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Jim Butchers Writing Tips
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over 5 years ago
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# Conflict, Logical Response and Point of View
This article addresses three basic concepts for a structured approach to writing. While this one won't be specific enough to actually apply as yet, it's important to understand the basic ideas on which a structured approach is founded before we go tinkering with nuts and bolts.
## Conflict--It's Not the Best Way. It's the Only Way.
First things first. This is the absolute core truth of telling a story, and is as important to your writing as the laws of physics are to the real universe:
Stories are about conflict.
One more time, because something this important bears repeating.
STORIES ARE ABOUT CONFLICT!
If I wasn't in ASCII, I'd say it three times, the last time in giant animated 3-d letters that were on fire. That's just how important it is. Alas, I'll just have to settle for saying it twice.
Conflict is the single most important facet of writing fiction. Conflict should exist in one form or another in every scene. In a previous article I said that stories are about following a character in pursuit of a goal, and who is opposed by someone with an opposite or conflicting goal. That's the overall shape of a story.
But that format of Goal-Conflict is also the basic model for any scene. ALL of your characters need to have a goal. If they don't have a goal, then what the hell are they doing wandering aimlessly around on stage? Not only that, but you've also got to have someone who is trying to ruin your character's day by one means or another. No one wants to read about Odysseus leaving the sack of Troy, sailing home in moderate weather and settling down to focus on that urban renewal project he's been putting off.
Conflict exists in infinite forms, and need not (necessarily) involve explosions or blood. A mobster kicking down the door and spraying bullets is one kind of conflict, sure. But a well-intentioned relative determined to sway your character from his goal is, too. So is a boss who refuses to give your character the day off to pick up his sick kid from school.
We'll get into specifics on conflict when we talk scene structure. For now, just remember that stories are about conflict, and that they best way to create conflict is to give your characters goals and strong motivation to pursue them.
>Oh, a quick word about crippling information you might need to unlearn. Literature departments are real big on describing the "forms of conflict." Don't try to deny it. Some of you know them, and you know it. Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself. Let me give you a piece of advice. The only one of any value to anyone who wants to learn to write commercial fiction is the first one. Man versus nature stories and man versus himself stories can work, but the writer has to work a lot harder to make it happen. You're going to be more than busy enough without making your life more difficult across the board.
## Dammit, Jim, I'm A Writer, Not A Logistician
Another foundation stone of clear writing is a careful observence of logical response.
Remember, one of your goals in telling a story is to make it come alive in your readers' minds. To do that, it's important that you present things in a clear and understandable fashion. You have to create clear mental pictures of characters, objects and places for your reader.
(We'll get more into that when we talk about characters, later on.)
While it isn't too terribly hard to create vivid character-images, it is MUCH more difficult to create those same mental pictures of actions. Nothing takes your reader out of virtual headspace faster than reading a sentence and description of action, then blinking and thinking, "What?" Once your reader is stopping to go back and puzzle through confusing language, you've lost the game.
The best way to keep that flow going is to understand logical-response, or what my teacher called "Stimulus-Response Transactions." (Which sounds fancy, but they're working in a university there, and if you don't use lots of sixteen penny words you don't get any R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the other faculty.)
It breaks down into something really simple, though. Something happens to your character (stimulus). Your character reacts to it (response). Your character takes an action (stimulus). Something happens (response).
You don't start mucking around with the order. It's confusing. You don't have the response occur before the stimulus. For example:
"His fist lashed out at me [stimulus]. My jaw exploded in a flash of pain [response-stimulus], and it drove me to the ground [response]."
See? There's a logical order to it, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. That's what "stimulus-response transaction" means. Stimulus comes first, and for every stimulus you have one response.
If you screw up the order, the same action-description gets a lot harder to understand:
"I was driven to the ground when a flash of pain exploded in my jaw as his fist lashed out at me."
Strictly speaking there's not any kind of grammar-based felony going on here, but the sentence is clunky, and the reader has to mentally juggle it to get it all in the right order. It isn't really DIFFICULT for them to juggle it around, but it does take a little extra effort to sort it into a logical order.
That effort might seem trivial, but remember that the reader is gonna go through hundreds or thousands of your sentences in fairly short order. As a result, that kind of minor error could have two effects. First, it could result in a mental speedbump in your story that jolts the reader right out of their storyspace. Second, those many trivial shuffles will accumulate. It isn't something that most readers are going to actually, specifically notice in your work--they're just going to know that it isn't as much fun to read as they would like it to be
"But but but," someone is surely saying by now, "Spielberg uses just the opposite thing all the time! He'll go through separate close-ups of eighty six people staring at a dinosaur before the viewer ever gets to see the dinosaur that stimulated them to stare!
Yes, well, Steve has an advantage. HE ISN'T USING THE WRITTEN WORD. You are. The reversal of stimulus-response in a movie doesn't confuse anyone because they don't have to read words and turn it into a movie in their head. The movie is already THERE. Those shots in Jurassic Park work because they create suspense instead of confusion, precisely BECAUSE the viewer knows that the response they're seeing must have a stimulus, and they're wondering what it could be.
Besides. You aren't Spielberg. You're an aspiring writer who wants to learn the craft. So if you want things to go smoothly for the reader and give you every advantage you can get, observe stimulus-response transactions religiously.
## It All Depends On Your Point of View
Literally. In a very real sense, the success or failure of your story depends on it. Strong, entertaining, believable characters are what make or break a story, and a prime component for creating that kind of character is the effective use of point of view.
What makes it so important, you may ask? (Someone go ahead and ask, or I'm gonna look pretty silly up here.) Good, I'm glad you asked that. To answer the question, let's go back to our goal as a storyteller--specifically, to create a story so compelling that it takes on a life of its own in the reader's mind. We want to create storyspace.
In order for the reader to have that kind of experience, they need a vehicle to do it in--or put another way, we use point of view as a means of inserting the reader into the story. We write from the point of view of our characters in order to vicariously plug the reader in to the emotions, experiences, thoughts and actions of a viewpoint character. Some genres are heavier into this aspect of telling the story than others, but it is not at all unfair to say that we use point of view to allow the reader to experience the story through one of our characters' eyes (and ears, and mind, and possibly several other organs).
Get it now? The reader is going to experience your story world through the thoughts, perceptions, emotions and actions of your viewpoint character or characters. Do you see how freaking important it is that you select the best characters to use? The perspective of the character viewing the story has a profound effect on how it comes across to your readers.
Try to imagine watching Star Trek from the viewpoint of Nurse Chapel. I'm not saying it would be a lame show, but it sure as hell wouldn't be the Star Trek we know. Chapel was a decent character, but she wasn't exactly hips-deep in most of the events on the Enterprise. The Lord of the Rings would be a rather different story told from the viewpoint of Bill Ferny. I don't even want to consider what Star Wars would look like through the eyes of Jabba the Hut . . . well. Except maybe for Leia getting fit for that slavegirl outfit . . .
Anyway, the point being that it's absolutely critical that you select the best characters for use as point-of-view (oh for goodness' sake, I'm going to commit acronym and just call it POV) characters. And how do you do that, you may ask?
(Quick, someone ask bef--) Yes, I'm glad you asked that.
First, you decide what kind of point of view you want to use.
Once more, you may be burdened with an education in literature that can get in the way of writing. I'm sure any lit people out there can rattle off half a dozen different kinds of point of view that can be used in a story. I'll break them down into the most familiar:
__First Person__--Written from the interior perspective of one character. "I went to the store and bought cookies. I ate them." The Dresden Files are first person POV.
__Second Person__--Written as if being described to the reader as their own actions. "You went to the store and bought cookies. You ate them."
__Third Person__--Written from an exterior perspective to one or more characters. "He went to the store and bought cookies. He choked on them and died."
__Omniscient Viewpoint__--Told from the perspective of an outside, all-knowing observer. "He went to the store, never knowing that the cookies were the instrument of the Grim Reaper. If only he'd purchased milk to go with them, he might have made it. But he didn't, and so sealed his fate with sweet, corrupt chocolately goodness."
Let me give you some advice my own teacher gave me: write in First Person, or Third Person. Omniscient viewpoint has been out of style for maybe a century. Second person is best reserved for Choose Your Own Adventure books. First and Third person are the most common and easy-to-read viewpoints, and no editor will ever take you seriously if you wade into the publishing fray trying to sell anything else.
So, next thing's next. How do you decide? First or Third? Let's take a look at their pros and cons.
__First person strengths:__ An immediate immersion into storyspace through the most personally identifiable language. In the Dresden Files, the text might read "I went here" or "I did that," in reference to Harry's activities--but on some level in the reader's head, the reader is experiencing those things vicariously. The language is subversive, and is possibly better suited to creating that kind of storyspace than any other viewpoint. Bickham called first-person viewpoint "perfect viewpoint" for that exact reason. It's also the easiest viewpoint to learn to write in because, check it out--it's how we experience life.
__First Person Weaknesses:__ The major problems with First Person viewpoint lie in the difficulties it creates for story structure. Since you are locked into one viewpoint, your story has to happen around your viewpoint character all the time. You can't show the reader anything that the viewpoint character doesn't see, and that can become an annoying obstacle, particularly when various characters with conflicting goals are all pursuing them at once.
The only way around these problems is to be scrupulous about keeping track of what characters are doing when they're "off stage." But that still leaves you with figuring out ways to convey the plot-necessary things they do to your reader. Typically, this is where you get villains who will drone on in an endless summary of what the hero didn't see, or when characters will otherwise break into a travelogue. It takes planning and creativity to get around the limitations of first-person viewpoint, but it has the side effect of forcing you to make your character extremely proactive and nosy, poking into everyone's business--which is probably why the mystery genre is best known for first-person viewpoint stories.
__Third Person Strengths:__ Third person viewpoint is the compliment to First Person, in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Third person viewpoint allows you to introduce more than one POV character, which frees up a whole universe of new options to you as a writer. Since you can hop around to whatever characters you please, (though usually POV characters are of a fairly limited number) you can play all kinds of wonderful head games with the reader which result in the reader knowing things that the characters don't--that's when you get people screaming at the book, "NO YOU IDIOT DON'T YOU KNOW THAT'S A VAMPIRE?" and similar sentiments, because the reader's been handed more pieces than any one viewpoint character.
__Third Person Weaknesses:__ Because you have so many more options with third person, you have at least as many more ways you can screw things up. Most problematic in a third person viewpoints are problems with displaying enough emotional depth in characters (compared to first person, anyway), and the risk that a larger cast of characters will grow increasingly more difficult for the reader to keep track of. (*kaffkaff*JORDAN*kaffkaff*) When you head into a third person story, you have to be sure to be extra careful about establishing characters and their goals, in order to help the reader keep the various POVs straight in his head. Often writers also have trouble keeping the current viewpoint clear to the reader--and some of them even jump back and forth to various viewpoints within the same scene, chapter, or page, a guaranteed mental speedbump for the reader as he tries to puzzle out whose head the story is in right now.
To make matters even more complicated, writing in first or third person also seems to be heavily influenced by the temprament and skills of the writer in question. Some people couldn't write third person to save their life. I wrote SEVEN BOOKS in the third person and they were universally lame. When I finally took Debbie's advice and wrote my first novel in the first person, I produced Storm Front. I was better suited for first person writing, clearly. Since then, I've continued to grind my teeth and practice third person, and I think I'm finally getting somewhere, but it was a struggle for me. Other writers take to writing third person like baby ducks to water. The freaks.
Okay, broken down to the simplest thoughts I can:
First person offers the novice writer an intuitive advantage in writing a strong, emotional central character. It creates a few problems for your plot, but nothing that can't be gotten around. It's best suited to a story focused upon a single central character, and as such is most often found in mysteries and thrillers, with occasional appearances in fantasy/sf.
Third person is far more flexible and offers you a wider range of options, dramatically speaking, but it's also considerably more difficult to learn to handle well--but if you learn to do it, you can really go to town, creatively speaking. Third person is found in every genre, but is particularly prominant in romance, on account of most of the romances like to present the story from the perspective of the two principal characters at the very least.
So pick what kind of viewpoint you want to use based on the kind of story you want to tell and on your own personal gifts and preferences.
Now. All you need to do is pick WHICH characters get to become POV characters. And how do I do that, you might ask?
For first person it's easy. You pick the guy who keeps telling the reader "I, me, I me." But when writing third person, the sheer flexibility of the choices available to you can make it tough to pick who will be the POV character in any given scene.
But there is a simple rule of thumb to help you decide that. Viewpoints belong to the characters who are the most deeply, emotionally involved in whatever is at stake in the scene. When you're wondering which character should have the viewpoint in any given scene, all you have to do is to pick the character who has the most to lose. THAT person is the one who is going to have the strongest goal, and his pursuit of the goal will be fertile ground for the best conflict.
It is late and I have probably forgot a bit here and there, but if so I'll be back to blow hot air all over until my ego is sure it has had its say. :) Next article, I'll prattle on about laying out a plot skeleton before you start pounding on the keys.
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