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Mirrors and Reflections 03: Mirror Moments In Literature

Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

– from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them 

 

When I think of a ‘mirror moment’ I think of a movie, in which a character looks into a mirror, or a reflection in a shop, or perhaps even a father looking at his son or a similar variation. Novels allow for much more interiority, and therefore a mirror moment doesn’t need an actual mirror. The reader can be told just what any character is thinking (depending on the POV choice).

In her book Second Sight, editor Cheryl Klein says this of mirror moments in children’s literature, and I’ve heard it said by a variety of lit experts:

We base our first impressions of people off what we see and what they say — so your descriptions of your character’s appearance can be important to establishing him in the reader’s mind. I say “can” because too much emphasis on appearance can cut both ways. There’s a terrible cliche in fiction where the main character will stop and look in a mirror and catalogue his or her features somewhere in the first chapter in order to establish the person visually in the reader’s mind. But that never really works for me — partly because it’s such a cliche that it annoys me and marks the writer as less interesting than s/he could be, and partly because that description defines the character in the reader’s mind as someone who likely looks different than the reader, which perhaps weakens the reader’s identification with the character. (None of Sarah Dessen’s book covers feature the faces of her protagonists, at her request, because she wants readers to be able to imagine themselves into the lives of her characters.)

On the other hand, there are are certain types of novels — fantasy especially — where you really want to have the characters described so the reader can visualize them, because the point of the book is that the reader falls into this world and experiences it fully. Or, if your novel is written in first person, we want to see what that main character sees when she looks at other people, which will help characterise those other people for us (and characterize your main character by showing us what she notices about others). So it depends on the point you’re going for whether you’ll want to spend time on appearances.

 

Sarah Dessen Book Covers

 

I have noticed that readers differ in the amount of description they want for a character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll probably always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.) Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards, if they hadn’t sort of ruined themselves… Anyhow, moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.

 

CONCRETIZATION

There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.

 

EXAMPLES AND ALTERNATIVES TO MIRROR MOMENTS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Fairytales are not necessarily ‘children’s literature’, at least not until the Grimm Brothers saw a lucrative hole in the kidlit market, but mirrors and reflections have a long tradition in fairytales around the world:

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation

 

This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

Lois Lowry The Giver Book Cover

In The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the absence of mirrors is significant to the story. In this book, individuality comes a far second to the welfare of the group, and this is symbolised by the absence of mirrors:

Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.

Even in the absence of mirrors, Lowry  manages to create a ‘mirror moment’ by having the protagonist, Jonas, see himself in another person.

Another interesting thing about visual revelations in The Giver is that [SPOILER ALERT] we don’t know until partway through the book that Jonas’ world is devoid of colour. For readers who don’t like beards sprung upon them, I wonder if this works so well.

 

 

I don’t usually revisit early drafts of things that are well and truly finished, but I happened upon my very first scribblings about Hilda Bewildered. I use a Scrivener file for an ‘ideas binder’. I’d completely forgotten that I initially imagined this as a Christmas story.

Scrivener Screenshot of Hilda Bewildered

Scrivener Screenshot of Hilda Bewildered

Range of Change

Characters can develop in two ways. A text can provide new information about a character that cuases readers to see the character differently and in more depth, or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

If you’re in the middle of writing something and find that you’re second-guessing your thumbnail character descriptions, see The Always/Only Test by Andrea Phillips and realise you’re not the only one.

What is meant by a ‘complex’ character in fiction?

Primarily it means that these characters have moral contradictions. And that means they…have a highly compartmentalized moral code.

John Truby

 

Dialogue In Literature

“I’m not going to come!” he ejaculated.

“That’s the day you won the cricket match,” she chirped.

Dialogue in fiction should be reserved for the culminating moments and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.

EDITH WHARTON

As wonderful as that quote is, for a more practical overview of dialogue mechanics, see chapter 5 of ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print’ by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers

Here is a summary:

There is plenty of room for poetic licence in fiction but when it comes to punctuating and attributing dialogue, there are rules. First, some technical terms…

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Short Story Study: The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar

Hear the story read by Douglass Greene at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. This is partly due to how much I relate to the characters; when our daughter was 5 some new neighbours moved in next door. They were very unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. The People Across The Canyon encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.

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Making Use Of Juxtaposition In Writing

Juxtaposition Of Scenes John Truby

John Truby points out that TV dramas make excellent case studies for working out how to achieve narrative juxtaposition, and offers a case study of ER. I would suggest also Six Feet Under, in which the narrative juxtaposition running throughout the series is, of course, a metaphor for life and death.

Each scene in a juxtaposed TV drama will be variations on a single problem. Each strand/plotline will have an underlying unity.

The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction

The-Storyteller-Mike-Shaheen-1024x604

Advantages of a storyteller:

  • A storyteller can radically change the way you sequence a plot. The storyteller has just as much effect on your depiction of character as the plot itself.
  • The vast majority of popular stories (movies/novels/plays) don’t use a recognizable storyteller but an omniscient narrator. The audience doesn’t see who is telling the story, and we don’t care.
  • A storyteller is someone who recounts a character’s actions, either in the first person or third. If your storyteller is recognizable you are afforded greater complexity and subtlety: You can present both the actions of the MC and commentary on those actions.
  • If you identify the storyteller the audience will ask why they are telling it. And why does this story need a teller. A storyteller calls attention to herself and can distance the audience from the story. That gives the writer the benefit of detachment.
  • This storyteller may not be telling the entire truth. The storyteller blurs/destroys the line between reality and illusion.
  • If the storyteller is identified the audience knows that this is someone’s memory — cue feelings of loss, sadness and ‘might-have’been-ness’. We know that the storyteller will be retelling the story with a touch more wisdom, since a measure of time has elapsed since the ending of the story and the retelling of it.
  • A storyteller can heighten the issue of truth. When a storyteller speaks personally to an audience the storyteller in effect is saying ‘I was there so you can trust me on this’. This is a tacit invitation to the audience not to trust this storyteller, and to explore the issue of truth as the story unfolds.
  • Who’s The Greatest Unreliable Narrator? (From Publishers Weekly)
  • Helps the writer establish an intimate connection between character and audience.
  • Makes characterization more subtle and helps writers distinguish one character from another.
  • Signals a shift from a hero who acts — usually a fighter — to a hero who creates — an artist. The act of storytelling now becomes the main focus, so the path to ‘immortality’ shifts from a hero taking glorious action to a storyteller who tells it.
  • You can leave chronology behind because the actions of the plot are framed by someone’s memories. You can now sequence the action in whatever way makes the most structural sense.
  • This helps string together events and actions that occur over great stretches of time. A storyteller affords greater unity and huge gaps between story events seem to disappear.

DONT’S FOR USING A STORYTELLER

  • Don’t use a storyteller as a simple frame. “I’d like to begin by telling you a story… That’s what happened. It was an amazing story.” This calls attention to the storyteller for no reason and fails to take advantage of the strengths of including a storyteller.
  • The storyteller should not be all-knowing at the beginning. An all-knowing storyteller has no dramatic interest in the present.
  • Don’t end the storytelling frame at the end of the story, but rather about three-quarters of the way in. If you put it right at the end the act of remembering and telling the story can have no dramatic or structural impact on the present. You need to leave some room in the story for the act of recounting the change to the storyteller herself.
  • Don’t promote the fallacy that a character’s death allows the full and true story to be told. It’s overdone for a storyteller to state that the character’s death finally made it possible to tell the truth about her. The deathbed scene and final words often provide ‘the truth’. This is never true in real life and not true in stories either — rather, it’s acting as if you’ll die that creates meaning by motivating you to make choices now. Finding meaning is an ongoing process of living. (A character’s death may give the appearance that the full story can now be told, but the true meaning comes in looking back on events.) A storyteller knows ‘a meaning’ but never ‘the meaning’ of a story.
  • Be wary of too many storytellers. One cost of a storyteller is that she can drain some emotion from a story. The more storytellers you have, the more this will happen. The audience will end up looking at the story from a cold and clinical position.

DO’S FOR USING A STORYTELLER

  • Realize your storyteller is probably your true main character.
  • Introduce the storyteller in a dramatic situation.
  • Find a good trigger to cause her to tell the story.
  • The storyteller should have a great weakness that will be solved by telling the story.
  • Try to find a unique structure for telling the tale instead of simple chronology. (Otherwise the storyteller is just a frame and you don’t need it.)
  • The act of telling the story should lead the storyteller to a self-revelation.
  • Consider having the storyteller explore how the act of telling the story can be immoral or destructive, to herself or others.
  • The act of telling the story should cause a final dramatic event.
  • The deeper theme should be concerned with the truth and beauty of creativity, not heroic action. The storytelling itself is the greatest accomplishment, not the action which has been recounted.

Notes from John Truby, the Anatomy of Story

 

ADDITIONAL TERMINOLOGY

Autodiegetic — An autodiegetic character is also the character in his/her own story, telling the story from ‘within the story universe’.

Heterodiegetic — A heterodiegetic narrator does not take part in the story.

Homodiegetic — A homodiegetic narrator takes part in the story.

Extradiegetic –An extradiegetic narrator is one who narrates a story from outside the fictional universe of a particular text.  This narrator communicates the primary narrative to an audience equally removed from the storyworld; this audience, then, is the extradiegetic narratee.  Extradiegetic narrators may be characters in their narratives, but at the moment of narration they are operating from without its storyworld.   This may happen when a character-narrator tells the story some years after the event, from another fictional level. (After some insight has been gained.) Think of this term as: ‘Out-of-universe’.

Rules Of Subplot

1. The subplot must affect the hero’s main plot, or it shouldn’t be there at all. If the subplot doesn’t serve the main plot, you have two simultaneous stories that may be clinically interesting to the audience, but they make the main plot seem too long. To connect the subplot to the main plot, make sure the two dovetail neatly, usually near the end.

2. The subplot character is usually not the ally. The subplot character and the ally have two separate functions in the story. The ally helps the hero in the main plot. The subplot character drives a different but related plot that you compare to the main plot.

 

FURTHER NOTES:

Most modern Hollywood movies preference speed over true subplots so you don’t see them much anymore.

If you do see one in Hollywood, it’s most likely to be in love stories. This form tends to have a thin main plot, so needs something meaty to turn it into a story.

True subplots aren’t as common as you might think.

Benefits of subplots: improves character, theme and texture of story.

Downsides of subplots: slows ‘the desire line’ (the narrative drive).

Decide whether the texture of the story or the speed is more important.

 

– John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story

The Influence Of King Arthur

the influence of king arthur john truby quote

 

More from John Truby:

King Arthur is not just a man and not just a king. He is the modern centaur, the metal horseman. As such, he is the first superman, the Man of Steel, the male taken to the extreme. He is the ultimate embodiment of warrior culture. He represents courage, strength, right action, and establishing justice through combat in front of others. Ironically, as masculinity taken to the extreme, he lives by a code of chivalry that places woman high on a pedestal of absolute purity. This turns the entire female gender into a symbol, divided into the Christian binary opposites of Madonna and whore.

King Arthur also symbolizes the modern leader in conflict. He creates a perfect community in Camelot, based on purity of character, only to lose it when his wife falls in love with his finest and purest knight. The conflict between duty and love is one of the great moral oppositions in storytelling, and King Arthur embodies it as well as any character ever has.

Arthur’s ally is Merlin, the mentor-magician par excellence. He is a throwback character to the pre-Christian worldview of magic, so he represents knowledge of the deeper forces of nature. He is the ultimate craftsman-artist of nature and human nature, and of human nature as an outgrowth of nature. His spells and advice always begin with a deep understanding of the needs and cravings of the unique person before him.

… If you want to use King Arthur symbols, be sure to twist their meaning so they become original to your story.

SEE ALSO

List of works based on King Arthurian Legends

King Arthur at TV Tropes

The Centrality of the Adventure Story, a quote from Marjery Hourihan

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