Wednesday, October 29, 2014
An author wrote asking for my brief explanation of some writing components. I decided to answer him on this blog, as others may find some of these useful as well.
Theme can be summarized by “what are you really saying?” A book may be about a kid and adventures with his dog, but (in a horror story) what you’re really saying is if you commit sins your dog is going to die. It’s the old “the moral of the story is...” routine. Theme, and theme treatment may be far more subtle than that (which is why so many English lit classes spend so much time on theme), but it boils down to what you are preaching. Everything points to theme, but often a reader won’t understand the theme until the end of the book.
Voice extracts several components from an author and his/her abilities. Behind the tone and mood of the book, there is a whisper that is the voice of the author. Since in a well-written book the author does not intrude, the voice is a guiding hand, or guiding light that is omnipresent, yet subtle. Voice is almost easier to explain by what it is not: it is not gee-haw! nor lugubrious. It is the power source behind the tone; the reason the author chose certain words to convey a mood. In this way, tone, mood, and voice have a comradeship.
Balance: The more complex a book, the more important the balance. In a thriller, it is common to set the stage in a light or common, everyday scene; drop some foreshadows (or not); then wham! the inciting incident. This ties in with incident timing, as well. But say you go for a hundred pages where Mary Sue is deciding which shoes to wear while the man in the next aisle over is stalking her. You’re going to wear out your reader. Balance the dark with the light; hope with despair; shock with relief. Today it’s common to start in the middle of an action scene and keep upping the ante. This can make for a wild ride and many successful books have been written this way. But if you want a book that is gripping, you have to get in the reader’s guts. Make him care about the character. Let him think the character might make it. Then can’t make it. You do that by using polarities and maintaining the balance.
On a broader scale, balance means don’t have a two hundred page fight scene in a romance novel. The type of action should suit the genre and not conflict. And from another perspective, balance could include balancing description and dialogue with action.
As an additive, balance can also mean maintaining a sense of style. If you’ve just had eight cups of coffee and written a chapter from the chandelier, it may not mesh well with the darker and slower chapters you wrote after a glass of wine.
Dialogue that is well-written carries the reader along through the story line without noticing that it’s dialogue. It reads like people talking and is mixed with hand gestures, scratching heads, or whatever else people do when they’re communicating. I read an entire book (experimental) that was written using nothing but dialogue. Intriguing though it was, I was left wondering how anyone could talk that much. Good authors know how to balance dialogue with description. They almost hear a beat in their head when there’s a pause in the voice, and have the character do something that would happen in real life. For example, if you’ve got several lines of dialogue running, say in an argument, the character might take a break by slamming his fist on a table. This underscores without statement the tone of his communication, and also helps to ground the reader with the room. Dialogue without action and description can leave a reader wondering which planet he’s on.
Description: This is one of my favorites. Most authors have heard of “purple prose,” and think it means poetic prose. It doesn’t. It means (basically) pontificating and going “out-of-voice.” The author has someone else in his head he’s trying to emulate and tends to use words he doesn’t understand. Poetic prose is useful in description in small doses. It adds an element of beauty behind the action and works if the action warrants that type of description. Two lovers walking on the beach, sure. But an antagonist sneaking up on the protagonist with a machete...the description of the environment should have spiked leaves, sharp rocks, acrid smells, and other descriptive elements that lend to the action scene. Of course, if you’re trying to surprise the reader, give him a nice, pleasant environment, birds twittering, lovers kissing, then wham!
The main purpose of description is to ground your reader and set the stage.
Plot turns: In the olden days, some books might have been written without plot turns and just focused on one point of action, but since the advent of movies, readers have learned to expect them. Thrillers, particularly, demand plot turns and tight pacing. A good plot turn will surprise even the author. The first turn, or inciting incident, should occur within the first five to ten pages of a book. I’d say five for a thriller. They occur at regular intervals throughout the book, but a major one is at the end of each act (novels have at least three acts, just like plays). But that doesn’t mean to only put three plot turns in the book. Three is a rule of thumb to demarcate where the major turns occur.
A plot turn is a shock to the protagonist and the reader. If it isn’t, it isn’t a strong plot turn. It propels the novel forward, in a new direction. In a thriller, it would intensify the danger and increase the speed of events.
Point-of-view: The most common point-of-view issue is mixing points of view, or head-hopping. Some new authors mistake head-hopping for the omniscient point of view. Unless an author is writing in first person, or (more rare) second person, today’s books are mostly close-third (or third-person limited) person. This means the author is focused on events mostly from one person’s point of view. He may duck into the person’s head and actually be thinking aloud, using terms the character would use—not the author’s voice. Sometimes authors will switch point of view with a major scene change or new chapter. This is okay to do. Head-hopping occurs when the author switches points of view in the same scene or (worse) same paragraph. Omniscient point of view gives the same weight to each character, and normally contains an undisclosed narrator (the author).
With multiple character points of view in a novel, it is easy to slip and head-hop, but a professional will edit these out.
Timing encompasses some different things in a novel. The timing, or pacing of sentence structure contributes to the tone of the piece. An author will tend to develop his own rhythm in structuring the cadence of his sentences—his own poetry. This is fine, but can make an otherwise stellar work become monotonous, if he isn’t aware of it. For example, if he uses two long sentences, then a short frequently, his work may seem formulaic and become uninteresting. Sort of like listening to a vacuum cleaner. So timing in cadence, and mixing it up a bit, might be a good thing.
Timing of events is critical to the power in the novel. If events happen before the author has developed sympathy for the characters, then who cares? If the author builds acres of good feeling with nothing happening, the reader becomes bored. But if the author has successfully lulled us into sweetness and light then wham! he’s done a good job.
A reader’s boredom is a novel’s kiss of death; to avoid it, the author must time events to peak and maintain interest.
Tension is the key component to a good mystery, horror novel, or thriller. The description of the blood and guts will not a fine book make. It is the getting there, the path, the journey, that must increase the morbid fascination with each word building each sentence to each paragraph. Each word is chosen for its weight, and subtext. The description of the environment helps to build tension. Use polarities. Put an innocent person in a dark alley=tension. It’s even better if the person is so innocent he or she doesn’t know enough to be afraid. Add a scraping sound. Oh, the sound was only a cat. Smile. Kneel. Pet the cat. Calm. Now a stringer of something moist coming down your neck. From above your head.
Tension is about vulnerabilities. Know your characters’ strengths, and turn them into weaknesses. And know your characters’ weaknesses. Build an antagonist who is the mirror image, albeit a dark image, of your main character.
Each chapter should end on a wrap—where the topic of the chapter has been intensified and a question or resolution proposed, but it should end with a stronger question or danger to make the reader want to read the next chapter.
The closer the action, the tighter the scene. The more the tension, the shorter the sentences.
Skipping the Rules: Authors should know how to write, to break the rules intelligently.
· Don’t emulate another author. Find your own voice by spending time writing from your heart to your soul.
· Novel authors are not required to always use complete sentences or never split an infinitive. Conveying mood, intention, characterization, and scene is more important.
· Go into readers’ minds, into a secret place that is almost telepathic. There is nothing more intimate, so be responsible.