Sunday, 23 August 2009

Dual Reality

Magritte's Empire of Light.

Bob McKee proposes three possible ways to connect the audience to the story using Curiosity and Concern:
1) Mystery: In Mystery the audience knows less than the characters.
2) Suspense: In Suspense the audience and characters know the same information.
3) Dramatic Irony: In Dramatic Irony the audience knows more than the characters.
Three super tools in the writers' tool box, and particularly suited to the variations of third person. Oh yes, it's a return to third person plotting and all its possibilities for rationing and controlling information!

After, ahem, a good few hours spent watching Derren Brown on 4oD, and more hours typing in permutations of 'Derren Brown how does he do it?' into my Google search bar (with and without expletives), I finally unearthed a good deal of his secrets! After the initial euphoria, I found myself saddened to have destroyed the mystery, and discovered the terrible truth that, in fact, the techniques are very simple but require years of careful practise and study, and lashings of innate talent and charisma. Better stick with writing then eh? (Insert your choice of smiley here.)

So, back to thinking up reversals, because the reader likes them a lot (oh, such a very lot!), and because I want more and more! Given that I'm unabashedly employing as many favourite elements of the page-turner as I can divine, I got to thinking about the old memory loss jewel and wondering how it might work under the supervision of Mystery, of Suspense, and of Dramatic Irony.

Typically, memory loss is rooted in Suspense: a character attempts to recall a piece of information which, when retrieved, will supply a brilliant reversal for both character and reader alike.
I'm into double-whammies at the moment: that is, I'm experimenting with quick-fire double reversals. I got to wondering what would happen if memory loss were presented as Dramatic Irony ...
In this way, a reversal is presented to characters and reader in the form of shared information - a momentous reversal which changes everything and creates incredible Suspense! - and then the characters forget this information and are separated from it, leaving the reader in Dramatic Irony! Then the reader can only observe helplessly as the characters forge blindly into destruction.

Anyhoo, more on reversals soon. For now, let's return to Derren Brown.

If you're unfamiliar with the psychokinetic touch, which is credited to Steve Banachek, you might enjoy this clip of Derren Brown touching Spearmint Rhino girls.
This pk touch trick, from Derren Brown: Mind Control 3, begins at 3 mins 48 seconds.
I'll also stick a variation on the trick up there in the YouTube section.

Escher's Puddle.

So here's how it's done:
(Really - you might want to watch the clips first!)


This trick relies on a concept called dual reality.

One girl has her eyes closed. Her 'reality' is now devoid of sight. But she still retains her kinaesthetic faculties right?
The other two girls share a different 'reality': they can see, but they can't experience the subject's sense of touch.
We share the visual 'reality' of the two girls because we watch through the camera lens. We don't share the kinaesthetic 'reality' of the subject.

In an instant, Derren turns to the two girls, distracts their attention, and taps the subject on the hand. The two girls don't notice this, and we don't see this either because the cameraman doesn't let us. Furthermore, our attention is diverted to the pretend taps several inches over the girl's hand. Whilst the technique sounds simple, the speed and precision with which Derren taps the subject's hand is astounding.

In the YouTube clip, the mentalist cannot rely on the cameraman for assistance, and so he sweeps his hands around the bride's arm, momentarily obscuring our view and tapping the girl's hand (with, I understand, the fourth finger). He then turns immediately to misdirection and taps the groom's hand, and that is where our attention is diverted (rather than Derren's pretend taps). Yes, we all clearly see him tapping the groom's hand, and do not consider the fact that he also tapped the bride's hand.

N.B. Naturally, this is a diluted account and makes no mention of the mentalist's ability to create rapport and trust, and to induce the subject into a compliant state. Note how the first Spearmint Rhino girl's blind reality is augmented with the words 'From now on ...' and how both girls are commanded to count in their minds and not out loud; in both cases, their realities are further distanced and held apart from the viewers'.

If you fancy hanging out with magical and mental folks to discuss dual reality performances, head off to the Magic Cafe!


In considering Bob McKee's proposed elements of Curiosity and Concern, we are simply toying with different realities. Our characters each have their own set of perception tools, as does our reader. When they are in tune, we work with Suspense. When the characters are aware of more than the reader, we are in Mystery. When the reader is aware of more than the characters, we are in Dramatic Irony.
It's worth considering not just the reversal, but who to throw it at!

Saturday, 8 August 2009


Well, let me begin by thanking all the lovely maggoteers who emailed me with dreams yesterday! Very much appreciated, and I'll have some conclusions shortly. Last night I dreamt that Gordon Ramsay was showing me how to remove the flesh from lobster claws.

Now, I encountered a commenter somewhere the other day. She complained of having a saggy middle. Of course, I was tempted to advise her to cut back on the chips, but thought better of it. I got to wondering what she meant; I've heard of saggy middles, but have yet to experience them for myself - although there was this time a couple of years back where I got the take-away meals:exercise ratio a little wrong. (Nope: that's not sufficiently developed from the chips remark and so is unsuccessful and would normally be revised or edited; but it's worth keeping in for this post!)

I spent yesterday evening working up ideas for my new project. I've taken the high concept and some of the better reversals and high stake decisions from my Tethered Light trilogy, but nothing else: new characters, new plot, etc. And I got stuck in, plotting my opening.
You know, I got to thinking: If the reader really and truly wants suspense and twists and immersion from the off, let's see how much they can take! Ha!
It struck me how easy it was. I could do this until the reader lies on the floor gasping for air.
By the end of chapter one, I had two reversals, a chase, a countdown, a major hook, a minor hook, and a major set-up (invisible hook which allows for creation of enormous reversal at end of book two). I had the protag's character flaw in place, establishment and immersion through shows and through minimal dialogue, forward momentum, soupcon of top end N400, and a super cliffhanger.
Can you guess what occurred to me next?

Ah, yes, um, chapter two next. Ho hum. Chapter two. Twooo. Second chapter. Definitely need a second chapter. Number two.

The moment I read of the commenter's problematic saggy middle, I felt pleased with myself for never having encountered it. And the instant I felt pleased with myself, the don't-go-kidding-yourself-you-dolt bells rang and I realised that I probably had encountered it and simply had not realised. Or I had been very lucky.
I don't know which is true. However, I know I avoided it in my previous project because I set it up in acts. Which is to say that I was regularly working towards an imminent major reversal. Which is to say that Bob McKee spared me the pain of sagginess.

In plotting my opening chapter, I got to thinking: How long shall I keep this up? Another reversal? Another hook? How many? I can go on and on!
So I thought about the opening to Raiders and imagined Mr. Spielberg thinking: How many traps should I place into this temple? How many reversals? How many hooks?
Let's not forget that this opening scene has nothing to do with the story at all. Nothing at all. The story begins when the two government officials pay Indy a visit, bringing their intercepted Nazi communication inciting incident. But what a tedious opening that would be right? What we want from that opening is immersion and introduction to Indy, wrapped in exciting suspense and reversals right? I'm right, right?

Did anyone catch Goldie's classical composition? Unable to read or write musical notatation, he elected to plot his composition with a linear sketch which essentially captured the dynamics of his piece: it would open with a bang and then to silence and fragmented sounds would grow to a climax of religious ecstasy and then a period of harmonic darkness, into the open-ended denouement.

In my post Ripples, I looked at the idea of development - of ripples spreading out from the protag's core if you will. Start small and grow. I subsequently began to wonder how an author might achieve this if they elect to open with something big! Where can they go from there? How big? If you start with the biggest thing imaginable, then the ending can only, at best, be of equal bigness. And that's not much of a recipe for dynamism.
Hmm ... Haven't we been looking at tension and release recently?
Or, to imagine the idea in another way, what if those government officials met up with Indy as the boulder was crushing everything at his heels? They'd all be running together, from this boulder, delivering the inciting incident. Jeez Indy ... huff puff ... we've just intercepted this message ... agh it's gaining ... faster ..! Have you heard of Tanis ..? Run!
How foolish. The viewer needed a break by then. Chill out in the library for a bit with silly Marcus.

That said, it occurs to me that the inciting incident scene, or any saggy scene, might easily be charged, and that's the beauty of the chase! As soon as Ahab set off for revenge, or as soon as that Terminator came back for Sarah, or that bloody bear tirelessly hunted Torak, everything is subsequently charged. Sure, the charge diminishes over time (rather rapidly I'd say), and soon enough our characters can sit about discussing stuff, drinking wine, falling in love, et al; but it only takes a snapping branch or rustling bush to kick start the suspense again! And as long as the stakes are rising with each revitalisation of the chase, things are building to a head!
But I do like Indy's quiet down time. Because when you reset to nothing, then you have everywhere to go! It's a matter of dynamic intensity.

So that saggy middle! Sounds to me as though the topography is wrong; sounds as though the three act major reversals technique is missing; sounds as though the charge has diluted.
Back to my plotting. Laters.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Harvesting Pianos

Atmospheric skull sodomizing a grand piano.

I had a rather exceptional dream last night which, I think, is worth documenting.
I found myself in what appeared to be an army barrack or billet, with people working at trestle tables. Everyone was ignoring me. Presumably, my brain was grappling with the wonderfully confidence-eroding phenomenon of receiving one response for every ten job applications I send out (and then typically only after I have sent out a follow-up email).
But here's the curious bit: I was sat with a laptop and noticed a lot of unread emails in my inbox. I didn't read them, and the dream continued with more people cold shouldering me, and every now and then I'd return to the laptop to discover more emails which I would not read.
Eventually, it transpired that these emails, which were being sent to and read by everyone in this workplace, contained libellous remarks about me.
So my dream had anticipated this reveal and provided a set-up: the emails.
Now I really can't recall ever having experienced a dream which worked towards a reveal and contained set-ups before! I have always assumed that dreams worked in a stream of consciousness manner. But this dream appears to question that theory! I'd love to hear from anyone who has experienced such a dream!

On the topic of dreams, somebody recently suggested that our dreams tend to incorporate people whom we have not seen for a while. (Not exclusively of course!) This would tally with the dustbin theory, whereby obsolete memories are dropped into the junk folder to be deleted.

Girl with broken piano.

I'm also considering my next project and am transcribing my son's ideas and dreams which are always so much better than mine! In particular, his dream in which he drove to a volcano to harvest pieces of broken pianos simply begs for a plot line.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Opening Thoughts #3

Still pondering my opening, acutely aware that if my opening isn't up to scratch, whatever a good scratch might be, then the successive eighty thousand words or so are moot. It's an unpleasant thought eh?
My ponderings are still orbiting a sun named What-does-a-good-opening-do?
And I've yet to abandon the hypnotic trance train of thought.

The idea first struck me when I was re-reading Ali Smith's The Accidental. I looked up after thirty or so pages and thought to myself: Crumbs! I've just read thirty or so pages without a thought for the outside world. It immediately occurred to me that she had mesmerised me - that she had presented nothing that would cause me to stumble, and nothing that required a hefty stretch of my imagination, and nothing that required mighty effort from the grey matter. No difficult words and no harsh words (remember the buba/takete experiment?) that might have encumbered or spiked the narrative.*
We've been dipping in and out of the idea of the pulse for years and I'd like to reconsider it.

It struck me, too, whilst ploughing through blog after blog of advice on opening a novel, and reading through scores of examples from the published and from the unpublished, both talented and not so, that the unpublished tend to rely on a formula, such that they look to capture the reader's interest from the off, typically with the bang, boom, yippee-ki-yay. I've tried this and I don't like it. Hard to say why I don't like it, although I suspect that it simply feels too contrived to me.
Then there are the clever plot devices used in the opening. I like these a little better. I like a clever reversal in the opening paragraph. It's quite a feat and instantly establishes the author's authority and I think that, alone, is enough to inspire me to continue reading.
I don't think anyone likes the ponderous and descriptive opening which fails to indicate any direction and, worse still, the backwards looking opening which points in the wrong direction - away from the end of the novel which is where the unspoken countdown reaches zero.

I don't think plot particularly interested me for quite some time. I feel that I'm now returning to that place, although with a long holiday at Plotston under my belt. I was always predominantly interested in the words and the meanings and the rhythms, and how they could capture the reader and play with her emotions. Plot, to me, was always about arranging these emotions; plot, to me, was a functional device which existed to serve the emotional topography.
I see it as something more now. I think plot can do the same thing as the words and meanings in that it can create, and not just assist in the creation and organisation of, emotional response. It's a tenuous thought, and one which I shall return to anon.

So, having absorbed all of those openings and deciding that I didn't much care for most of them, it made sense to return to the books I love - the books that have endured in my heart. And sure enough, there's not a yippee-ki-yay in sight. However, there is rhythm from the off - an unfettered and, dare I say, calming rhythm, constructed around a highly simplistic plot idea which invariably nudges the story towards a change. It's what I love. And, I suspect, when I began adapting my opening to adhere to more, for want of a better word, gratuitous plot dictates, I lost my truth. (Yes, the MacGuffin still troubles.)
For a long time, I hadn't spotted this need for change in the opening chapter, or at least it's imperative, and I'll always pay careful attention to advice and to other opinions and ways of tackling a problem. My feeling now is that either the market or the agents have become more impatient.

A brief look at what appears to be de rigeuer in an opening:

- Moving forwards means providing the reader with a steady stream of rewards and, more importantly, the expectation of rewards, from start to finish. Regardless of the plot's importance in creating these rewards, they should be shaped into emotional responses. I read, partly, because I like feeling happy or sad (etc.), but mainly because I like looking forwards to feeling happy or sad (etc.). Open to discussion.
- Quick immersion into the world! Interesting topic. To me, this suggests a feel for the author's style and tone, which governs everything, and the sensory stuff - the predicates, which makes the world more vivid, and a positive (as in the reader wants it) relationship with the protag, who is the host (receptacle) for our projected self, and the sense that something is about to occur, such that this universe held within narrative is dynamic - it moves and changes, creating a healthy environment for expectations.

And this seems to be the force which guides the openings to my favourite novels. They are vivid immersions bound by a powerful and authoratative voice. They flow and stimulate and provide no reasons to leave.
Is it more important to provide no reasons to leave than to provide reasons to stay?
Strikes me that those openings written by the unpublished which leave me unmoved are filled with formulaic attempts to keep me reading. Perhaps our attention should be focused** on the idea of creating an authoratative and flawless voice which remains humble and yet passionate and true?

Update: Just noticed that this topic is currently under discussion on Rachelle Gardner's blog.

The pattern interrupt is a technique which is designed to confuse the subject. It relies on a pattern or routine which either exists already (the handshake; tying one's shoe; etc.) or is created by the hypnotist. There's a comfort in routine, in patterns, and I've been attempting to exploit this in my writing for years, notably with the word palettes. To break these patterns is to leave the subject momentarily bewildered. In such a state, they become highly suggestible and compliant. To test this, I've been playing with pattern interrupts in my narrative. After all, if we agree that one of our aims, at least initially, is to create a vivid universe and to immerse the reader into this universe, then does in not make sense to utilise techniques which will create a compliance in the reader?
Note that the pattern interrupt is instantly followed by relaxation. If you dig out some Youtube clips, you'll even notice how the hypnotist's voice changes at the instant that the subject is confused: the hypnotist is suddenly much calmer and relaxed, inviting the subject to mirror this response.
Anyhoo, my tests appear to have failed. There could be many reasons why, and I have much to consider. The consistent response has been twofold: I find x confusing; I am expecting stuff to happen.
This seems to lend weight to my argument that the writer must not present a reason to leave in the opening, and confusion could very easily be regarded as a reason to leave. Although I am mindful of the rapid-fire object- and/or subject-switching technique which creates confusion and works very well in high octane chase scenes and fight scenes, and is used by many brilliant authors, it occurs to me that the opening might not be the best place for this. The opening to Quantum of Solace upset me terribly: the opening car chase is edited at such a frenzied pace that I was left dizzy, utterly unable to lose myself in this world. Moreover, this pace was maintained for a good long while and I became desperate for a moment of respite, a moment in which I could chill out and bond with the universe (pun intended. Forgive me.).
Conversely, before Indy goes off into that temple (Raiders), we hear those amazing bird songs and feel the oppressive heat and lushness of the jungle - we have time to settle and to learn a little about Indy and who he is and how others regard him and how his life might be.

Crikey, I'm going to break off there for now. Wonder if I have enough to rework my opening yet? Hmm ... perhaps not.

*N.B. Ali Smith's use of the word 'numinousness' on page one is food for thought. It snags wouldn't you agree? Did you not make several attempts to hear it in your head? Why is it there? Is it a pattern interrupt? Would the narrative work better without it - with a more mellifluous synonym? Is it designed to create a moment of discomfort which, in turn, makes the reader more receptive to the successive onslaught of majestic simplicity?

**Focused or focussed?
(Short answer: Either.)