s life upside down.

The desire must be specific to this particular story. It’s not enough for a character to want ‘love’ or ‘acceptance’. These things will of course be true, but alongside these nebulous, generalised deep-seated desires there must be another one far more targeted. For instance, “to cheer up a girl who is dying and make her a short film as tribute”. The more concrete the desire the easier it is to write the story. The easiest stories to create can be held in the main character’s hand (or not, if it’s a tragedy). Searching for something, getting something, returning something — these kinds of stories might be called ‘grail quests’.

The most interesting goals will be an outworking of the main character’s deep-seated desire. Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl wants love and wants to be accepted, which is precisely why he has made it his mission to cheer up the dying girl.

Opponent

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

— Alfred Hitchcock

Ideally the main character and the baddie will be about evenly matched. No good to create a really stupid opponent unless you’re creating a comedy.

In most of the best stories the opponent will be another human but it can also be ‘nature’ (e.g. in a disaster movie). Think of ‘opponent’ as a sum total of forces:

So something happens to a central character that throws them off the beaten track and forces them into a world they’ve never seen. A beanstalk grows, a patient collapses, a murder is committed. All of these actions have consequences, which in turn provoke obstacles that are commonly dubbed forces of antagonism — the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires. These forces accumulate from this initial moment as we head towards the climax of the story.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

The opponent will depend on the genre/type of story you’re writing.

In the simple detective story they’re catalysed by the murder; in the medical drama the patient. […] In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Since ‘nature’ makes an uninteresting opponent, even when the opponent is plenty strong enough the writers will concoct human antagonists. In Twister the hurricane is the main opposing force, but none of the characters are getting on with each other, either.

If there’s a killer or an evil mastermind bent on planetary domination then they are, obviously, the antagonists [often called ‘villains’]; the patient may not behave antagonistically, but they effectively embody the illness that will be the true enemy in the drama. The antagonist is thus the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

You might be asking yourself at this point, can the main character be ‘their own worst enemy’?

The antagonist is … the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal. The detective and ‘monster’ templates illustrate this well, but antagonism can manifest itself in many different ways — most interestingly when it lies within the protagonist. Cowardice, drunkenness, lack of self-esteem — all will serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

However, if your main character’s ONLY opponent is their own self, you’re in for a tough job. Sure — great stories can be created in which the main character is their own worst enemy. An excellent example is Larry McMurtry’s Hud, from his novel Horseman, Pass By. That said, McMutry knew that in order to show the audience that Hud is his own worst enemy he had to do it via conflict with other characters. He couldn’t just put him on a farm alone. Even in The Martian by Andy Weir, the story was improved with the addition of other people — the base back on Earth, and the backstory which included the other astronauts. The Martian environment is plenty oppositional enough, but doesn’t make for the best story.

Where the character is their own worst enemy, that part goes under the ‘psychological weakness’/’moral weakness’ banner, not under this one.

Plan

The hero makes a plan. In longer stories like feature films or novels the initial plan falls flat, then they have to change the plan a bit, or a lot, as things go increasingly wrong. Do your worst to your character. Make the trials escalate.

The pattern will go something like this:

  1. Main character makes a plan
  2. Opponent ruins the plan with their own plan
  3. Main character seems defeated
  4. Oh hang on: a modified plan, new motive, new momentum
  5. Second revelation. Makes some sort of decision
  6. Ideally the audience realises something
  7. Main character has a third revelation and makes another decision

As you can see, the plan itself is made up of 7 main segments. It also follows the Storytelling Rule Of Threes, because the plan will need to be changed 3 times. If you find your stories really sag in the middle it’s worth trying this guided breakdown on for size.

Battle

They might kill off their old self. Or, they might choose to return to their former selves. This rarely happens, and it very rarely happens in children’s literature. It does happen in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, and I did choose this for my picture book app, Midnight Feast.

The main character far more often chooses to confront their innermost fears, overcome them and are rewarded for that.

There’ll be a battle scene in every story. Not literally a fisticuffs showdown, or a gunfight (though in certain genres that will definitely happen too). But there will be one big scene — there’ll be arguments or extreme peril, or witnessing someone else have a fight, which the hero will have had a role in provoking.

If we distinguish between ‘crisis’ and ‘battle’ at all, it’s a very small difference: the ‘crisis’ comes right before the battle. A crisis point always embodies the worst possible consequence of the decision taken when the initial dramatic explosion occurred. This decision brings the character face to face with their worst fear. Their worst fear is represented by the obstacle that is going to force them to face up to their underlying flaw. e.g. If a character is wary of commitment then the crisis will force them to face losing someone they love. If a character is selfish they are brought face to face with what they might lose by being so. If a character is timid they will have to face up to what timidity might cost. Sometimes it’s easier to think of the structure in question-and-answer form, and as writer you will have done this earlier under ‘weakness/need’:

Question: What are the worst possible consequences of my main character’s decision to…?

Answer: [Whatever the answer is, that’s your battle sequence, which leads to a climax.]

(By the way, this question and answer doesn’t just open the story and lead to closure, but is found within every ‘act’.)

TV writers in the United States call the crisis the ‘worst case’. BBC writers call it ‘worst point’. If it’s TV we’re talking about, on a commercial station, it’ll be the bit that happens right before the last commercial break. It’s also where TV writers leave the ending in continuing series, knowing the audience will want to come back to find out if the characters escaped alive.

Others call this stage the ‘crisis’. The bit where the main character comes close to death, often. The worst happens to them. Bad things happen, worse things, now the worst. The crisis is a kind of death. It usually isn’t the hero who dies, of course. We want them to stick around for the next bits. The most dangerous thing to be is the hero’s best buddy. There’s a high mortality rate with those guys.

Sometimes no one actually dies, but hope passes away.

Perhaps, if you think in terms of narrative climax, you’re wondering which part that would map onto. Think of the ‘climax’ as the bit where the main character finds release from their seemingly inescapable predicament. I’ll slot the climax in right between battle and new equilibrium. It’s a useful concept in terms of criticism, but for writers? I prefer to think in terms of battle followed by new equilibrium. The climax is what the audience feels. It’s not a story stage per se. The climax is the part which is the ‘obligatory scene’, set up by the inciting incident. For instance, when Louise murders the rapist in the inciting incident, the climax must be the confrontation between the women and the law.

Self-revelation

The hero will learn something about themselves. Importantly, the character makes a choice. They find out what sort of person they really are.

This new self-awareness usually comes with struggling, pain, and even suffering, especially in modern realistic YA. Characters are really put through the mill.

Characters…should not always get what they want, but should — if they deserve it — get what they need. That need, or flaw, is almost always present at the beginning of the [story].

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

New Equilibrium

The hero’s life will be different from now on. The audience generally needs a scene or two in which we get a glimpse of how things are going to be from here on in, though sometimes writers offer a truncated story, leaving out this bit, so the audience can decide for themselves what happened. Lots of people don’t like having to do this though.

*Short stories don’t always follow this pattern. For example, Chekhov often leaves out the self-revelation, hoping for the revelation to happen for the reader rather than for the character. Make Way For Ducklings is missing the Weakness/Need and Plan steps, leading to the criticism of ‘weak characterisation’. But really there are few popular exceptions existing outside this basic structure.

Extrapolated Ending

I am adding an extra step which applies to a few stories, not most. Sometimes the writer leave the ending open. In this case it’s up to us to work out what happened next. This isn’t going to be a scene as such, but an accumulation of details garnered from all the scenes which lead us to our conclusion.

Here’s the Mnemonic

Why

Do

Oinky

Pigs

Behave

So

Nicely?

(Eh?)

What's Polite board book

 

If you’d like to use my mnemonic above (it works for me!), you might like to watch this video of a little pig very politely sharing his dinner with a woman.

Tom Gauld has a different way of explaining the same rules. Here is one of his New Yorker comics:

undramatic-plots

Box one shows that a hero must take action otherwise it’s not a story.

Box two shows that there must be conflict otherwise it’s not a story.

Box three shows that the hero must constantly redouble efforts (and modify plans) in order to achieve the goal.

Box four shows that a hero needs a strong desire line, and by desire ‘line’, we mean that it lasts until the end of the story.

Does this structure work for children’s stories also?

Yep. Every single time. But I’ll add a few points:

  • Picture books (at least, the kind with a narrative — not typical abecedaries or toy books such as Where’s Wally books — are excellent for showing this structure because the structure is so clear. The steps will even be marked clearly.
  • An especially clear example of storytelling structure can be found in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers.
  • If a story is ‘once upon a time something happened’, then the inciting incident is the ‘something’ that kick-starts a story.
  • There’s a rule that picture books for  young readers need a non-tragic ending (I won’t say happy, since we do have Jon Klassen’s Hat books, in which the main character dies.) The majority of picturebook stories are home-away-home structure. Books designed to be read before bed require the main character to make it home safely, in general.
  • The ‘opponent’ is often also an ally. For example, well-meaning parents and teachers. This is true of realistic stories for adults, too, of course.
  • When the main character is an animal, there’s sometimes a parallel subplot in which a human character is the one with the clear desire and plan. An excellent example of this is Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, in which the old lady next door is the human proxy for the pig. This applies to animals who are not fully humanized (and would never be necessary in a book such as Olivia, in which the pig is for all intents and purposes a little girl.)
  • The hero in a children’s book does not need to have a moral weakness. In other words, the reader does not need to see how the hero is treating others badly. That said, a character such as Olivia, who is very wearing on her mother, is more rounded and ‘human’ precisely because of her annoying habits. There is more tolerance for Pollyannas in children’s literature (at least among adults), no doubt because the gatekeepers of kidlit still like heroes to be models of behaviour, and always punished for their misdemeanours.
  • In the self-revelation stage of children’s fiction, the protagonist usually reaches a higher level of maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness by the book’s end, but has not achieved adulthood. There will be some sense that they have much more yet to learn. No Awareness >> Growing Awareness >> Full Awareness
Older posts

© 2017 Slap Happy Larry

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑