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.

Developing Characters In Stories

Goodreads to Anne Tyler: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behavior? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration?

Anne Tyler: I figure we’re almost all students of human behavior. That’s how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.

When I’m working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn’t reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.

Goodreads

Here’s what Robert McKee has to say about characterisation in stories:

  • Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.
  • Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterization’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).
  • True character can only be expressed through choice in a dilemma. How a character chooses to act under pressure will reveal the most interesting things.
  • Make sure you understand your character’s desires.
  • Don’t reduce characters to case studies. ‘Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind.’
  • What other characters say about your character is more revealing than what main characters say about themselves.
  • To create 3D characters, what you do is give them complexity by contradiction. The trick is to make the contradictions of their character consistent.
  • The protagonist has to be the most complex character in the story.

Catherine Tate was asked once, ‘Where do you get your characters?’ She told the journalist that there was a shop on such-and-such-a-street.

As Dean Norris said of his character Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad: “I knew all about my character before I’d read a thing.”

From an acquisitions editor:

Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one I see in a lot of submissions:
 
Characters so focused on their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is going on around them.
Cardboard Characters from Novel Rocket

PSYCHOMETRIC PROFILING

  1. Making use of Myers-Briggs Personality Types;
  2. How to Use Psychometric Testing to Create Believable Characters from Writer Unboxed.

Other Useful Links

4. Creating Authenticity in Fiction – Where do authors draw the line? a thought-provoking article from Carly Watters.
5. Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws at Rachelle Gardner’s blog
7. What Is Character? Books which debunk the myth of fixed personality from Brainpickings
8. Under Development: Ways to Create Characters, from The Other Side Of The Story
9. Take Your Characters To Therapy from Writer Unboxed
12. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TEMPLATE FOR HEROES (based on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey)

Portal Fantasy

Portal fantasy or portal speculative fiction is a story which transports the characters into a magical world via a gate/wardrobe/magical tree or anything else the author might imagine. As a child, this was my favourite kind of story, alongside the everyday humorous category of middle grade fiction written so well by Beverly Cleary.

WHY USE PORTALS?

  1.  It literally gets your character from one place to another.
  2.  It is a kind of decompression chamber, allowing your audience to make the transition from the realistic to the fantastic. It tells the audience that the rules of the story world are about to change in a big way. The passageway says, “Loosen up; don’t apply your normal concept of reality to what you are about to see.” This is essential in a highly symbolic, allegorical form like fantasy, whose underlying themes explore the importance of looking at life from new perspectives and finding possibilities in even the most ordinary things.

A PORTAL CAN BE ALMOST ANYTHING

  • Rabbit holes (Alice In Wonderland)
  • Keyholes
  • Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass)
  • Cyclones (Wizard of Oz)
  • A wardrobe (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Aunt and Amabel by E. Nesbit)
  • A Chimney (Mary Poppins)
  • A painting
  • A tunnel (The Cabin In The Woods)
  • A wall at the train station (Harry Potter)
  • A computer screen
  • Television set (Pleasantville, Poltergeist)
  • Rope swing across a river (Bridge To Terabithia)
  • A tall tree in the middle of the woods (The Magic Faraway Tree)
  • A science lab (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Back To The Future)
  • A maze of back alleys in your own neighbourhood (The Cat Returns)
  • Under water (Ponyo, Begone The Raggedy Witches)

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PORTALS IN FANTASY STORIES?

Fantasy is another story form that places special emphasis on this technique of matching the world of slavery to the hero’s weakness. A good fantasy always starts the hero in some version of a mundane world and sets up their psychological or moral weakness there. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of where they live and of who they can be, and it is what propels them to visit the fantasy world.

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

TIPS FOR WRITING PORTAL FANTASY

DO: Ideally, you want your character to move through the passageway slowly. A passageway is a special world unto itself; it should be filled with things and inhabitants that are both strange and organic to your story. Let your character linger there. Your audience will love you for it. The passageway to another world is one of the most popular of all story techniques. Come up with a unique one, and your story is halfway there.

[…]

Fantasy is another story form that places special emphasis on this technique of matching the world of slavery to the hero’s weakness. A good fantasy always starts the hero in some version of a mundane world and sets up his/her psychological or moral weakness there. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of where they live and of who they can be, and it is what propels them to visit the fantasy world.

— Notes from John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

In Interstellarfor instance, we spend quite some time in the wormhole thing that allows our hero to push books off the bookshelf in her bedroom in an earlier era. (Interstellar is an example of Science Fantasy.)

 

COMMON PROBLEMS WITH PORTAL FANTASIES

Are we no longer willing to go Through The Looking Glass? from io9 asks why publishers have decided not to publish any more portal fantasy. There are several reasons I’ve heard, regarding why agents aren’t interested in representing authors of portal fantasy:

  1. A lot of first time authors write portal fantasy and first time authors don’t tend to be ready for publication.
  2. The reason a lot of first time authors write portal fantasy may also be to do with the fact they grew up on portal fantasy, when it was big. This may be a bad sign that they haven’t read anything since their own childhood.
  3. Even if agents do request a full for a portal fantasy they tend to get sick of the whole rigmarole of going into the new world from the real one and being told everything that’s new about the world. This gets same-old, same-old and is rarely as interesting as the author thinks it is.
  4. Also, once you stop the action to describe the new world, the pace flags.

As someone says in the comments: “Who cares what the publishing industry wants? If you want to write a portal fantasy, write it. Share it with people, polish it as best you can, and put it up on Amazon.”

NOTES FROM A WRITER/EDITOR

As an editor specialising in YA and MG, I tend to see a lot of portal fantasies (stories where the protagonist finds themselves in another world, where most of the conflict then takes place). And I’ve found that sub-genre to have some very common problems.

The most common problem I see with portal fantasies is that the conflict is impersonal. The protagonist is transported to another world, one they usually didn’t know existed, then required to save and/or escape it. My question: why should they (and therefore we) care?

Questions to ask to avoid your portal fantasy having an impersonal conflict:

Why does this world matter to the protagonist in a deeply personal and unique way? What does it mean to them that it doesn’t to anyone else? Why/how will it continue to matter after they save/escape it?

Another common problem with portal fantasies: negative goals. By that I mean, the MC typically wants only to get home or to avoid being captured/killed on this new world. Without a positive goal to back this up, it ends up making the conflict feel stagnant and, again, impersonal.

As you write your portal fantasy, ask yourself what your character wants beyond escape or survival or to save this other world just because that’s the right thing to do (or because “fate”). Could saving this world lead to him/her getting something they want, maybe in their own world?

Another way to make a portal fantasy personal if the character’s central goal is to simply survive or save a world they have no reason to care about: work that growth arc! How can they change while hiding from the evil alien monkeys on Earth-2? How does that impact their future?

Another common flaw in portal fantasies is poor world building. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, get wild, think about how the differences between that world and your character’s world would stand out and affect things at a level your readers might not have realised.

A well-done portal fantasy: Ready Player One (the movie specifically). The Oasis (the “other world”) MATTERED to Wade, and the stakes, though Oasis-focused, were grounded in the real world. The Oasis’s salvation was deeply entwined with Wade’s growth arc. Great world-building too!

@NaomiHughesYA

Query Shark has said about portals: “Stumbling through a portal is one of those devices you use cause you haven’t figured out how to get them to a different world in a more interesting way.”

EXAMPLES OF PORTAL FANTASY IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

  • Bridge To Terabithia — a swing rope across a river
  • In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis has Lucy (and Edmond) go to the wardrobe multiple times. We know exactly what it’s like in there.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia — a wardrobe
  • Alice In Wonderland — a rabbit hole
  • The Magic Faraway Tree — a magical tree in The Enchanted Wood where a different land swings round at random times
PORTALS IN PICTUREBOOKS

Many picture books are of the structure Home-Away-Home, in which the child starts the journey at home, leaves for an adventure then returns safely. In these books, there is often an image of the front door, or perhaps of a window. This behaves in a similar way to a portal (door or otherwise) in a fantasy novel.

There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy's bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.
There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy’s bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

Is it still a ‘portal fantasy’ if the doorway takes you back into the mundane world but with extra powers? If so we’ll add

FURTHER LINKS

The Portal Fantasy entry at Wikipedia

Portal tropes are heavily utilised in video games, of course. A part of me wonders if this is what has turned good children’s writers away from the device.

In film, especially in the Action genre, a whip shot is often used when a character goes through a portal.

Picturebook Endings

Picturebook endings are their own beast, due to the fact that picture books more than any other story are written for repeat reads.picturebook endings

Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.

– @taralazar

 

The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be viewed as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).

– Maria Nikolajeva

For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice,  but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

THE IDEOLOGY OF PICTUREBOOK ENDINGS

How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.

Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens

PICTURE BOOKS AND THE CONCEPT OF THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, writes about endings with a focus on film, but what he says about creating a ‘Never-Ending Story’ is particularly true for picturebooks.

You don’t create a never-ending story just by making it so good it’s unforgettable. The never-ending story happens only if you use special techniques embedded in the story structure.

He explains what he means by a ‘never-ending story’ by giving examples of stories which fail — stories which have limitations:

1. PREMATURE ENDINGS

This happens for three main reasons: early self-revelation, in which hero has a big insight, development stops, everything else is anti-climactic. Or the hero achieves his desire too quickly. Giving him a new desire doesn’t fix the problem, by the way, because then you’ve started a new story. Third, if your hero acts in an unbelievable way this can cause a premature ending because you’ve taken your reader out of the story.

2. ARBITARY ENDINGS

The story just stops. The reader will feel like the writer just got sick of writing, or reached the required 32 pages and had to quit.

3. CLOSED ENDINGS

This is the most common kind of false ending, and I suggest it’s the most common ending of popular picturebooks. ‘The hero accomplishes his goal, gains a simple self-revelation, and exists in a new equilibrium where everything is calm.’ Think of all those going to bed stories, which serve a purpose for young children. Or, if not bed, the child returns to the home after an adventure.

The thing is, ‘desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee he hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is always a living thing, its ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story.’

See also Natascha Biebow’s post on picture book endings, with a list of specific things you can do to create a sense of closure. Good if you’re currently stuck!

John Truby then offers tips on:

How to Create a Never-ending Story

You can ‘create an apparent equilibrium and then immediately shatter it with one more surprise. This reversal causes the audience to rethink all the characters and actions that have led them to this point…The audience mentally races back to the beginning of the story and reshuffles the same cards in a new combination.’ The movie example is Sixth Sense. We won’t be watching that the same the second time.

In other words, there’s a surprise ending. I make use of this technique in Hilda Bewildered. The limitation of this kind of plotting is that it is the most limited way of creating the never-ending story. ‘It gives you only one more cycle with the audience. The plot was not what they first thought. But now they know. There will be no more surprises.’ This is more a ‘twice-told tale’ than a never-ending story.

Truby recommends weaving a complex story tapestry using character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue. The permutations can seem infinite.

Tips to create an infinite story tapestry:

1. Hero fails to achieve her desire. Other characters come up with a new desire at the end of the story. This prevents the story from closing down and shows the audience that desire, even when it’s foolish or hopeless, never dies. I make use of this technique in Midnight Feast.

2. Give a surprising character change to an opponent or a minor character. This technique can lead the audience to see the story again with that person as the true hero.

3. Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings move to the foreground. Picturebooks lend themselves brilliantly to this technique, because detail and clues can be hidden in the illustrations, revealing themselves only after the story has been read. For an excellent example of this see Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner.

4. Add elements of texture–in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world–that become much more interesting once the audience has seen the plot surprises and the hero’s character change.

5. Create a relationship between the storyteller and the other characters that is fundamentally different once the viewer has seen the plot for the first time. Using an unreliable storyteller is one, but only one, way of doing this.

6. Make the moral argument ambiguous, or don’t show what the hero decides to do when he is confronted with his final moral choice. As soon as you move beyond the simple good versus evil moral argument, you force the audience to reevaluate the hero, the opponents, and all the minor characters to figure out what makes right action. By withholding the final choice, you force the audience to question the hero’s actions again and explore that choice in their own lives. Jon Klassen’s hat books are excellent examples of this type of storytelling.

Writing: Creating Your Storyworld

creating a storyworld

When writing a story, the setting — or storyworld — should be an expression of the hero.

  • If the main character is enslaved, the story world should be enslaving.
  • If the character is freed, the storyworld should be freeing.

The storyworld should also exacerbate the main character’s weakness.

What Is A Fictional Storyworld Made Of?

No matter what kind of story you’re writing, spend time creating a rich and detailed story world.

  1. PERIOD – a story’s place in time
  2. DURATION – a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours.
  3. LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. ARENA – inside that location, there will be an ‘edge’ to your story, kind of like a computer game.
  5. MANMADE SPACES – buildings, roads, bridges, cities, villages, houses, etc
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS – deserts, rivers, mountainsislands, forests, beaches, etc
  7. WEATHER – This might rely on pathetic fallacy, e.g. the character is sad so it is raining. Or sunny weather might make a sad character feel even worse.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – There may or may not be some technology which your plot will rely on. In some genres (especially science fiction) this technology will be central.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

A Big Misconception About Setting

John Truby has said that some writers think that storyworld is only important in myth and fantasy stories. Not anymore. In the past storytelling didn’t care about storyworld that much. That’s because it slows down narrative drive. For a while, dwelling on setting was one of the worst sins you could commit. Whereas describing storyworld offers a 360 degree view, narrative drive is going in one direction at top speed. In this way, the two are direct opposites.

But an interesting storyworld is a vital basis for a successful story. In the last decade, storyworld has become hugely important in every medium. The viewer immerses themselves in the world you have created for them. The audience must want to visit this world again and again.

How do you describe your storyworld without slowing down the story?

  1. Hang the world on the desire line of the hero.
  2. Don’t stop and explain the entire world at the beginning of the story. At each step the hero takes to get the goal stop and explain another chunk of the story world.

How To Make A Storyworld Come Alive

The Chocolate War is set in a run-down Catholic boys’ school, an inhospitable place to anyone at the bottom of the pecking order. Cormier personifies the school, turning it into an inhospitable desert landscape, though it’s only a sports field.

The wind rose, kicking puffs of dust from the football field.  The field needed seeding. The bleachers also needed attention — they sagged, peeling paint like leprosy on the benches. The shadows of the goalposts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses.

The Chocolate War, description of a boys’ Catholic school, Robert Cormier

Cormier makes the school setting come alive by using verbs usually reserved for people (kicking), and by giving the benches a disease only humans can get (leprosy). The word ‘sprawling’ is interesting because it’s so commonly used for things as well as people that we’re used to its metaphorical use by now. Suburbs can now ‘sprawl’ and we don’t consider this an example of personification. Yet ‘sprawl’ suggests the goalposts themselves mean to seem imposing. The goalposts have zero motivation of their own — this is obviously how the character feels about the goalposts. Verbs like sprawl are really useful to writers because of their status as ‘almost metaphors’. Use these and avoid heavy-handedness.

One beautiful thing we can do with any setting is to “seed” it with emotional triggers. These triggers are symbols which are important to the protagonist in some way, influencing what he thinks, feels, and does. … These setting triggers lead to emotional decision-making and the actions that result will change the story’s trajectory.

Angela Ackerman

 Fantasy Storyworlds

Create the world that serves your story and make no apologies or justifications for how that world came to be.

– Audrey Vernick

John Truby explains that in any fantasy, we have two tracks:

  1. the fantasy track
  2. the reality track it represents

Other stories tend to use the institution to represent the city, but fantasy stories tend to invert that and instead find a metaphor for the city. Instead of locking the city down to a regulated organisation, fantasy opens the city up by imagining it as a kind of natural setting, like a mountain or a jungle. One advantage of this technique is that it makes the overwhelming city a single unit, with special traits the audience can recognise. But more important, it hints at the tremendous potential of the city, for both good and bad.

Sometimes the city as ocean metaphor is used. In fantasy stories, the main way to do this is to make the city dwellers literally float. Not only does this give them the power to fly, but also, when characters float, ceilings become floors, nothing is locked down, and people can experience the ultimate freedom that comes from imagining things together. This floating is a metaphor for the potential that is hidden within the mundane city; when you approach the predictable world in a new way, suddenly everything becomes possible.  (Non-fantasy movies instead rely on the eye of the camera to convey the city as an ocean, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.

Making The Absurd Rational

In story, unlike life, you can always go back and fix it. You can set up what may seem absurd and make it rational. Reasoning is secondary to postcreativity. Primary and preconditional to everything else is imagination–the willingness to think any crazy idea, to let images that may or may not make sense find their way to you. Nine out of ten will be useless. Yet one illogical idea may put butterflies in your belly, a flutter that’s telling you something wonderful is hidden in this mad notion. In an intuitive flash you’ll see the connection and realize you can go back and make it make sense.

– Robert McKee, in Story

Creative Block?

Don Draper’s advice to Peggy Olsen in Mad Men was to think about it hard for a really long time, then don’t think about it at all. I’m pretty sure the creator of Don Draper didn’t come up with that — I suspect it’s what all creative people learn sooner or later.

For those of us working with graphics, here is some more advice, tailored to the visual medium. I think it applies to illustration as much as to design.

How To Get Unstuck, from Eric Paul Snowden

 

How To Design A Poster

EXAMPLES OF ACTUAL POSTERS, FOR YOUR INSPIRATION

FREE RESOURCES TO USE AS ELEMENTS OF YOUR POSTER

Steal Like An Artist, but don’t forget to credit.

WEB TOOLS, ESPECIALLY FOR THE PHOTOSHOP-LESS AMONG YOU

(Tip: You don’t really need high-end software worth thousands of dollars to create something cool.)

ARTICLES AND TUTORIALS

IPAD APPS

PRINTING POSTERS

TYPOGRAPHY

OTHER

200+ Pinterest Boards For Designers To Follow from Design Shack

And, here’s how not to design a poster. Movie Posters Recreated Using Only Clipart, from The Mary Sue. Avoid clip-art and comic sans and you’re doing just great.