Part 1 - 14 min 15 sec - Intro to prose
Part 2 - 18 min 4 sec - First person viewpoints
Part 3 - 8 min 47 sec - Third person viewpoints
Part 4 - 12 min 14 sec - Description part 1
Part 5 - 15 min 51 sec - Description part 2
Link to Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sCzhuahZFc
Lecture 3: Intro to Prose
3) Learning curve/Info dump/Pacing
Viewpoint and description will set apart the amateurs from the pros on page 1. Make sure to start with motion on page 1.
Viewpoint and Tense – the basics
First person – advantages and disadvantages
- You see a lot of it in children’s.
- It makes it easier for them to relate. It’s simpler.
- Often only one character in the book.
- You can get to know one character quickly and effectively
- It builds an attachment to one character very fast.
- It also gives away that the protagonist lives – can be good or bad.
- Huge benefit – it lets you cheat on a few things: 1) having an untrustworthy narrator 2) Info dumps – really, really challenging in SF/fantasy is info dumping in an interesting way. If it’s in-character information dump that develops character; it works briefly. It’s faster.
YA/children’s it is all about doing everything faster – conversations, action, pace. It’s a lot easier viewpoint to write in starting out, though not necessarily easier to master. The voice of the character is king in children’s lit – the first page.
Other 1st person tools:
1) epistolary – everything takes place in letters or blogs (Dracula, Sorcery and Cecilia; Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel on TOR.com (in vogue epistolary), The 100,000 Kingdoms (does some great stuff) – content warning on 2nd half)
2) character reflects – Assassin’s Apprentice (reflecting on his earlier life); also Name of the Wind (the single biggest epic fantasy release of the 2000s; what Rothfuss does is a third person frame device couching around a 1st person narrator)
Extra Note: Sanderson was a slow build while Rothfuss was a huge explosion out the gate (only thing currently giving him a run for his money is some of the George R.R. Martin books). Epic fantasy had a big boom in the 90s and a big crash in the 2000s. Steven Erickson, maybe Jim Butcher were the 2000s fantasy, along with Rothfuss and Sanderson (Goodkind, Robin Hobb and Martin and Jordan were smashes in the 90s).
1st person limitations:
1) the more characters the harder it is – two is ok, but three + is hard. You would change between chapters, and name the chapter after the character that it is.
2) the personalities dominating – can be bad; voices of the characters become the story, and it’s hard to get across an epic feel
3) untrustworthy narrator
4) and you know they live
5) if you don’t like the voice, it ruins the whole book, because voice is so in your face
Overall these are pretty weak limitations; and to choose which voice you want to work in, you look at the advantages, not the disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage of each voice is not having the advantages of the other.
Third person limited – advantages and disadvantages
- In one person’s head at a time in a scene
- It is much better for a larger cast.
- It can really help you pull into a scene.
- It’s the best one from hiding things from the reader (except omniscient) – in this one, you can just NOT show a viewpoint that knows (remember that).
- Some feel more freedom with it.
- You can have a “throw away” viewpoint – a minor characters, or random person who dies afterward.
- It’s easier to kill the characters.
- You can mix an unreliable narrator with a reliable one – Matt in Wheel of Time is a good example – what he says so conflicts with what he thinks, which conflicts with the actual narrative of the book – it’s delightful.
- Third can be more immersive for a story, while 1st is better at showing character. In 3rd, Sanderson says he feels more like he can be that character, more immersed in the story, whereas when it’s in 1st person, it feels like someone is talking to him – and it’s not him in the story.
- Some would say it’s a little easier to show character flaws subtly in third.
The editor/reader is looking for the character to jump off the page at them by the simple things they do, by the way they see the world – it’s easier to do in 1st person, but it can be extremely majestically beautiful in 3rd person if you can master it – let each line of description and thing that is known come filtered through the lens of the character’s eyes – if you can do this, editors will love your stories.
Third person omniscient – changes in scene paragraph by paragraph
Kinds of omniscient
a. True omniscient – the body hopper – true 3rd person omniscient, paragraph by paragraph, switch between characters and sees what everyone is thinking. Dune does it really effectively, and you start building this reader perspective that you are going to see everyone’s viewpoint, and if you don’t show all the viewpoints, it throws people out of the story and messes them up. This is why it can be hard to write. It also can get very complicated very quickly and make the reader feel at sea (which he’s switching into different people’s heads so often).
b. Hidden narrator – a flavor of omniscient, used by The Hobbit: someone is sitting down and telling you a story; a camera, dips into people’s thoughts when the narrator wants to; any book that says “little did he know…” is one written in omniscient with a hidden narrator. Tolkien does this a lot. It takes you a few steps back from the characters, which could be bad or good, but generally it’s viewed as bad in the market.
a. It’s possible to do brief omniscient as so-called “viewpoint errors for stylistic effect.” For instance, at the beginning of every chapter in Wheel of Time, the viewpoint is omniscient, and then narrows into 3rd person limited. You’ll occasionally see that. Some also end chapters with a zoom out. Sanderson would avoid those starting off.
Default away from doing third person omniscient – it’s fallen out of favor in popular fiction in the last 30 years, though it’s not completely gone. If you have no good reason for doing omniscient, don’t do it.
What would be a good reason?
1) If your character is a mind reader or a god (he knows everything)
Tenses: past, present
These are tools – past and present are pretty interchangeable, but usually, people have a preference. Your default is usually past. It’s not a big deal either way. Present is kind of looked down upon in market fiction, since it can jar some readers who aren’t used to it, though it’s becoming popular in YA.
Speed of Dark switches between past and present in a very effective way.
How to Do Description Well
It’s easy to overdue in a story and you want to avoid overdoing it.
- You want to be briefer (retain content but in fewer words)
- More concrete
- Focus your descriptions on things that do more than one thing
- We have five senses – don’t forget it! Use more senses than just sight!!
Shorter and sweeter is going to have more impact. More impact is going to hold the reader to your story better. Holding the reader to your story better makes them continue going and get more immersed in the story.
Hyperbolically, nothing is worse than a big boring paragraph at the beginning of a book.
This is a huge challenge for us in fantasy/SF: names of characters; setting; the magic – for fantasy/SF the learning curve is much steeper – it’s a challenge but it’s also an advantage. Most of us reading SF/fantasy are reading it partly because of the learning curve. It’s more engaging to us; more imaginative; more going on that we have to learn. But it DOES create a barrier of entry. How you manage it is a skill that shows what you as a writer can do.
Generally, the lower the learning curve the better (for YA). It also can create difficulties since there are no things to compare others to, through metaphors – which is why many only step it so far, in the strangeness of the world.
Garden’s of the Moon by Steven Erickson – starts in media rez – HUGE learning curve, throws you right in the middle, and has flashbacks, no description of how things work, and just expects you to pick it up as you go along – steepest he’s seen in a contemporary SF novel.
How can you graduate the learning curve?
- Move some of your descriptions to being shorter and more concrete – put it in as you go along – things you don’t need yet, kind of shift them off to later.
- Classic – start in our world and getting sucked into the fantasy world – the characters are learning it too, a “Watson character” and it lets you get grounded with a character first before a new world is introduced. If the character is confused, the reader feels all right being confused.
- Shorten, briefen and focus it – dole out the information as it becomes strictly relevant – instead of, we begin our book, big block of text to explain where they are – try to shrink it down to one line as part of the conversation – can you chop it up into little chunks and distribute it throughout the first three chapters? A couple of lines here and there? There’s basically no way to avoid it completely, but you need to do this as much as possible.
Pyramid of Distraction
If you layer or build a big foundation of concrete language, then as you add things that are more abstract, you will hold the reader in the scene because you will feel like “oh this is this character thinking about this and this is part of their experience” and not “oh this is the narrator giving me all this information.”
The issue is a lot of times, when you add concreteness, you are often adding words and being less brief – they contradict each other. But if you can find a way to do it without adding words, you almost always should.
What is an abstraction and what is something concrete?
Love – You probably would assume it is abstract, but you also all probably thought of the same thing
A dog – Most would think this to be concrete, but how many of you thought of the same thing when I said “a dog”? You probably all imagined a different dog. You could almost say that “dog” is the abstract one. These two words are more in the middle. Each word we add on top of it to describe it is going to add more concreteness but less brevity.
Your goal is to be concrete with fewer words (the right words) – you want to describe it in a way that…
- cements someone into a scene
- does more than one thing
- describes in a way that sets tone, and mood
- says something about the character seeing the dog
- makes it concrete
- says something about the setting
If you can write a sentence that does ALL those things, and you can often add setting to that, that will do some info dump work. This is what we’re trying to do. You don’t want to learn longer, cooler words, but the right words – the precise words.
“wooden bed” versus “oak bed” or even “log bed” which suggests a log cabin perhaps – expands your vocabulary into words you already know; when you say there’s a four-poster bed in a room, you can extrapolate the rest of the room – describe one thing really well, and it describes the rest of the room; you don’t have to describe as much; really powerful, concrete sentences – to set tone, mood and character
This is what makes description work.
Talking about the dog – how can we describe this dog to set mood?
- A dog that had not yet been caught and eaten (setting, tone)
- A dog that’s injured (mood)
- You probably don’t want to say the breed in a fantasy novel, because that makes it an earth breed. In SF it can be ok. Sometimes, you can call it a more general breed – wolf hound, bird dog – though almost all terms do come from the real word secretly and you have to find balance. For instance, in fantasy, it’s probably best not to describe a foot stool as an ottoman in fantasy, because there’s no ottoman empire, and that’s where the word “ottoman” came from
- How to evoke character of a person seeing the dog – use the word mongrel; or a cute dog
- How about world building – “a fine hunting hound, who would lose one of those?”; if the dog has armor on (a war dog)
- The dog is whimpering and how terrible it smells (bad dog smell) – will make it several layers more concrete – multiple senses make things more concrete a lot faster than sight alone
- Make them relevant, little tidbits
- Then you can also relate an info dump sentence to your concrete thing – something like “it had been years since he’d hunted the drakes that lived clustered outside of town” kind of thing is much more interesting than a story where a son is reminiscing with his father
This is what the editors are looking for. We haven’t talked about character very much yet, but we’ll get there. The character who is a soldier will notice different things differently than a scholar would. For instance, “those fortifications could repel ten men” while the other scholar would say, “those fortifications were built upon the ruins of an ancient civilization.” Both get across the image of a walled city, but in a different way, depending on who sees it.