The Thrill of the Chase in Storytelling

In the spoof Thriller Concept Generator below, cartoonist Tom Gauld captures the centrality of the chase sequence in the thriller genre.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CHASE SEQUENCES IN STORY

Pretty much every modern storytelling technique can be found in the Bible. As for chases, there are plenty. Moses fleeing Egypt springs to mind.

There are the chase scenes in fairytales, which often have a dream-like quality, ignoring the physics of real time and space:

The children saw her coming from afar and the maiden threw a brush behind her. The brush changed into a huge mountain of bristles with thousands and thousands of thorns. The nixie had great difficulty in climbing over them. When the children saw her, the boy threw a comb  behind him that changed into a huge mountain with thousands and thousands of spikes, but the nixie was able to grab hold of them and climb over the mountain. Now the  maiden threw a mirror behind her that formed a glass mountain that was so very, very slippery that the nixie couldn’t climb over it. So she thought: “I’d better go home and fetch my axe and split the mountain in two.” However, by the time she had returned and had smashed the glass, the children had long since made their escape, and the water nixie had to return to tread water in her well.

— “The Water Nixie”, from the first Grimm collection

I suspect the chase nightmare precedes humanity. When my dog sleeps he twitches his feet as if running. I’ll never know for sure, but when he emits those half-hearted barks in his sleep, I bet you he’s being pursued. Or perhaps he’s running after me, thinking I’ve abandoned him.

WHY THE CHASE WORKS SO WELL IN STORY

A story isn’t a story until the main character wants something, and chase is a certain kind of Desire — one character wants something from another. And that desire is externalised. It is also high in suspense. A chase scene will be fast-paced. It is therefore almost mandatory in certain genres, like thriller and action.

FURTHER STORYTELLING TERMS

THE DOUBLE-CHASE

In Secrets of Story, Matt Bird talks about the ‘double-chase’. This is when the main character is both hunter and hunted. This is often what sets off the ticking clock ticking clock.

Bird also points out that when the double-chase begins, this often forces a decision. The example he offers is when David offers marriage in An Education.

The double-chase is often a feature of what TV Tropes calls the Stern Chase:

The protagonist is being pursued and must stay in motion, usually moving to a different Adventure Town each episode. There will be ploys to delay the pursuit. Some will work, some won’t. Frequently the protagonist must complete a hunt of their own, to bring the pursuit to an end.

The term “stern chase” comes from the navy cliche, “a stern chase is a long chase”, which comes from the old days of sailing ships.

TV Tropes

CHASE-AND-ESCAPE VS. CHASE-AND-CAPTURE

In Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias advises juxtaposing scenes — positive charge followed by a negative charge and so on. Positive charge means things are going well for the character.

Chase-and-escape, chase-and-capture also describe scenes, specifically how they end. Iglesias is using the term ‘chase’ more broadly than a literal running-race type pursuit.

Because a scene usually involves a character anting something from another (the chase), there are only two ways it can end: The character gets what they want, either outright or in a compromise (capture), or they don’t (escape).

— Writing for Emotional Impact

 

Header image by Geran De Klerk

Satire, Parody and Farce

What’s the difference between satire, parody and farce? What about the difference between satire and irony? I frequently conflate these terms, so I looked up some definitions and examples.

SATIRE

Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based.

Satire has been around for as long as complex human hierarchy has been around — probably since the age of agriculture. Satire was flourishing at the epoch of the Renaissance. Satire was the most important genre of the epoch. This makes sense — the Renaissance was all about change, and satire is all about mocking the old and ushering in the new.

But the following five forms of satire were most common during the Middle Ages (all related to folklore):

  1. The fool satire — popular also throughout Europe from the 15th to the 17th century. Starred the fool or jester who represented the weaknesses, vices, and grotesqueries of contemporary society. Mr Bean would be a modern example. The fool tries to get away with stuff but is found out (unmasked). See also the IT Crowd.
  2. The rascal satire — often interchangeable with the fool satire. But the rascal is not so much ridiculed and unmasked. He serves as a touchstone for the surrounding world. He is trying to gain entrance to organisations and estates of the medieval world.
  3. The satire of greediness and drunkenness — often depicted by a character with a fat belly. This character is linked to fertility, rebirth and universal excess. Greedy characters have two sides to them (as in any carnivalesque tale) — the mocking of greed and idleness are combined with a positive and joyful accentuation of the very material-corporeal principle.
  4. The estate satire — the three estates were the clergy, nobility and peasantry. (Women weren’t included — women were a separate class.) Estates satire praised the glories and purity of each class in its ideal form, but was also used as a window to show how society had gotten out of hand.
  5. Satirical sirventes  ‘service songs’ — a genre of Old Occitan lyric poetry practised by the troubadours, written from the perspective of servicemen.

The satirical element also found expression in other genres of medieval literature, including in church drama and street performance.

Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics by Ilya Kilger et al

Comedy in general tends to say something pessimistic about the nature of humankind, and satire is the most effective way of transmitting that message.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SATIRE AND IRONY

Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based.

Irony is a form of story logic in which characters get the opposite of what they want and takes action to get. When it’s used over an entire story and not just for a moment, irony is a grand pattern that connects all actions in the story and expresses a philosophy of how the world works.

Irony also has a bemused tone that encourages the audience to laugh at the relative incompetence of the characters.

In the satiric-ironic form, you make the moral argument by constantly setting up a contrast between a character who thinks they are being moral — supporting the beliefs of the society — and the effects of those actions and beliefs, which are decidedly immoral.

— John Truby

PARODY

Parody – a form of satire that imitates the characteristic style of a particular writer, musician, artist, speaker or genre using deliberate exaggeration for a comic effect.

(Though the epoch of the Renaissance was all about satire, it was also full of parody.)

FARCE

Think of ‘farce’ as ‘broad satire’. And by ‘broad’ we mean satire that isn’t very subtle. A farce will make use of certain over-the-top techniques:

  • physical comedy
  • unlikely situations
  • over-the-top gags

When we’re not talking about comedy, ‘farce’ describes a real life situation which started off serious but has now devolved into ridiculousness.

OTHER SIMILAR WORDS?

Perhaps these words don’t adequately cover contemporary humour.

Header photo by Scott Webb

Talking About Story Pacing

Narratologists have come up with a variety of ways of talking about the pacing of a story. I recently tried reading Gerard Genette and it gave me brain ache. I thought, this is fascinating but I can’t absorb all this. I’ll come back to it.

But this week I’m reading a new book called Meander, Spiral Explode by Jane Alison, about patterns in story. I’m delighted to find that Alison has included, alongside her structural patterns, an analysis of pacing patterns. Here’s a reproduction of her handy chart which she made by combining the work of Gerard Genette and Seymour Chatman.

Story Time vs Text Time

Although this is a chart (and I’ve put the text inside cells to make for easier reading), think of it as a continuum with Gap at one end, Pause at the other. At first these terms sound like the same thing, but they’re opposites.

GAP

Where there is Gap there is no text — ‘the text goes mute’ — and we can leap over many years of story time. Eons, even. In film there might be a very slow fade, a change of hue, differently paced music. We know that a great stretch of time has just passed.

The narratee may find, after a Gap, that they need to fill in what has just happened. The reader must extrapolate. If the storyteller has done their job, the audience has been given enough information to do so.

An example I came across recently was the time jump in “Queenie”, a short story by Alice Munro. Munro is well-known for her ability to perform magic tricks with time, so of course she has the Gap in her toolbox. (The Gap is where the asterisk is below.)

As I had thought of myself being kind to Mr Vorguilla, or at least protecting him, so unexpectedly, a little while before.

*

I was at Teachers’ College when Queenie ran away again. I got the news in a letter from my father. He said that he did not know just how or when it happened.

There are certain parts of story which should be Gaps, when our writerly instinct might be Summary. One of those is ‘Getting From One Place To The Other’. Modern readers are well-versed in extrapolating the content of Gaps, and you can safely pull your characters out of one scene and plonk them in another. The reader will understand that there has been some travel in there somewhere. (Within reason.)

SUMMARY

I’ve encountered the term ‘narrative summary’. Same thing.

As beginning writers we tend to be afraid of Summary, thinking every event in a story has to be a scene, alive with the five senses, showcasing beautiful language. But knowing when to write scene vs. when to summarise is vital. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition by Renni Browne and Dave King talks about this.

Summarising is an especially vital skill for the short story writer. Alison points out that summary can be boring, but one trick is to splice up summary with well-chosen detail. Annie Proulx, who likes to write across three generations of family in a single short story, is a master of this technique.

When a writer creates a summary and splices it up with really minute detail, another thing happens — they have created an Overview Effect for the reader, whereby the reader sees the large and the tiny both at once, and feels a kind of literary vertigo.

SCENE

Around the middle of this continuum, the time it takes to read words on the page pretty much equals the time it takes to play out in the world of your story.

The word ‘scene’ comes from drama, where the pacing is driven, and rather limited, by how fast events can be performed before us by actors on a stage.

When it comes to the written forms of story, Jane Alison offers the transcription of a character’s diary entry as the purest example of ‘real time’, in which there is an exact match between the pacing of the story and the speed at which the narratee experiences the story. (When we read a letter in a novel, and when the character reads this letter in a novel, time matches up. Unless the character is a much faster or much slower reader, of course.)

Still, let’s plonk ‘epistolary material’ right in the middle of our imaginary continuum.

There are parts of a story which we really must turn into scenes, or risk leaving the reader feeling cheated. It’s a natural instinct for writers to want to protect our precious characters in the first draft, but readers really do need to see them come close to death.

That’s rarely pleasant, but if we turn these Battles into Gaps, perhaps because we’ve made the executive decision that there’s too much horribleness in the world already, we’d better line something else up as the Proxy Battle. Alice Munro makes for a good case study in this technique.

DILATION

Now here’s a word I haven’t associated with narrative pacing.  Dilation refers to the action or condition of becoming or being made wider, larger, or more open.

This is where a reader is forced to slow down.

If the printed words showing a story event take more time to read than the event would: dilation.

— Meander, Spiral, Explode

Imagine an app which allows you to watch YouTube videos at a fraction of the pace.  I sometimes watch tennis videos like this. This is dilation. […] Text time is greater than story time.

Jane Alison offers an example involving a man being shot by a bullet. The time it would take within the story for the man to be hit by the bullet is a microsecond. But the description of the thoughts that go through his mind take far longer for us to read than it would take for the character to die.

There’s a risk of dilating in the wrong place. Know what you’re going for on any given page — do you want the reader turning pages quickly? The following advice is from an article about writing page-turners, so bear that in mind, but Jordan Rosenfeld lists 8 Mundane Elements You Should Cut From Your Story. ‘Thoughts in the midst of an action’ is one of the eight elements:

The moment when characters are in the midst of big, dramatic action is precisely the worst time to slow down the energy and momentum of a scene to insert thoughts, especially long, drawn-out thoughts or epiphanies. Yet I see it all the time in my clients’ manuscripts.

Let me give you an example of the difference in what I mean.

With too much thought:

The hillside shook violently beneath him and began to crumble. Julia screamed and reached out to him. A huge crack appeared just feet from him. If he tried to run toward Julia, the earth would swallow him up. This reminded him of one of the times he went volcano hunting with his father as a child. When the ground trembled, his father had simply scooped him up and dashed toward safety. Julia screamed again and he lunged across the crack like a fool.

Revised, with a brief observation:

The hillside shook violently beneath him and began to crumble. Julia screamed and reached out to him. A huge crack appeared just feet from him. If he tried to run toward Julia, the earth would swallow him up. He was a child again, but without his father to rescue him. Julia screamed again and he lunged across the crack like a fool.

Hopefully you’ll have done the work of letting the reader know about your character’s past studying volcanoes with his father long before this moment, making it unnecessary to fill in backstory in a moment of action where tension needs to remain high.

— from Jane Friedman’s blog

 

PAUSE

When I first read about these terms, I thought each end of this continuum must be hypothetical. But no, writers do literally include the Pause in their work. It’s easy to imagine a Pause on film — it would be a freeze frame, like at the end of Thelma & Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 400 Blows, Evil etc.

Japanese film-maker Yasujiro Ozu is well-known for his take on the freeze frame, which is not frozen but simply a camera focusing on one specific shot for an extended period.

Other Japanese film-makers have emulated this, including Hayao Miyazaki in his animated films. There’s an entire category of Internet GIFs (often called cinemagraphs) which are basically pillow shots. (I collect the ones and pin them on Pinterest.)

But how does a writer make use of the Pause in a written story? A few blank pages? Well, perhaps. That would be experimental (and also a waste of paper).

Jane Alison offers an example of a Pause on the page: Those times when the reader is told what is not happening rather than what is happening (after the character gets shot with the ‘dilated’ bullet).

Highlighting what’s not happening is one way of freeze framing something in a written story. The reader waits with suspense to find out what IS happening, all the while on Pause.

Perhaps this is a subcategory of Sideshadowing, in which the narrator offers an alternative to the real world story, by imagining/dreaming/hallucinating how things might have been different. Unlike a flash back or a flash forward, sideshadowing can function to emphasise the present moment. This is why I consider sideshadowing a Pause. All the while, the reader is kept dangling, waiting to see what will happen in the ‘real’ world of the story.

How else might a writer achieve the Pause? By describing a photograph is another way. Technically, this is known as ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis was an old Greek pastime, and formed a genre in its own right.

The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.  In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer.

Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition. 

You might think modern readers have no time for it. Perhaps in genre fiction and children’s literature, that’s true. But literary writers sometimes make use of it. Alice Munro is a case in point:

He put his hand in a back pocket. “Here. Want to see a picture? Here.”

It was a photograph of three people, taken in a living room with closed floral curtains as a backdrop. An old man—not really old, maybe in his sixties—and a woman of about the same age were sitting on a couch. A very large younger woman was sitting in a wheelchair drawn up close to one end of the couch and a little in front of it. The old man was heavy and gray-haired, with eyes narrowed and mouth slightly open, as if he were asthmatic, but he was smiling as well as he could. The old woman was much smaller, with dyed brown hair and lipstick. She was wearing what used to be called a peasant blouse, with little red bows at the wrists and neck. She smiled determinedly, even a bit frantically, her lips stretched over perhaps bad teeth.

But it was the younger woman who monopolized the picture. Distinct and monstrous in a bright muumuu, her dark hair done up in a row of little curls along her forehead, cheeks sloping into her neck. And, in spite of all that bulge of flesh, an expression of some satisfaction and cunning.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Jane Alison offers the example from The Lover by Duras:

She goes on to a new block describing a photo of herself with her mother and brothers, a picture capturing her mother’s despair. These portraits aren’t decorative: like the missing image, they’re potent. Studying them, she find secrets, deep character traits revealed in eyes or mouth. Later she creates a long sequence of verbal portraits of women (I call it the “Catalogue of Women”). They portray, out of the blue, two expatriate women in Paris the narrator came to know decades later, as well as girls and women in Indochina, M’s friend Helene Lagonelle; the madwoman of Vinh Long; a beggar woman; and the “Lady of Savanna Khet,” whose scandalous affair ended in her lover’s suicide. These portraits seem detached from the drama: Duras lets them float in white space like postcards.

Why all this seemingly tangential material in a narrative about M and her lover? Why so much about photographs? And why does Duras keep switching between first person and third? […]

M turns herself to an object most often when speaking of herself as a writer. And she uses language that not only objectifies but makes legendary the girl and her world: they are the girl, the mother, the lover, “the famous pair of gold lame high heels.” This makes them singular worth regard. […] We’re with her looking at a picture, and she chooses what and how we see.

— Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode, pp 128-9.

Aside from literary fiction, popular songs can slow the pace of narrative right down to a pause. An example would be “The Box”, by Fad Gadget.

The camera pans across the room
And finally comes to rest upon an old picture frame
The photo shows a man in hat
A dog at heel
The man is fat
The dog is the same
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
A POV of man in carbon monoxide fumes are choking him
His face turns pink
And now we see him winding down
The window streaked excretion brown
We watch him sink
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
The shot a wide angle now
A man is banging on the door
Of a chrome elevator
Lights go out no air inside
Get no lift from this lost ride
On a cracked generator
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
Now focus out
The lift goes down
Night creeps in
The screws go round
Blood runs cold
And now we stare up from our hole
Theme tune in, the credits roll
The story told
Let us out…
Let us out…
Let us out…
Someone gotta let me out!

The Symbolic Paradox In Storytelling

Symbolic Paradox

By ‘symbolic paradox’ I mean the symbolic equivalent of a contronym. A contronym is a word with two directly opposite meanings. For example, ‘cleave’ means to separate or cut with a tool, but also means to be in close contact with. To separate and to join, at once.

An ‘idea’ can also work like a contronym. And when it is utilised in a work of fiction to convey a certain meaning or tone, then we can call it a symbol.

It’s interesting to see how paradoxical symbols come about. In some cases, we can even track the history (e.g. edelweiss).

The paradoxical symbol is an especially useful symbol for storytellers, because there is simply more meaning to mine, and also because the symbol web can never be black and white. Paradoxical symbolism is especially useful when you wish your narrator to avoid coming down on one side or the other, or when expressing ideas such as ‘life is complicated’, ‘sometimes no choice is the right one’.

EXAMPLES OF THE SYMBOLIC PARADOX

BLACKBERRIES

Blackberries are sweet and delicious but also an invasive weed. See “Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx for an example of the blackberry in action.

BROOMSTICKS

Broomsticks are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, broomsticks turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Via witchcraft stories, women are given the literal freedom to fly.

CATS

Gods to the Egyptians, but demoted to demons by the time of the medieval witch-craze.

HERBS AND DRUGS

The most famous herbs utilised by witches all lead double lives. Mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade are hallucinogenic in small doses, deadly in large ones.

EDELWEISS

This paper about the Edelweiss explain in detail the history of its symbolism. Unfortunately, a benign, positive symbol can flip when something terrible happens to humanity. What started out as an alpine symbol, with associations of whiteness and inaccessibility. Unfortunately, this was a perfect symbol for the Nazi movement.

SECRECY

According to witchcraft, which is full of symbolic paradox, secrecy brings spiritual power, which is also why so little of its texts and methods exist today. (Plus because the witch craze, of course.) Secrecy decreases one’s power.

But secrecy can also increase any kind of power, whether that power is spiritual or destructive.

Keeping silent in certain circumstances, such as when a survivor, can cause severe damage. Yet as Daniel Dennett (the philosopher) has said, we must withhold the full extent of our desires from others to avoid exposing ourselves as wholly vulnerable, and therefore easily exploited.

SPECTACLES

Spectacles carry a double meaning: in medieval painting, the rabbi at Jesus’ circumcision sometimes wears them, and Saint Anne, too, lays them down in the crease of her Bible. But the learned can be fools, as in Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, were the scholars all wear spectacles and see nothing. And fools, on the other hand, can be wise.

— Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde

YELLOW

Warm summers, happiness. But also old age See Annie Proulx’s short story “Bedrock” for an example of this double symbol in action.

 

The Electric Grandmother and Resonant Imagery

The Electric Grandmother is basically a Twilight Zone episode for kids.

The teleplay (and a short story adaptation of “I Sing The Body Electric”) was written by Ray Bradbury, and was later remade by the Disney Channel as a full-length Made for TV movie called “The Electric Grandmother”.

TV Tropes

 

The Twilight Zone for a contemporary audience is of course Black Mirror. I wonder if Charlie Brooker watched “The Electric Grandmother” growing up, as well as The Twilight Zone. “The Electric Grandmother” reminds me very much of “Be Right Back“, in which a woman orders a synthetic version of her deceased boyfriend.

I’m not the first to have noticed this, and Charlie Brooker counts The Twilight Zone as one of his influences.

It took me a few minutes to place the father, played by Edward Herrmann, who later played the grandfather in Gilmore girls.

The friend who shared this via YouTube remembers The Electric Grandmother fondly, and hadn’t forgotten the songs. Apart from the songs, the most resonant scene, remembered long after the name of the story and the plot is forgotten, is the one where the grandmother squirts milk from her forefinger.

grandmother finger milk

Every story needs a resonant scene like this — one which the audience remembers after details are long gone.

This Milk Finger scene resonates for several reasons:

  • The audience hasn’t seen this exact thing before.
  • Memory experts advise people to put dissonant things together in order to remember them. For instance, if you want to remember to buy cabbage at the supermarket, imagine the entire supermarket made out of hollowed-out cabbage. We can utilise this when telling stories, too. And next time you need to remember milk at the supermarket, maybe think of yourself squirting milk from your finger, like this scene from The Electric Grandmother.
  • This milk finger scene is the first time the audience sees what The Electric Grandmother can do. Until this point, the electric version of the grandmother has seemed just like the dead one.

RESONANT IMAGERY IN STORYTELLING

Is there terminology writers use to describe ‘the part of a story which remains with the audience’ forever?

At Fiction Writers Review, Elizabeth Meyer writes of ‘strange objects’, which is a good term for this:

Strange objects, objects that exist beyond our expectations, do all the work of ordinary objects; but by making the imagination work harder, by requiring the reader to see beyond the everyday, they also create an even more thorough engagement with the text. In “Congress” by Joy Williams and “Sewing for the Heart” by Yoko Ogawa, bizarre objects play dominant roles. In both stories, strange objects serve to mesmerize the reader as well as the characters themselves. Their strangeness fixes our attention, drawing us with curiosity deeper into the narrative while also revealing more submerged themes within the texts and illuminating the characters around them.

Strange Objects Part One

Part Two is here.

Meyer has gone further than the object itself, linking it to what I’ve also heard described as the ‘symbol web’. Though I’m not sure the milk finger in The Electric Grandmother is especially symbolic. It’s just… weird and memorable. In literary work for adults, I would certainly expect the strange object to be linked to the symbol web.

Related to all this, David Lynch uses a term called ‘The Eye Of The Duck’ to describe a critical moment in film.

I’m not sure Lynch would describe the Milk Finger image in The Electric Grandmother as an example of what he’s talking about, but it’s the closest I’ve come so far to a description of these moments/images in a story which feel perfect, and perfectly memorable.

He used the phrase in an interview with the “Daily David”, in which Lynch talks to an audience about storytelling stuff. You can also see it on YouTube.

Why does he call it that? Because when you look at a duck, you feel like its eye couldn’t be placed anywhere else on its body. The eye of the duck feels like it’s in exactly the right place.

Lynch compares film as a whole with the body of a duck and claims that every film has a scene that can be compared to the eye of a duck on a metaphorical level. The placement of the eye, the jewel, within a duck’s body is crucial because it would not make sense anywhere else. It “feels correct” and completes the overall appearance of the body. The very same thing applies to a film (the “body”) and a certain scene (the “eye”).

An eye of the duck scene is not necessarily readily identifiable.

The Eye Of The Duck is not always critical to advancing the plot forward. The insights they convey do not necessarily affect the story of the film to a great deal. Instead it affects the way the audience perceives the film. It’s a concept used by writers who don’t really believe in story structure. David Lynch has said that he eschews traditional story structure. These people (Chatman is another one) believes that an audience provides structure to a story if they need one.

(Others say that although David Lynch prides himself on having no structure to his stories, he actually follows story structure pretty conventionally.)

It will be the scene which sticks in your memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest. For me, an eye-of-the-duck Twin Peaks moment is the dancing dwarf in the red room, but I also remember the phrase, “It’s on the turn” to describe a piece of fruit (and use it often).

Lynch’s medium is film and TV, but Flaubert came up with a very similar phrase to describe ‘the exact word or phrasing’ in a text: le mot juste.

HOW TO COME UP WITH YOUR OWN EYE OF THE DUCK

Lynch advises storytellers to remain open to ideas. Sometimes something suddenly feels complete after a new idea, when you’d assumed it was finished before. Dive within. This ‘eye of the duck’ doesn’t come from the intellect but from intuition.

“Stay true to the ideas. If you love them stay true to them… Maybe some fish comes that is not part of this dinner. Put it away and save it for another time… If something needs to be said twice there’s a feeling, a knowing that it’s correct… Stay on your toes because a thing isn’t finished until it’s finished.”

This is important advice because sometimes, in this age of minimalism, writers are urged to cut, cut, cut. But sometimes, even if a scene exists purely for its aesthetic value — not because it adds obviously to plot, character, theme or setting — you should still keep it there.

 

A Glossary of Witch Words

witch in sky

Altar — the consecrated place that holds the witch’s implements — a table, bench, tree stump or rock. Some traditions recommend that the alter be circular, and that it stand within a magic circle, drawn on the ground. 

Amulet — needles and pins are classic amulets of evil. Sulfur and gum arabic are also highly recommended by experienced jinxers. Graveyard dust and coffin nails are good for causing harm. 

Athame (or athalme) — a black handled, double edged dagger with a magnetised blade. It represents the witch’s power and is used in rituals. It’s a clear phallic symbol. The act of plunging it into the Chalice represents the union of the male and female principles.  Continue reading “A Glossary of Witch Words”

Parts of Prose

parts of prose

There are various ways of thinking about prose.

  • Paragraphs, sentences, words, letters, morphemes. Useful in linguistics; not especially helpful when editing fiction.
  • Acts, scenes, beats. Useful for screenwriters, maybe. (Not everyone thinks in terms of acts, ie. three act structure. John Truby for instance thinks in terms of 22 steps, and 7 minimum. Every screenwriting guru has their own number.)

What about fiction writers, crafting stories for ‘print’ (and eReaders)? Here’s how Rennie Browne and Dave King break it down in their book Self-editing For Fiction Writers, which is excellent:

Let’s start with scenes then ignore that screenwriting term, ‘beat’. (‘Beat’ is a confusing word — it can mean a segment of drama which is smaller than a scene or it can mean a noticeable stretch of silence.) Any scene from a work of fiction can be divided further into:

  1. ACTION – stuff happens
  2. NARRATIVE – the narrator says stuff happens. “Tells”
  3. DIALOGUE – stuff inside the speech marks. “Shows”

An author must decide how much of each kind to include in each scene. There are pluses and minuses with each decision:

  1. Too much ACTION loses the reader because character development is sacrificed. Also, fight scenes and whatnot are actually really boring to read. What works on screen probably doesn’t work as well on page, and vice versa.
  2. Too much NARRATIVE slows the pace and gets boring.
  3. Too much DIALOGUE makes the thing sound more like a script than a story and fails to engage.

PROSE AND GENRE

Different genres demand different balances. Modern young adult novels, for example, have a much higher proportion of dialogue than those published 100 years ago (before YA was a thing, tbf). Literary or experimental fiction can get away with little or no dialogue, which may be appropriate for that particular story.

GENERAL TIPS AND FURTHER OBFUSCATIONS

  • When opening a story, some writers decide to start with a snippet of dialogue to plunge the reader right into ‘the action’. But this is usually confusing. It’s like a stranger yelling fire in a cinema. It can feel like a cheap trick.
  • In the beginning you’ll probably want to be establishing the main character, in which case let us hear them speak pretty early on.
  • There are representation issues that can be fixed/broken with dialogue — in the editing process make sure you haven’t given all the dialogue to the white guys, and while you’re there, make sure you haven’t written all the girls giggling at the boys’ jokes. Even if your marginalised characters are described heavily in narrative summary, and on the page take up as much space as characters from the dominant cultural group, that won’t cut it. Readers will notice if you don’t let underrepresented characters speak, inside speech marks. It feels like a form of symbolic annihilation, and comes on the back of a long history of silencing.
  • ‘Action’ is an easily misunderstood word. We’re not just talking about car chases and fight scenes here. To channel Kurt Vonnegut, ‘action’ may be a section of prose in which a character gets up for a glass of water.
  • Not all ‘-logue’ happens between two characters, and it doesn’t always appear inside speech marks. This is known as ‘free indirect speech’. Free indirect speech is the bacterium of writing world. Er, maybe I should explain. Bacteria are like a cross between animals and plants and have their own unique cell structure. Likewise, free indirect speech is like a cross between dialogue and narration. It’s sort of what the character is saying (to themselves, probably), but it’s not presented inside speech marks. The narrator zooms right into the character’s head. A really adept writer will do this without the reader noticing, and you could say it further breaks up the prose into another, fourth category. If you find a narrative heavy piece of writing which reads really well, take a look and see if the author has broken ‘narration’ down into ‘deep third person’ (camera away from head) and ‘free indirect speech’ (camera inside head).
  • Stream of Consciousness vs Interior Monologue (Stream of consciousness is what we called ‘free indirect speech’ in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

 

FURTHER LISTENING

For an informative podcast on weaving narrative and dialogue, listen to Paula B at The Writing Show — no longer producing new episodes but the archive is a great resource.

 

Save The Cat, Kill The Dog

save the cat kill the dog

Save The Cat was Blake Snyder’s term for screenwriters, though it’s used a lot by novelists, too. Snyder had the following advice when setting up a main character:

Heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they ‘save a cat’ or similar, to show they’re a good person.

— Blake Snyder

The opening of the book must establish an emotional connection with the protagonist. The poignancy doesn’t need to happen on page one, and the character doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be a saint, but readers need to feel something for them. In screenwriting, this is called saving the cat. The protagonist can yell at old ladies, steal from a blind man’s cup, and cheat at cards, as long as they go out of their way to save one creature from discomfort. Start watching for it in movies. You’ll find that in the first ten minutes, the lead character will enact some version of saving a cat.

— Jane Friedman

The technique is not always called Saving The Cat, but most writers have an intuitive grasp of it anyway.

During the story, your character works to do something valuable despite no obvious benefit to themself. They might bestow gifts on whoever they find in need, devoutly say their prayers at every meal, or just carefully tie their shoelaces before they leave their home. Everyone else thinks the hero is just wasting time. But when the climax comes, it’s the people they helped, the gods they pleased, or those well-tied laces that make the difference.

Mythcreants

This is related to another writing trick in which you, as writer, do something nasty to a character at the beginning of a story to show what you are capable of. This increases suspense because the audience wonders what on earth you are going to do to your characters next.

For example, in the film Super Dark Times, the first scene is of a moose who is dying in a high school classroom after jumping through the window. A police officer is tasked with the job of jumping on the moose’s head to put it out of its misery. This scene seems completely unconnected to the rest of the film, except symbolically, and you could argue that it’s a scene of gratuitous violence. The reason for the scene’s existence is more than symbolic, though. This scene tells the viewer that bad things will happen in this story. We either turn it off or keep watching, to see what those bad things are.

Save the Cat technique is especially valuable when writing an antihero, who must first be written as likeable in their own way. Before Walter White breaks bad, we empathise with him. Antiheroes are harder to write than heroes. See further techniques for writing antiheroes in this post.

Examples of Save The Cat Technique

In The Beach by Alex Garland, Richard has a Save The Cat moment when he, alone among all the backpackers, approaches the woman who cleans the hostel about how dangerous it is to mix water with electricity. He ends up backing away, confident she’ll be fine because she’s obviously been doing this job for years, and feels a little chastised — who is he to tell her how to do her job? We now know several things about Richard — he has concern for other people and experiences can be humbling. This is in line with his first person storyteller’s voice — he’s looking back on this period of his life with a large measure of humility.

In No Country For Old Men, Llewelyn is portrayed as an uncaring person when he quickly forgets about the man dying in the van, the one who asked him for agua. But McCarthy wanted to portray him as far less evil than Chigurgh. So Llewelyn awakes in the middle of the night to take a big bottle of water to the dying Mexican. A Save the Cat moment. Unfortunately he coincides with drug runners, the beginning of a cat and mouse thriller. Llewelyn would’ve been far better off had he never gone back to do the good deed, setting up McCarthy’s ironically harsh world in which even good deeds don’t go unpunished. Although he was unable to save the dying Mexican drug runner, the audience sees the humanity in Llewellyn, and we root for him against his struggle with out-and-out evil.

Friday Night Lights — In the pilot episode, the morality of Landry Clarke is unclear as he plans to lay on the romance with a girl who is probably not interested in him. How far will he go? But our empathy is cemented when he insists they stop to rescue Lyla after she breaks down on the side of the road.

Mad Men — Don Draper has gifted his mistress a television. We don’t know she’s his mistress at this stage — she could be his girlfriend. She throws the gift out the window, further engendering empathy for this poor, put-upon man (who is studying her as a way of getting to know people and to be better at his job).

Breaking Bad — The writers use pretty much every trick in the book to inspire empathy for Walt in the pilot episode but Walt’s Save The Cat moments are understated and based upon what we feel men, in general, shouldn’t have to put up with. He has purchased office supplies but instead of getting thanked he gets chided for using the wrong account. (But he did save the cat by buying the office supplies.) He dutifully goes along to a family celebration and doesn’t cause a scene by reacting to Hank’s dick-waving.

Likewise, Tony Soprano, all round despicable human being, cares deeply about a family of ducks in his damn pool.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri — Mildred is a tough, thuggish character and we’re shown this immediately, but when she sees a bug upside down on the window sill, waving its legs helplessly in the air, she flips it over the right way.

Moana — We first see cute little toddler Moana help a turtle down to the water’s edge by shading it with a big palm leaf to save it from a flying predator. We fall in love with Moana.

The Iron Giant — Dean McCoppin stands up for the local kook by saying he saw the Iron Giant too, though it turns out he didn’t. He tells Hogarth that if he doesn’t stick up for the kooks who will?

American Fable — Gitty is depicted as the sympathetic character because of how she cares for her pet chicken. Later she will care for her family’s prisoner in similar fashion. On the way home, her father runs over a yearling deer. Gitty is distraught and won’t let  her father put the deer out of his misery, so both father and daughter take the deer home, hoping to nurse it back to health. I don’t remember seeing the deer again — the deer exists only to set the father and daughter up as sympathetic characters. This contrasts with Gitty’s psychopathic older brother. We know he is psychopathic because he plays a trick which almost chops her hand off.

 

Avoiding Save The Cat

This technique is used so frequently that a savvy audience can spot it and see it for the trick that it is. Writers such as Gillian Flynn acknowledge this new level of reader sophistication and go out of their way to avoid it:

I […] wanted to make sure no one tried to make [my character] “save the cat.” To me, Camille is an inherently kind person despite everything that’s happened to her. And you see that when you walk through the day with Camille. You see how she treats people. But she’s not running around saving babies and kittens just so the audience can be sure she’s a good person.

Gillian Flynn in interview

Fresh spin: Kill The Dog

The problem with the Save The Cat technique is that it is such an easy trick and so commonly used that sophisticated audiences pick it as a writer’s trick. So some writers are twisting it a little, putting on a fresh spin.

A Slate article from 2013 asked if Snyder’s Save The Cat screenwriting techniques had become too popular, causing Hollywood to churn out the same stories time and again. It’s worth noting that the Slate culture critics are very sophisticated audiences. A younger audience, for instance, isn’t going to pick Save the Cat moments. In fact, until I had the technique pointed out to me, I never noticed them myself. Now I see saved ‘cats’ everywhere.

Once the audience starts to pick a writing technique, this breaks the fourth wall. So now writers need to put a fresh spin on it.

How, exactly, do you put a fresh spin on Save The Cat?

Matt Bird has noticed an increasingly common trick he has called ‘Kill The Dog’.

Examples of Kill The Dog Technique  (or Drown The Cat)

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has Katniss almost kill a cat, and later Katniss murders a lynx. All this sets the reader up for her to actually save a metaphorical Cat later.

Matt Bird talks about how Suzanne Collins gets away with this.

Matt Bird also offers examples from John Wick and House of Cards.

I noticed it most recently in a Netflix original, The End Of The Fxxxing World.

Case Study: The End Of The Fxxxing World
  • Our two main characters, who have already murdered a serial killer, realise near the end of the narrative that they’re going to have to put an injured dog out of its writhing misery by wringing its neck.
  • I dislike stories in which dogs are killed, and most audiences must feel the same because writers traditionally go out of their way to save dogs, even when numerous humans are expended.
  • This dog is sacrificed for the story, to force the audience to dig deeper into the main moral dilemma: Is it sometimes okay to kill someone? Where would you draw the line? Could you do it?
  • The story starts off priming the audience to think “Killing is wrong in all scenarios, no doubt about it.” We have a seventeen-year-old who wants to murder for the worst of reasons — because he wants to. He is fascinated by it.
  • This is subverted when James and Alyssa accidentally cross a genuine psychopath, which ends with James killing a stranger to save Alyssa from rape and probably death. Now the audience is primed to think that maybe, in some circumstances, murder is all right. It is clear from the props inside the serial killer’s house that he is a despicable human being and that by murdering him they are saving others.
  • Later, James and Alyssa are faced with either murdering the dog or leaving it to writhe in agony. The audience’s morality regarding murder has hopefully gone from one extreme to the other, after various scenarios are presented to us.
  • James, too, is revealed to be not so bad after all. He does show empathy for the dog, proving to himself and to us that he is not actually a proper psychopath. We are what we do, not what we ‘want’ to do, and manage to suppress. Perhaps suppressing our darkest impulses in fact makes us more noble than people who don’t have those impulses in the first place.

Fresh Spin: What You Are In The Dark

The End of The Fxxxing World also makes use of this related trope. Alyssa can easily escape the police by running away, but she finds a lost girl and takes her back to her father, sacrificing herself.

For more on this trope, see the TV Tropes article.

Disturbing Spin but not Fresh: Male Heroes Finding Ugly Women Desirable Nonetheless

This is when a male character finds a woman ‘objectively’ ugly but he wants to do sex to her anyway, in a perverse Save The Cat moment where the author — male author, always a male — seems to want a cookie for his personal stand-in hero, who loves women, all women, even the ugly ones.

Women do realise that we don’t have to look like models and men will still want to have sex with us. Nobody needs saving here.

I write about it here, with examples.

How else are writers saving cats in fiction? Have you noticed related tricks?

Masks In Storytelling

masks in storytelling

We love stories about tricksters who get away with stuff. But we don’t want them to get away with stuff forever. We want them to be found out.

For instance, when Emerson Moser retired from Crayola and revealed that he is colour blind, he made sure that this one little detail of his career would eclipse all others. I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but that is his Internet legacy.

When creating characters for fiction, storytellers sometimes draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.

  • Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
  • Essence is the (one) true self.

This distinction is more clear in some non-Western cultures, for example in Japan. Japanese culture draws a clear distinction between ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ (public face and private face). The words literally mean ‘front’ and ‘behind’.

We may not have widely understood words to describe this in English, but the distinction is clear in our history of storytelling. The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.

(Interestingly, this is not how Japanese culture sees it. In Japan, the ‘omote’ face is a necessary ‘mask’ for a harmonious society.)

Genre And Masks

The Love Genre

This omote/ura distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting (fight fight, kiss kiss trope), they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing. Continue reading “Masks In Storytelling”

Narration and Storytelling: Focalisation vs Head Hopping

FOCALISATION

Narratology takes a close look at the following aspects of narration in storytelling:

  • Who speaks (narrative voice)
  • Who sees (focalisation)
  • Who is seen

Even if you’re a writer, and not an academic, it may be worth taking a glance at narratology. If you’re anything like me, you’ve paused before writing a first draft to wonder what point of view will best fit the story. Most of the decision is intuitive, sometimes it’s based on convention (third person for MG, first person for YA) and sometimes — unfortunately — you’ll write an entire novel in first person then realise you need to rewrite it in third.

Orson Scott Card’s book on point of view is excellent (though the author himself is a renowned homophobe). Paula B’s podcast on point of view is also excellent.

But no matter how much you school up on point of view, the term ‘point of view’ will never distinguish between:

  • narrative voice
  • focalisation

TYPES OF FOCALISERS

Continue reading “Narration and Storytelling: Focalisation vs Head Hopping”