Sunday, November 30, 2014

Which Way Did They go?

Bubbling at the top of a pot of characters is the hero and the villain, and the idea is to develop both and show how they are different and maybe not so different. That is easily done when they interact, but what if there is a long-distance relationship? Case in point, the main character or characters are moving about, preparing to launch an attack on the villain to free kidnapped victims. The villain is moving about several hundreds of miles away laying a trap and preparing for the attack. How to bridge the gap and develop each character? A technique is to use multiple points of view.

Typically, using different points of view has advantages.
  1. It solves the problem of the main point of view character being unreliable.
  2. It shows how the hero appears to others.
  3. It is one way to contrast the hero and villain which is central to a good story.
  4. It can show precisely how dangerous the villain is.
When using this technique the writer must be wary of a couple things. One is to give sufficient warning that a shift occurs if within a chapter, and two, be careful about "head-hopping" which can confuse and/or pull the reader out of the story. So, why and how am I applying this technique?

In a work under development, the hero and villain are miles apart. Yes, it is possible to TELL that the villain is evil, but SHOWing that he is evil and why may be preferable. The simplest method is to devote a chapter that introduces the villain, describe the kidnapping, and a disregard of the lives of innocent people; however, this story is part of a series that has another villain, an individual who will become a serious threat to the hero's family, who is responsible for launching a 400-year vendetta that focuses on the hero of the parallel series occurring in our era. It is in this chapter that he is also re-introduced. The relatively brief appearance and in another chapter later is all that is necessary as the focus is on the villain of this story. In order to further flesh out this character, I switched the viewpoint in additional chapters to demonstrate just how vicious and depraved he is and his justification for such behavior. As the story is told by an omniscient narrator and the shifts are done within entire chapters, the reader shouldn't become lost or distracted. There is a different aspect to using multiple points of view, and that relates to scene-hopping within a chapter.

Switching points of view within a chapter can work as long as the writer gives sufficient warning of the changes. How the writer does this is up to them. I use the same technique as if making a shift in time, a visual page break, centered on its own line.  Sometimes I use ~, other times *, whatever works so that the reader is alerted to a change and can easily keep up. Utilizing this shifting technique is important as the story unfolds into the rescue of the wife and son of the protagonist's mentor, who were kidnapped and supposedly being held for ransom -- actually a way to lure the mentor into a trap to kill him. Underlying is the hope this tactic will lure the main hero, too, as the villain really, really wants revenge on him. 

The shifting of view point comes into serious play at the conclusion of the story. From the beginning, the reader is introduced to a number of "minor" characters, each playing a significant part. In the attack, we have the mentor commanding a fleet of four ships that makes a frontal assault on the fortress from the sea. There is also our hero who takes a large force ashore to cross over the island and attack from land. He is also charged with the actual rescue. We also have another player and her ship of children who first spy on the fortress to gain needed info on defences and the exact whereabouts of the kidnap victims. She also establishes a working friendship with the local Carib natives so that a land attack is possible, and then is responsible for taking the rescued wife and son aboard, to getting them out of harm's way.

To accomplish the spying and moving the kidnapped victims to safety are two of her crew who pose as Caribs. When a major complication arises the protagonist's son enters to warn of trouble and while he is supposed to stay out of danger, becomes involved in a fight with defending soldiers. Finally, there is another character, captain of the ship that transported the hero and his troops to the island, and then engages a warship to prevent the villain from attacking their rear. Scene changes within the battle chapter are, in a modest word, as frequent as raindrops in a downpour. This multiple view point approach is important as each change focuses on events and information that the reader will want and need. Transitioning appropriately and smoothly will prevent losing or frustrating the reader so to show what is happening and set the scene for what will or can happen.

There is just a lot more that goes into a story, requirements and tricks that must be learned and practiced before a writer can just sit down and transfer what develops through imagination into a visual media. So, how do you use this technique?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Writing Starts With Inspiration

This is National Write a Novel Month (NaNo) where writers from around the world take the challenge to write 50,000 words (minimum) in 30-days. As this is written there are some 400,000 participants from 200 countries pounding keyboards or scratching on paper. It is a daunting experience for some who unfortunately will not succeed. However, last year 310,000+ did, and in the process learned a great deal about themselves and writing.

When there are 400,000 writers, it is not unrealistic to expect about that many approaches to writing, and only by trial and error does a person find the method that fits them best. However, all approaches to writing the first chapter have one very important thing in common.

Several days into the current challenge an individual complained that he probably wasn't going to write this year because he couldn't think of anything. ? ? ? Perhaps this is harsh, but if a person is unable to get inspiration, they should pack their bags, and move on to something else because inspiration is the germ that spawns stories. If you don't have it or wait until the last minute, you are wasting your time.

After fifty years I can not explain how it happens. It just does. A comment, a song, a picture, even an assignment, but something triggers the creative synapses to start clicking away. What I have learned is to start recording some of those thoughts quickly, adding detail as soon as safely possible because ideas will flow like spring runoff and can dry up just as fast. It makes no difference how you record those ideas, whether they be short-phrased outlines, bullet points, incomplete sentences, or brief synopsis. When the ideas come, grab for the gold ring.

Can't think of anything to write? I have a box in the garage with ideas collected over these many years. Most are worthless because the thoughts are dead and the notes too meager for resurrection. By trial and error I learned to be more detailed and now write a synopsis including ideas about the protagonist, antagonist, how it can start, and where it can end. The twisted journey from start to conclusion falls into place.

The information (often only a page long) is placed in a file for those times when the idea stream seems dry. In the last year alone almost fifty synopsis were added to the file which is has so many it would take a long, second lifetime to develop them all. However, shopping for a story is greatly simplified.

Sometimes inspiration is so strong that the synopsis stretches into more than one page. During a siege of writer's block during work on a novel this past year, I turned to this file and wrote several short stories. Another idea occurred and the synopsis stretched into a finished story on the spot. That happens.

Once inspired and notes dutifully recorded, the writing process naturally turns to development – sketching out the plot, researching details, and giving thought to the kind of characters that will wade through it, never losing sight of the final goal. Never mind holes, disconnects, bridges, or any of those technical things. Begin transferring the story from your mind to a visible form. Writing is like creating a life-size figure out of clay. Once a supporting skeleton is in place, the artist applies layers of clay. It looks rough and crude, but with a blade, scraper, and hands, the features are refined until it can look to walk off the pedestal.

Can't think of anything to write? If you are a writer, that is the least of your concerns.

If you find these eFiles helpful, sign up to receive them automatically.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Anyone for Some Red Herring?

This eFile is about one of the fun things an author can do with their writing, but the topic stimulated my hunger and it became necessary to appease a hunger attack. So, before any writing commenced on this article it was off to the grocer for a can of smoked herring and crackers. Smoked oysters and anchovies on pizza are another thought for later.

However, that's not what this is all about. You've just been treated to a “red herring.”

A red herring is some irrelevant information that diverts the audience's attention from the real issue. I remember an old Charlie Chan movie where a number of people each has a motive for killing off their rich relative, and this is exploited by the writer(s). At the end they all assemble in the sitting room and Mr. Chan goes from one to the other noting their motive and reason for not being the perpetrator until coming to the one most of the audience suspected least.

A red herring is a common device used in mystery and thriller stories, distracting the reader from identifying the real culprit and aiming to keep the reader guessing at the possibilities until the end, and thus keep them interested in the story

This is also a favorite ploy of politicians wishing to dodge difficult questions. They do it by referring to a different issue, which of course is irrelevant, pulling attention away from the original issue under discussion. As long as the author does not abuse their audience, they love this tactic. So, how can it work? When dealing with characters, give selected players a reason or opportunity for being suspect.

Characters are not the only opportunity to use this device. Setting has many variables to play with. Of course, there is the physical place, but also time – time of day, week, month. Then there is the weather. Is it hot, windy, rainy, snowy? Use multiple levels of detail.

Objects are another toy/tool – those that are present and those which are missing.  I had the pleasure of helping teach a criminal investigation class and set up various crime scenes. There were items of significance and things designed to mislead or stall the investigation. The students learned that some evidence was missing. For instance, the victim has yellowed fingers from smoking. There is an ash tray, but no butts or ashes. There are peanut shells in the kitchen garbage, but the victim wears a warning on his wrist about a nut allergy. That may be significant or not as the victim likes to bake.

The more ways a reader can interpret a specific item, the more likely they will make a wrong assumption, and that's exactly what the author wants to happen.

However, a word of caution. Too many red herrings can frustrate the reader. And never, ever lie to your reader.

This discussion has focused on the mystery genre, but red herrings are successfully used in other genre. There are usually fewer of them with a different purpose. Instead of teasing the reader to incorrectly guess what has happened, the purpose is to have them guess what might or will happen, especially if the reader is privy to information the protagonist does not have. They will begin to speculate how that person will react when the surprise is sprung.

In a pirate novel series, the protagonist and antagonist literally cross swords. The antagonist is defeated, humiliated, and vanquished. Several years later, the hero is away helping a friend defeat a different villain. Unbeknownst to him the old enemy is now governor of the island where he lives. Being a prominent citizen and the island small, a meeting is unavoidable.

In another story, a young boy's parents are murdered by the father's brother, a major crime boss, so to acquire valuable property. The boy is to meet with an accident to complete the plan. The uncle is relentless, sending his most trusted henchman to find and finish the job, but time and again, the boy escapes, often leaving the reader with the impression this is one very lucky lad. In the end, his uncle is broken by the police, but freed on a technicality. In the final scene, the vindictive uncle orders his henchman to finish the job and see the boy dead. Now, we learn how the boy has been so lucky. The henchman once loved the boy's mother, but would not marry her because of his career, instead seeing that his best friend marry her. He was best man at the wedding and godfather to the boy that could have been his son. All along he secretly orchestrated the boy's escapes from death, and in his last move to protect him, eliminates the last threat to his life. All along the way the use of red herrings diverted attention away from the godfather as being one of the boy's “guardian angels.”

When reading stories, watch to see if the author introduces any red herrings to divert attention from what is actually happening or will happen. If you like puzzle mysteries take a look at a master of the art, Agatha Christie, and see how she drops clues throughout the story, or go to YouTube and watch some Charlie Chan. Examples are all around and should become obvious as you are now aware of the technique.

Which are good clues and which are not?

How can you use red herrings in your story?