Tag Archives: viewpoint

Lose the Laundry

No, I’m not talking about your dirty clothes. Today’s post is about a necessary writing responsibility called description.

Do I hear groans? Quick! How many of you skip descriptive passages when you’re reading fiction? It can become boring pretty fast sometimes, and it’s slow. It puts the story on pause while the writer evokes some lovely–or clunky–imagery.

So if it has all these things going against it, why am I even bothering to bring it up? Why not ditch description altogether? Didn’t Elmore Leonard advise fiction writers never to include the things that readers skip?

He did.

However, we shouldn’t ditch description completely. Why? Because our stories need it. Description helps orient readers to our story world, particularly when your setting is purely imaginary. After all, remember that your fans have never been to the planet Faraway unless you describe it to them.

Secondly, description shows readers what our characters look like, especially in their introductions when they’re making that all-important first impression. Without description, I might read maybe half of a novel, all the while imagining–for whatever reason–that my viewpoint is stocky and red-haired, then suddenly discover that this individual is tall, willowy, and blonde. It’s like walking down a staircase and missing a step. Even if you catch your balance and avoid falling, you’ve taken quite a jolt.

And, finally, description helps evoke emotions or physical sensations through what our point-of-view character experiences. After all, if your protagonist has just proposed to the girl of his dreams and she turns him down, he needs to feel the emotions of disappointment, embarrassment, humiliation, shock, anger, and disbelief. Maybe we toss in resentment and stir up a bit of jealousy toward the guy she’s choosing instead. Or, if your point-of-view person is coshed with a blackjack at the end of Chapter Four and comes to at the beginning of Chapter Five to find herself trussed with rope and her face smushed into the gritty texture of old carpet that smells like dog urine and mold, then you have to share those descriptive details with readers or how will they know she’s shivery and nauseous from the throbbing pain in her skull and needs to keep her eyes shut against the dizzying spin of the room around her.

Hmm. So despite its bad rep, description is necessary. Does that mean Mr. Leonard is wrong? Not at all! It means we have to make description fun, fast, and lively enough that readers don’t want to skip it. Or, like tricking a toddler into opening his mouth so we can spoon in green peas, we have to slip description past readers before they realize what’s happening.

It’s helpful to remember that there are two major types of description:  laundry list and  dominant impression.

Let’s get the laundry out of the way, shall we? Early in my career, an editor criticized my manuscript for featuring too many laundry lists. I had no idea what she was talking about and kept piling on more and more details in my descriptive passages, which was the wrong thing to do and exactly what this editor did not want. Somehow, I finally revised that project to her satisfaction or exhaustion–not sure which–and publication deadline was met.

For clarity, let’s define laundry-list description as old-school enumeration of endless details about a setting or a character. Often such description begins with one side of a room and systematically moves the reader’s eye around as it catalogues the colors, furnishings, and architectural features. Or it might start with a character’s glossy black hair pinned high atop her head with only one long curl allowed to rest on her sloping shoulder, then moving down to address the widow’s peak of her hairline, her wide-spaced cerulean eyes with thick curling lashes, her pertly perfect nose with three adorable freckles scattered across its curvature, the rosy fullness of her lips, and the dimple in her chin. Fiction of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century often features such passages. Because every detail is lavishly attended to with equal emphasis, description tends to be long. More information means more word count. Longer imagery grows slower and slower and s-l-o-w-e-r until it becomes … ZZZZzzzz.

The other type of description is dominant impression, which focuses on a single image you want to get across to readers. What is the most important or notable aspect of the treasure cave that you need to convey?

Well obviously it’s the treasure.

All other information can wait. If that cave holds fabulous riches, then go bold with it in a couple of sentences and make sure you emphasize specific, well-chosen details. Consider ropes of immense pearls, rubies and emeralds winking in the torchlight, heavy Spanish doubloons heaped on the floor. However, don’t catalogue every jewel or count the bolts of shimmering silk cloth. Instead, what is it about a heap of treasure that would stand out to you first and foremost? The glitter-fire within the jewels? The gleam of the coins? If you want this trove to dazzle, then focus on how it shines and sparkles in the flickering torchlight. It’s the dazzle that’s the dominant impression, not each item.

Of course, if the treasure your hero expected to find is not in the cave and instead he encounters a pile of human skeletons in rotted clothing with baleful red rat eyes gleaming from among the bones, then you’ll want to focus on whatever your overwhelming disappointment leads you to notice. Maybe it’s the stench–dank and putrid–like standing in a mass grave. Hit with one vivid metaphor–ideally less of a cliche than my examples–and keep the action moving.

Every few pages, if needed, you can insert a descriptive phrase to supplement the dank dismal atmosphere or the empty gloom within the cave or the glum resignation on the sidekick’s face or the sharp twinge in the protagonist’s stomach as his ulcer perforates from the stress of failure and sends him to his knees in agony.

By pausing only briefly for a swift, vivid impression for setting establishment or character introductions and by mixing descriptive words into the story action, you’ll be able to lose the boring pile of laundry and keep your story exciting, plausible, and vivid.

 

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Setting & Atmosphere

For this post, we’ll take a page–pun intended–from Edgar Allen Poe, who demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact.

When creating mood, you should be sure it fits the tropes of your genre. In other words, if you’re writing a romance, you want a setting that contributes to a romantic tone. This means your characters will be falling in love in the Colorado mountains, or a coastal cottage near the surf, or in a steamy jungle, or among the glittering throngs in Monte Carlo’s casino, or in a meadow–not, generally, in a mechanic’s shop, oil tanker factory, rural pig pen, or fast food joint. (Yes, yes, I know that love can strike anyone anywhere, but idealized, romantic settings sell solidly.)

Let’s consider the classic John Ford film, THE QUIET MAN. The movie is styled to present a very idealized view of early twentieth-century Ireland. Protagonist Sean is inclined to romanticize the country where he was born and left as a young boy. He has returned to buy the old family cottage and seek refuge in it from all that’s gone wrong in his life. When he sees Mary Kate for the very first time, she’s leading a flock of sheep across the pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He is instantly attracted to her beauty and wants to get acquainted.

The movie is based on a short story, and if I recall the prose version correctly, the author depicts Sean in church, sitting behind Mary Kate and being struck by how the hair on the back of her neck swirls in delicate tendrils.

Each version of this first meeting between the couple works well for its particular medium. The film, shot in glorious technicolor which was made for the vivid coloring of actress Maureen O’Hara who plays the character of Mary Kate, needs her introduction to be stronger and more active so she’s out tending sheep with her glorious hair on her shoulders. The short story can present her more quietly, with minute detail of the back of her neck as seen through Sean’s point of view. Both versions convey the same plot event. Both utilize setting–a meadow or inside a chapel–to enhance the romantic aspect of this man’s first notice of the woman he’ll eventually woo and marry.

At the other end of the spectrum, if your story is dramatic and serious, you don’t want a frivolous setting. If you’re writing comedy, you don’t want the gloomy dungeon’s torture pit beneath a rotting castle unless you’re going to exaggerate the gloom, cobwebs, and ghastly screams for humorous or satirical effect. Suspense needs a somber tone. Westerns need to present the glory of a wide, untamed world. Fantasy needs to evoke a sense of enchanted wonder. Science fiction often seeks to portray a technologically advanced world that’s cold and sterile, or a dystopian nightmare of crumbling infrastructure.

Consider the stylists, prop masters, and set dressers in motion pictures. Study your favorite films–ones you’ve seen often enough that you can remain detached from the story action–and observe how imagery and mood are conveyed through the lighting, props, furnishings, and colors of the sets. Are they interior or exterior? If an intense, conflict-heavy scene is set inside a room lined with bookshelves filled with expensive leather-bound tomes and there’s a thick Oriental carpet on the floor beneath a heavy mahogany desk, ask yourself how different the same character confrontation and same dialogue would be if the scene took place outdoors.

When good filmmakers use a setting that superficially seems incongruous with the genre or plot situation, it’s for deliberate effect. In the Alfred Hitchcock classic, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the climactic confrontation between the protagonist and villain happens on a merry-go-round at an amusement park. The innocent children on the ride help to raise the stakes when the operator is accidentally shot and the carousel spins out of control. The wooden horses–normally perceived as happy, frolicking steeds painted in bright, happy colors–become grotesque and grim monsters thanks to Hitchcock’s framing, Dutch angles, and use of black and white film. He turns one of the most beloved of all amusement-park rides into a nightmare, but he does so in a careful, consistent manner that manipulates audience perception. He doesn’t just let his two principal characters struggle on a cheerful, brightly colored ride–thereby muddling the imagery. He shapes mood like the master he is.

You can also use the weather as part of your setting to brighten or darken a story’s tone. Thriller novelist Dean Koontz has done this for years, and it’s quite effective. He draws on thunderstorms and torrential downpours to close in around his beleaguered characters, to create additional adversity for them, and to make the situation tougher as his story people struggle for survival against predators and psychos.

Diction is another tool at our disposal when we’re creating atmosphere. That’s a fancy term for word choice, but again, the details you choose when describing your settings will either enhance your story or undermine it. Utilize adjectives, verbs, and nouns to support the mood you’re trying to convey.

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Viewpoint podcast

This week’s podcast from Manchester University Press is the third of a six-part series of interviews and centers on viewpoint.

Enjoy!

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Fire and Passion

You come across a book by two authors you’ve never read before. You read the first one, and it’s like finding treasure. The characters spring to life on every page. The action is exciting. The suspense is hair-raising. You can’t bear the anticipation of reaching the story climax and yet you can’t stop turning pages. And when you reach the ending, you’re both exhilarated and sad that it’s over. You click online to see if this book is part of a series because you want more.

Then you read the second book you purchased. Your reaction is meh. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. You find yourself trying to like the characters, but they’re merely okay. You can’t love them. You’re struggling to care about whether they’ll succeed. The story moves competently through its paces, and when you finish you’re mostly relieved that it’s over. Definitely you won’t seek any more of this author’s work.

Besides allowing for a reader’s personal taste, what’s the difference? Two authors with equal numbers of publications. Two authors with equal amounts of professional experience. Why is one writing copy that’s alive and one writing copy that’s flat?

Are their ideas that unequal?

Probably not. Very likely the difference lies not in the story premise but in their approach to their material. Writer One put her heart into her book. She wrote it because she had a passion for the story and her characters. She lived and breathed the emotions. Writer Two wrote because she had a contractual deadline to meet. She outlined a story in a competent way. She designed characters because they either fit a publisher’s guidelines or because she’s found certain characteristics sell better than others. She put her her characters into challenging situations, and then chose appropriate words to convey their emotional reactions.

One writer wrote with her heart. The other writer wrote with her mind.

Now in certain genres, such as hard science fiction or puzzle mysteries, the mind is what’s most needed. These books are focused on the story problem to be solved. They are not relying on intense character internalization and growth.

But for most genres, the heart is vital. Emotion in characters brings them alive. The writer must care about the character and the issue first. If the writer cares, then the character involved will care. If the character cares, then the reader will care. Investing emotion into a situation means stronger motivation, stronger attempts, stronger conflict, stronger confrontations, stronger reactions, and stronger determination to prevail from the story people.

Sure, writers have to think about their plots and work through the development of outlines, but once that foundation is laid, writers must then write the story from inside the protagonist’s viewpoint. That is what’s made to appear to drive the story forward.

But if a writer attempts to write fiction from the outside, the character will always seem flat and the authorial hand will sometimes be too evident in moving a puppet character here and there.

 

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Cold Characters, Dead Copy

How do you entice readers to care about your protagonist? To care enough to sit down and read your story? To take time away from other activities or tasks to read your story to its ending?

Readers have innumerable alternatives to occupy their leisure time, even if it’s just checking their phones for new text messages. There’s no incentive for them to read fiction unless they’re intrigued by a story’s premise or they bond with a protagonist.

Which brings me back to my opening question:  how is that bond established and how is it maintained?

Several elements factor into successful character design, but the detail that functions best in bringing a character alive and thereby catching reader attention is that character’s feelings.

Emotions make all the difference.

Consider this example:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke sized him up, taking note of the crazed desperation in the man’s eyes. Luke hesitated a moment, then smiled. “Dude, you should be careful with that.”

Luke may be smiling, but a reader won’t know if he’s baring his teeth in nervous fear or if he’s even crazier than Purple Hoodie. His emotional reaction is odd, incomprehensible, and on the surface. We experience no perceptions or internalizations from Luke’s viewpoint. It’s hard, if not impossible, to care about him.

Let’s try again:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke’s breath stilled in his throat. He knew better than to freeze, much less show any fear, but time seemed to slow around him. He noticed everything, from the tremors in Purple Hoodie’s hands to the twitching of the man’s mouth. Luke shifted his weight imperceptibly to the balls of his feet, gauging his chances of survival if the guy went berserk and attacked. Over and over, Luke told himself to stay calm, to keep thinking, to ignore the strangling sensation knotting his windpipe. His palms were sweating, and the air seemed to have left the room.

“Dude,” he whispered, trying without success to sound confident, “you should be careful with that.”

In Version 2, we don’t know much about Luke beyond his fear and how he’s trying not to panic. But his emotion has put some life into him. Version 2 is more interesting than Version 1.

Here’s another example:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Swearing, Jeff dropped to the ground, then pushed himself back onto his feet. He kicked at his assailant’s shins, but with a laugh the attacker spun around and ran into the dark alley.

Gee, Jeff just received a blow that knocked him off his feet, but it doesn’t slow him down a moment. Does Jeff have super-human powers? Why doesn’t he feel any pain? A writer of this kind of superficial copy might believe readers will imagine what’s left out. Instead, readers will feel indifference and very little sympathy.

Let’s try again:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Agony flared from his wrist to his shoulder. Jeff cried out, even as he lost his balance and fell. Hitting the ground jolted his arm, bringing another wave of pain that sent chills through his body. His forehead beaded with sweat. Gasping for breath, he curled himself around his injured arm and tried not to whimper. Another blow thudded into his shoulder, then his hip.

Jeff swore under his breath, feeling like he might throw up. His arm had to be broken. But if he continued lying here, he would probably be beaten to a pulp. As soon as he could catch his breath, he rolled over and pushed himself to his knees. He slapped the next blow aside, deflecting it, although the smack of wood against his palm stung hard.

Version 2 is running much longer, isn’t it? I haven’t even gotten Jeff back on his feet, much less fighting back enough to send the assailant running into the shadows.

But do you see how the internalized reactions, emotions, and physical sensations have brought Jeff to life? In Version 1, he’s a cartoon figure. His lack of reaction to a forceful blow creates a sense of unreality. The disconnection between being struck and feeling anything from it overrides any potential excitement in the action.

Without Jeff’s feelings, readers are detached from what’s happening. And if they’re detached, how can they care?

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Plotting Strategy: Multiple Viewpoints

Another aspect of plotting a novel is whether you’re going to utilize one viewpoint or several. I began my career using a single, limited viewpoint. After I’d written and published about a half-dozen books, I ventured cautiously into the realm of switching viewpoint. I discovered that it was fun. Then I got carried away and jumped at random into the perspective of one or two minor characters just because I could.

At some point, however, I learned that there are valid and invalid reasons for shifting viewpoint. Valid in the sense of enhancing the storyline and developing the characters. Invalid in the sense of just sharing what all the characters were thinking or getting myself out of a boring plot segment.

Multiple viewpoints add subplots to your story. Each character chosen to carry a viewpoint is going to become the lesser protagonist of that subplot’s storyline. That means that each viewpoint character will have a goal, will have an antagonist (who may well be the book’s protagonist … confused yet?), and the subplot will be resolved in a small climax or showdown of its own.

Accordingly, if you’re planning a book that will have several viewpoints, choose them wisely. Your main protagonist will carry the central story question, will drive the primary plot, and will be at the center of the most important action. Because of those duties, your main protagonist will get the most viewpoint pages.

Another viewpoint will probably be awarded to the main antagonist. This will enable you to set up or heighten threat to the protagonist. It will allow you to present the antagonist’s motivations.

A third viewpoint might belong to an important secondary character, such as the love interest or a sidekick. This viewpoint allows you to shift away from the protagonist to follow the story and keep the action from pausing.

For example, say that your protagonist is ambushed in a dark alley and beaten unconscious. If we stay in only the protagonist’s viewpoint, then the story remains on pause until the character wakes up.

But what if a bomb has been set? The deadline for the explosion is fast approaching. The protagonist managed to discover the location of the bomb and called his demolition expert just before he was knocked out. Now the story can shift to the perspective of the expert who’s racing to the target and struggling to clip the wire just in the nick–pun intended–of time.

The key to juggling subplots and multiple points of view successfully is to limit their number to what you–and your story idea–can handle. Two to four viewpoints is generally sufficient. And if your story will work just fine without shifting perspective, then keep it in a single viewpoint. Your job as a writer will be much more manageable, the book will be less likely to split in focus, and the impact could well be more powerful.

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