Can You See It? Creating a Movie with Words

Monday, May 21, 2018

When I read a good book, I see the characters and the setting and the action in my mind, playing much the way a movie does. But notice the adjective. Only a good book does that.

Today’s blog post discusses those elements that make a good book play a movie in the reader’s mind. As general categories, they cover “show, don’t tell,” action, and description.

Show, Don’t Tell

Objective: To keep the reader interested by showing those aspects of the story that are most important to plot and characterization and telling the rest.

Given that objective, the category may be misnamed. It would be more accurate to say “when to show and when to tell,” or simply “show versus tell.” However, the concept is usually described as “show, don’t tell,” so I’ll stick with that.

I’ve read many different definitions of “showing.” Some limit themselves to action, while others include descriptions of persons, places, and things that include enough detail to visualize the subject. Some definitions embrace entire passages that mix action with simple statements of fact, while others parse out the two. We won’t get into that debate here. For our purposes, if it helps you visualize the scene, it is showing. The best way to describe the difference is with examples.

TELLING: Brian kissed Karen angrily.

SHOWING: Brian grabbed Karen’s arms and gripped them as he smashed his lips into hers.

The writer should show only those aspects of the story that are significant elements of plot and characterization. Showing takes more space than telling does, and if a writer shows everything, the book will be massive. Massive and boring.

It’s impossible to do justice to this concept in the limited space I have here. You can learn more about it in the blog posts linked below.

For purposes of the rubric, the proper use of showing versus telling is worth 10% of the score.

Action

Objective: To use strong verbs and limit actions to those that either develop a character or move the story along.

There is a lot of overlap between this element and the previous one. Action is the strongest way to show. However, it deserves its own category.

There are two points here. First, a good writer will use strong verbs to convey the action at hand. Rather than walking slowly, a character could amble or shuffle along. Or instead of just blowing, the wind might gust or wail. This eliminates those pesky adverbs, too.

Second, we don’t want to hear every detail of the protagonist’s morning routine. If the fact that he had cereal for breakfast becomes important later, then tell us he had cereal for breakfast (a perfect example of when telling works best), but don’t show him pouring it into the bowl, adding milk, and taking a bite. Not unless those actions help develop his character or move the story along, that is. And if nothing about breakfast is important to the story, leave it out. You can find a more extensive discussion of this issue in a post I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog (linked below).

For purposes of the rubric, action is worth 5% of the score.

Description

Objective: To use strong nouns and limit description to that which is a natural part of the story.

The first part of the objective concentrates on using strong nouns. “House” doesn’t say much. “Shanty” and “mansion” do. This is also a good way to eliminate adjectives and tighten your writing.

Then there is the question of how much detail to provide, which may vary with the audience. Some people like to be spoon-fed with a complete physical description of every major player and location. When I was younger, I liked that too. Now I want just enough detail to give me the flavor or atmosphere and let me use my imagination to fill in the rest.

Of course, there are usually some items that are important to the story and need to be described. I’m currently working on a book that takes place during the Civil War siege of Vicksburg. The residents lived in caves, and the setting is crucial. If I left the cave description to the reader’s imagination, the reader would probably imagine something from his or her own experience, which would probably be wrong. So I described the cave and its furnishings, right down to the fact that there were quilts on the sleeping platforms instead of mattresses. But I didn’t describe the quilts, because that isn’t necessary.

Point of view is important here, though. If I had a POV character who loved quilts and examined every detail, then I’d bring the reader along as she did it. For example, “Charlotte ran her fingers over the outline of the log cabin pattern. The blue and green pieces brightened up the dark space, but how long could the quilt survive in the cave before the fabric became dingy and stained?” My character doesn’t think about those things, however, so I didn’t describe them for my readers.

Point of view also affects how the protagonist is described. A person doesn’t normally see himself unless he is looking in a mirror, and even then he might be paying more attention to shaving his face than to admiring it. Furthermore, the mirror trick is often a lazy writer’s tool that doesn’t sound natural. That doesn’t mean you can’t describe your protagonist, but you have to be creative.

For purposes of the rubric, description is worth 5% of the score, giving the movie aspects a total of 20%.

__________

TO LEARN MORE:

If you want more of my advice on these issues, here is a list of earlier blog posts.

Show, Don’t Tell:




Action:


Description:



Whose Story is It? Using Point of View Properly

Monday, May 14, 2018


Point of view errors can confuse readers and jolt them out of the story. That’s why the proper use of POV is an important element in evaluating fiction.

As a reader, POV errors drive me crazy, so you had better have a good story if you want me to finish the book. As a writer, using point of view correctly often spurs creativity, which, for me, is the most enjoyable part of the process.

The choice of a point of view character has a significant effect on the story being told. Imagine how Wuthering Heights would have changed if written from Heathcliff’s point of view and how different Gone with the Wind would have been in Melanie’s POV. However, that’s a creative choice and isn’t appropriate for evaluation.

The type of POV the writer uses is also a creative choice not appropriate for evaluation, but the way it is used is. Using POV properly involves two objectives, both included in this rubric.

Objective 1: To make it easy for the reader to identify the POV character and style.

If point of view is done right, readers may not even think about it. They just accept it as part of the story. But if it is done wrong, some readers can’t stop thinking about it, and not in a good way.

The most common types of POV are first person, third person, multiple third person, and omniscient. Each has its own limits and challenges.

When using first person and third person, the reader can only see, hear, and know what the POV character sees, hears, and knows. So the biggest challenge, and the one that gets my creative juices flowing, is figuring out how to bring in facts that occur outside the POV character’s experience. If she is standing in the library staring into the fire, she can’t see what is happening in the dining room, so your reader can’t see it, either. But maybe there is an argument in the dining room, and she hears it even though she doesn’t see it. Or somebody who was there reports it to her after the fact. Or maybe you are using multiple third person POV and a different POV character is in the dining room at the time. When using this last approach, however, you must be careful how you weave those scenes together. (More about that under Objective 2.)

This doesn’t mean the reader has to draw the same conclusions that the POV character does, however. As long as they are viewing the same events, they are free to interpret them differently.

Some people use omniscient POV (a narrator who sees and knows everything, including each character’s thoughts) to get around the limitations of first and third person. But omniscient POV has its own challenges, and I personally think it is harder to do right. And if it isn’t done right, it sounds like a sloppy third person POV.

I did a series of blog posts in 2015 discussing the different types of POV with their advantages and challenges. You can find those links below.

Objective 2: To use POV consistently and without awkward jumps.

Most writers know better than to mix first person and third person, but less-skilled ones often mix third person and a faux omniscient. This confuses the reader and may annoy her as well.

Readers also get confused and annoyed when the writer is in one person’s head and suddenly jumps to another person’s head within the same scene. In it’s worst form, it even occurs within the same paragraph. These POV jumps are awkward and can jolt the reader out of the story. Multiple POV can be a good choice, but only if each POV character has his or her own scenes.

But what about experimental fiction where a writer intentionally combines various types of POVs? There may have been a few successful attempts, but I’m not aware of them. And they certainly would be rare. Most of us are better off sticking with conventional POV forms and finding creative ways to deal with their limitations.

For purposes of the rubric, each objective is worth 5% of the score, giving POV a total of 10%.

__________

TO LEARN MORE:

If you want more information on point of view, here are links to my 2015 series.




Keep the Reader Reading: The Art of Story

Monday, May 7, 2018


One of the regular readers of this blog told me that she found last week’s entry a bit confusing. Many writers are not educators and don’t use rubrics, so maybe that’s where the problem lies. Or maybe I just wasn’t clear. In any event, I’ll try to keep these subsequent posts focused on the fundamentals with fewer references to the rubric.

There are some writers who write purely for their own enjoyment, and a rare few may not care if anybody else finds their work worth reading. But most of us want an audience. When that’s the goal, fiction is worthless if it doesn’t keep the reader reading.

So what does keep a reader reading? The secret is in those building blocks that I call the Art of Story: plot, characters, and the opening chapter. Here is a brief discussion of each.

Plot

Objective: To give the reader a ride that creates and maintains tension until it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

It can be a rollercoaster ride with mounting tension, as in the Harry Potter books, or a slow train ride thorough the country that simply maintains the tension, as in Alice in Wonderland. The type of ride often depends on the genre.

Alice in Wonderland creates tension when Alice falls down the rabbit hole and maintains it as she tries to find her way back home. As the story progresses, things get “curiouser and curiouser,” but the tension doesn’t necessarily grow stronger. And it doesn’t need to. Between the tension that continues to exist and the adventures that happen along the way, the reader is motivated to keep reading.

A “satisfying conclusion” doesn’t always mean a happy one, although most readers would prefer that. A satisfying ending is simply one that makes sense to the reader. It doesn’t have to be a complete resolution, either. Voldemort remains a menace at the end of the first six Harry Potter books, but the immediate problem in each has been resolved.

For purposes of the rubric, plot is worth 20% of the score.

Characters

Objective: To create realistic main characters, including a protagonist the reader can identify with.

Readers engage best with a story when the main characters are multifaceted (round) rather than one-dimensional (flat). Real people are always multifaceted once you get to know them. If a reader sees only one dimension, the author has turned the character into a caricature. That’s fine for minor characters but not for the ones the reader spends significant time with.

Realism also requires major characters to be predictable—after the fact. The character may do something that surprises the reader, but the reader should be able to look back at the behavior and say, “that makes sense for this character in these circumstances.”

Roundness also helps the reader distinguish between characters. When they are multifaceted, there is room for differences even when the story calls for them to share many qualities. Or it can work the other way around. In my novel Inferno (which is currently circulating to agents), two cousins think they have nothing in common but discover that they are more alike than different. That mirrors real life, where I had the same experience with my first college roommate.

The protagonist is a major character and needs to be realistic, and the reader must also be able to identify with that character. This doesn’t mean the reader has to like the protagonist, but there must be some aspect of his or her problem or personality that the reader can relate to.

For purposes of the rubric, characterization is worth 15% of the score.

Opening Chapter

Objective: To begin the story by hooking the reader, identifying the style of the book, and providing information on characters and setting.

Opening lines are important, but they don’t usually sell books. Good writing sells books. It may take an entire chapter to hook the reader and set up the story, and that’s okay. Most readers will give you that much time before putting the book down. And even when leafing through the selections at a bookstore or using the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon, most purchasers will give you a page or so to convince them that you are a good writer.

Still, the pages that the potential purchaser or reader does give you need to grab the reader’s interest. Or it is probably more accurate to say they should grab the interest of the intended audience. Readers’ tastes vary, and no first line, first page, or first chapter will appeal to everyone.

The first pages also need to clue the reader in about the style of the book. This is mostly, but not entirely, a matter of genre. A sweet romance shouldn’t start with a chase scene or the reader will be disappointed when he or she discovers it isn’t a thriller. Or vice versa.

Readers also want to be introduced to the protagonist and given a sense of the setting. Not all first chapters do this, but the ones that eliminate those matters successfully are the exception rather than the rule.

For purposes of the rubric, the opening chapter is worth 5% of the score, giving the Art of Story a total of 40%.

__________

TO LEARN MORE:

If you want more of my advice on these issues, here is a list of earlier blog posts.

Plot:





Characters:



First lines:








And finally, here is a post on matching the opening scene with the genre:


__________

The picture is an illustration by John Tenniel for the original edition of Alice in Wonderland. It is in the public domain because of its age.

A Fiction Rubric

Monday, April 30, 2018


Several months ago Roland was asked to judge some living history projects at our church’s school, and he was given a rubric to use. It got me wondering what makes good fiction and what type of rubric I would use if I had to come up with one. So for my own enjoyment—and hopefully yours—I am writing a series of blog posts to answer that question.

The word rubric is commonly understood among educators to mean a document or system for setting expectations and evaluating students’ work. In many cases the factors have points associated with them so that students understand how important each one is and to make grading or judging more uniform and objective.

No rubric is perfect, and each reflects the creator’s own biases to some extent. This is especially true for something as subjective as fiction. It is also impossible to cover everything in a general fiction rubric. For example, speculative fiction usually requires the author to create an imaginary world that is both believable and consistent within the framework of the story. Even contemporary fiction must have a believable and consistent setting, but world-building is easier when the setting is one we know personally or through research. Similarly, research is important for historical fiction but less so for a contemporary romance. My general fiction rubric does not have scores for these genre-related issues, but they would be considered as part of other elements.

To score the rubric, I looked at how much the various elements of fiction affect reading enjoyment or—more specifically—the desire to keep on reading and, conversely, those elements that make someone want to put the book down if they are done wrong. For example, point of view errors make me crazy, and yet I continue to read if the plot and characters are interesting. So plot and characterization should carry higher values than point of view does.

Ideally, a typical reader would select the elements and assign the scores for the rubric. Unfortunately, there is no such person, and reading tastes vary widely. So in creating this rubric I looked first at my own reading practices, but I tempered the result with comments I have heard from other readers over the years.

It’s impossible to take all the subjectivity out of creating and scoring a fiction rubric. Still, I’ve done the best I can. And after all, I’m doing this for fun rather than to judge an actual contest. But I’d like to think it would work for that, too.

The basic rubric goes like this:

                I.          The Art of Story—40 points

a.      Plot—20 points

b.     Characters—15 points

c.      Opening chapter—5 points

              II.          Point of View—10 points

a.      Identifiable?—5 points

b.     Consistent?—5 points

           III.          Creating a Movie with Words—20 points

a.      Show, don’t tell—10 points

b.     Action—5 points

c.      Description—5 points

           IV.          Dialogue—10 points

a.      Attribution—5 points

b.     Naturalness—5 points

              V.          Language Use—20 points

a.      Clarity and conciseness—15 points

b.     Grammar and proofreading—5 points

My May blog posts will fill in the objectives for each category. So join me next week for The Art of Story.