Recently I came across Pixar’s rule #19, quoted in James Scott Bell’s book, “How to Write Short Stories (and use them to further your writing career)”. It’s an excellent book, and one of a few of his I’ve got in my Kindle collection. But this rule reminded me of the whole list, full of good advice for storytellers whether their format is film or novel (from flash fiction to tome). Most writing advice boils down to things like focus, self-discipline, detail work, and honing one’s craft to the best it can be – and that is an on-going process, a habit, an addiction. It needs to be a passion. Honing our craft means covering all the bases – grammar, syntax, plot, character, vocabulary, pacing, theme-building, and so, so, much more! If you’ve got a weakness in your writing skills, the good news is that you can always improve it! Make it a strength! So be inspired, and keep writing!
Category Archives: Plot Thots & Profiles
POV is shorthand in the film industry for “point of view” – in that context, it has to do with not only the narrative context but also the camera angles and editing process. Changing the POV can affect the way the audience – or readers – perceive a character, an event, or the overall atmosphere of a scene.
Recently I was watching a history documentary series from BBC called, “British History’s Biggest Fibs”, with Lucy Worsley. The basic point of the series is that history is subjective; whoever wins gets to name the battles, and shape future generations’ perceptions about events; the victor gets to smooth over their own weak points and play up their heroism for posterity. PR and spinning a good yarn helped to shape how reigning kings were perceived and toppled, or usurpers could style themselves as “successors”.
When writing a novel, the POV can drastically change a scene either from the inside, or the outside, or both; by that I mean that either the scene itself changes “camera angles” to tell the story from a slightly different perspective, or that something within the scene shifts slightly, affecting the reader’s perceptions of characters or events in the scene. For example: I was reading through a particular scene in my current manuscript that I knew I wasn’t happy with, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me aside from the outcome. The scene involved an unjust flogging aboard a Royal Navy ship. The officer on duty was forced by the captain to either flog the innocent man or be punished worse in his stead. The original scene played out with the officer carrying out the punishment unwillingly but obediently. The scene’s purpose is to show the gradually decaying grip on reality in a captain going insane; I wanted a stronger contrast, and so I tweaked the dialogue, which changed the outcome: The officer refuses to punish the innocent man and takes the punishment on himself. This outcome builds far more tension among the crew, gives grounds for retribution against the true instigator (a snivelling King John’s man of a junior officer), and contrasts the honourable dealings of the officer on duty against the captain’s failing sense of right and wrong. By shifting the scene slightly, I take the reader and myself down a much steeper path.
In this illustration from Marvel’s Avengers film series, the camera angle chosen gives much more of an adrenaline rush than, say, if you were passively watching from off to the side; the fact that the arrow’s flying straight at you gives the scene that extra “kick”.
If you find yourself staring at one of your scenes – or even an entire premise of your story – that you’re not satisfied with, trying shifting the POV (sometimes it helps me to refer to it as the “camera angle”). Put your inner eye’s camera in a different position in the scene, and see if that unlocks the key to improving that scene, the story arc or a character’s arc. Keep writing!
Elmore Leonard, best known for countless novels and their film adaptations, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, was known for this gritty writing style and strong dialogues.
Here are a few of his gems of advice for writers (with my comments in parentheses):
- “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
- “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” (Think: thick paragraphs of prose; boring lists; role calls that seem to be there more to remind the writer who’s in the scene than to entertain the reader.)
- “If proper (grammar) usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” (This advice should follow the adage, however: First learn the rules; then you’ll know how and when you can break them.)
- “Never open a book with weather. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe snow and ice than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”
- “I never see my bad guys as simply bad. They want pretty much what you and I want: They want to be happy.”
- “At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.”
- “It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.”
I saw this image a few weeks ago on Pinterest, and found it fascinatingly creepy. It’s a great example of perspective, thwarting assumptions, and the fact that the image automatically raises certain expectations – until you see the caption. What our minds initially perceive may or may not be accurate; only when we see the bigger picture, or have more pieces to the puzzle, does that perception or perspective change, or get adjusted to a more accurate overall understanding. Doing this with words is an art form: It’s about building expectations and thwarting them without making the reader feel like you’ve drawn them in under false pretences. If they can look back through what they’ve already read and realize that only their assumptions were wrong – that the writer never misled them, but they misled themselves – then you’ve managed to find that fine line!
As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me. I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.
Kitchen Sink Realism
Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel: I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale. This genre description actually has a name: Kitchen Sink Realism. It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios. It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism. My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”
A Tough Nut
I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring). As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with: They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store. This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”. When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios. My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact. She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward… A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too: “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.” An epic love story might do her a world of good.
What’s Worth Reading
What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself. Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way. I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.
Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal. Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances. Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters. It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.
On to You!
When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for? I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!