April 18, 2014 / 2 Comments

No Capes!

            Decade-old pop culture reference, but it’s still relevant.  And fun.  Especially today.
            As a lot of the book covers over on the right suggest, I’m big on superheroes.  Have been for years and years now.  They’re a popular topic these days, too.  Comics.  Television.  Movies.  I tend to get asked about them a lot, and I talk about them a lot.
            Because superheroes are so popular, people are slapping that label on lots and lots of stories. There’s a distinction that needs to be made, though, and I think it’s one some folks have trouble grasping.  And since so much of being a good writer is grasping those little details, I thought it would be worth going over.  Apologies, because this one’s going to be a little more lecture-ish.
            First… a little history.
            The whole idea of masked avengers arguably started with The Scarlet Pimpernel.  There’s probably a strong case to be made for the Count of Monte Cristo, but I think for this little rant the Pimpernel’s probably the best example.  It was a 1904 story by the prolific Emma Orczy about a swashbuckler who fought for the oppressed in Robespierre’s France by using a series of disguises and a circle of secret operatives.  There was also Doctor Syn (a.k.a. the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) in 1915, Zorro in 1919, and then a series of comic book superheroes like The Phantom and The Spider before we started seeing familiar folks like Batman in 1939 (seventy five years ago almost to the day, in fact).
            Interesting point, though…  None of these characters had any sort of actual powers.  They were just mortal men (and a few women, even back then) with a lot of training and skills who hid their true identities behind a mask or elaborate disguise.
            Now, on the other hand, stories of people with actual superhuman abilities have been around for thousands of years.  Literally, thousands.  Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Icarus all had superpowers centuries before the birth of Jesus (who, arguably, also had some powers of his own).  The regenerating Green Knight first appeared in medieval Arthurian legends.  The Grimms wrote up several stories about the strongest man in the world, the fastest man in the world, the man with the sharpest hearing, and so on.  Robert Louis Stevenson created a scientist who could change into a monster, and H.G. Wells had one who could turn invisible.  In modern day times, Stephen King started his career with a telekinetic teenager, a precognizant schoolteacher, and a pyrokinetic little girl.  Alexander Key, Dean Koontz, and Stephen Gould all wrote novels about people who could teleport.
            However… are any of these characters actually superheroes?
            My point is, superheroes and superpowers are, and have pretty much always been, two separate things.  One doesn’t necessarily require the other.  And, like a lot of story forms, if I get confused about which one I’m telling, things can go in a lot of weird ways that… well, don’t work.
            Now, some folks claim, for example, that Gilgamesh was always a superhero story.   So were all the Greek and Norse myths.  That’s what superheroes are, right?  Modern mythology?
            I kind of disagree with this.  H.P. Lovecraft once made the very clever observation that we couldn’t have true supernatural storiesbefore the 19th century because until then people really didn’t know what the naturalwas.  So trying to re-classify older stories doesn’t work.  I think the same thing applies here.  There were many tales of heroes with superhuman powers and abilities before the Scarlet Pimpernel, but I’d argue the idea of an actual superhero story didn’t exist until the early 20th century.  There was a definite split there into those two distinct forms—superhero stories and superpower stories.
            And, as I mentioned above, if I don’t know which one I’m writing, it can cause some problems.  They’re not interchangeable, and some of the concepts don’t play well together.
            Let’s go over a couple basics I’ve observed over the years…
            Right at the start, I’ve noticed that superpowers stories tend to brush over the origin of said powers.  In both Jumper and the Harry Potter books, we’re just told that this is the way the world has always been.  Some folks get the teleport gene.  Some can do magic.  That’s it.  If superpower tales do have an origin in them, they tend to lean toward the hard sciences, making it as believable as possible… but still pretty much brushing over it.

            With superheroes, though, the origin is pretty much a standard.  A writer can also get away with somewhat sillier, softer-science origin stories.  More than a few characters have gotten superpowers from blood transfusions (including one of my own).  Lots of folks stumble across magic or alien artifacts.  Radiation was a common source of superpowers for decades, despite what we learned in seventh grade science class.  Heck, Stan Lee wrote a story where someone got their powers by standing near a nuclear bomb when it went off.  Absurd, yes?  Yet here we are today and that’s still the accepted origin of the Incredible Hulk (though they’ve quietly retconned him a bit further away from ground zero).

            As far as character motivations go, a superherostory is almost always defined by a person who makes a conscious decision to publicly use their powers for a wider goal that may not benefit them (and often doesn’t).  Most of them feel morally compelled to use their abilities this way.  They aren’t doing it to show off or to get even with someone.  Obvious as it may sound…superheroes act heroically.
            This public nature also means they deal with public sentiment of one kind or another.  Iron Man’s a celebrity in just about every sense of the word.  Superman’s an iconic part of Metropolis.  Captain America’s a venerable historic figure.  Batman and Spider-Man receive mixed reviews.  The X-Men are openly considered criminals.
            In a superpowers story, the characters may have superhuman abilities, but their motivation tends to be personal, and their actions are usually behind-the-scenes.  When powers are revealed in superpowers books, it’s almost never a good thing.  Consider Carrie and Firestarter, both of which I hinted at up above.  In each book the girls hide their powers until they need them (for revenge and to rescue her father, respectively) and when their powers are revealed these are moments of absolute horror.  The Green Knight tests the character of knights on a one-at-a-time basis, and if you know that tale you know the awful way people learn about his powers.  In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith’s trying to save the world, but he has to do it alone and secretly because no one will believe him.  Hiding your powers and staying apart from the world is a main theme in both the Harry Potterand Percy Jackson books. 
            The abilities in superhero stories tend to be much more extreme, too.  There’s Superman and the Sentry, two examples of the “living god” superhero.  For decades the Flash could actually run faster than the speed of light.  The Scarlet Witch could alter reality on a planetary scale while Phoenix could telekinetically manipulate matter on a molecular level.  The only limit to what a Green Lantern ring can do is the wearer’s imagination.
            Compare this to superpower stories, where powers are usually much more “believable” and often have limiting side effects.  In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith hemorrhages when he uses his powers too much, and so does Charlie’s dad in Firestarter.  In Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place, teleportation can mean scrambling your body, your mind, or both.  In Limitless, the IQ-enhancing drug can (and usually does) kill you when you go into withdrawal.  In fact, the only two superpower stories I can think of where someone has overwhelming powers would be Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven and the film Dark City (but if you can think of others, please let me know).
             In a superhero story, I’d say a costume is almost necessary, much in the same way a cowboy needs a hat and a horse.  Mostly because it’s how my hero or heroine protects their secret identity and the people around them.  However, I will toss out the proviso that putting my main character in a costume doesn’t make my story a superhero story, just like putting them on a horse doesn’t automatically make it a western.   
            Superpowers stories involve street clothes.  Even if someone has a “uniform” way of dressing, it tends to be suits, boots, leather jackets, and other things that wouldn’t look that out of place on a city street.  Hercules didn’t have a special outfit for performing the twelve labors.  Carrie doesn’t duck out of her prom to put on a leotard and a domino mask.  On Grimm, Nick tends to just dress like a police detective, even when he knows he’s going up against Wesen or other monsters.
            I also think a lot of this difference has to do with the world a given story is set in.  More often than not, a superpowers story has a very realistic setting.  Aside from a very limited, few beings (most of whom stay out of the public eye), there’s almost nothing to distinguish it from the real, day-to-day world we read about online.  And that’s going to affect what characters know and how they react to things.  Even how they interact with each other.
            By contrast, look at the settings for some of our well-known superheroes.  In both the Marvel and DC universes, the existence of aliens—several types of aliens—is a well-documented fact.  New York was very visibly invaded by aliens in The Avengers movie.  Superman’s a known alien.  So are Hawkgirl and Hawkman.  Green Lantern works for aliens.  Magic is real in both universes, too.  Spider-Man is a common sight swinging through his version of New York, where the Avengers and Fantastic Four both have very public office building.  Heck, I think the Avengers have two or three buildings at this point.
            Needless to say… those stories are not set in the real world.  And, as I said before, the setting definitely influences my story.
            So, all that being said…
            I think one of the problems with pushing a superpowers story into the superheromold is the silliness factor.  The motivations don’t always work as well.  When someone puts on a costume in a real world setting, it tends to feel like the writer isn’t taking things seriously.  In the final chapter of the BBC’s Jekyll, when Dr. Jackman unites with Hyde to become truly superhuman, It would’ve been ridiculous if he’d stopped to pull on a leotard and cape.  There’s a well-meaning little indie film called Sidekick where the hero does just that in the third act to rescue his love interest, and it feels completely absurd.

            You get similar issues going the other way, too.  People historically read superhero comics for escapism.  We want to see Superman fly around the country, not walk across it.  When someone picks up the latest Incredible Hulk, they want to see him get angry and perform some feats of amazing strength, usually coupled with some amazing property damage.  While some of the issues Doctor Banner’s dual personality causes him are interesting, nobody opens an issue of the Hulk really hoping to see ten or eleven pages of Bruce sitting in a diner discussing physical strength vs. spiritual strength with the waitress.  I think Marvel and DC’s sales figures over the past few years will back me up on this.  The audience for superhero stories isn’t looking for stark realism.
            This is also why some things in related universes just don’t mix well.  John Constantine is part of the DC Universe, but he doesn’t really fit with in with the Superman, Captain Atom, Green Arrow crowd.  Neither does Dream of the Endless.  Marvel has zombie hitman Terror, who also is clearly in the Marvel universe but just never sat right alongside Spidey, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, and the rest.  Whenever these two types of characters interact it always seems awkward, and one or the other doesn’t really feel right.
            Now, granted, these aren’t formal rules that have been set down by tenured professors.   If we just look at a lot of fiction, though, we’ll see that this separation of powers (so to speak) has been around for ages.  I’ve given a bunch of examples here, and even more when I first talked about this idea a few years ago

            As always, I’m sure someone can dig around and find that one story where Constantine teamed up with Green Lantern and it was magnificent.  But overall, if I’m going to play with super-powered characters, it’s probably a good idea to be clear what kind of story I want to tell.  Because if I don’t… well, there might be some clashes.  Not the fun bare-knuckle kind, either.
            Next time, while I try to finish up this new draft before Texas Frightmare, I’d like to talk about drafts.
            But until then, go write.
November 17, 2011 / 5 Comments

Our THREE Secret Weapons Are…

            Pop culture reference.  Overdue.

            Okay, so what I wanted to blather on about today has its roots in screenwriting, but it’s a lesson that can get applied to short stories and novels as well. Simply put, it has to do with boring your readers.
            Some of you may have heard of the “rule of three.”  It’s  a good screenwriting rule of thumb that you should never do something more than three times in a movie because it starts wearing on the audience.  By the third time you’re showing me something, I’ve either got it or I don’t.  And if I don’t, it’s not my fault…
            For example, in the movie Iron Man we see three big examples of Tony Stark’s playboy lifestyle before something happens to make him change (blowing off the award ceremony, sleeping with the hot reporter, and partying on his private jet).  He then goes on to design three versions of the Iron Man armor, which also involves taking three test flights (one of them very, very short).  While all this is going on, we get three examples of what a great guy Obadiah Stane is, three of what an evil jerk he is, and the ever-loveable Agent Coulson asks three times about debriefing Tony and we get three jokes about the overly-long name of his government division before the payoff most comic geeks saw coming. 
            Seriously, pick up almost any movie you like and you’ll be stunned how quick the threes add up.  The Hulk goes on three rampages in his last movie.  In Highlander we see three other immortals die before the final battle.  In Aliens there are three major attacks and three examples of Burke being a slimebag.  In the movie Severance, the bear trap slams shut three times (and if you haven’t seen it, I’m not explaining that any further).  In Casablanca, Victor and Ilsa ask for the letters of transit three times.  Heck, in The Princess Bride, how many challenges does the Man in Black have to overcome to claim Buttercup (I’ll give you a hint—Inigo, Fezzik, Vincini)?  And there are three great swordfights in that film—all involving Inigo.
            Now I’m sure some folks reading this are thinking three’s just an arbitrary number, right?  It could be the rule of two or the rule of four.  That’s very true, and you can find some examples of both.  In Charlotte’s Web, for example, the children’s classic by E.B. White (he of the awful style guide), there are four words that get spun into webs and none of us were screaming “get on with it” when our parents read that book to us.
           In a script I just read, though, there were over a dozen examples of how low the single-dad main character had sunk.  It starts with him late for work (as a waiter—historically a job of high pay and great respect) where he had a party dine-and-dash so he has to cover their bill.  Then his car breaks down and he has to walk home in the rain.  Then he gets a collections notice. Then he has to go grocery shopping and doesn’t have enough money.  Then the babysitter demands more money because he’s late again.  Then his power gets shut off.  Then anotherparty dines-and-dashes on him and he gets fired.  Then he gets an eviction notice.  Keep in mind, this is only the first twenty pages of the script or so, and there’s still more examples coming.
            At what point did you get the idea this guy’s at rock-bottom?  Halfway through that list?  A third?  Check which note you got it on and count backwards.  Was it on the third example?
            I bet it was…
            Here’s the thing.  Each time we get exposed to information or events, it changes our understanding of them.  And a writer needs to be aware of how the reader is going to be seeing these facts or events.
            The firsttime we get exposed to a piece of information—and only the first time—it’s something new.  We, as the audience, didn’t know this or haven’t seen it before.  Agent Coulson’s introduced as yet another guy who needs to schedule a meeting about Tony escaping from Gulimar.  We brush him off the same way Pepper does (well, those folks do who don’t recognize the initials of his agency).
            The secondtime we see this happen, on the page or on screen, it establishes a pattern.  Now we know the first time wasn’t an isolated event or a fluke, and it gives us a little more information about things and characters.  Coulson shows up again and hasn’t forgotten about this meeting and he isn’t going away.  There’s also the unspoken question of how did some low-end, government flunky get into this extremely high-end exclusive party.
            The thirdtime confirms that pattern.  These behaviors or incidents are a definite element of the character or story.  Coulson shows up to remind Pepper of his loosely-scheduled appointment and she grabs him to use as a shield against Obadiah.
            When I start going past this point, things start becoming less informative and more… well, boring.  Once the information’s been established, continuing to repeat it is just noise the reader’s going to tune out.  And eventually—quickly, really—they’re going to get annoyed that I’m just repeating stuff they already know rather than moving forward, because storytelling is all about forward motion.
            Now, as I said above, there are always exceptions to the rule of three.  One of the easiest ways is when a writer is very subtle about something and the reader doesn’t realize they’ve gotten that first exposure.  They may be on their third or fourth before they notice it, so the pattern forms around the fifth or sixth time—and is all the cooler when they look back and realize the pattern was there all along.  When we finally notice the Observer on Fringe, we discover he’s been there all along, in every episode.  Another good example is Jason Hornsby’s Eleven Twenty-Three, where a town is suffering from brief outbreaks of extreme violence. It happens twice before the characters realize the outbreaks always occur exactly at the titular time, and then they suffer through three more of them before the end of the book.
            On the flipside, there are times we only need to see something once or twice to establish them.  This works best for real-world things that most people can relate to.  Neo only gets chewed out once by his boss, at the beginning of The Matrix, and we all immediately realize what kind of employee he is.  In Dean Koontz’s underappreciated Fear Nothing, we only need to see one of Christopher’s parents die to understand his sadness and loneliness.
             You can also change the dynamic.  Establishing something with the rule of three doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it.  One of the standards of good storytelling is conflict that forces things to change.  Once we’ve seen three examples telling us who  this character is, it’s a good time to start working that arc to change them into something else.  Yes, that third time asking about the appointment makes Coulson look like the ultimate paper-pusher, but right after that point we discover just how calm and collected he really is.  This is a guy who doesn’t just have a sidearm, he carries around shaped explosives just in case he needs to open a locked door.
            Look back over some of your writing and see how many times you give examples of something.  Character traits, recurring events, whatever.  Could some of them go away to tighten your novel or give you more space in that script for something else?  Or can you restructure things to hit one of the exceptions I mentioned above (three exceptions, for those of you keeping score).
            Next time, I wanted to take a step back and explain why you should avoid taking a step back in your writing.
            Until then, go write.
January 9, 2010 / 2 Comments

The First Rule of Fight Club

Starting the year off late, which doesn’t set a good precedent, but also with a surprisingly clever pop-culture reference (as you’ll come to see), which does. If you don’t know the reference… go. Just go. I’m not joking, please leave now.

All those wanna-bes and posers gone?
Good. So, I figured I’d start by ranting about something I see crop up more and more in fiction. Would-be screenwriters, this week might be a bit thin for you, but if you follow along, who knows, I may say something clever.
Anyway, there’s a fiction writer (and sometimes writing coach) named Damon Knight who points out that first person is really a bit of a trap. A lot of people use it because they think it makes their story more personal, more realistic, and easier to get into. It also creates an instant character in the story—the narrator.
Truth is, though, first person is one of the most difficult tenses to write well. It isn’t personal, it isn’t realistic, and it makes it extremely difficult to create a character. I mean if it’s so easy, why aren’t the so-called hacks like Stephen King or Dean Koontz using it more often? Oh, sure, King’s written a few first person short stories, a novella or two, but the vast majority of his work is plain old third person perspective.
The reasons first person is so tough are kind of invisible, which is why it’s a trap. They’re things that make perfect sense when they get pointed out, but until then… well, it’s easy to wander in, set off a dozen tripwires, step into the beam of light, and suddenly you’re at the bottom of a deep hole. Hopefully not one filled with stakes.
To be clear, I’m not saying first person is a bad tense to write a story in. Far from it. Some of my favorite stories are written from this perspective, and it is some gorgeous, genius writing. It’s definitely not an easy viewpoint, though. Even experienced writers will run into a lot of problems with it, and inexperienced writers will often hit them at terminal velocity.
Here are a couple of those hidden problems. If you’ve got a first person story, you may want to take a glance through and make sure it doesn’t suffer from any of them.

The first problem is suspense and tension. You’ve probably heard this one before, because it’s one of the first issues that needs to be addressed in a story with this perspective. Any story has to have a degree of conflict and tension, but in a first person story a thick layer of that tension is scraped off the top because of the format. If we’re only halfway through the book, we know there has to be more than the narrator’s tale than just getting the girl. We also know the main character isn’t going to be killed in a first person tale because… well, they’re telling us the story.
Yeah, there’ve been a couple clever stories that have gotten around this roadblock, but they usually do it with a bit of a cop out. At this point, enough stories have revealed their first-person character is a ghost, angel, vampire, or some such thing that this reveal is probably just going to frustrate or bore readers more than anything else.
From this angle, writing in first person just drives us into a corner.

Next, first person is a very limited viewpoint. The reader can only see, hear, and experience things the main character does. We never get to see the other side of the door and we have no idea what happens to Wakko when he leaves the room. We don’t get the suspense of us knowing something’s happening that the character doesn’t know about. This also means we can’t be privy to extra detail, nor can we have any doubt if something did or didn’t register with the main character.
By its very nature, this also requires most first person stories to be told from a very “average-man” level. If the character is too smart and figures things out too fast, it kills the story. If said character is rock-stupid and can’t solve a single problem, it kills the story and frustrates the reader. Consider that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories are told in first person, but not by Holmes. They’re told by Watson, a very smart and able doctor–but nowhere near the range of his best friend.
So, from this angle, writing in first person drives us into another corner. A different corner, yes, but a corner nonetheless.

Another problem that relates back to viewpoint is that you can’t have forward motion in your story without action, and the common way action grinds to a halt is when the writer stops for description. I mentioned a while back that the problem with pausing to describe details about the main character‘s height, weight, eye and hair color, shoe size, skin tone, education, and preferred underwear color (sorry Facebook folks) is that everything comes to a halt while we do.
This kind of gear-grinding stop is bad enough in a regular story, but in a first person story what’s the only way we can get this description? That’s right– if the main character starts talking about themselves. And what would you think of me if I spent the next ten or fifteen minutes talking about my chiseled abs, broad shoulders, or rock hard glutes (all of which, I can assure you, are a complete fabrication).
So in a first person story, this kind of description brings the story to a halt and it makes your main character look more than a bit egotistical. What kind of woman writes two pages in her diary about how hot she is? How much of a ninja are you if you pause to admire your posture and build in a convenient mirror?
Heck, imagine how awkward this would seem in a horror or adventure story? I open the door to reveal the armed terrorist/ hungry zombie/ angry ninja and I pause to describe them as they’re leaping at me. The thing is, we see a lot faster than we can write or read. My first person character may register a lot of details, but it’s a very tricky balance leaving those details in or out during moments of action. I can notice the ninja is a woman with green eyes and a wisp of red hair peeking out of her hood, but if I pause to say that it seems that she’s just standing there in a very un-ninja-ish way. If I describe her afterwards, I now have to pause and refer back to something the character actually saw two or three pages back.
And so, here we are, written into a corner again.
For the record, I’ve just decided the word for a female ninja will be ninjette. At least for our purposes here. Just thought I’d get that in writing.
Now, Knight has a nice exercise in his book Creating Short Fiction. What he suggests is to rewrite a few chapters into third person with as few changes as possible. Don’t restructure, don’t add anything– just turn me into him or her. He really suggests rewriting the whole thing, but he’s usually talking about short stories. Twenty or thirty pages will do for most of us here.
Once you’ve done this, re-read your story. If the character you had in first person has vanished, it’s because there wasn’t a character there to start with. Just the illusion of one. If your story vanishes… well, there’s some work to be done. That’s the trick of first person, and why you have to be careful with it. It gives the impression of creating a personality and defining a person, but it rarely does.
This ranty blog (any blog, really) is a great example of a first person trick. I may seem personable, funny, and clever–but do any of you reading this actually know me? Okay, granted, a handful actually do, but I know there’s another, much larger handful that wouldn’t know me if they bumped into me on the street. It feels like you know me, my likes, my dislikes–you may even have an image of me in your head. Once you stop and think about it, though… you really don’t. Try writing down a rough character sketch of me based off the two or twenty times you’ve read something here and you’ll be surprised how little there really is. If I rewrote this post as a third-person column I would vanish altogether.
Which is a great time to wrap this up.
Next week I’d like to take a moment to re-introduce the blog for those who came in late. It’s still early in 2010 and I’ve been at this for almost a year and a half, so it might be good for all of us to recap.
Until then, go write.
November 19, 2009 / 5 Comments

And Now For Something Completely Different…

A long-overdue pop culture reference for the title, just to get us moving.

It’s always interesting to me when I try to figure out what next week’s blog will be about, for that little teaser at the end of this week’s blog. This week’s started off when I was passing quick notes back and forth with a friend who’s doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. He had a clever idea for one of his upcoming chapters, about midway though his work-in-progress, and I… well, I was advising against it. Then someone brought up the same issue on a publisher’s message board I frequent. A few days later, I was reading scripts for a contest and found one where said issue had become one of the problems crippling the screenplay.

What is said problem, you ask?

Well, the first time I ever saw Doctor Who was halfway through a very trippy story arc called “The Deadly Assassin” (which has finally become available on DVD). It was probably the worst set of episodes to try to start watching the show on, because the Doctor spent a good chunk of it in the mind-twisting reality of the Matrix (yes, Doctor Who had a Matrix decades before Keanu Reeves did). A few months later I tried again and WGBH (which only had so many episodes) had circled back around to “Robot,” which was the first Tom Baker story, also featuring the lovely Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane. And that’s how I became a Doctor Who fan, and have remained one for most of my life.

What the heck does that have to do with any of this?

Well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? Suddenly bam I’ve gone from the usual rant to some senile doddering about my childhood without any sort of transition.


Transitions are what I wanted to rant about this week. That moment your story goes from this to something else. It can be a shift in character, person, location, or time. Every time you switch, you’re asking your audience to take a moment to readjust. The bigger the shift, the bigger the time of adjustment. Most of us could make it past either a six inch step or a three foot drop, but one’s going to take a lot more effort than the other.

As a writer, you don’t want the audience to think about that adjustment. If everything’s done right, the transitions will be as invisible as the word “said.” If there are too many transitions, though, going in too many different directions, it’s too much like driving on a road covered with speed bumps. You’re asking the reader to pause again and again and again and again. If a manuscript has too many transitions, or too many extreme ones, it’s going to go into that large pile on the left. What would you do if a manuscript made you pause half a dozen times in the first ten pages? Would you keep reading or get back to folding laundry?

I mentioned my friend who started all this off (and who most likely is reading this). Let me be blunt and hope he forgives me. In the middle of his superhero action-intrigue story, he wanted to do an entire chapter in verse. Chaucer-style, Canterbury Tales verse. Why isn’t important for our purposes, just that he was going to do it. He had a very solid reason for it, and I have no doubt he could’ve pulled it off.

The thing was, he’d actually had several point of view shifts in his novel already. Some of them were basic shifts– we’d go from third person focused on him to third person on him. Then there would be jumps to first person narratives. And epistolary chapters. And flashbacks. Plus a frame that was a flash-forward. So it wasn’t just that he wanted to do a chapter in verse, it’s that he wanted to do a chapter in verse on top of everything else. All fine and good on their own, but as they begin to pile up…

As a brief but relevant segue, let me talk about Dean Koontz for a moment, author of (among many, many others) Watchers, Dark Rivers of the Heart, and the Fear Nothing series (which I really hope he goes back to some day). Early in his career, Koontz wrote a great little book called How To Write Best Selling Fiction It’s gone out of print, and the author himself has said he’s got no interest in seeing it re-issued. I think a lot of the reasons for both are political, because in this book young Koontz did say a lot of blunt, rather unkind things about publishing, gurus, and wannabe writers. Now, in all fairness, many of these things were completely true, and still are today. They’re not what people want to hear or admit, but, as a friend of mine once told our boss, if you wanted a cheerleader you should’ve hired one. If you can find a copy– grab it (they go for big bucks on eBay). If you can find it online, download it, memorize it, and delete it. Than write an angry letter to Writers Digest Books telling them how they’ve forced you to resort to piracy.

Back on track, though.

One thing Koontz stresses, and you can see it in his work, is to never shift viewpoints within a chapter. Use the chapter break itself as the big pause and try to have as few little ones within it as possible. Now, I’d never go as far to say you should never switch within a chapter, but I also think Koontz has a solid track record backing him up.

So, a few quick tips for transitions…

Fewer – This is the easiest one. The simplest way to avoid troubling shifts is… well, avoid them. Look at the transitions in your writing and figure out how many of them can be trimmed out or consolidated. Is it harder to tell a story with fewer transitions? A bit, yes, but far from impossible. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope doesn’t have one transition in it. It’s a single continuous film narrative from start to finish. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe only has two in the entire novel. It switches to an epistolary journal for a few dozen pages and then back to the regular narrative. There aren’t even chapter breaks.

Smaller – As I mentioned above, it’s easier to go down a six inch step than a three foot drop. It’s easy for a reader to go from third person, past- tense to another third person, past tense. It’s a bit harder to start in third person, past tense and jump to second person, future tense section and then back… or to a first person, present. Likewise, jumping between the thoughts of a Harvard professor and a golden retriever is going to be a bit jarring. Bigger jumps mean bigger pauses to adjust, and also more of a disruption in the flow of your story.

Smoother – One way to lessen the impact between sections is to make the transition as organic as possible. A common way of doing this is by creating parallel structure in text or dialogue to keep up a certain rhythym. Another is to do continuations, where, for example, a question gets asked in the first part but the answer is given after the transition.

Make Them Have Purpose – Is there a real reason the story’s going from this point of view to that one? If so, your readers will be more willing to accept the change. If not, it’s just going to frustrate them more. Much like when I prattled on about structure, if the shift doesn’t accomplish something in the story, you shouldn’t be doing it. Make sure the story as a whole is focused, and that there’s a real reason we’re suddenly spending a page with Wakko, the wannabe actor who’s working as a waiter on weekends and about to serve a drink to the main character.

Now, there is sort of a halfbreed flipside to this. A common problem, especially in screenplays, is a complete lack of transitions. Gurus and how-to books tell people to cut description, cut words, cut everything. So fledgling writers take that advice and cut… well, everything.

The problem with that approach is, while it sounds wise on the surface, what it really does is leave you with nothing on the page and nothing between scenes. Suddenly, we’re in a house with Jane. What kind of house? Old? Modern? Is it the present day? Are we in the kitchen at lunchtime? The bedroom at midnight? And while I’m still reeling trying to figure out where we are and why Jane is yelling at George, suddenly we’re in an office. A newspaper office? A telemarketing office? Is it real office or a field of cubicles? Too late, now we’re with George in his car…

I’ve set down a lot of scripts like this while I was reading for contests. None of them went in the pile on the right.

So, there’s my random musings on transitions. Hopefully not too random.

By the way, the reason “The Deadly Assassin” was so hard to follow as an introductory episode was because it took place across a virtual landscape formed from the stored memories of the Time Lords. In other words, it was a mish-mash of settings with no transitions between them. It would’ve been so much smoother if I’d said that up front, yes…?

Next week we’re getting into the holidays, so I won’t take up too much of your time. I may talk about it, though.

Until then, go write.