Yeah, that’s right. Extra post on top of all the Tom Gauld cartoons I’ve been putting up. Because I’m having trouble focusing on my book, but I’ve been helping other people with theirs.
Hey, speaking of which, a friend of mine was having a point of view problem. Her novel’s in third person limited, but every now and then it would kind of drift out of her lead character’s point of view and settle with somebody else. Only to leap back to the protagonist a few paragraphs later. She knew it was there, but she just couldn’t get it right in her mind.
And as we were shooting emails back in forth, I had a sudden random thought on how to explain it. Which I shared with her. And will now share with you.

Third person POV is like one of your characters having a parrot on their shoulder.

No, stick with me, this is brilliant…

Let’s say our main character is a pirate captain we’ll call Bonnie. Bonnie has a parrot who rides around on her shoulder. That parrot is her story’s point of view. Really, he’s our point of view into the story.

The parrot’s close enough to her eye level that it sees what she sees and hears what she hears as she moves through the plot. It’s even close enough to Bonnie’s head that it can hear her thoughts. Yes, some parrots are telepathic at close range. Really. But only at close range, so it can’t hear anyone else’s thoughts, because it’s on Bonnie’s shoulder.

If people walk away from Bonnie, the parrot naturally has trouble hearing them. I mean, its hearing isn’t any better than her’s. It might even have trouble seeing them. Heck, they might walk out of the room or building or whatever and they’re just gone as far as the parrot’s concerned. And the same’s true if Bonnie walks or rides or sails her ship away from them. The parrot’s on her shoulder, so it loses sight of them.

Now, this isn’t to say the parrot can’t jump to someone else’s shoulder. It’s not chained to Bonnie or anything. But if it does leap over to someone else… well, it’ll be really clear it happened. There’s going to be flapping wings and flashes of color and maybe a squawk or two. Everybody is going to know if that parrot switches shoulders. We’ll have no question it happened, and we’re all going to know where it is now. And once it’s over there it’s going to be seeing and hearing the same things as them. And maybe their thoughts, too, because seriously… they can do that.

But also keep in mind… the parrot’s not going to switch shoulders for no reason. It’s gotten comfortable on Bonnie’s shoulder. It’s content. It’d need a really good reason to jump over to somebody else. And to jump back. We definitely don’t want it jumping here and there and back and forth ’cause—again—we’re all going to know if the parrot jumps to another shoulder. And I don’t want people focused on all that movement instead of what’s actually going on.

My point is, at any point in my narrative, I should be able to say “where’s the parrot” and know the answer. If the parrot is suddenly somewhere else, and I don’t know how it got there, I have a problem. Because we know it’s a big deal when it jumps to someone else’s shoulder. If we missed that movement… something went wrong.

Does all that make sense?

My third person POV should stick with my character, and we should know—without a shadow of a doubt—if it shifts to be with another character. Because I don’t want my readers to suddenly be lost, trying to figure out how and when the point of view—when we, the readers—jumped from Wakko over to Dot. That’s the kind of thing that breaks the flow. And breaking the flow is always bad.
Next time… more random thoughts on writing.
Until then go write.
August 19, 2011 / 1 Comment

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…

My apologies for not posting anything last week and being late this week. To be honest, I was so wrapped up in the new draft of this book I forgot what day it was. Soon the fall season will start back up and I’ll be able to tell where we are in the week by episodes of Fringe and Castle.

Anyway, there was a suggestion for a topic and it got me thinking about something funny…

A joke is a great diagram for a story, because all good stories have a setup and a punchline. Not in the sense of evoking laughter, but in the sense of that one beat near the end that strikes a chord and gives you a little rush. In jokes and stories, you have a setup and a payoff. For example…

A nun, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says “What is this, a joke?”

It’s very short, but it does the job. It’s just setup, payoff, done. That first sentence is the setup. To be exact, it’s a type of setup we’ve all heard a dozen or more times, which is what makes the second sentence (the payoff) funny. Adding in other elements would just slow the story—the joke—and probably detract from the punchline.

Now, let’s take this a step further. Has someone ever told you a longer joke, maybe one that took a minute or three to tell? If they knew how to tell it, odds are you chuckled a couple times during the setup, yes?

In this case it’s not just the A-B of that first joke. We’ve got A-B-C-D and then the payoff of E at the end (E is for end, after all). There’s enough space to work with for B and C to be a bit funny themselves and get that extra chuckle before the punchline.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind, though. B and C are still serving the greater payoff of E—the greater good, if you will. They aren’t filler or random asides. Even though they get a laugh of their own, they’re necessary steps on the way to the punchline.

This is a lot like your standard short story. Most of them really just have one big payoff and that’s it. Think of some of the collected stories in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot or most of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales by Arthur Conan Doyle. The characters set out to accomplish goal A and by the end of the story they’ve done it. Or, in a few rare cases— “Evidence” and “A Scandal in Bohemia” come to mind—they admit they haven’t.

Even though they’re two hours long, most feature-length scripts tend to have more in common with short stories than books. In fact, if you talk to lots of screenwriters, they’ll tell you it’s always easier to adapt a short story than a novel. Most of us have read a short story and thought it would be fun to see more of him or learn about her backstory and maybe get a better sense of what happened there. That’s the stuff which is great to expand on in a screenplay. If you look at most films, you’ll see that they’re still a pretty straight line from A to E (or maybe up to J with the expansion). You may have heard some guru-types calling this the through-line. It’s how you make way through a story (or a joke) without any odd segues.

Look at the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. There’s one main story—catch the Black Pearl, stop Barbossa—which is made up of two side-by-side stories (arguably three). Despite this, though, each one of these elements has a very simple and clean A-B-C-D story. Will just wants to rescue Elizabeth, and all of his scenes reflect that. Jack just wants to reclaim the Black Pearl and sail free, and all his scenes reflect that.

Also, as I mentioned above, adding in unnecessary clutter would just slow the story—either the individual element or the film as a whole—so there isn’t any. Will never has a segue where he rescues puppies from a burning building or decides he needs to learn karate to rescue Elizabeth. Jack seems very scattered at first, but as the movie goes on it becomes clear how sharp and how focused he really is. Every scene in the film, no matter which thread it’s part of, is leading us to the same big payoff.

Let’s go another order of magnitude bigger and consider novels. The average novel’s going to be six or eight times the word count of most screenplays. It’s where the writer’s got time and space to go all out. We’ve now got A through Z. Maybe it’s even looping around to something like A through AF or something. The writer has a little more space to wander down those paths or maybe take the scenic route to their destination.

Good analogy, that one. Remember that when you take the scenic route, as a writer, you still need to get where you’re going. When you go down a random road for no reason it doesn’t matter how pretty the foliage is at this time of year. If there was no purpose to it you weren’t on the scenic route—you were lost. It’s cool that you enjoyed being lost and you got some nice pictures, but not everyone’s going to feel that way. A lot of folks are just going to see four hours of driving time they lost.

So even in a book, with all that extra space for plot and characters, you need to be aiming for that big punchline. Each of those smaller elements that got a chuckle are expected to get a full laugh on their own now, but they’re also still expected to serve the greater good. Remember, you don’t want to drop 4-5-6 in the middle of H-I-J-K-L.

Here’s another tip. Have you ever heard the term “episodic” used to describe something. Yes, television, of course, but there’s a reason for that. When something is episodic, the setups and payoffs come one after another. A is the setup for B, C is the setup for D, E is the setup for F, and so on. Think of older videogames where you’d move from one level to the next. New problem, solved, next problem. You rarely got a sense of the big story because nothing carried over. That’s what episodic writing does–it presents challenges that are immediately dealt with, so the story feels more like individual episodes than a coherent whole. To use our joke analogy, it’s the difference between a two hour stand-up routine and a two hour comedy movie.

If your story involves multiple setups and payoffs, take a second look at where they fall. Make sure they’re spread out, and make sure they’re all leading somewhere. Hopefully the same somewhere.

Finally, here’s a little exercise for you. Yep, there’s homework. I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve had to listen to someone who didn’t know how to tell a joke. So ask yourself—what did they do wrong? Was it their pacing? Did they give away the punchline to soon? ‘Cause the real trick to telling a good joke is being able to tell a good story. If you don’t know why they did it wrong… are you sure you aren’t?

Next week, why you should never carry just a screwdriver.

Unless you’re the Doctor, of course…

Until then, go write.