The following TreeTips (writing tips) are from the TripleTree Publishing monthly newsletter. The newsletter can be subscribed too by emailing (Rick@TripleTreePub.com) and requesting a subscription. To unsubscribe, email the same address and request removal.
TreeTip for November 2009: Conflict is Character
by Eric Witchey
The other day, one of my students objected to the idea that conflict is essential to story. She wanted long, poetic passages here and there to add spice to her story. After a few questions, it became clear she believed conflict would destroy the reader's experience of her literary use of language. Her misconception was that conflict interferes with good writing. I run into this attitude now and again, and I've come to realize it is a result of confusing conflict with combat.
Dramatic conflict is the opposition of wills during the execution of mutually exclusive agendas. Conflict comes in three flavors: Person vs. Environment, Person vs. Person, and Person vs. Self.
Combat is the lowest, weakest form of person vs. person conflict.
And, to be clear, conflict is characterization.
When a person picks up an apple off a table and eats it, we don't learn much about them no matter how poetic the language. When their agenda, a free apple, is opposed, the way they execute their agenda in the face of that opposition reveals who they are on physical, psychological, and sociological levels. Add a shop keeper who owns the table and wants to be paid for the apple, and suddenly the person who picks up the apple and eats it gains definition. How they pick up the apple tells us who they are. Do they sneak it into their coat? Do they openly grab it in defiance of the watchful shopkeeper? Do they pretend to pay or attempt to deceive the shopkeeper?
While combat is the weakest form of conflict, moral dilemma is the most powerful. Moral dilemma is internal conflict – person vs. self. Additionally, it often comes hand-in-hand with layers of person vs. person and person vs. environment. Why? Because in order to demonstrate deeper, emotionally charged issues, it is often useful to add external pressures. So, a Lutheran Minister lost with his four-year-old daughter in a tsunami-ravaged village where Islamic law requires the loss of a hand for stealing takes the apple in order to feed his daughter. Here we have person vs. person, person vs. environment, and person vs. self. That last one is the one that really grabs the reader. The minister must come to terms with himself over the interactions of his beliefs, his desire to represent his church in all things, his own hunger, his responsibility to and love for his daughter, and the future self he will have to live with if he fails in any of these core identity issues. The opposition of the shop keeper combined with the difficulties of the environment serve to force the deeper issues into focus.
Add all this to your best literary language and you have spice for your poetic genius.
TreeTip for October 2009: Character Interpretation of Setting
by Eric Witchey
Whether working in first or third person narrative, fiction writers all encounter the problem of narrative distance. Hours of work on character profiles and developing setting can end up meaningless unless our prose allows the reader live the experience of the story in the skin of the character rather than observing from outside as if merely watching television.
A character is not just a puppet moving around on an imagined stage delivering lines. Character is the complex experience of life as delivered authentically through senses, anticipation, regret, action, response, and transformation.
In other words, readers live the experience of the book when they believe in the completeness and consistency of the experience of the fictional person, when they see that the experience yields beliefs and emotions, when they see those beliefs and emotions challenged, and when they see responses consistent with their beliefs about the person's life and about what the person should or should not become.
Compare the following two passages.
In the first passage, the writer understands the coming conflict of the scene, the significance of blocking, and the importance of detail. However, the prose does not take the reader into the character's experience. Rather, the writer is visualizing the character moving through the setting as if the character were on stage or on television. This is a very common composition error in a culture dominated by visual entertainment.
-- He entered through the south door and paused. He wore J. C. Penney Docksiders, pale blue argyle socks, tan cotton Dockers, a burgundy, button-down Bugle Boy shirt, and a thin gold chain necklace. His build was medium and toned. He had a sharp jaw line, straight nose, blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a businessman's haircut. He looked to his left. He looked to his right. He crossed from the door to the dining room table and placed a small pile of envelopes on the table. The table was made of stained cherry wood veneer over a pine base. In places, the veneer was worn through and the pine was visible. It had brass screws holding it together. Three chairs were mission, two were Victorian, one was a folding steel chair. He listened for his wife then exited the room through the north door.
In the second passage, the same character has the same setting situation. Many of the same details exist. The same blocking and action take place. However, the narrative presents the character experience ofthe setting rather than presenting observations of the character from outside.
-- Squeaking hinges announced his arrival. They might as well have been a home security system. Sharon would hear him, meet him, and hand him a honey-do list that would kill his entire weekend. Clutching their mail, he crossed from the foyer into neutral ground, the dining room. Pausing, he cocked his head to better catch noises coming from the kitchen. Concentration amplified the house's ticks and creaks and the sigh of air through old, dry cracks in walls and floorboards. A deep breath that should have calmed him stank of cremated muffins. Failed baking was bad – very bad. The mail nearly slipped from his sweating hand. He gripped it more tightly and crossed to the dining room table, careful to step lightly on the soft, white-rubber soles of his Docksiders. He sorted the mail until the bills were on the bottom then set the stack in a neat pile at Sharon's place, in front of her martyr's chair, the folding metal church chair she insisted on using so no one else would have to be subjected to its indignity. He wiped his palms on the chest of the burgundy Bugle Boy she'd given him for his interview, then he thought better of it and checked to see if he'd stained the front of the shirt with his own sweat. Satisfied he was still presentable, he rounded the table and headed for occupied territory -- her kitchen.
In the second passage, the character experiences and interprets the setting. This allows the reader to experience both the character and the world rather than just observe.
TreeTip for September 2009: Choosing First vs Third
by Eric Witchey
The last two TreeTips described the strengths and weaknesses of first person and third person. This discussion presents some consideration for choosing one over the other.
One of the most common errors I run into while helping writers develop craft is selection of narrative person without consideration of the impact of that choice. A writer might compose a story in first or third person because it "feels right."The writer might stay with their choice during revisions simply because that's how they started the story. With a fifty-fifty chance the their choice will best serve the story, many writers never stop to actually consider that choice.
Considering that many fiction writers start young with diaries the graduate into spending many hundreds of hours journaling, it isn't much of stretch for them to compose stories in first person. It "feels right." Others might not journal at all, but they may have spent thousands of hours reading predominantly third person narrative fiction. For them, "feels right" might be third person. Regardless, the choice has impact on the reader's experience.
So, when beginning composition or when beginning revisions for the final form, ask the following questions before committing to first or third person narrative.
Does your reader's experience include fear that the main character might be killed? If so, then third person is usually better because it does not telegraph the fact that the narrator survives to tell the tale.
Does your reader's experience come in part from the knowledge that the narrator is a character in the story and their personal interpretation of their experiences are integral to the reader's enjoyment of the story? If so, then first person might be a better choice.
Does the impact of the story rely on the unreliability of the narrator? If so, first person might be the better choice.
Will the story have multiple points of view? If so, then third person will likely allow easier movement from one POV to another. However, in some multi-POV works, one character's POV is in first person while all others are in third. Making that choice might help the reader differentiate POVs and character importance.
Does the tone of the genre require third person, as in a fairy tale or a parable where the narrator is a raconteur of a tale that did not happen to them? If so, then third person is the way to go.
Do the reader's expectations of genre include omniscient narrative, as in romance where the third person narrative can slip from the internal experience of one character into the internal experience of another character in the same paragraph? First person would make writing very difficult if this kind of head-hopping is normal for the genre.
Does the narrative need to move from subjective to objective and back? In some murder mysteries narrative contrast between objective and subjective helps create an illusion of fair play between reader and writer. Additionally, movement into the subjective marks the movement into character experience and the subsequent possibility of misinterpretation of circumstance, clues, and events. If this is the case, then third person is more likely to be useful.
If the narrator is telling the story of their experience with another character, then the primary narrative might be in first person while the nested tale might be in third person. This is the same as telling a story about a friend to another friend. As in, "I was there the night she met him. He showed up in a tuxedo because. . ."
If the narrator needs to provide details that are not available to the characters on stage, will the reader need to believe the details are true? If so, then third is the more likely choice. If it is okay for the reader to doubt the truth of the details, or if it is important that the reader doubt the truth of the details, then first person might be better.
TreeTip for August 2009: Third Person Usage
by Eric Witchey
Third person, past tense is sometimes referred to as "invisible narrative." It is the most often used combination of person and tense. Readers experience it in their earliest reading experiences. Because they experience it early and often, they internalize it as normal so completely that it triggers the least amount of conscious consideration. It is the least intrusive and allows the greatest flexibility in POV. Third person has the additional advantage of allowing ease of movement into and out of closer subjective character experiences. Normal modern narrative is most often third person, past tense, limited omniscient, which means:
·Third Person: Verb agrees with third person pronouns: he, she, it.
·Past Tense: Actions took place in the past, and the action terminated in the past: ate, ran, held, took, shot
·Limited Omniscient: the narrator cannot access the minds and hearts of all the characters. Usually, limited omniscient means the narrator can only access the heart and mind of one character at a time, the Point of View (POV) character.
As the light left her husband's eyes, the dagger slipped from her sweating fingers. The cloying stench of her mother's lavender soap seemed to fill the study. She gagged, and a small voice in the back of her head told her the dagger had damned her -- damned her forever and ever and ever.
Third Person, Past
The most often used narrative form. It allows the least intrusion and provides for the greatest narrative access to setting. One drawback is that it is more difficult to create an unreliable narrator since doing so introduces greater intrusion. First person is more natural to unreliability.
Beneath the cliffs of the Dover shores, gulls turned on pointed wings and danced a dizzy waltz with winter winds and surf spray. The chill urge to step out onto the air and dance with gulls tugged at her belly.
Third Person, Present
Creates a stronger sense of immediacy, but it is difficult to keep up for any length of time because it limits subjectivity in narrative to the experience available in the narrative present.
Beneath the cliffs of the Dover Shores, gulls turn on pointed wings, dancing a dizzy waltz with winter winds and surf spray. The chill urge to step out onto the air and dance with gulls tugs at her belly.
Third Person, Future
Occasionally useful in main narrative when embedded in the POV character's third person, past tense, subjective experience:
She believed in him. He will be there, she told herself.
Normally used for prediction or anticipation:
He will hold the star fire in his hands. He will weave a tapestry of ancient lore upon the midnight sky.
Third Person, Past Perfect
Often used to separate the action of the narrative present from recounted events from the past of the story, especially when the story is folklore or myth to the characters inhabiting the narrative present.
When they had held the whore of Ithgar's ring, each had been given a new knowing, a new self.
Third person, past perfect is also used to initiate narrative passages told by characters about events that terminated prior to the narrative present.
"He had taken the ring to the elders."
Third Person, Present Perfect
Difficult to sustain as a main narrative, but often the form character narrative takes while making declarations.
"He has been to Golgatha. He has taken the oaths."
Third Person, Future Perfect
Seldom used for main narrative. Events that have not taken place yet lack authority in narrative. They feel speculative to the reader, and it is difficult to maintain urgency because the events are speculation. This is a form characters use to predict or to speculate.
"He will have been my apprentice for seven years come first frost."
A Note On Progressive Forms
Progressive tenses, TENSE+ING, represent persistent action. That is, the past tense of "to blow" is "blew." The past progressive of "to blow" is "was blowing." In the sentence, "The wind blew from the south." the action of the wind occurs in a particular moment presented by the narrator. The action took place then terminated at a particular moment. In the mind of the reader, it has no duration.
In the sentence, "The wind was blowing." the wind blew at a moment presented by the narrator and continued to blow in subsequent moments. In the mind of the reader, the action progresses through the moment of perception.
Overuse of progressive forms asks the reader to evaluate multiple actions simultaneously and to keep them active in imagination until the narrative offers a marker for stopping them.
"She was screaming, loading the Colt, running down the hallway, stumbling over debris, and searching for cover."
Each action continues while the next is initiated and continues. All the actions end up taking place at the same time. As the reader encounters each new action, they must mentally back-track to re-visualize each previous (but still continuing) action in order to add the new actions to their visualization of the moment. Additionally, unless the narrative offers an action that ends each progressive action, these actions continue in the reader's imagination indefinitely.
Careful use of progressive forms can helps in creating persistent, dynamic details that can be used during the subsequent, discrete dramatic action to reinforce a sense of place.
"The wind was blowing from the south, carrying the ozone of distant lightning in through shattered windows. She ran down the hallway, stumbled over debris, and hit the floor hard. She rolled onto her back and pulled the Colt from her bag…"
Here, the progressive form sets up the background action that continues while the character engages in discrete, terminated actions. In the reader's mind, the wind and smell are persistent through the subsequent action.