Tag Archives: tolkien

Calculating POV

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 The raptor sent me an online discussion and analysis of long series epic fantasy today, written by Marie Brennan, which had some very interesting things to say about structure. The point that I found most interesting – partly because I hadn’t come across it before – was a mathematical approach to dividing up your points of view. This is primarily relevant to people who write in third person or omnipotent, which I haven’t for a couple of years, but the idea behind it is fairly universal.

Every word is furthering the core story in some way (and if it isn’t, get editing). If you only have one point of view, then in a 100k novel all 100,000 words are furthering the story of that protagonist. If you have two POVs, that number is cut in half. Sure, there may (should) be overlap because their arcs intersect but the airtime is divided and therefore so is the focus. Start ramping up the number of POVs and you quickly end up with not much word count in which to further each character’s focus. That impacts both the pacing and the reader’s connection with each character.

You also need to be aware that adding more characters not only affects pacing – it can also create subplots. Let’s say Jimmy is the first narrator, before Barry takes over. Presumably Barry takes over because he has his own thing to focus on and Jimmy’s not able to narrate that. Fine and dandy – Barry goes off to handle his issue. Subplot 1. But what’s Jimmy doing whilst Barry’s dealing with it? He’s got to find something to occupy him, so we introduce Subplot 2. For each new narrator character, you likely have to create at least one additional sideplot.

Let’s put it another way. The Fellowship of the Ring gets to the Falls of Rauros, where Frodo decides he needs to deal with the Ring on his own (+ Sam). Fine and dandy, but what do Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas occupy themselves with in the meantime? Subplot: Merry and Pippin are kidnapped and need rescuing. That actually creates two subplots – the hobbits, who end up with the ents, and Aragorn & Co. who end up with Rohan’s politics.

Again, remember your word count. Subplots mean that you have X fewer words to forward the main story. Is it worth it? Is there any way that you can take the important bits of the subplot and include them in the main tale? Or, alternatively, can you avoid creating that fifth POV character, and present what he was going to say through the eyes of Narrator #3? You risk losing focus, bloating word count and losing your reader’s interest – do the maths and decide if it’s worth it.

Finding the right voice is one of the biggest starting challenges of any story, and using more than one can actively help in the narration style. I’m certainly not advising you to always stick with one POV as a hard and fast rule. But you do need to be aware of the drawbacks of multiple narrators and handle them right. As Marie Brennan said:

There’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other people’s mistakes.

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Tracking Tension

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Over the past few days, as well as lots of family and more food than is good for me, I have had some much valued R+R. This has meant I’ve finally sat down and organised my prep notes for Animus, and finished them. I now have characters with sketched arcs and desires, a chapter-by-chapter plot outline, filed research notes and a tension graph.

This last is something I realised was really useful near the end of writing Spiritus, by which time it was too late for that book. The reason it’s so useful is because, once I’m mid flow, I tend to lose track of the ups and downs of story stress levels. That’s a big problem – you need to keep the tension cycle going at the right timing and level in order to both maintain the audience’s interest and give them some breathing space. It also helps a lot with getting your pacing right when outlining the chapters in the first place.

I decided to do mine on an excel spreadsheet, using a rating of 1-5. 1 is base, with no real tension, and 5 is peak tension which should only be used once or twice during the story so as not to devalue it. I broke the story outline down into individual events (some as small as a conversation) and assigned a tension value to each. These will probably change as I’m writing, but having that blueprint to aim for is very handy.

In a perfect world, a tension cycle should have the following: high tension at the start to draw the audience in, then a gentle rise and fall towards the key change point (about a third or half way through – think Elrond’s Council in Fellowship of the Ring), then another slightly less gentle rise and fall building towards the peak tension at the end, with an optional cool down at the very end.

That’s an example, of course. There are several different and equally valid patterns, but in every case the pacing is important. You need to give your readers something to grip them and a period of rest. Too much grip and they become exhausted; too much rest and they get bored.

Anyway, the tension graph for Animus came out like this, which pleased me:

Animus tension graph

It’s not the most beautiful graphic in the world, but it is a clear visual blueprint to follow and, in the original spreadsheet, it has the chapter points against each bit so I know what relates to when.

This is far and away the most organised I have ever been in approaching a writing project. Let’s see if the extra effort pays off.

Creative Licence

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Greetings from sunny Baltimore! My company, in its infinite wisdom, has flown me out here for three meetings, one of which I could just as easily have had back in London. It does mean that I get a couple of days remembering what summer looks like though, so I’m not complaining too much. (Summer is nice, by the way. I recommend a visit.)

On the plane over I watched John Carter. There’s a lot wrong with the film – not least, the fact I only learned the names of several key characters by reading the wiki entry later – but there’s one thing that I absolutely loved. The titular hero is transported from Earth to Mars, where the difference in gravity and consequent physicality means he can jump ridiculous distances. Now, I know nothing about biology and even less about astro-physics, but as a layman I really liked this approach to changing planets. Something on the nature of breathable gases would have been nice, since they were paying nominal attention to this sort of thing, but I guess a hero who dies of asphyxiation upon arrival makes for a short film.

This got me thinking – is it okay to ignore some physical logical consequences for the sake of storytelling? Is that acceptable creative license or running up against visible red thread? Or just a sign that your setting isn’t solid enough? At what point, if ever, are you as a writer allowed to rely on the reader’s suspension of disbelief?

Example: Tolkein’s elves are naturally immortal. We know that they can and do have multiple children – Elrond had two sons and a daughter. So why isn’t there a population explosion of elves? How come they are confined to two small patches of forest, rather than taking over the whole of Middle Earth? Same question for the therns of John Carter, the vampires of Anne Rice, and a whole bunch of others.

The answer is that it makes a different story, and we’re telling this one. Think how much poorer the world of literature would be without those tales, physical illogic and all. We address what we can and hope the adventure itself carries the rest, that the reader will forgive our lack of geo/biological perfection.

But is that good enough?

EDIT: Apparently this is related to Fridge Logic – a term I had not previously heard before but which is beautifully descriptive.

Your Mission, Should You Accept It

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My friend and occasional blog commenter Tyantaka linked me to this video today. For those of you who don’t want to watch it, it’s ten minutes on the hero’s journey. Now, I’ve talked a lot about character development before, but there’s one thing I haven’t even mentioned which this video lists as a key part of the hero’s progression arc: the Refusal of the Call.

This is the point when the hero either turns his back on the adventure, or at least wishes he was able to. Whilst it’s not essential for a plot, it is an incredibly useful tool, particularly in fantasy. It gives your audience a chance to see that the hero isn’t just this amazing doombot who can totally handle everything the Big Bad throws at him. Crucially, it gives them a chance to empathise with the hero as a person, and then feel all the more attached to him when he rises above his own preference to do what must be done.

A word of warning, though: the Refusal card can be overplayed, and then you risk turning the audience off your hero altogether as he becomes sulky, whiny, or otherwise self-indulgent. Harry Potter suffered this fate occasionally, as did Garion of the Belgariad, Rand al’Thor of the Wheel of Time, and I could go on. Very frequently, those are the books where people vocally prefer the supporting cast because they do the same job as the hero but without the spotlight, and aren’t such bloody wimps.

It does work wonders, done right. There’s a scene in the extended Fellowship of the Ring, which lasts all of a minute, and Aragorn utters one line:

I do not want that power. I have never wanted it.

It’s the only time we see him really state that he is against his fate, then he goes out and does a bang up job. Not once does he moan about being dragged all across Middle Earth, nearly killed dozens of times, risk the life and love of his girlfriend, and be acknowledged as Sauron’s Enemy # 1. But because we know that he didn’t want it, we feel for him far more than we otherwise might have.

Thinking about it, my hero doesn’t get a chance to refuse until about two thirds of the way through the book. Even then, it’s someone else refusing on their behalf and they slap it down. This is possibly something to go back and fix during editing – I’ll have to sleep on that. Again, it’s not an essential point on the plot checklist, but frankly (seeing as they aren’t human anyway) the character could use all the empathy they can get.

To Be Continued

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I hate cliffhangers. There is nothing more guaranteed to drive me into a paroxysm of frustrated table-thumping than a two-parter on TV. Build up of tension is all well and good, and I know I listed cliffhangers as a tool of pacing in yesterday’s blog, but as an audience they drive me up the wall. I’m engaged, in the zone, wound up to a peak of tension, and then… roll credits.

Rage. From a writer’s perspective, though, that reaction is everything you could want. It almost guarantees that they will tune in next week, or storm Waterstones for the hardback of the sequel, or whatever the medium calls for. The reader’s emotion is thoroughly engaged with the story – albeit often in a Hulk-esque way – and they will be back. But the depth of that emotion indicates the power of the tool, and with great power… you know the rest.

Basically, use it once and you’ve got them hooked. Use it twice and they will start to hate you, whilst continuing to love your work. But abuse it and you lose them. In this age of instant gratification, cliffhangers are less welcome than ever and you’ve got to have a damn good reason for employing them.

I’m not saying don’t end on a climax – far from it. But closure is important and that’s the crucial thing that a cliffhanger lacks. You can do teasers for the sequel which are less enraging, and yes, less compelling, because they provide the audience with an emotional ending on some level. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring is a good example of this – plenty of hooks into the next chapter of the story, without driving us demented. Dr Who, on the other hand, is a repeat cliffhanger offender and only escapes having something thrown at it because a) it’s a relatively new TV and b) I have them all on box set and can put the next one on immediately.

Cliffhangers between chapters is fine, by the way, although again be careful of overusing the technique as it’ll start to lose its effectiveness. I’m really just talking about places where the audience will be forced to wait a period of time before getting their next hit. The line between heightened anticipation and irritated disinterest can be very fine indeed.

How To Guarantee Success

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Death, apparently. Specifically, death of a main character. It’s a time-honoured tradition and brings with it a sort of kudos (George R R Martin, anyone?). But someone has now mapped the impact of killing characters on success and come up with this glorious image:

The books listed are those that won the Booker Prize in 2011. They have pretty wide-ranging themes, from homicidal cowboy brothers to jazz, but all of them kill off a main character. More importantly, it’s the only theme they all share.

Tolkien killed Boromir, Victor Hugo killed Javert (amongst others), Shakespeare killed everybody – there are thousands of examples. So sharpen your literary hatchets, writers, because apparently that’s what it takes to make it big.

Honestly, I’m not sure how massive a pinch of salt to take this with.

War – What Is It Good For?

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I’d like to start by saying thank you to those who responded to yesterday’s blog. Between opinions, advice and recommended reading, I managed to crack the love story issue last night. It took three hours, but the shape of the plot is now drafted and the first chapter written. Ta muchly!

Today’s challenge is kind of at the other end of the spectrum. Make war, not love, or something of the sort. All stories must have some kind of conflict, be it internal, natural or against another person(s). Without conflict, there isn’t much of a story because what is there to progress or resolve? In some cases it can just be a puzzle or mystery; in others, a personal issue to overcome. Today, though, I’d like to look at physical conflict on a large scale. War and invasion.

Wars are a fantastic backdrop for a story. So many stories can happen within them, they provide multiple opportunities to challenge the protagonists, and a handy way of getting rid of characters should you so desire. But you can’t just have a war for its own sake. Everything must happen for a reason. For Homer, the reasons were numerous – a chance to take over the lucrative trade route from Troy, an opportunity to try and unite Greece against a common enemy, and because the gods wanted to rid the world of heroes so they made it happen. For Tolkein, the reason was a mixture of fear (Sauron wanted his ring of power back) and greed (he’d take the rest of the world whilst he was at it), plus an underlying and unsustainable culture clash between Mordor and Gondor. For Rowling… um… Voldemort was bad, m’kay?

Why do wars happen in real life? It’s usually not about the stated reason – Helen of Troy was only the excuse, as was Franz Ferdinand and the WMDs (maybe – not getting into the politics of that here). So what are the underlying reasons? Wikipedia blames WW1 on ‘imperialistic foreign policies of the great powers of Europe’, which frankly seems like a crap reason for invasion and wholesale slaughter. The current Middle East conflict is largely attributed to greed for oil, plus an initial fear over what they could do to us if they wanted. The English Civil War grew out of a political and religious clash; the War of the Roses and the American Civil War both basically boiled down to who was in charge of where.

At a basic level, we seem to keep coming back to fear and greed. But wars are expensive things, so the greed pay-off has got to be pretty impressive. Now, I have an ongoing conflict that runs throughout my story between two countries, lasting on and off for around 400 years. Currently the motivation is resources – one country wants them and doesn’t have much of them, whilst the other has them in spades but isn’t prepared to share. That driver seems a little weak to me for such a prolonged fight, but then so do most of the reasons for the real wars cited above.

So here’s a question for you: what would you consider to be a good reason? Can there ever be one?