Tuesday, 18 November 2008


Had a quick shimmy through various dictionary definitions.
Resonance is about echoes and endurance and evocation.

So, it transpires that Sylar is Nathan and Peter's brother eh? (Heroes.)
And Darth Vader is Luke and Leia's dad.
So what's the big deal? Why are so many plots peppered with familial revelations?
And just what does a reader want from an author anyway?

I'm guessing that the reader responds to things he recognises.
Or, to put it another way, that he'll not be bothered about your hero's quest if he finds nothing recognisable within it.

I asked a friend what he thought about the Heroes reveal. He wasn't bothered. I asked him what he was bothered about. He gave examples of movies that culminated in achievement and accolades - those movies in which the protag ultimately achieves his goal, typically an academic one, and receives the recognition that he has been fighting for (from his peers). My friend is an academic, about to head off to Maria country (Oxford) to create virtual bones. His family, I understand, were very hard on him as he grew up. He was designed for academia. His father has achieved great things. Hence, his views on family are tainted with none of the excitement and desire which he assigns to individual achievement.
So, it's not simply enough to provide recognisable situations; these situations need to be tailored to an intended audience.
However, family, despite being fallible as a resonant device, is usually a safe bet because it has a huge catchment area.

I was lured to a free coffee stall in the market square a few weeks ago by a girl who explained 'The boss has a new woman'. Apparently, that was the explanation for the coffee giveaway.
As a salesman, I discovered that people need an explanation. Why is this restaurant inviting me down for free grub? Why does this golf course need my custom? Why are your computers so cheap? So we would always give them a reason. It's their third birthday, or they've just redecorated, or whatever. It doesn't matter. Just a reason. People need resonance; we need to find a personal relevance, otherwise we are suspicious or indifferent. Surely, more people would be willing to empathise with the boss who has found the love of his life than would empathise with the boss who wants to entice you away from your favourite coffee shop?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Wait for me

Having brazenly concluded that the reader should be primed immediately before a major reveal, I must now justify my claim.
Here's what I reckon.

It's likely that any fresh revelation is gonna require of the reader a bit of thought: suddenly, the reader must apply this new knowledge to all that has gone before.
Ah, so Vader is Luke's dad! Let me think about how that works ...
In this example, Luke and Vader bash out this revelation together. Once the loose ends are tied up, Luke makes his decision and falls to almost certain doom.
The movie waits for the viewer to catch up.
However, a more mature audience probably won't want, or need, an explanation of the effects of a revelation.

The reveal is a critical moment. You get one stab at it. If the reader is primed and the reveal is freshly set-up in his head, then it will instantly hit home. Emotional response. Yay.

For an example of what not to do, let's take a look at Saw IV.
What an awful ending. Hit with one reveal, my mind started dealing with the implications, but was given no time to do so before it had to deal with a load more nonsensical and supposedly climactic moments (I knew they were supposed to be big deals because that music was kicking off). The film gave my brain too much to process at once and I found myself several steps behind the revelations.
You get one stab at them. So be quite sure that the reader is precisely where you want him, and then allow him time to adjust.
By the time the Saw IV credits began to roll, I had no idea what had just happened and, with no more movie to watch, cast the thoughts from my head and got on with something else.

All of these thoughts are leading to my big question:
How should I conclude my first act?

I figure that, with a hypothetical down-time between acts I and II, I am entitled (and perhaps even expected) to present the reader with some sort of revelation that will require some thought. There aren't many places where I can easily do this in a novel. For one, a major revelation would then require the pace to slow (so that the reader can catch up). For two, a major revelation would be hard to eclipse later on. Little reveals, for sure, but stuff that creates so much change, be it a major reveal or a reversal or whatever, needs some consideration from the reader.

I'm cool with this theory, but ...
I'm giving serious thought to shifting the negative opening to act II - also an event which requires of the reader a reasonable amount of contemplation - to the end of act I, such that it follows the positive ending I have already.
In principle, this would give me a lovely, rapid-fire positive to negative switch, and two key moments back-to-back. And, I've figured out how to use an incongruity between these two events to create a humorous and ironic conclusion. Importantly, the reader is invited to reconsider the course of the hero's journey and to reasses how it might continue. And anticipation is always the key (anticipation = page turning).
Provided that the first trigger doesn't require too much immediate contemplation, my plan might just work.

In considering how best to conclude an act, I guess it's worth considering the nature of this virtual void, this limbo, which reaches from the end of one act to the beginning of the next. In this limbo, we can dare to gift the reader with things that we wouldn't dare elsewhere.

I have thoughts to come on degrees of space (limbos). In his essay on the elements of style, Robert Louis Stevenson refers to a web of phrases bound by rhythm and meaning. Consider the breathing spaces that reside within commas, semi-colons, full-stops, line breaks, and all the way through to the inexorable void that sits at the novel's end ...

Lest We Forget

If you think about all the stuff that goes on around us, it's little wonder that our brain only registers a small percentage of it all. And then it's pretty darned selective when it comes to slotting this decanted stuff into our memory. I have thoughts on resonance and space to come shortly.

In the meantime, I've been wondering about this for ages:
"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."
Yes, you'll recognise it for sure: it's Chekhov's gun.
First of all, it's a rather one-sided argument. We're familiar with the importance of the MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a gun that isn't fired. Agent Cox showed me the benefits of the MacGuffin (Torak's fever for example!). Murakami is the MacGuffin king. He lays down plot device after plot device and seldom takes them to any sort of resolution. And yet, on mentioning this to Murakami fans, they're always surprised. They never notice.
Because it's startling how quickly we forget stuff. That woman who phones the protag in chapter one of Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is quickly forgotten, and then pops back once or twice more in the novel to no further avail. She is eaten up by whatever thread immediately takes her place. Our focus is diverted. But, when she was there, she certainly had me turning the page.
A lecturer once explained to us art students that most people will take in the first few minutes of a lecture and then start to flag. It's ironic that I can't remember how many minutes. I think it was about seven.
The part of Chekhov's Gun that has been baffling me is this bit:
...in the following one...
Really? If I introduce a gun in one act, I should have it fired in the next act (MacGuffins aside)?
Why the next act? Why not the next chapter or the last chapter?
My problem has been compounded by the variations of the quote across the internet. You can find quotes without any regard for the timing aspect, and quotes that refer to 'earlier' and 'later', or the 'first act' and 'the third act'. Indeed, we all see the world very differently. So I'll have to defer to wikipedia. :-)
So can we really be anything like specific?
Speaking of focus, have you noticed how you'll happen upon a certain word - one that you perhaps haven't heard for a good long while - and then it'll keep popping up throughout the week?
All that stuff happening about us and we're conditioned to notice only a fraction of it.
Which ties in with my recent thoughts on first-person narrator dictating style. Here's an example:
This is the view from my bus-stop. I see this scene every week day morning.

What do you see?

My brain likes words. Here's what it sees. Within the word assuRANCE (on the Pearl Assurance House) are the letters that make the word NACRE which is another word for mother-of-pearl. Coincidence eh! But look over there at that cANCER Research shop. The word NACRE is in there too! Oh, and just to the right of the Cancer Research Shop is a dry ClEANeRS. NACRE again.

Would my protag see this?

Doubtful. His mother died of cancer. It's constantly on his mind. He'd see the Cancer Research shop. And he has a thing for umbrellas, so he'd see that woman with the umbrella.

So perhaps it's not so curious that, whilst watching Seven this evening, I noticed that Detective David Mills spoke very briefly of his wife twice before setting off on that final fateful journey. Because the viewer's brain needed to be set up for the next scene. (And note how her mention is dubiously crowbarred in!)

More curious is the fact that, on finishing Seven, I switched over to ITV to see a reconstruction of some murder in which a woman's head was discovered in a box.

All I'll dare to conclude for now is that, very soon before you present that reveal, you'll need to prepare the reader for it, at least on a subconscious level (or prime them if you prefer). You can separate the introduction to that gun from the firing of that gun by as many words as you so please, provided that the reader is primed and expectant just before it goes off. And often this requires an amount of repetition.

Writing is a temporal art: like music, it moves through time. But what is in the reader's head at any given moment? How the blazes should I lead him from one thread to the next, and/or how long can/should I hold out on him?

There will be more thoughts soon, when I'm not so tired. I'm going to bed. G'night.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A Checklist

Here's an interesting guide compiled by Jessica Faust and designed to give her interns something tangible with which to assess the merits of a submission.

  • What was the book about?
  • Did the overall idea seem different and unique?
  • Was it a common theme, but executed in a unique way?
  • What did you think of the author’s voice?
  • Did the characters seem real and likable?
  • Was the plot seamless and did it make sense or were there a lot of holes?
  • Did the multiple plotlines blend together to create a whole book or did they seem choppy and disconnected?
  • Did the dialogue seem real and believable or did it feel forced?
  • Were you able to easily figure out what happened or did the author keep you guessing?
  • Is this a book that would seem to have viability in the market?
  • Are there other popular books you could relate this to?
  • Are there too many similar books to make this stand out?
  • What is the author’s platform? If nonfiction, is this an author with a great deal of visibility in the market (TV, radio, speaking engagements, etc.)?
  • Has the author been previously published? With whom?
  • How was the writing? Did the writing feel professional, like you were reading a published book, or amateurish?