WTW – Same Event, Different POV

Note: I swear I’m lifting this from Writing Excuses (though, I bet they lifted it from elsewhere… just wait for more on that), but since they’re so awesome and their mission is to educate and inspire writers, somehow I think they’ll be okay with the fact that I couldn’t remember which episode I heard it on.

Oh, and hey, some spoilers for Fight Club, Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time to follow (links to Amazon don’t earn me anything, but are provided just in case you’re the last person on Earth to have not heard of these).

Point of view is absolutely critical to storytelling. In my opinion, and maybe this is because I grew up steeped in orthodox 3rd person limited POVs like A Song of Ice and Fire or Wheel of Time, but I think POV is especially important to spec fiction.

Fight Club is told from a limited POV, the narrator’s… uh… not dissociated?… point of view. If you had an omniscient narrator, that story isn’t very suspenseful now is it?

When I was a teenager, Wheel of Time was a series that had a few books yet to go, and the internet was rife with discussions and arguments that hinged EXCLUSIVELY on the limited POV of the 3rd person POV character for one chapter or another. For example, at the end of The Fires of Heaven, Asmodean is killed but doesn’t identify his killer… and thus nearly a decade of debate raged over who it was that killed him.

Flip that around and tell the story from Graendal’s POV and there’s not much mystery, eh?

Same goes for Game of Thrones, in the book it’s not immediately obvious that the people Arya overhears discussing schemes over Ned Stark’s life include the Spider, that adds to the mystery. In the show, however, we see the Spider, and… uh… that’s not that mysterious, eh?

So the point I’m making here, and this isn’t that revelatory, is that a story can change based on who does the telling. When we pick the POV to show a scene from, it merits wondering how another character would perceive the same scene.

(and here’s where the Writing Excuses reference pays off… and seriously, I think the examples I’m using are directly lifted from my memory of an episode)

Think about a couple of people riding into the city, a scholar, a soldier, and a spoiled lord/gourmand:

The soldier rides up and observes the height of the walls, the garrison between the crenelations, the slope of the hill that would make storming the city a nightmare. His character informs his observations.

The scholar doesn’t notice the walls, but she does anticipate finally reaching the storehouse of books stashed away in the city’s ancient library. She’s been waiting for access to these writings for years.

The gourmand doesn’t care about any of that. He knows the city’s got a world renowned chef. He’s hungry and tired, and cannot wait to do business over a daring preparation of fugu.

It works as an exercise. Take a scene from something you’ve written and tell it from another character’s POV, consider how it changes, consider why you told it the way you did in the first place. At the very least it’s fun to think about.

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This One’s Not Working

For whatever reason, I’ve mostly ended up writing fantasy and almost exclusively in the third person POV. So for the next quarter, I wanted to push myself to get better by doing something I was unfamiliar with. I was going to write a first person POV science fiction story.

I would say the results were… not great?

I still love the idea, and want to come back to it at some point, but man, I couldn’t execute it to save my life. The folks I was swapping with, most notably Kent and Robert were nice about it, but it was obvious it wasn’t working. Sometimes the critique can give you hard insight that the piece is broken as written and the better choice is to walk away.

Don’t throw good money after bad, as it were.

I was running out of time in the quarter and was presented with a familiar set of choices: Submit nothing, submit something I knew wasn’t good enough, or (a new option), submit something that already existed.

I opted for the latter. It was a good decision.

WTW – Importance of Conflict

I saw a tweet thread from Dong Won (“literary agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.” – source: his twitter bio.) that caught my eye, made me think, and since I’m weird and curate my twitter likes as if they were faberge eggs, actually made me ‘like’ the post. The whole thing is worth your time, but here’s two that stood out:

First tweet first: I completely didn’t get this when I first started writing. I tried to put cool thing next to cool thing and then, I figured, presto-chango we’d have a story. Not so! What I ended up with were a series of kinda neat vignettes that had no cohesion, no reason for connecting, and no structure that guided the narrative into some kind of purpose.

As much as one might want to delve into their inner “artist” and eschew traditional narrative structures (e.g. Hollywood Structure), they exist for a reason. Understanding how the events shown on the page connect, lead into one another, and provide arcs for character struggle, failure, change, growth, resolution can be critical to turning that series of cool stuff into a story. I’m not saying you can’t break those structures, but it makes sense to understand why stories coalesce into repeatable structures before going rogue and embracing the nontraditional.

Yes, I’m aware I just spent lots of words to say “know the rules before you break ’em.”

As for the second tweet, it’s really driving home the fact that readers typically connect with characters first. The characters are the vessels through which we experience the story and all of the emotional beats that are a part of that story. Story about loss? Experienced through the loss of the *character*. Story about victory? Same deal: character.

Dong Won crystallized that (in tweet form) in a way that ought to stand out to writers in particular (he is an editor, so writers are probably his intended audience here): He’s looking for character and that character’s conflict in page one. If he doesn’t find it, he’ll look for it in another manuscript.

Back in the Win Column

My WotF journey thus far had basically consisted of falling backwards into an Honorable Mention, getting headstrong, and being dosed back to reality by rejections. It wasn’t exactly like I was covering myself in glory at this point, but I was armed with blind enthusiasm and a newfound weapon: the forum, and specifically, the critiques of fellow writers.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve played this whole “Jon writes stuff” thing pretty close to the vest my entire life. Setting aside larger discussion for the time being, the practical effect of that is that I didn’t develop a network of fellow writers, or a writing group. The forum allowed me to connect with other people in roughly the same spot I was. I dove head long into the forum to find people to exchange stories with, and wonder-of-wonders, it was super helpful.

For the next submission I worked it through [checks folder] 43 [dang] revisions. I made a list of all the lessons my rejections had taught me. I made a list of all the things that I knew were important to the contest. I focused on making my prose tight, concise, impactful, beautiful. I poured a lot of metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears into it.

It netted another Honorable Mention.

My first reaction was disappointment. I’d worked so dang hard, maybe that’s my ceiling, I thought.

My second, much more rational, reaction was that was what this story had earned. I didn’t stick the landing. There’s no way that 95% of a great story wins. Maybe it would have placed higher with a killer ending, maybe it wouldn’t have.

Each submission was a lesson, and this one was clear: Stick the ending!

WTW – Beyond Hollywood Formula

I recently did a brief post on “Hollywood Formula” and now I’m going to muse briefly about how I think it’s becoming less prominent, and why that might be.

Spoiler Alert: It involves systemic changes in the way films/television are produced.

With the caveat that I’m neither a screenwriter, nor am I a student of film and TV history, it doesn’t take much to see that the landscape over the last few years is radically different than it has been from the dawn of the talkies up to maybe five years ago.

I’ve noticed something about Netflix and Amazon Prime shows recently that really crystallized: Producers/writers/show-runners seem to be far less beholden to fast-paced programming, to setting a hook 9% of the way through an episode, to “traditional” screen writing forms than they used to.

I recently watched the Netflix animated show Castlevania, and that’s when it hit me that it was written in a way that was remarkably different than I was used to.

The first episode of Castlevania is something of an extended prologue that introduces Dracula, paints him as a fairly sympathetic character, and more or less just sets up the fact that bad things are about to befall this geographic area (also, the Catholic Church is very, cartoonishly, evil). The next three episodes of the four episode first season are essentially a super-extended prologue in which the main character gets his allies together, culminating in a season finale in which the three, together, prepare to march off to face Dracula and defeat evil, or something (also, the Catholic Church super-ultra-mega-cartoonishly, evil).

It’s a radical departure from what we expect structurally. It was such a departure that I realized that the whole release an entire season in one day concept of Netflix broadcasting might be changing how stories get told on the screen. I think they’re saying “hey, stick with me for more than 9%, we’ll hook you, just not quite right away… give us time because you don’t have to wait a week between episodes.”

It didn’t work for everyone.

Just something to think about the next time you’re watching a Netflix show and feel like there’s a slow burn going on. Maybe it’s the writers feeling unconstrained by traditional formulaic writing. Of course, maybe those formulas exist for a reason…

Rejection – Time to Learn Some Humility, Kid

I discovered the contest and earned an Honorable Mention. Then I submitted something in hurry and got rejected. Now, with a whole quarter to work on a story, I had high hopes (absurdly, Greek-Tragic-Hamartia-Style, high hopes). And they were due to be dashed on the rocks below. Hard.

So armed with fresh lessons about making a complete story, I set out to tell a piece of ancillary backstory to a novel I’ve been working on. Kind of the Han Solo Story prequel type of thing that the Star Wars folks are up to now. I had existing characters, world building, a magic system, in other words, a lot of grunt work was in place.

So I wrote it. I thought it was good. I had an arc. I had foreshadowing. I tried to make the ending bookend the beginning. I reached the end of the quarter, gave the story a last once-over, and submitted. I was awful proud of myself too. Time to sit back and await the inevitable… REJECTION?

Well that was unexpected.

Round about now something completely unrelated happened. The WotF forums that had been broken such that no new users could register were fixed. Amy Henrie Gillet (who would go on to win one of the quarters and whom I look forward to meeting in April) graciously offered to review stories. Her feedback was useful and dead on:

Lack of imagery. I’ve already kind of hit on this while talking about adding creative settings to your scenes. Even though your story is good, I found it very difficult to get immersed because the imagery was so sparse. I had no idea what kind of culture it was, what kind of clothes they wore, what the city looked or sounded like, what the rooms looked or smelled like… I never found out if this was your own fantastical world or if it was a Western medieval fantasy or an Arabian Nights setting. I couldn’t get engrossed because there was too little for my imagination to feed on.

It’s not good enough to have a good plot, not for WotF and not for the publishing world beyond. I wasn’t descriptive enough. I focused so much on plot, I wrote sparse, bland, shallow prose. The competition both in the contest and in other markets requires all the elements to be exceptional.

The prose I submitted wasn’t good enough, and that lesson in humility was exactly what I needed at the time.

WTW – Hollywood Formula

Story structure is a massive subject. Books can, and have, been written on the various ways to structure or analyze story. In this post, I want to focus narrowly on one that stuck out to me the first time I heard it explained.

The Writing Excuses crew interviewed Lou Anders, who gave a quick and dirty overview of what he called “Hollywood Formula.”

Hollywood Formula is a system that Lou describes as a set up where a story has a Protagonist, Antagonist, and Relationship Character (and they aren’t always who they appear to be). The Protagonist is the main character/star and must have a definite, achievable goal. The Antagonist is the character standing between the Protagonist and her goal. This is not necessarily the “bad guy.” The Relationship Character is the character who accompanies the protagonist on the journey, and helps frame the theme of the story.

The film is done when the protagonist achieves her goal, defeats the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer in time that these three events happen, the stronger the emotional impact.

From a length perspective, he splits a film into three Acts. Act 1 is the first 25%, Act 2 is the next 50%, and Act 3 is the final 25%.

About 9% of the way into the film, the Protagonist is faced with a choice, the “Fateful Decision.” The Protagonist essentially chooses to go on the adventure.

Okay, now that we’ve laid it out there in an even faster, dirtier, way than Lou did on the podcast, let’s take a quick look at one in action. (spoilers follow)

Wedding Crashers

Protagonist: Owen Wilson

Antagonist: Bradley Cooper

Relationship Character: Vince Vaughn

Fateful Decision: Owen Wilson agrees to crash the daughter of the Treasury Secretary’s wedding.

Climax: Owen Wilson reconciles with Vince Vaughn at the church and Bradley Cooper gets knocked out in almost the exact same moment.

It’s clean, it’s memorable, it’s vivid.

Lou Anders uses the The Dark Knight to demonstrate how “Relationship Character” isn’t always what it appears. In the Dark Knight, the Joker is the Relationship Character, and Harvey Dent is the Antagonist. Batman wants to give up being the Batman so he can be with Rachel. He pins his hopes of being able to do so on Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, only to be let down again and again as Harvey demonstrates he’s not up to the task. This is why there’s sort of a double-ending to that film where Batman strings up the Joker but still has to go on to confront Harvey.

This structural pattern repeats over and over again in Hollywood and just because it’s “formulaic” doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It appears in classics like Casablanca (perhaps, as Lou Anders posits, the first film to use it). And, although it uses films as examples, and is probably best suited to screen writing, prose/novels can benefit from keeping these principals in mind as well.