(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, book flavor.)
Considering how haphazard my planning for the month has been (M’s post was written way back in January, while this one is coming to you from the far-distant land of two days ago), it’s a bit funny how thing seem to be lining up. Yesterday’s post talked about how writing in first-person can present certain problems. But going in the opposite direction isn’t guaranteed smooth sailing, either.
“Head-hopping” has gotten to be something of a bad word in the reading world. It refers to a third-person omniscient view that doesn’t constrain itself to a single viewpoint character, but dips freely into whichever thoughts and reactions might be relevant. This can get kind of confusing, especially if a reader missed the part where the POV changed, or if a character’s direct thoughts are thrown in without sufficient attribution. Current conventional wisdom seems to favor a sort of revolving limited perspective than an omniscient one, only changing viewpoints with a scene or chapter break. Of course, if you’re cutting quickly enough that you end up with scenes shorter than a page, it can feel just as disjointed, if not more so. (See the latter half of The Good Fairies of New York for a good example of that.)
However, it is possible to execute this technique well, because really, it’s possible to execute any technique well. For today’s master class, let’s turn to the late, great Douglas Adams.
One of the biggest difficulties for the omniscient perspective is voice, that tricky bastard that everyone looks for but no one can quite describe. With a close third-person, the narrator’s voice will echo that of the viewpoint character, and not just by directly relaying their thoughts. (For a fantastic example of this, check out Gail Carriger’s Soulless.) With an omniscient perspective, if the narrator tries to echo each of the many viewpoint characters, things can get very muddled, but if they echo none at all, it’s just sterile.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, maintains one distinctive voice throughout: the voice of the Guide. The actual guide entries are set apart in italics (at least in the editions I’ve got), but that same sardonic, matter-of-fact tone carries through into the scenes with the main characters, as well as the tangential world-building asides. No matter how random and disconnected the topic, that consistent style helps keep the reader anchored and minimizes confusion.
The other thing that helps prevent confusion is that every single head-hop is clearly attributed. There are no interjections that come out of nowhere; the declarative style means that we pretty much always start by identifying the character.
Consider this passage:
Trillian couldn’t sleep. She sat on a couch and stared at a small cage which contained her last and only links with Earth–two white mice that she had insisted Zaphod let her bring. She had expected never to see the planet again, but she was disturbed by her negative reaction to the news of the planet’s destruction. It seemed remote and unreal and she could find no thoughts to think about it. She watched the mice scurrying round the cage and running furiously in their little plastic treadwheels till they occupied her whole attention. Suddenly she shook herself and went back on to the bridge to watch over the tiny flashing lights and figures that charted the ship’s progress through the void. She wished she knew what it was she was trying not to think about.
Zaphod couldn’t sleep. He also wished he knew what it was that he wouldn’t let himself think about. For as long as he could remember he’d suffered from a vague nagging feeling of being not all there. Most of the time he was able to put this thought aside and not worry about it, but it had been reawakened by the sudden, inexplicable arrival of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent. Somehow it seemed to conform to a pattern that he couldn’t see.
Ford couldn’t sleep. He was too excited about being back on the road again. Fifteen years of virtual imprisonment were over, just as he was finally beginning to give up hope. Knocking about with Zaphod for a bit promised to be a lot of fun, though there seemed to be something faintly odd about his semicousin that he couldn’t put his finger on. The fact that he had become President of the Galaxy was frankly astonishing, as was the manner of his leaving the post. Was there a reason behind it? There would be no point in asking Zaphod, he never appeared to have a reason for anything he did at all: he had turned unfathomability into an art form. He attacked everything in life with a mixture of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence and it was often difficult to tell which was which.
Arthur slept: he was terribly tired.
Scene breaks would be far too jagged, but we do get paragraph breaks, and each switch starts by identifying the character so we know exactly where we stand. There are little hints of specific personalities (like the difference between “she could find no thoughts to think about it” and “knocking about with Zaphod”) but the overall tone remains consistent. And, naturally, it ends with a punchline.
This, of course, isn’t the only way to pull off this technique, but it’s a good example because it so specifically addresses the elements that can trip up readers. The omniscient narrator may know all, but they have to be able to get it across in a way that isn’t confusing.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Dragonhaven.)
One of the very first things we have to decide in writing fiction is the identity of the narrator. First or third? Multiple narrators? Limited or omniscient? True, this is something that can change a lot while writing, but you’ve got to make a decision in order to start stringing words together at all. The choice of narrator affects, and is affected by, a host of factors: genre and category expectations, which characters are privy to what events and knowledge, series considerations, thematic goals, and so on. But what happens when these factors point in different directions?
Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven, the story of a young boy who illegally raises an orphaned dragon, is written in first person, narrated by Jake. On the face of it, first person seems like the rather obvious choice. The conceit is that this is a memoir documenting an event that is famous in Jake’s world, while in our world, the intimate and confessional nature of first person lends itself very well to YA.
But the problem is twofold. First, Jake’s narration is something of an unfiltered internal monologue, a huge departure from Robin McKinley’s usual lyrical style that was off-putting to many readers. Secondly, Jake isn’t around for some pretty major plot events, most notably, well, the entire climax. Seriously, he’s holed up with his dragons while the rest of the staff of the park holds off the National bloody Guard. He’s told how it all went down afterward, and the explanation that “we” (being the readers of the memoir in his world, not the readers of the novel in ours) should have all heard about it on the news is cute, but still makes the whole thing rather unsatisfying.
So does this mean it should have been written differently? Well, no. It’s all about priorities. This is primarily a Boy and His Dog type story, with the focus being on how a teenage boy copes with the stresses and joys of motherhood (and yes, he’s rather specific about it being motherhood) taken to fantastic extremes. Taking it out of Jake’s immediate perspective would have been a very different story, and whether “different” means “better” is highly subjective.
Still, it’s important to weigh all these factors in when you’re making these decisions in your own work. You needn’t be a slave to your author “brand” and stick exclusively to an established style and theme, but it’s still wise to be aware of what expectations your readers are bringing to the table. If you’re limiting the perspective, can you still establish the necessary events? If you’re going wide, can you still get us close to your characters? Sometimes the identity of the best narrator will jump out and beat you over the head, but frequently you’ll have to make trade-offs and weigh the pros and cons, maybe even try out several options in different drafts. Though the peanut gallery is always going to have our opinions on how well it worked, in the end, only you know what’s going to best serve the story you want to tell.
(Standard spoiler warning applies to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.)
I be feeling a bit nostalgic today, mates. So let’s talk about one of my favorite scenes in film history. It’s not a particularly spectacular scene by most standards, but it encapsulates a concept that’s executed so beautifully, it makes my crusty writer’s heart weep with joy.
And possibly with a teensy bit of drunkenness, because rum.
Behold, ye scalawags!
Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down what exactly makes a character so compelling. Jack Sparrow is undeniably one of the great, iconic characters in cinema, but why? Is it Johnny Depp’s inspired insanity? The clever dialogue? Just a really good costume?
No, from a writer’s perspective, I think the answer in this case is simple: Jack Sparrow is singularly memorable because he is singularly motivated. He may seem to rapidly change sides as the balance of power shifts, but really, everything he does throughout the film–without exaggeration, every single move he makes and line he speaks–is all designed to bring him closer to his goal of recovering the Black Pearl. Even his desire for revenge on Barbossa is secondary and incidental to getting his ship.
That’s the beauty of this scene on the beach. In case you can’t watch, here’s the relevant bit:
JACK: Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom.
Here, Jack’s given a moment to explain himself, to get to the underlying truth that really drives him. The Black Pearl is a tangible item rather unique to Jack, but the desire for freedom, that’s what Elizabeth, the sheltered rich girl with an adventurous heart, connects with. It’s what the audience connects with. It’s something primal, one of those lizard-brain truths that transcends circumstance to speak to a broader human experience. Those primal, basic motivations are hugely important in fiction, one of the reasons we tell stories and one of the things that make stories effective. Hell, it’s the reason that the damsel in distress keeps popping up even though we all know how problematic it is by now; the trope’s still bloody useful to writers, because what’s more primal than protecting someone you love?
This strong motivation also serves the structure of the script. Jack is an active character; his plots and counter-plots drive the story forward, lending urgency and tension even though he’s not, strictly speaking, the protagonist. True, most of his pivots are in reaction to the changing circumstances throughout the story, but crucially, he’s not purely reactionary: he walks into Port Royal with a plan, and that’s largely what he sticks to. He adapts as needed to get to the ultimate goal, but that goal never changes.
And, more importantly, it’s this trait that shows us why the sequels aren’t nearly as successful from a storytelling standpoint. In Dead Man’s Chest, Jack has his ship back and (somewhat contrivedly) lost the treasure at Isla de la Muerta, and thus doesn’t know what he wants anymore. They try to make it a plot point (his magic compass doesn’t work correctly because it’s motivated by his heart’s desire), but it doesn’t disguise or compensate for the fact that he’s a weaker character because of this development.
There’s a reason for that old cliche of actors asking about their motivation, and there’s a reason that the formula for a successful query or blurb boils down to “Who’s the hero, what do they want, what’s in their way.” The stuff that a character does simply doesn’t resonate with us as much as their reasons for doing it. People connect with a character they can relate to, no matter how fantastical and unfamiliar their circumstances.
If your story doesn’t have someone with a clear, strong motivation (and it doesn’t have to be the protagonist; this is a role frequently played by the villain, after all), perhaps you should dig a little deeper to see what makes them tick. Maybe get drunk on a deserted beach. Seems to help.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Doctor Who. Just… Doctor Who.)
Well, this is quite the little mini-theme of writing terms! First there was “show, don’t tell,” then “kill your darlings,” and today we have “lampshade hanging.” For those of you who don’t speak TV Tropes, this is when a writer handles something that strains plausibility by pointing out exactly how implausible it is. It doesn’t seem like it would work, but it can be quite effective for a certain type of story.
Doctor Who, the long-running sci-fi show about traveling to all the corners of time and space that look suspiciously like southern Britain, is rather that kind of story, though it might not seem that way from the outside. The lampshade, you see, is all about the writers making fun of themselves, so it is a device that by definition deals in the comic and the meta. It is therefore a staple of meta comedies like Archer and 30 Rock, but it also tends to pop up in other works, especially genre ones, that don’t take themselves too seriously. With its long history, savvy and devoted fans, and a sensibility that vacillates between goofy and terrifying, Doctor Who definitely falls into that second category. Hardly an episode goes by without some on-point observation being made, but a few characters over the years have really taken this trope and run with it–probably none more so than Rory Williams, who pretty much acted like this was his full-time job.
Rory’s observational skills are on display from his very first appearance, and are actually what catches the Doctor’s attention, since Rory’s the only one who figured out what’s really weird about the whole alien invasion situation. While Amy gets immediately swept up into the Doctor’s world, Rory stays firmly and intentionally grounded in reality, which makes him quite effective as an audience surrogate. Indeed, Rory (at least, early on, before the centurion business) is probably a pretty good representation of what the average sci-fi fan would be like as a companion, and the Doctor finds his genre-savviness quite annoying since–another lampshade–he keeps his companions around so they can be impressed at how clever he is. Rory’s everyman qualities show off one benefit of lampshade hanging: He finds his situation just as implausible as anyone would in his situation, so it keeps the show grounded even as it starts to strain credulity.
For instance, there’s the little fact that Rory just keeps dying. Hell, he manages to die three times in a single episode. This is not the kind of thing that someone would just shrug off, and so Rory doesn’t. His reactions run the gamut from sardonic annoyance (“We’re dead. Again.”) to his confession to the Doctor that he’s still haunted by the memories of his centuries as an Auton. It helps inspire confidence in the audience that it’s not just a passing gag, but that the writers have a plan and are working it into the story.
Really, it’s the way that a lampshade lets the writer communicate directly with the audience that makes it so effective. For instance, there’s Rory’s response when Amy asks if he can ride a motorbike he’s just stolen:
RORY: I expect so. It’s been that sort of day.
The thing with breaking rules or engaging in lazy writing habits on purpose is that it can be difficult for the audience to know that it’s on purpose and that you’re not just bad at this. A line like Rory’s helps clue the audience in to your intentions. The subtext is, “Yes, this might merit more explanation, but we’re not going to waste the time on it. This is just the kind of story we’re in, so let’s move on and get to the good stuff.” Calling attention to it helps the audience trust that the writer knows what they’re doing, and lets the audience know that the writer trusts them to have spotted the pattern. And it wraps the whole thing in a joke, because the Rule of Funny trumps all.
So, in essence, hanging a lampshade takes a moment that could be a major pothole in the storytelling experience and turns it into an opportunity for us all to have a laugh and congratulate ourselves on being very clever. All around, a good tool to have in your arsenal.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Avengers.)
Last time we talked a bit about common soundbites of writing advice that run the risk of being smurfed into meaninglessness. Let’s continue on in that vein, shall we? Today’s frequently used, frequently misunderstood phrase is “Kill your darlings.”
Unlike phrases such as “show, don’t tell” or “strong female character,” the problem here isn’t that people are using the same term to discuss similar-but-not-identical concepts. This one is pretty straightforward: No matter how much you like a sentence/paragraph/scene/character/subplot/waheyhey, if it’s causing other issues in the story, it probably needs to be changed or removed. It’s about keeping the big picture in mind and steeling yourself for tough editorial decisions. It is not about liking a sentence/paragraph/scene/character/subplot/waheyhey so much that you suspect something might be wrong with it, and it is not about cutting material for the sake of cutting material.
So, as is my wont, let’s see this one in action.
Remember the blonde waitress who’s so prominently featured in the third act of The Avengers (and in the image at the top of this page)? She definitely set my English major spidey senses tingling, and I figured that she was going to be a recurring character, perhaps a love interest for Cap. She didn’t show up in Winter Soldier, so perhaps there was a scheduling conflict, they decided to take it in a different direction, or they just plain forgot that they’d set her up. (The latter is what I’m pretty sure happened to most of the events of The Incredible Hulk, as a side note.) But as it turns out, her bigger role was in The Avengers itself, but most of it ended up on the cutting room floor.
Here she is meeting Steve in the first act:
And they filmed quite a bit of footage with her for the climactic battle sequence:
None of this footage is bad, and some of it clearly made it pretty far in the process: multiple angles are edited together, and there’s score and even preliminary special effects in some places. The first scene gives Cap’s character some additional depth (and shows off his art skills!), and the second gives us a recognizable face to represent the bystanders and remind us all of what’s at stake. It’s not purely extraneous, so why isn’t it in there?
Well, it’s already a pretty dense movie, and you can’t have everything. Cap’s extended introduction kind of kills the pacing of the “getting the gang together” portion of the movie, and there’s just not time to explore his individual arc here. It’s an ensemble film, so they take advantage of having all the characters in one place to show how they interact. Specifically with Steve, the focus is on his relationship with Tony, which is going to be a hugely important part of Civil War. His solo story about adjusting to the modern world gets shifted over to his solo movie, where it’s a better fit.
As for why the second batch of scenes got cut? I don’t know if you guys noticed this, but the Battle of New York is fucking long. It’s thirty-four goddamn minutes from when Iron Man first arrives to when Loki asks for his drink. Just keeping track of all our heroes as they kick ass takes quite enough, let alone following around some random chick as she just tries not to get killed. She’s given just enough screentime that we recognize her when she gives her interview at the end, but more than that would just bog down a sequence that’s already pushing its luck.
The filmmaking process is extremely segmented when it comes time to the actual filming: scenes are shot out of order by a crew that frequently hasn’t read any of the script, and rewrites are usually happening continually. It’s pretty much impossible to get a feel for what the actual movie is going to look like until you get to the editing room and can take a more holistic look. Even if you’re writing fiction and working from start to finish, it can be hard from the trenches to have any concept of the work as a whole. That’s why revision is so vital, but it means that you’ll often have ideas you’ve put a lot of work into that end up getting nixed. “Kill your darlings” just tells you to suck it up and do what needs to be done. On the plus side, technology–DVD extras, YouTube, author websites, social media, and so on–gives you an alternate way to showcase those ideas without bogging down the story, so at least your darlings don’t have to die unmourned.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Emperor’s New Groove.)
If you spend any amount of time reading writing advice, you’re going to encounter certain phrases a lot. Such phrases tend to be pithy and memorable, but it doesn’t take long to realize that, well, we don’t seem to be talking about quite the same thing.
Take “show, don’t tell.” It’s an exhortation to better description. Unless, of course, it’s meant to encourage you to focus on action instead of description. Or to focus on subtext. And then there are the situations where you should ignore the rule completely. So you can see where this gets confusing to a beginner.
One major version of this rule, or perhaps a corollary to it, is the “show/tell mismatch“: You can’t tell us one thing about the story but then show us something completely different. If you tell us your main character is the greatest assassin in the world but show us someone who’s constantly getting snuck up on and has the self-preservation instinct of a lemming on the Disney backlot, the reader is going to have a hard time taking you seriously. (Yes, that’s a real example, and no, I’m not naming and shaming. It knows what it did.) Basically, the action has to match the narration.
Except, you know, when it doesn’t. Yes, any rule can be broken, as long as it’s broken for a specific reason.
The Emperor’s New Groove starts with a flash-forward prologue, although it’s mercifully brief and is necessary to establish that Kuzco isn’t providing his voice-over from after the story is all wrapped up, but from right in the middle, which is rather unusual. The voice-over continues throughout the setup, as Kuzco protests that he’s a purely innocent victim. Meanwhile, the scenes he’s narrating show clearly that Kuzco is a total dick and brought this all on himself. The narration emphatically contradicts the action, so it’s a violation of the rule, right?
But we’re dealing with two different types of information here (which is probably why this rule can get so confusing). As far as the events that took place are concerned, yes, this is show/tell mismatch. But that mismatch shows something critically important to Kuzco’s character: he’s not just a dick, he’s an oblivious dick. He honestly and genuinely does not understand the consequences of his actions. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong because he has no working definition of that concept. And in case you didn’t catch that in Act I, near the end of Act II there’s this very meta moment (because it is a very meta movie):
VOICE-OVER KUZCO: So, this is where you came in. See, just like I said, I’m the victim here. I didn’t do anything and they ruined my life and took everything I had.
ON-SCREEN KUZCO: Hey, give it a rest up there, will you?
V.O. KUZCO: What? I’m just telling them what happened.
O.S. KUZCO: Who are you kidding, pal? They saw the whole thing, they know what happened.
Kuzco has to call out his own delusions before he can move past them, and the narration serves as a rather literal vehicle for doing that. His voice-over may be masquerading as the omniscient impartial guide, especially when he narrates scenes he wasn’t there for, but Voice-Over Kuzco is a character, one that’s biased as hell. Contrasting how he sees the world with how the world actually is tells us quite a bit about the arc his character will take.
Rules in writing tend to be nuanced, Pirates’ Code sort of things. It’s good to know the basics, but it’s more important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and if the rule helps you get there.