Thursday, October 19, 2017

Center of Attention

            This week I wanted to blather for a minute about an unusual character/structure issue that I see come up now and then.  It’s one of those kinda basic ideas that can actually be difficult to spot.  Or explain.  And, to be honest, it’s something I’m dealing with a bit in my current book.
            I’ve talked before about protagonists.  How my main character should be the main focus of the story, the ones we’re spending the most time with.  Secondary characters should be secondary.  Background characters should kinda blur into the background. This all sounds straightforward, right?  I think we all understand this.
            However...
            A mistake I sometimes see is when every other character in the story immediately recognizes this character as the protagonist.  They all stop doing their own, natural thing and start treating the main character as... well, the center of things.  The character stops moving through the plot, and instead the plot begins to revolve around them.
            Let me give you an example...
            A few weekends back, one of my random movies was about a guy (we’ll call him Yakko) who wanted to propose to his girlfriend.  Had the ring and everything.  Thing was, said girlfriend got roped into being in charge of some office team-building thing up in the mountains. She had to cancel their plans for the weekend, unless...  He was an experienced camper/hiker and he had a big SUV—if he wanted to drive they could still kinda spend the weekend together.  Yakko thinks about it, decides sure, he can propose up by the lake, and agrees to help out.
            Thing was... as soon as their group got together and started driving up into the mountains, everyone started to defer to Yakko.  All the office folk who’d never met him before.  That jerk Evan from accounting.  Even his girlfriend, the one who was supposed to be in charge.  Suddenly the protagonist was the boss and nobody questioned it... or even mentioned it.
            This isn’t really surprising, on one level, that writers end up doing this.  If I want my character to be active and do things, they need to be in a position to do things, right?  Their decisions need to count and have an effect on the plot.  There’s a reason most of the Star Trek shows are about command officers and not the enlisted crew.  It’s tough to be active when everything about my position requires me to defer to someone else.
            Of course, the answer to this isn’t for me to have the unconnected boyfriend suddenly become the key figure on the teambuilding trip.  Or for the junior crewman to take command of Deep Space Nine.  Just because someone’s the center of attention in my story doesn’t make them the center of attention in their story.  There’s other stuff going on in the world and structures in place.  The wheels are in motion, as some folks like to say.  I may focus my story on an Army private, but that doesn’t mean suddenly everyone in the military should defer to that private just because she’s the protagonist.  The Army has a whole chain of command that would... well, kinda stop that from happening.
            How often in your own life have you had something to do, something important to say, and people just brushed you off or ignored you or talked over you?  It’s happened to me countless times.  Hell, it just happened yesterday on the phone with the bank.  It’s my life, but for some reason everyone else refuses to treat me as the most important person in it.
            Now, I can already hear people typing frantically in the comments, ready to explain three or seven ways that everyone in the US Armed Forces could end up deferring to a private.  And sure, it could happen.  Anything could happen. That’s the joy of fiction.
            But...
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m going to do it, that explanation has to be part of my story.  It can’t be something that just happens, that I gloss over.  That’s lazy writing. That’s me writing myself into a corner and then smashing a hole in the wall rather than figuring a way out.
            I’ve talked about a similar idea before—the idea that I’m telling the right story.  It’s a weird idea, I know, but if I’ve set up a situation that requires a lot of stretching of conventional norms... well, I have to explain that stretching.  Why are we all deferring to the boss’s boyfriend?  Who put that crewman in charge of the Defiant?  Why is the general insisting everyone follow the private’s orders?
             Is my main character someone who’s going to be able to navigate my plot?  Is their social status, financial status, employment, or health going to be an unbelievable (or maybe flat up impossible) hindrance to the story I’m trying to tell?  If they aren’t, I’m probably going to need to explain or justify a lot of things.
            Or maybe I’m just focusing on the wrong person.
            In my current project, the main character is the fish out of water.  My ignorant stranger.  She’s the new kid on the job, and this means she’s pretty far down the totem pole.  So... why does she end up in the important meetings once the crisis occurs?  How is she an active person, making decisions that affect the story when there are so many people above her making their own decisions?
            It’s taking a bit of work.  But I’m making it happen.  Hopefully in a believable way.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time For A Break

            Well, this is overdue.
            So sorry for the long delay.  I’d hoped to get this up before I left for NYCC, but that day turned into the usual rush of dealing with this and that and more of this.  I don’t know why it’s always so frantic. It’s not like I was going to be there for a week or something.  Two nights, but I always pack as if I’m gone for a week anyway. I’ve got stuff for different weather conditions.
            Stuff for downtime.  Some stuff for fans. I’m ridiculously overprepared.
            But let’s take a brief break from that and talk about paragraph breaks.
            Like that weird one I just did up there.
            I’ve mentioned paragraphs here once or twice before.  If sentences are taking a nice bite of the story, paragraphs are three or mouthfuls before having a taste of something else.  I eat some spaghetti, then I have a sip of wine or maybe nibble some garlic bread.  The different tastes and textures work together to make the meal more enjoyable.  If I just had to sit and eat a bowl of spaghetti with nothing to break it up, it’d get kind of monotonous. No matter how much I like spaghetti.
            Hell, at some point, depending on the size of the bowl, I’d probably even start dreading the stuff.
            And that’s what I’m trying to avoid with paragraphs.  I don’t want readers to get bored or intimidated by what they see on the page. I want to break up the text in a way that furthers the story.
            For example, when two people are talking, my attention goes back and forth between them.  Yakko to Wakko.  Someone new talks, and my attention shifts to them.  Perhaps it’s going back and forth, or it could be bouncing between three or four people.
            Think of paragraphs as those moments of attention.  If something shifts my attention away, I should have a new paragraph.  And then maybe it’ll shift back. or perhaps shift to something new, and my attention will follow it there.
            Even if the same character keeps talking, it can get broken into two or more paragraphs. In any long monologue, I should be able to sense the pauses and shifts, the places where our attention moves on to a slightly different aspect of the topic.  Maybe I’m going on about death, with a slight shift into funeral arrangements, my time in Kazakhstan, maybe even thinking ahead to my own end.  Perhaps we’re talking about relationships, and being in love vs. young love vs. older love, and maybe those few times we mistook sex for love, or knew it wasn’t love and didn’t really care at the moment.  In each of these long discussions, it’s easy to see where it could—and should—spin off into a separate paragraph.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I don’t break things up, I end up with a paragraph where it jumps around a lot, nothing’s really described, and it covers a lot of ground.  Sometimes I may do that for a certain effect, yeah, but most of the time... that’s not great storytelling. Of course, the flipside to this is breaking something in the wrong place.
            When I do that, the flow stumbles, because it means I’ve probably broken a point of focus.  Like up at the top, when I broke the second paragraph in the middle of describing the items I was packing.  Or just two sentences back.  I should’ve started the new paragraph on “Of course,” because where I did break it cut off this whole idea I’m trying to explain.
            Which, granted, helped to explain it.
            See—new idea, new break, great flow.
            Breaks also alter the pacing.  Have you ever noticed in a lot of movies and television shows, we get more cuts (jumping from one camera angle to another) as action and tension build?  We jump from Arya to Brienne, back to Arya, to a wide shot, to Sansa watching them duel, then back to Brienne and Arya for that dagger flip... 
            You can feel the energy and the pace right there, just seeing it written out, can’t you?  We understand there’s a lot going on and that all these people are—in their own way—involved in making this complete scene.  Our attention jumps around in one paragraph, but it does it fast because this is a fast-paced scene. 
            See, in prose (unlike film), those breaks would slow down the action.  Notice how the whole Arya--Brienne fight, almost two minutes on film, gets summed up really nicely in there?  When an action scene moves into several paragraphs, it tends to make things drag.  If I take six or seven lines to describe something that happens in one or two seconds, I’m altering the flow and forcing the action to that pace. 
            There may be reasons to do that, sure... but I’d better have a reason if I’m doing it that way.
            There’s also another issue at work here.  As readers, we kind of expect these breaks.  How often have you seen a wall of text in a book or online and just groaned a bit (out loud or internally).  They make that TL;DR reflex twitch in the back of our brains.  It’s because we understand information doesn’t come in giant slabs like that.  A wall of text is someone going on way more than necessary about a single topic. 
           The breaks help us keep things organized, too.  Remember I mentioned the back and forth aspect of watching a conversation?  We tend to follow that in prose, too.  If I have dialogue between Yakko and Dot, we don’t expect that dialogue to share a paragraph.  The breaks help us set the back and forth rhythm in our minds.  And when something disrupts that rhythm, it also breaks the flow.
            And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, breaking the flow of my story can be fatal.
            Because that’s my ultimate goal.  To have my story be smooth and readable. For it to draw people in, not push them away.  You’ll find people who try to tell you the punctuation and formatting of a story don’t matter, that a good story will stand on its own despite those things.  The truth is, though, the way it’s set out is going to have a huge impact on how it’s interpreted by readers.  How easily it flows.  How fast it feels. How accessible it looks. 
            So break things up. Y’know before your readers decide they need a break...
            Next time, I’d like to talk a little more about the center of our attention.
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

NYCC Schedule

            Hey, okay, absolutely the last reminder.  Honest and for true.  Here's a few places you can find me over the weekend at NYCC...