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Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Exposition

Many times during the story the author will have to stop and explain various things, describe background facts or give additional information. This is exposition. During exposition, the author tells rather than shows. This is a much less effective method, when it comes to judging it from the perspective of the reader, so it must be handled with great care.

Exposition can be very useful if used properly. Well handled it will give perspective, dimension and context that help all the events in the foreground have more sense The story cannot exist solely though scenes. Therefore fiction is in fact a balance between scenes and exposition. Typically the distribution is about 70% – 30% or even 80% – 20%.
We must be very careful not to let the explanation take over the story. That is a good example of exposition handled badly.

This being said, we must always make sure that we do not bury the story in too many footnotes. Too much explanation will lead to clutter, clutter that is most of the time not interesting to the reader. Stick to the action.

Another fact that we must be aware of is going into what is called a World-Builder Mode.  Writers, especially fantasy authors, seldom create extremely complicated worlds and backgrounds. Sometimes the story itself becomes a description of the world. It may be extremely interesting for the author to fully develop and describe this world, but the reader wants to read about the events and the action and not about where they take place. So, again we must keep the proper balance between describing the world and talking about the events. This process is in fact the phenomenon of becoming infatuated with the invention for its own sake. The story will stop and the reader will be lost.

So, the point here is that the story comes first and everything else is a close second. Especially in the beginning of the story it is critical that the action takes place first before the explanation. First introduce the character and show let him show himself and engage the reader’s curiosity and interest. Then tell the story of his past, only if you absolutely need to.

The exposition must be used to present something or give the impression that something will happen later. But it must seem as it is spawned directly from something that just happened. Otherwise it will seem like an artificial break in the story to present something for the future. Only those things that are important to the story right now must be told.

How to present exposition?

a) Build it into a scene. With this method you introduce exposition in the middle of a scene. You can use props, moods to expose what is needed while the scene happens.

b) Put it between scenes. This is needed when the exposition requires a chapter or a longer part and inserting it into a scene would be too confusing. This is usually done from the author’s all-seeing eye and it is placed between 2 scenes.

c) Let a character explain. With this method we let a character tell the entire story or simply using questions and answers with another character, reveal what needs to be exposed. This must be handled very carefully. We cannot let the character say things that he/she would not normally say because either they know it or it is obvious, just so that the reader can read it. In this case, the dialogue will seem stupid and the characters just puppets made to say what needs to be said so the reader can find it out. Especially when we are talking about obvious things that all characters in the scene know, don’t make them say it just for the sake of having it said. Only make characters say things that they have to say and things that they would normally say.

Another thing to stay away as much as possible during exposition is promoting your own beliefs. Since this is fiction, the main business here is story telling. People don’t care about the author’s opinion about politics, religion and so on. Obviously the story itself will be influenced by these beliefs, but let the story tell it. Don’t stop and ramble for pages about one issue or another just because you feel strongly about it. Just make the story about it if you really want, but don’t stop the story just to tell the world your rants.

Lastly some more suggestions: we always tend to remember best the information that comes to us surrounded by highly charged emotion. When applied to exposition this will make things move faster and be absorbed more easily. So, for instance if a character wants to find out something badly, the reader will soon identify with his/her emotion and will want to find out too. When the character finds out, the reader barely sees that as exposition, even though that is what it was. Instead it perceives it as something that is a part of the action, of the plot.

So, in a nutshell:  to effectively handle exposition move it fast, don’t let it pile up too much in any one place, subordinate it to a strongly moving plot and dip it in emotion. Then, whenever you can cut it, cut it.

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Viewpoints

At the beginning of the story we need to make sure we know whose point of view is going to control the story and also how are we going to fit in background information.

One option is to use an omniscient narration. In this case there is no main character that has a viewpoint; instead the story is told by the author and it’s the author that tells everything. The problem here is that all characters are kept equal and the reader doesn’t get really involved because it cannot focus on a certain character. This is why, with some exceptions, not too many authors use omniscient narration in modern fiction writing.

The most common method is the single viewpoint character. But in longer stories, it is not uncommon to have multiple viewpoints.

With multiple viewpoints there is a danger of confusing the reader because we have multiple characters that the reader must identify with and he/she looses focus. And a story with too many focuses can loose its focus completely.

Using one viewpoint is the best way to communicate excitement, dread, love and any strong emotion. We already know that we need to involve the reader to keep him/her interested in continuing with the story. So making the reader identify with the main person is paramount. Therefore the goal should be to try as much as possible to make a story to be a single viewpoint story. However, if that is not possible, we can have 2 or even 3. But any more than that will dilute the story.

Let’s assume that we are working with a single viewpoint story. The next question that arises is: who’s eyes are we seeing through? The story may seem totally different when seen through different eyes, even though the material facts are all the same.

The first option we have is to use an outsider’s view. This is used when the author wants to keep the main character a little distant and shadowed by some sort of mistery. The main protagonist may be so strange or unique that the only way for the reader to understand how different he/she is, is by having him looked through the “normal” eyes of a different character.

If we select a story with multiple viewpoints, we have another question that we need to answer: how do we switch and when do we switch the viewpoint? One important thing is that if we decide to switch viewpoints in this story, we must do it right away. In this way we let the reader understand the rules of the story and not be surprised and confused later on. Viewpoint shifts are dangerous and must be handled carefully. If too abrubt and unexpected they will confuse the reader and make him loose his focus. This being said, keep only those viewpoint shifts that are absolutely necesary for the story and remove any of them that are actually not needed.

A common case is when we have 2 or 3 characters. This is an good amount of separate viewpoints that a reader can track without loosing focus. So generally we can switch the viewpoint in 3 ways: scene by scene, chapter by chapter or part by part.

When you use the scene by scene switch it is very important, as I mentioned above, to do this switch right away so the reader can understand how it works. Usually we switch the viewpoint, keep it going for a while, then switch back.

With chapters and parts we make the switch when we change the chapter. Make sure that the reader can understand immediately that you switched the viewpoint otherwise the story may make no sense.

Another trap that needs to be avoided when dealing with 2 viewpoints is to resist the temptation of creating 2 different stories inside of the main story. You must somehow connect the two viewpoints everynow and then to add structure to the main story. Either have the two characters together observing eachother, or using objects and moods that both experience and talk about in their own time.

There is also some other type of special handling when we are dealing with a large number of viewpoints. For example, we may have to use this in really long complicated stories, that may span generations and various geographical areas. In this situation, multiple viewpoint shifts are common but need to be handled also carefully. One way is to introduce some of the characters first and let the reader understand that they represent some kind of interest to the story and later on give them the right to narrate by switching the view to them.

While switching viewpoints it is very important to make a bridge, a connection between them. For instance we may have one character narrate the story, then move to a common mood or feeling (like fear, or anger) that both characters experience, and then slide into the other character’s viewpoint. In this way, the reader will not feel the abrupt switch, but will take it as a natural change.

When dealing with multiple viewpoints it is also very important to keep things simple in the beginning. Don’t introduce all characters and more importantly don’t give them all names and a full resume. The reader cannot remember that. You must introduce the characters slowly as they mingle into the story and have the reader remember them by what they say or do. By keeping things simple, vivide and direct we compensate the confusion that may be introduced by the viewpoint switching. As a general rule that applies not only to viewpoints: keep cluter out of the beginning. The reverse medal of keeping things simple in these scenes is that the scenes may become static and boring. So, to compensate that make sure that every scene has some kind of suspense into it, somehow indicating that something will happen soon. So, in a nutshell, we keep it simple in the start, but still give the reader the impression that something really interesting will happen. Therefore we hook the reader into getting deeper into the story and prepare for the rollercoaster of the viewpoint switching.

One very important issue: NEVER, NEVER change a viewpoint in the middle of a scene. This is very tricky because we tend to do it, thinking that it adds information to the scene. But that is because we are the authors and WE KNOW what happens. The reader doesn’t know and it will seem confusing to be told that “somebody feels happy” when the inner thoughts belong to somebody else. We must make sure that when the viewpoint belongs to a character, all that he thinks, sais, feels, looks, does are things that only he/she can think, say, feel, look, do and so on. The reader must immediately understand in any scene, through whose eyes is he/she looking through and stick with that view.

So, points to remember: establish viewpoint, make it clear from the start if there are going to be shitfs, never change the viewpoint in a scene.

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Openings

This article talks about how to open a story. 

Generally a story will not begin at the beginning, instead it will start somewhere in the middle (in media res).

Exposition = the necessary explanations that are needed to understand what is going on now. Because it is telling and not showing, exposition is much less dramatic than a scene. Exposition can quickly turn into explanation and explanation is not action. Nothing happens – the reader gets bored. Therefore the beginning must be as free of exposition as possible.

The norm should not be described in the beginning. The action must start first and later on you must back up and demonstrate the normal.

To demonstrate or create the norm, the author can use a character. The reader will identify with this character as the norm and will judge the main character as a contrast to the norm. Establishing a norm is not necessarily needed. If it can be avoided, so be it. It is much better to start in media res rather than by defining a norm.

Every effective beginning must achieve three things:

  1. get the story going and show what kind of story it is going to be
  2. introduce and characterize the protagonist
  3. engage the reader’s interest to read on

The best and easiest way to achieve all these three in the same time is to start with a scene. A scene that shows what is going on and the character in the same time. During the scene think what the character might be doing with little or no explanation which will allow the reader to establish what kind of person he or she is.

Another tool to use are props and settings. Give characters objects that they can use and make them meaningfull. The object is a very useful object and can give a lot of weight to the beginning of the story. Make the objects a part of the action, link various states to them which will later on be remembered by the reader when the object reappears.

Description should not be used in beginnings. It should be limited to almost nothing. You should limit to describing only what is absolutely necessary and vital for the story. Most authors don’t even describe their characters. They guide the reader’s imagination through their actions, objects and things that they do.

A beginning might be very powerful, a “volcano”. However, such openings are hard to follow. The readers’ expectation is already too high and falling back from such a power start might disappoing the reader. The beginning of the story is a promise to the reader, a promise about what is going to happen next. You must be able to keep this promise.

A better type of start is a revealing opening. A simpler and direct opening, free of description, explanation and hype, something that the reader can understand immediately by just “watching”.

Using scenes as openings is not mandatory, but it is the easiest and most economical way. Very well suited for beginning writers.

The beginning must be revised later on, not immediately after it was completed.

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Plot – What is Plot?

What is Plot?

The plot is whatever happens in a story. However, not any small event is a plot, but small events, called incidents, can become plots. It all depends how the specific event relates to the story and by the way they are presented and combined they may lead to a plot. It is something that has a significant effect on the character. The cause and the effect is what creates plot.

Generally speaking, the plot is what the characters do, feel, think or say that makes a difference to what comes afterwards. Again, words, thoughts, emotions are not necessary part of the plot. They move into the plot when they create some kind of reaction into the story, when they make a difference. Otherwise, they do not represent plot. But once a thought or action creates a significant reaction and impact in the story it becomes a plot.

What is at stake?

For a story to be important to the reader there must be something at stake, either something to be gained or something to be lost. Otherwise there is no purpose to the story and the reader will not be captivated by it. The reader needs to be convinced that what happens in the story matters immensely not only to the author but to the characters, to the society, to the world. Something must be at stake.

The plot is created through scenes. A scene is one connected and sequential action together with its embedded description and background material.

One very important aspect when it comes to creating a plot through scenes: SHOW, DON’T TELL. It means that the author must use scenes to allow the reader to understand by him/herself what is going on, rather than telling it directly.

It’s the scene that must advance the plot and demonstrate the characters.

The plot also needs to be constructed around a strong position and an opposition. This means that there must be a character that has a certain position but there must always be some kind of opposition to it. Otherwise, one without the other will bore the reader. In the same time, the two sides must be, or at least seem to be, equal in strength in the beginning. The combination of antagonistic forces must lead the reader to a question in regards to the ability of the main character to succeed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy (the hero wins) or sad (the hero is defeated), the scenes must be constructed around position and opposition. Simply said, struggle, conflict, dissatisfaction, aspiration and choice: these are the basis of effective plots.

How to test a story idea:

  1. Is it your story to tell? The story must have some kind of meaning to the author, otherwise it will seem fabricated and false to the reader. You must write about or integrate parts of things that you care about, things that you feel for or enjoy or despise. You must be in some way connected to the story. Is this something that I care about, something I partially understand?
  2. Is it too personal for the readers? The story must not be too personal to the author for the readers to understand. If you write about things that are extremely close to you, you may loose the reader’s attention because as a close part of the story, you see it differently and you will not be able to properly plot it. Can I work with this idea in a caring but uncompromising way to make it meaningful for somebody else?
  3. Is it going somewhere? Plot is a VERB. The story must be going somewhere, must have a meaning and not just be a pure description or telling of a fact. It must be dramatized and must result in a complete story that the reader will understand.
  4. What’s at stake? Is there something that is at stake, but not just for me, but for one of the characters?

Links:
Plot: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot_%28narrative%29
Show, Don’t Tell: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show%2C_don%27t_tell

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First post, what a clichee…

Ok, this is my very first post on my very first (serious) blog. I don’t hope to change the world with my blog, nor do I hope to have it read by anybody in particular. My goal here is to write, as simple as that. Writers need to write and writing is exercise for the mind. So, I need to write as much as I can and as often as I can while in the mean time study the theory behind writing and improve my skills and technique. I know I am not missing ideas, I am mostly missing techinque and vocabulary. Not being a native English speaker is a definite hurdle, but surely not one that cannot be overcome in time. So, there you have it… This is the reason for this blog. I have no idea who am I talking to, but at least it feels like someone out there is listening. Enjoy!

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