Thursday, 30 April 2009

Hooks: Location and Visibility

Google Earth oddity: Indian head with ipod.

I've found myself in something close to a routine now. I'm writing by 10am, and I pause to eat sometime in the afternoon, when a convenient break arises, and then I'll write again or do chores, and then watch tv for a few hours/spend the evening with my son, and then, if I'm still buzzing, and if my son's not around (he's in the Peak district on a school trip! Three days away from home! He took a torch, a joke book, and a plastic spider.) I'll continue writing.
(Crikey! I'm really not sure about my punctuation in those brackets! Anyone want to help me out?)
I finished my first draft of chapter fifteen at 1:45 this morning.
I'm feeling very peculiar, and here's why:
Half-way through the novel, we find the midpoint crisis. This is the point where the protag makes a choice, probably a binary choice, and probably the greatest revealer of his character, and from that point onwards, his course is charted and there is no return.
I knew what his choice would be, and what the incitement would be.
But writing such a scene is a unique experience.
Bob McKee is a big advocate of characters who are revealed to be more than they first appeared.
But, in crafting this change in my protag through the midpoint crisis, I became acutely aware that the change would only work (be credible) if everything was already in place. In writing this scene, I was as nervous as a lobster in Rick Stein's shopping basket, because if the change didn't begin to happen, then everything before was wrong.
A moment of truth if you will.
I knew I wouldn't sleep until I had discovered the truth, and so I wrote my way through some weird barrier.

Google Earth oddity: Parked fighter jet.

Been making some notes on this week's tv.
Sigh. What have I become?

Bob McKee made an appearance on The South Bank Show! He's a real person and everything! He came across as lovely, and far-removed from his character in Adaptation. The show celebrated the work of screenwriter William Goldman (who came across as bitter and angry).
The bit I most took away with me was when McKee praised Goldman's avoidance of dialogue in the opening scenes to Misery. I was interested because, after all the changes I have made to the opening of my ms, I'm still very keen to keep the silence - the removal of dialogue - which pervades the first few pages. However, McKee didn't explain why. (But I did! Here! N.B. Note from current solv to previous solv: The distinction you're making is between dialogue and summary.)

Stephen Hendry's 147 break was super, wasn't it! (Way to polarise the readers solv!) What really caught my imagination was, as the cue ball rolled back towards baulk with the colours remaining, the commentator remarked:
'... but the pink still looms up as a major obstacle.'
I like that. I like that, at that moment, every viewer was looking at this obstacle, this single problem which was only four balls away. Forget about the yellow and green and brown and blue: we were all looking to a specified point in the future, where we could clearly see a visible hindrance.
So the pink became the hook and the four preceding balls existed in this charged space between set-up and resolution. And, even then, we knew there was a black to find position on and to pot.
Consider the visibility of that pink - that obstacle.
Consider the differences between:
1) Mary drinks the wine. She dies. John shakes a bottle of poison at her dead body and walks away, laughing.
2) Mary drinks the wine. John shakes a bottle of poison at her and laughs. She stands, and falls, and dies.
3) Whilst Mary is powdering her nose, John tips poison into her wine. Mary returns and drinks the wine. John shakes the bottle of poison at her and laughs. She stands, and falls, and dies.
In each case, the resolution is the same: John has poisoned Mary.
In each case, the scene has turned, and a value has swapped: Mary is alive; Mary is dead.
But consider the effects of moving that hook (John poisons Mary's wine) around the scene.

Perhaps you caught The Speaker?
I accidentally watched the penultimate episode, and then deliberately watched the final.
A bunch of teenagers vied for the title of Best Young British Speaker, or somesuch.
One of the judges quoted someone whose name I should've written down:
'A good speaker speaks for others and not for himself.'
I found this to be a fascinating way to consider one's protag. Give it a bash, why not?

Last night, Timothy Spall starred in an hour-long drama called The Street.
You know you're in for a treat when Timothy Spall is starring! And you know you're in for a lot of depression too.
Written by Jimmy McGovern, it really was something special, and, to my mind, far superior to the recent Red Riding trilogy which I didn't understand at all. Tell me I'm not alone!
As ever, my writer's brain began dissecting the drama, examining the conversion of exposition into ammunition, the timing of the inciting incident (five minutes in), the conflicts and the choices under pressure ... but very soon, I was so absorbed that my writer's brain fell silent (although, before curling up, it did warn me that the drama would end with the discovery of Steve Davis).
Timothy plays downtrodden cab-driver, Eddie.
Here are a few insights from him:

'Eddie has made a huge mistake by seeing his old sweetheart. He's heading straight for a brick wall, but like all the best tragicomic characters, he just can't see it coming ...
'Eddie is ultimately a figure of benignity. There's something I really like about him. He represents decency in what we like to call the ordinary man ...
'... The decency of ordinary people and the tragicomedy of ordinary life are things that will always be with us and will always fascinate us.'
P.S. To celebrate the half-way mark (200 pages), I've renamed my novel. New title to be announced soon.

Monday, 27 April 2009

The First Chapter: The Hook

Fred was pleased to have fathered a baby before his penis turned into a hand.

I was ambling through town in the rain this morning and the charity canvassers were out as usual. A pretty girl stepped before me and invited me to come under her umbrella for a chat.
A good hook, I'd say, offering me shelter from the elements and a chat with a pretty girl.
I had to decline, because I was eager to get home to type up chapter fourteen, and to give some thought to a blog post about hooks.

I had a super day last Friday, trimming my opening four chapters, polishing that opening chapter, and I believe I'm getting somewhere at last. I also read Rachelle Gardner's blog (the link's down there somewhere). She invited a host of agent chums to twitter with advice. Amongst the words of wisdom, I noticed that old chestnut: Don't write in your query letter that the pace really gets going in chapter five.

It does seem to be something of a perennial problem, and it's not difficult to understand why. Once that first set-up or chunk of exposition has been delivered, we have something to develop and to plunge into a reveal. But there is nothing for us to work with at the beginning. Furthermore, we have all that exposition to weave in asap. Without forward momentum, the pace is dead.

Remember Jack Bickham's chum? Jack eagerly tells of his chum's multiple-page description of a sunset. The protag was to fight to the death at sunrise, and so the sunset became charged with suspense.
Here's how:
1) Dear reader: Something big is gonna happen at this specified time in the near future.
2) Space.
3) Something big occurs.

Agatha Christie reckoned that the thrill of the hunt was in the chase and not the capture. And given that so much of our writing occurs between set-up (hook) and resolution, we need to charge these spaces somehow. A good hook does this.

My opening chapter paves the way for all that is to come. However, many of these set-ups are invisible and are not charged. In essence, they allow for the creation of satisfying twists, all of which come later on.
To augment this, I developed a technique whereby I would create word palettes. These are still largely invisible, but I believe they create some sort of anticipation within the reader's subconscious.
However, on a less subtle level, I have worked in a highly visible hook, and have developed this hook in increments from the first paragraph through to the 'cliffhanger' at the end of the opening chapter. I'm developing a sense that the reader needs very frequent references to, or reminders of, something that is about to occur. These spaces between set-up and resolution need to be filled with anticipation. Whilst I believe that this anticipation can be created subliminally, I have no concerns about building in a visible hook too.

To this end, and to my ... surprise? ... perhaps apprehension ... I found myself working in a MacGuffin. Woo hoo! I think I get them! There are times when we're not ready to develop something, or to present a reveal; and, yet, we need to keep the anticipation rolling in those spaces, and a MacGuffin will perform such a function, holding the reader in place until we're ready to return to the key stuff. In particular, and with so much to accomplish early on, I can see how a MacGuffin keeps the reader's attention whilst we set about laying foundations.
And how does Murakami open The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? With a MacGuffin: with a woman who phones the protag out of the blue, and who offers anticipation, and who pops up whenever anticipation is required (presumably in those spaces where Murakami is busy constructing other set-ups and the like), and who simply fades from existence when she is no longer required (presumably because Murakami has established everything he needs by then) and is never referred to again.

Yes, I understand the difficulties of instantly grabbing the reader's attention (without resorting to melodrama!). But there are ways and means. They might feel like cheats (well, they still do to me), but really they're techniques, as valid as any other.
The hook charges the subsequent space with anticipation. Once the anticipation is in place, we can describe that sunset with all the flair and aplomb we desire.
Or, to turn that around, if we have passages in which nothing changes (typically exposition), we can charge those passages by slipping a hook before them, or by developing (or even repeating?) an already-open hook.

Hey, it's all still work-in-progress. Bear with me.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Truth and Lies

It's something that has really started to irk my son.
It seems that whenever we watch a film, he'll repeatedly remark 'That wouldn't happen would it!'
I suppose he's going through that stage where he's realising that there are grey areas: there's more than just goodies and baddies, and that right and wrong are points of view.

I thought I'd better do a little research before taking my protag into the farm. Really, I was looking for little details I could use, especially for the setting. Four hours later, and five pages of notes in my new notebook, I have all I need. My ideas of 'a farm' were, to say the least, rather naive. Thus far in my ms, I've made little observations where necessary, but now they all seem rather disparate. I've realised that the farm is a dairy farm, and this has provided me with all sorts of insights into the farmer's life, and the life of his daughter, and lovely parallels (and metaphors and similes and word-palette fodder) between Little Miss Muffet and udder-washing and bulls and cheesemaking.

It's number twenty in Sunset's 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes: Don't Assume You Know; Look It Up.
I've been working from memory, having once lived in a cottage next to a farm. I've been picking out pieces of recollections - the silos, the cattle grids, the calving, the smells, the pastures. Now I know what they are all for, and how they fit into the life of a dairy farmer and I have a clearer understanding of the characters who work and live on this farm.
As with all detailed research, I don't intend to swamp the narrative with references; rather, I can bind the whole with a unity of newly-discovered knowledge.

And lest we forget, the author is God - the author makes his world and decides what is and what isn't, all for the good of the story.
Two days ago, I needed a poisonous plant. I needed it to smell lovely. That's what my plot required.
I had a devil of a time finding a sweet-smelling deadly plant that grows in England. And, importantly, I needed something that the average reader would recognise by name.
I couldn't find what I needed, so I made it up:
Nurses' Nightshade.
It sounds lethal. I decide it smells good. And, in choosing the name, I allude to (foreshadow) an imminent reveal.
I decided what I needed and I couldn't find it in reality and so I made up something credible.

Research gives us knowledge.
With that knowledge, we afford ourselves a wider variety of informed choices.
But we should always endeavour to make those choices work for the story.
I think this is what Sunset means when he says that fiction has to be more logical than real-life.

Storm clouds over a dairy farm.

Monday, 20 April 2009

The First Chapter

The Orange Peelers: Maria Pace-Wynters

This has been torturing me. For some reason I have begun to doubt my opening chapter.
Here's the killer question:

Is it a bad idea to open with exposition. If so, why?

To palliate my thoughts, I've been reading the opening chapters to recent Man Booker nominees and winners (because they are my chosen genre and they are hopefully representative of reasonably contemporary reading trends). I've also pored over relevant chapters in my library of 'how-to' books. And I did a little research online.
So what do you reckon?

I'm not concerned about rewriting. I'm happy to rewrite. And, if I conclude that I need to hide the exposition and open differently, I'm confident such that I've learned how to hide exposition and engage the reader. (When I say 'confident', I mean 'deluded'.)
I just need to know which way to go. I need to be at peace with my decisions.

Let's start with Sunset Bickham.
He says Don't Warm Up Your Engines!
And what he means by that is begin with forward movement.
That's to say, don't open looking backwards, and don't open in a static manner (descriptions!). Open with someone's response to threat.

In a good few Man Booker winners/nominees, you'll find people sat around drinking tea* and chatting in the first chapter (e.g. Hyland's Carry Me Down, Desai's The Inheritance of Loss) or thinking back to something that happened (e.g. Enright's The Gathering [N.B. In the second chapter, Enright has her characters sat around drinking tea]). None of these books open in the middle of a bloody battle, and they all contain descriptions, some of the sky, some of the walls.
How come?

Robert McKee helps us expand on Sunset's advice:
A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.

McKee goes on to suggest that, ideally, every scene is a Story Event.
And that's how we can determine exposition.
If a scene contains no change of value - if there is no swing from happy to sad, or wisdom to stupidy, or anger to peace, etc., then the scene only describes and its inclusion probably needs to be reconsidered. Scenes turn, from positive to negative, or negative to positive.

It's that word again: CHANGE.

In Hyland's Carry Me Down, John is inviegled into assisting his father in the humane destruction of kittens, and by the end of the first chapter, he discovers that he can tell whether a person is lying or not.
In Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, Sai and her family are menaced by gunmen and they learn of a gathering insurgency.
Enright's protag in The Gathering is haunted by the past and its devastating effects on her and her family, and prepares to exorcise her ghosts.

Value charges switch from positive to negative, or negative to positive.
Lives are changed in all manner of ways, but always by some form of external or internal conflict.
The lives of these characters are different by the end of the first chapter (possibly the second in the case of Enright's protag). The old life has gone, and a new one opens before them.
It's important to note that each opening chapter points towards the protag's future; each opening chapter suggests to the reader that the journey has just begun!

Clearly, there is a place for description (and we don't need to go into that here), provided that the author understands that it stops movement.
Yes, the author needs to set stuff up, and that can be a pace-drainer too.
And the reader requires this stuff early on, otherwise they'll just go off and fabricate their own preconceptions. (For a frightening example of this, check out the mass reaction to Susan Boyle's appearance on Britain's Got Talent, and consider the similarities between preconceptions and prejudice!)
All of these things are okay.
Just be sure that they are wrapped in change, and that the change which concludes the opening chapter points a fat finger towards the following chapters.

To my question:

Q. Is it a bad idea to open with exposition?
A. Yes, because exposition is devoid of change and does not inherently pave the way for the rest of the novel.
My question was flawed, however, because I took set-up and descriptions to be exposition in their own right, and neglected to consider the entirety of the opening chapter.

So, for now at least, I have found comfort and am happy with my chosen path.
However, as ever, I would gratefully welcome all thoughts on the matter!

*Check out the tea-making and see how many things are actually achieved in each case!:

I walk to the far counter and pick up the kettle, but when I go to fill it, the cuff of my coat catches on the running tap and the sleeve fills with water. I shake out my hand, and then my arm, and when the kettle is filled and plugged in I take off my coat, pulling the wet sleeve inside out and slapping it in the air.
[The Gathering: Anne Enright.]

Eventually, the fire caught and he placed his kettle on top, as battered, as encrusted as something dug up by an archaeological team, and waited for it to boil. The walls were singed and sodden, garlic hung by muddy stems from the charred beams, thickets of soot clumped batlike upon the ceiling. The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the cook's face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.
[The Inheritance of Loss: Kiran Desai.]

There is a pot of hot tea in the middle of the table and we each have a cup and plate. There are ham and turkey sandwiches on the plates and, if we want more to eat or drink, there is plenty. The pantry is full.
[Carry Me Down: M.J. Hyland.]

Sunday, 19 April 2009


Esy recently raised the topic of surprise.
And I overheard my son and mother discussing Indiana Jones the other day. They both agreed that they liked the surprise bits best - the parts where Indy is progressing through some catacomb or another and then a decomposing corpse pops out of the wall.
So let's have a look at this surprise, and ask ourselves how much of a surprise it actually is.

First of all, it's logical. When one is hanging out in tombs, one might reasonably expect to discover the odd skeletal remain here and there.
Or, to put it another way, I wonder what the effect might have been on my son and mother if Indy was brushing away the cobwebs to suddenly be assaulted by a giant egg whisk.

Sunset Bickham won't forgive you if you go egg-whisky on him:

Because fiction is make-believe, it has to be more logical than real life if it is to be believed. In real life, things may occur for no apparent reason. But in fiction you the writer simply cannot ever afford to lose sight of logic and let things happen for no apparent reason.

So why do corpses pop out of walls?

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, (and this is from memory here) Indy stands at the entrance to a tomb and his guide explains that nobody ever comes out alive (premonition/suspense). Indy recalls some archaeologist who went into this tomb and was never seen again.
Sure enough, his guide activates a trap and the cadavre of said archaeologist springs out on spikes.
This scene has many functions, all of which are bound by logic.
It warns the viewer to expect corpses - it suggests the boundaries of the movie (preparation/establishment). And with this knowledge comes suspense (through expectations).
It shows the viewer that Indy is cleverer than this other eminent archaeologist, simply because Indy has avoided this trap. Also, Indy is more familiar with such expeditions than his guide - Indy is savvy. These are shows. Rather than the guide saying 'Gosh Indy, you're probably the best archaeologist around,' this exact same information is demonstrated.
The functionality is wrapped up in surprise.

Surprise is like an electric shock. It's sure to wake the viewer or, if he's already awake, to keep him alert. Surprise spikes the emotional topography. Surprise is not there for it's own sake, and the audience will not thank you if you cheat them.

At number 23 in his how-to book, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Sunset Bickham explains why we shouldn't drop alligators through the transom.
Legend has it that some writer had her detective interrogating a beautiful woman in his office, and then couldn't think of a way to end her scene with a disaster. So the writer had an alligator fall through the transom.
You can almost feel Sunset shaking with anger:

That's the worst kind of cheating, the sorriest kind of writing!

Why Mr. Bickham?

Because it didn't answer the scene question.

Somewhere in that book, and probably in every other how-to book on my desk, you'll find a diatribe on the evils of deus ex machina. The Ancient Greeks loved their plays. The playwrights built all manner of conflict and obstacles into their plots. And then, at the end of every play, an actor would be lowered on a winch, proclaiming to be whichever god, and then righting all wrongs with the wave of a hand.

It's like Quidditch. You can battle for ages, winning points with cunning and broom-flying exploits and teamwork and tactics, the points swinging from one team to the other, and then some little git catches that golden snitch and the game's over and nothing else in that match mattered after all.

You'll also find in these books tirades against coincidence. However, Robert McKee proposes an exception, where an Antiplot is created, not from causality, but from coincidence, the distinction being (essentially) that causality creates a chain-reaction through to the climax and expresses the interconnectedness of reality, whereas coincidence fragments the story into divergent episodes and expresses the disconnectiveness of existence. He uses After Hours as an example of such an Antiplot. (Robert McKee: Story.)

Thinking over my own conclusion, I reckon this is the recipe for a satisfying reveal:

The more obvious (and logical) the reveal seems, the more satisfying it is.

I think this distinction clearly separates Saw from its weaker sequels (weakquels?).
The final revelations in Saw are unexpected. However, they instantly feel extremely obvious and natural and effortless and unforced.

When presented with a reveal, the viewer will want to trace its history. The reveal suddenly makes sense of all that has gone before: those little pieces of dialogue that didn't quite sit right (Rachel tells her father to leave her splinter be because her body will push it out when it's ready - War of the Worlds); those characters who lurked in the shadows and seemed to have little purpose (Sweeney Todd); those props that were briefly brought to the fore and then subsequently neglected (let's say ... Chekhov's Gun!).

It's all there! Every ingredient is in place! But the author hides them with misdirection or imbues them with insignificance, or he might present the elements plainly and simply choose to conceal the connections.

N.B. In my post Utopian Dominoes, I argued that we need to feel something is significant in order for it to register. I would amend this slightly by suggesting that everything is automagically given significance by nature of its inclusion. Therefore, even when we pretend that a plot device is insignificant, a part of the reader's brain assumes that it isn't so. And this is possibly why I have trouble with MacGuffins.

Surprises are an essential, inescapable ingredient of plot. They can get the pulse racing, and they can inject a freshness into a story and they can even change the course of the hero's quest. But they are also subject to the strict regimes of logic and clever preparation. The logic pleases the reader's brain, assuaging any notion of cheating, even offering gold stars for cleverness should the reader have pieced an amount of the puzzle together. The preparation facilitates the logical revelation and, where visible, provides suspense.
That one memorable aha! moment might have been crafted from an entire novel's worth of preparation!

There will be more thoughts to come, perhaps when I discover a satisfying way to classify surprises.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Degrees of Space

I never did get round to exploring degrees of space.
So I want to pose this question:

Why do we have chapters?

Well, many works of fiction are not split into chapters.
In non-fiction, chapters serve (primarily?) as means of navigation.

Let's ask my brain why it chose to end Act I with a lengthy chapter which contained so many reveals and developments that it could easily have split the chapter into many chapters, each with a cliffhanger.
BRAIN: Hey, well it was really a question of pace y'know: the intention of the Act I conclusion was to leave the reader breathless and reeling, and also to develop lots of stuff that could be considered between acts.

Ah, so when we look at degrees of space, we consider that the duration of the space somehow tallies with the amount of stuff to be considered?
BRAIN: And, perhaps, the intensity of the stuff too!

I reckon a short space is required here because there's stuff to consider.

--- here is space ---

Malapropism of the week!
My son's into 80's music at the moment. The other day, he was listening to Adam Ant's Stand and Deliver.
Unfamiliar with highwayman etiquette, he asked me what the lyrics meant:
'Dad, what does he mean when he says "Stand in the liver"?'

In my last post, I postulated that we can create a break at the drop of a hat.
I'm beginning to wonder about that.
When using third-person, I stand by that statement (in a liver):
The author can shift effortlessly between characters and places, so character one is facing a charging elephant, and then the author crosses the globe to spend some time with character two, who might be tied to train tracks (double suspense), or even reading a book about elephant attacks (increase single suspense).
In first-person (present tense so help me!), I haven't found so many opportunities. (Lots of agents are now smirking.)
When I'm moving around, I use either a line break or a chapter break. The line break serves the same purpose as the chapter break, but it doesn't hamper pace in the same way: the chapter break is rather more conclusive.
When I'm developing more than one sub-plot (or plot element) in a single chapter - that is to say, when I'm developing two things with a single character (protag) - I might employ flashbacks. These are breaks in the narrative too!: they break from the narrative's own present-tense. But, when the flashbacks are creating suspense, they hardly slow the pace at all.

Perhaps, then, we use spaces for these reasons:
1) To move about (in time and/or space).
2) To slow pace - to give the reader room to breathe/think.
3) To move away from a development such that it hangs, creating suspense.

If we pull out the microscope, we can also see spaces created by punctuation and even the length of the words used, the complexity of the words (how many times have you read a novel to have pace destroyed because you had to turn frequently to the dictionary? Also, what are the effects of using long, unpronouncable names?), the shape and sound of the words, and so on. And spaces creates by spaces. Ornot.
I don't really want to pick spaces apart to that level here though.

Hey, I have to crack on with my day.
I'd like to leave you with some space. You might like to use a parcel of that space to consider the nature of reading:
We cobble some words together and the reader takes them in and makes sense of them. Hopefully, we will have caused him to feel a certain way and/or to consider something.

How long does it take to feel a certain way as a direct response to the meanings we create?
How long do we want the reader to feel a certain way?

How long does it take to think about the ideas we present?
How long do we want the reader to think about these ideas?

How many different emotions can we feel at once?
How many different thoughts can we consider at once?

Is our chosen reader more likely to read on because he likes thinking about our ideas, or because he likes feeling the emotions we deliver?
Ooh, and consider this:
1) I go into the bookies and hand over £26.
3) We win nothing.
Notice the transformation when I fill that space with:
I hurry home and switch on the tv and watch the build up to the Grand National and wonder if my horse will win or if my son's horse will win and how much we'll make if we win and how excited my son will be if he wins and the race begins and our horses are still running, and they're doing alright, and half-way through they're still running and then my son's horse falls, but mine is still running, and then he's up there with the leaders and he's gaining ...
He comes sixth.
Which bit is the most exciting and, as such, most likely to sustain interest? 1, 2, or 3?
Choose now!

Ta ta.

Sunday, 5 April 2009


Cliff tires of the hangers.

What do you call a man with a seagull on his head?

I gotta exorcise this once and for all because it's been bugging me for years, like some ticking wristwatch left behind by a surgeon.
The mechanics of the cliff-hanger.

Here's one I've read several times in 'how to' books:
The elephant charges.
End of chapter.

Here, Michael Legat suggests that we might want to move elsewhere for a time before returning to the elephant peril. In this way, the reader is left hanging, with suspense sown into his soul.

If we lose the break (the chapter end, and the shift elsewhere), we get this:
The elephant charges and the protagonist rolls out of its path and goes off elsewhere and everything is fine again.

The peril is still there right? but it lasts only for a tiny measure of time.
So, mechanically, the chapter end is designed to distend the threat, and any time spent elsewhere in the narrative is also time spent dangling the reader.

This is, I presume, why many 'how to' books advise us 'what's going on? where am I?' authors to end a chapter with a cliffhanger.
And it looks to me as if there are two types of cliffhanger:
The MacGuffin, in which the threat is nullified;
Chekhov's Gun, in which the threat comes to fruition.

N.B. I'm using these terms, perhaps, in an uncommon sense. Suffice to say, though, that a MacGuffin is a plot device which serves a purpose but is ultimately insignificant, whereas Chekhov's Gun would have significant ramifications simply because it is fired. There are probably better ways to distinguish between these two types of cliffhangers, and I elaborate in a moment. *

Hold up! This is where the alarm on that wristwatch buried amongst my internal organs goes off.
We develop stuff and then provide a resolution, and then go off on some other development or resolution.

Question: Where's the best place to suspend the reader?

In the charging elephant example, given that the resolution culls the suspense, the best place to suspend the reader would naturally be at the point where the threat is at its peak.

Let's swap the MacGuffin for a CG and see what happens.

The elephant speaks to the protagonist:
'Hey, I'm an elephant and my name is Biggles and you have the ability to understand animal speak.'
Another good place to hang the reader. But now we have what is probably a major plot development which is going to spread its ripples through the entire novel (and sounds rather like an inciting incident to me!).

In this way, we can see how moot the charging is:
The elephant charges, but stops beside the protag to reveal that the protag has a special gift.

I'll 'fess up: The MacGuffin still troubles me. Tick tock, brrrrrring.
I think it's because I find more power in a CG than a MacGuffin; I think it's because a MacGuffin seems to me like a weak substitute for a CG.
If I have enough material, then I shouldn't need to resort to a MacGuffin right?
If my story is a tapestry of cunning sub-plots, each feeding into the hero's quest as and when I choose, I shouldn't have need for a charging elephant that misses? - a device tailored for suspense which has no punchline and leads into a hollow abyss.

I think the distinction I'm making is this *:
Development > Resolution
Development > Bigger Development (multiplied by x) > Resolution

If we look at suspense as a development which is understood to have potentially serious ramifications, we can easily see the benefits of holding the reader at arm's length. And we know that the reader enjoys wallowing in suspense, and that we should be bathing him in suspense for a good proportion of the novel.
And, I acknowledge that these 'how to' books also suggest that we are careful to always have something open - to never close everything.
I also acknowledge that these 'how to' books don't explicitly suggest that the only place to create a cliffhanger is at the end of a chapter: The chapter end provides a natural break in the narrative and becomes an ideal place to present the reader with something to consider and to fret about, for sure, but we can create breaks at the drop of a hat, anywhere in the narrative we choose.

I just tire of charging elephants. They serve their purpose, but I think a clever author can find enough material to keep the reader engaged with a stream of open-ended developments and 'shocking revelations' (wikipedia) and the like. Maybe I'm making a distinction between pop-fic and lit-fic? Maybe I'm lost?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Moving Forwards

Happy April Fool's Day!

Things are going well!
Since my last blog post, I've been such a busy bee.
I have a suspicion that a very noodly post is in order ...

I've refined my plot (although I struggle to imagine how anyone could create a watertight plot from the outset without need or desire to amend it during that very revealing writing stage). My arcane eye of development reigned over the revisions.
I've filled some holes with lots of research.
If you're unfamiliar with the structure of sonata form, you might be interested to learn that sonata form is written in five parts: intro, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. And it's fascinating to examine how composers dealt with these parts in different ways!
Ah yes, development!

I've rewritten chapter four twice.
Trying to predict the questions in the reader's head helped me to decide what needed to be developed. But I also had so many set-ups in the chapter that I elected to shift many of them to other parts of the manuscript. I even decided that one set-up could/should wait until the second act. And, in order to unify those apparently disparate set-ups which remained, I found a word-palette - a theme which I discovered in the final chapter of the first act, and which I have woven into a good number of other chapters.
The chapter was also problematic because it required a series of flashbacks, and I'm not a huge fan of flashbacks because they take the reader out of 'the moment' and are liable to damage immersion. Plus, the frequent shifting between present day and the previous winter forced me to create a series of seamless links. However, in order to present information in the order which gives the best solution (that I could conjure), the flashbacks were necessary.
Above all, though, the distribution of set-ups still troubles me.
I was watching a tv programme last night in which Alan Davies learned about, amongst other things, the distribution of prime numbers, from Professor Marcus du Sautoy. If you missed it, check out this cool excerpt!
It struck me that the topography of the distribution of primes, which is a pattern found throughout nature (much like the golden ratio), resembled my idea of the distribution of set-ups. There's a bunch of them at the beginning, and then little clusters spread along the topography. Really, it kept me awake for hours! Yes it did.
And I got to thinking about my French chummy who argues, very eloquently, for the slow beginning.
If we go back to the concept of multiple games of Deal or No Deal, we can imagine that several games begin in quick succession, and then are developed in turn, and then more games are started ... What we find is that there's a certain down-time required at the start of each game, where the player is introduced and the viewer goes to make a cuppa. However, once set-up, the games are free to develop without loss of momentum. (Btw, it's the 1000th Deal or No Deal today! Guess it's still popular eh!)

I wrote the final chapter to Act I.
With so many sub-plots established, I had a joyous time writing the conclusion to Act I.

Question: Does a wonderful pay-off justify a slow opening?

I had a ball, tying up loose ends and splicing sub-plots into the protag's quest, spiralling through reveal after reveal, forging an emotional topography which never stays still and which swings across all manner of emotions. It came in at over 6000 words and is the longest chapter I have written, and I wrote it in two sittings. I think it's the best thing I have ever written too.
But I am a little concerned that, in order to create this chapter, I had to scatter a good few set-ups throughout the first act.
I'm being very careful about which books I'm reading: I don't want to ingest a style which is too different to mine. So I've been limiting myself to Hemingway, and now I'm half-way through Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Actually, this is my second attempt to read it. I'm finding it a very slow book. However, my interest has been rekindled with a brilliant reveal mid-way through the book. I have to wonder at this logic; I wonder how many people would bail out before reaching the wonderful twist.

Question: What keeps a reader reading?

Puig develops very little. His two protags, Molina and Valentin, share a prison cell. Want to know more about them? Well tough, because Puig elected to have Molina relive his favourite movies, much to Valentin's pleasure. So Puig develops a series of stories in quick succession, which he does well, but he chooses to develop the relationship between Molina and Valentin (which is the heart of the plot) in sporadic dribs and drabs. Moreover, I've taken to skipping all the psychoanalytical footnotes in order to retain any sort of pace. (I'll maybe read them later.)
Developing stuff isn't the only way to keep the reader interested, for sure. I'm guessing that literary minds far greater than mine have found pleasure in Puig's techniques, and I'm guessing that, for many people, the retelling of the movies is enjoyable. But what about the questions I want answered? What about developing the things that are important to me?: what about demonstrating that the story is moving towards a conclusion? which is something that a series of unconnected tales does not achieve.
Hey, I might eat my words once I've finished the novel. However, half-way through the novel, in my opinion Puig has moved too slowly because he has shown me little motivation and, as such, given me few developments towards a resolution.

I've written the opening to Act II.
It's very strange. So much has changed. So much has been developed.
And, I confess, I'm getting little guilt pangs knowing that I'm setting my poor protag up for a major fall. Gosh, he's been with me for ages now.
Act II picks up the story two months later. My first problem was how to bridge the gaps without employing flashbacks. I found several ways of doing so whilst remaining 'in the moment'; mainly, little hints threaded into pertinent dialogue works well.
I've employed a variation on McKee's charge switches. That's to say that, as I give something to my protag, I then choose to take something away. The pace of the switches in the final chapter of the first act is all but breakneck. But, considering a more holistic charge, I have attempted to end the first act on a positive, and I intend to end the second act on a negative, with an open-ended positive to conclude the ms.

I'm in love!
Mystery Genius blogged fairly recently about something with which we are all familiar: Falling in and out of love with our work. To be honest, if I stop to think about all the things that might prevent an agent from loving my ms, I would be most discouraged. I could probably make a very long list.
However, there's little use in thinking in such a way, and I'm attempting to finish this ms as I ride out my redundancy. It's comforting to think that, if I average 3000 words a day, I'll have the second act first-passed in ten days or so. Even if I only succeed in averaging 1500 words a day, and allowing for time spent in the real world, I'll have it first-passed in a month. Just have to keep the faith!

And so we keep moving forwards, learning and striving for something unseen, and I begin to wonder how I will feel when this ms is completed.