Tag Archives: writing

In Summary: How to Write a Synopsis

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This term is all about developing the individual novels that will become our final projects, so my next few blog posts might get a bit… focused. I’ll try to keep them generally useful, still!

Start at the very beginning

We’ve been looking at the synopsis to start with. This is comprised of two (or sometimes three) parts. The first is the pitch – a short opening paragraph that shouldn’t be more than two sentences long (around 75 words) which describes the book as a whole. For example:

Pride and Prejudice is a literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.

Your pitch needs to include your title, an indication of genre, time period, and primary theme. It also needs to pique the interest enough for agents to read further. They’re busy people – if they can get away with just reading one or two sentences before deciding the book isn’t for them, they will. Give them a reason to keep reading.

My pitch – prior to input from the tutor, which I’ve not had yet – looks like this:

London Under, an urban fantasy, follows DI Mariko Sato as she investigates a murder that could trigger a gang war. As Mariko falls for the main murder suspect, who draws her deeper into London’s fantastical underworld, she must choose between duty and desire.

Would that make you want to keep reading? Any suggestions for improvement?!

The term ‘pitch’, by the way, apparently comes from the delightful habit the Spanish Inquisition developed when torturing playwrights. Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada told them that, if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they failed they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar, or pitch. No pressure, then.

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Not cool, guys. Not cool.

 

A brief description of the contents of something

That’s the dictionary definition of a synopsis. The key word there is ‘brief’ – no more than 500 words. Writing effective summaries is hard work, y’all, especially when you know the details in so much depth that you’re not sure how to leave them out. Or especially when you don’t know the details and are slightly woolly on the structure of the story.

There’s a couple of stylistic guidelines you should stick to when writing a synopsis:

  1. Use present tense. Apparently it makes it ‘immediate’. No idea, but they all are so just go with it.
  2. When you first introduce a character name, use capital letters.
  3. Limit the number of character names you mention, as hard as possible. No more than five.
  4. DO specify time period.
  5. DO specify the setting (end of Thatcher’s government? American backwater town? Bustling space-port?).
  6. DON’T give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This is an overview of the key dramatic points.

On the subject of overviews, the thing I found hardest was excluding information on sub-plots. My book has at least three sub-plots going on and they all tie into the main plot somehow. Not including them in the synopsis feels almost like misleading the agent on what the story is about, because what you end up presenting is just bare bones. But including them whilst keeping to the word limit of 500 makes the synopsis crowded with details to the point of unreadability.

One question which came up is the style in which you introduce your protagonist. I started my synopsis like this:

MARIKO SATO is single, a detective, and too busy to do the washing up – all things her mother deplores. She’s also developing a serious crush on the niece of her current homicide victim.

Now, technically a good two-thirds of that first sentence aren’t critical to the main plot (although they do tie into some of the subplots). One of my colleagues on the course questioned whether it was worth the word count to include it. Another asked why I hadn’t introduced any of the other characters with flavour text like this – they got a good sense of who Mariko was, but nobody else. I suspect, like all things, there’s a balance to be achieved here but I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping the course tutor will have some words of wisdom on the subject – if so, I’ll share them next week!

And finally…

The third, and optional, bit is the theme. If your book is about a wider idea – if you’re examining something about society outside the fictional – then one brief sentence outlining what that is can be included. This is more common for film synopsis than written ones, but I found it quite helpful. Theme isn’t the same thing as plot, by the way. It’s a bit more conceptual than that.

Here’s mine, by way of example:

How far people will go for duty, and how far they’ll go for love.

There was also quite a lot of discussion about what ‘plot’ actually means, as compared to ‘story’. Aristotle got quoted. Tune in next week to find out why that whole conversation is important in the first place!

The Colour of Characters: Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

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Picking up from last week, I want to talk a bit more about representation in fiction. For the purposes of disclosure, I should state at the beginning that I am a white Western heterosexual CIS woman, so the only kind of ‘minority’ issues I’ve ever personally encountered are grounded in sexism. But I have friends who’ve had to put up with the stupidity of bigots, I’ve done some research, and I’m capable of empathy. That doesn’t mean I know anything like all the aspects around this subject – if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, please educate me. The only way we can improve is through shared experience.

Reinforce or Resist

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Sign in an Australian pub in March 2014. Spot the stereotyping. And the racism.

I put ‘writing to reinforce or resist’ in the title of the previous blog post but I never really went into what that means. Basically, there exists a stereotype of every different section of society – be that based on colour, country, gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. When you’re writing about a section that isn’t the one you belong to, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using the stereotype to build your characters. That reinforces the stereotype, perpetuating it in the minds of your audience. Sometimes it’s done out of laziness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes by design. One of the best ways to ensure the status quo continues is to keep telling people that the minorities are lazy, or criminal, or perverted – some version of undesirable which justifies keeping them down.

When you write a ‘minority’ character (and yes, I’m using those quote marks deliberately because more of the world is, say, Asian than any other racial type combined), you either reinforce that stereotype or you resist it. Reinforcing it is, as I said, either lazy (do better), ignorant (research your story), or deliberate (your politics and mine are going to have serious disagreements). Resist the stereotypes.

Represent

I’m going to quote myself from last week: ‘Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement.’ But it’s much bigger than just non-Western. There’s so few POC characters in SFF. There’s even fewer queer characters.

As a writer of mixed descent (half-Chinese, half-white) who was a voracious reader as a child, I never saw myself in the kind of books that I devoured: fantasy and science fiction, adventure and romance… It seemed like readers would rather accept talking dragons than a mixed-race princess… The only solution left for me was to write one. ~ Amy McCulloch, Guardian article

Go reach McCulloch’s full article – it’s not long and she makes some great points, but they all boil down to this: we need greater diversity of character. SFF writers are capable of world-building fantastic and complex societies. Surely we can do better than one skin tone. In fact, it’s essential we do because our audience is certainly more diverse. Anyone who isn’t sure about the importance of representation need only read this account of seeing autism in Guardians of the Galaxy, or this viewer’s response to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One, or look back to this photo of a child meeting one of the stars of 2016’s Ghostbusters remake:

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This went viral because it proved an ‘all-girls’ Ghostbuster film was not, in fact, a terrible idea no one would enjoy

We get our rolemodels from the people around us and the material we consume. If that material repeatedly shows us only white men are ghostbusters, or fire fighters, or woodcutters, then we assume no one else is allowed. But if we start to show people outside that narrow parameter getting involved then we give the world billions more who believe they can kick spectral ass.

Just because we write SFF, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a responsibility.

Historical Accuracy

The standard excuse for not including diversity in SFF based on real world periods is because it isn’t historically accurate.

  1. Is that an elf riding a dragon over there? I do believe it is. Didn’t see many of them around in 12th Century Germany.
  2. Shut up and read this: Diversity in Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Or this: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy by Tor Publishing
  4. Or this: Gender & Sterotyping in Fantasy by Fantasy Faction

Now, there are some people who might say ‘that excuse stopped being used years ago’. I would love for that to be true. I really would. But I have a friend who, not all that long ago, was told she couldn’t be a military general in a LARP game because she’s a woman. This stuff doesn’t go away if we stop talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop existing just because you personally don’t see it.

“It’s amazing what you notice when you just look up for 5 minutes and see what’s going on.” – RA Smith, Representation, Whitewashing & Internationalism panel, LonCon 2014

And speaking of history, I’m going to get political. The US is just about to swear in a new president. One who is on record for making incredibly denigrating comments about women, the disabled, foreigners, and religions other than Christianity. As Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” – watch the full speech here

It is more vital than ever that we show our readers colourful, varied, socially complex worlds – worlds where ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ – before they start believing anyone who isn’t white, Western, able-bodied, straight and CIS male is less important and can be treated as such.

Don’t reinforce the stereotypes. Resist, research and represent.

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Class & Race: Writing to Reinforce or Resist

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The final few weeks of the last university term were all around certain aspects of character portrayal – notably, where are they from in both the economic and genetic sense. This is something it’s really easy to get wrong when writing characters. Especially if it’s a different one to yours.

Now, in the SFF world, you might think you’ve got a little more latitude. Who’s going to tell you how dwarves really speak, or the racial challenges greenskins face? But these things are much more powerful if you anchor them in something real and relatable. And even with made-up aspects, it’s still possible to do it badly.

Relative Distance

Distance between author, character and reader is something I harped on quite a lot about at the end of last year, and it’s still relevant here. If, for example, your character is from a very poor area, you still need to write about them as a person and not – as Somerset Maugham did in Liza of Lambeth – like a specimen under observation. Maugham used descriptive language that was completely alien to the slum setting, and clearly set the authorial voice at a distance from the lives of his characters. That automatically puts distance between the character and the reader, which makes it way harder for the audience to engage. 

Bear in mind, of course, that your characters can buy into the stereotypes about each other. That creates internal tension and lets you play with breaking them down – or not, if you don’t want to. Just be aware of what the stereotypes are and, if you use them, do so deliberately!

Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to the characters’ views of each other. What stereotypes do the characters believe about themselves? Either on a personal level, or because society is telling them it’s true. By way of example, here’s a passage by black writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was talking to Harlem in 1950:

…the folklore of “reversion to type.” This curious doctrine has such wide acceptance that it is tragic. No matter how high we may seem to climb, put us under strain and we revert to type, that is, to the bush. Under a superficial layer of western culture, the jungle drums throb in our veins. ~ ‘What White Publishers Won’t Print’, written for Negro Digest Magazine

Speech & Dialect

Okay, this is a tricky one and there’s no right/wrong answer. The easy and obvious part is: use language that is appropriate for your character’s background. That may take some research. Don’t fall into the trap of assumptions and caricatures.

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The hard part is dialect. Do you write phonetically or not? Some people do, some don’t. The real challenge here is to get the reader hearing the right accent in their head without making it so hard for them to read the words that they’re jolted right out of immersion. If they have to stop and translate / sound out what you’ve written, you’ve lost them. Some dialect is easy to transcribe – ‘gonna’, for example, is clearly indicative of how the character speaks but also highly legible. But if you write the entire conversation in a phonetically transcribed thick Scottish accent, it’s going to slow the reader down at best and make them skip the whole passage at worst.

As for using different languages, the best thing I can do is refer you back to the lecture on foreign languages in SFF at Nine Worlds.

What is Normal?

This is the key thing – building up the background in a natural way. Bring out the cultural aspects of the character’s background without parodying them. Which brings me back to a very old refrain of mine: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE). Put in the tiny details that are normal to a very poor/rich environment, or a different culture, but normalize those details by just folding them into the description. Don’t explain or highlight them. They become background noise, flavour, that makes the setting – and therefore the character – that much more believable.

If the character later leaves their natural environment, you can start explaining the new things they encounter to reinforce their strangeness in this new setting. In this way you can make what might be normal to your reader fresh and interesting, seen from a different perspective.

Mimicry, Difference, Hybridity

The literary criticism on race and ethnicity is huge in scope and complexity, focusing on both colonial representations of the ‘other’, distanced, denigrated and used to justify imperialism, as well as postcolonial examination of what tends to be termed ‘new writing in English’. At times, the term ‘race’ is placed in inverted commas… to indicate the writer’s assertion that this is not something natural or inherent, that “race” is a constructed cultural creation. ~ Middlesex University course notes

This ties more into lit crit and writing styles than character creation and representation. Basically, as a writer, what is your style and cultural starting point? Are you imitating the writing style of another culture? If so, are you doing it with a suitable amount of research to carry it off? If you are imitating, why? What does that culture’s perspective and language give that your own doesn’t?

Language is a fascinating thing. It pins down and formalises the way we think, the types of ideas we have and how we structure them. Different languages and cultures approach things from different angles, and shifting your perspective can reveal very interesting things. Take the word ‘hero’ as a simple example – across the world, those four letters mean very very different things. But beware of cultural appropriation. Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement. You’re speaking for an entire culture. If it isn’t yours, do your research and treat it with respect.

Hybridity, a contemporary concept, argues that there is no such thing as racial or ethnic ‘purity’ no clear position from which anyone can speak, since every ‘race’ is a complex cultural mix that is constantly evolving. ~ Middlesex University course notes

Humans have always been really good at drawing ‘us against them’ lines. Class wars, racism, xenophobia, it all stems back to the same thing – a fear of otherness. But here’s the thing: the Other is the same. Same biology, same urges and needs. The differences are cosmetic, or experiential. But people tend to resist accepting this because it means they have to acknowledge they are the same as the Other, which challenges their view of themselves. Difference disliked is identity affirmed.

This is one of the trickiest minefields to navigate, because both class and race are so fraught with politics and the potential to seriously offend. Which is where the beauty of SFF comes in. You can address some of the issues via classes and races that don’t exist in the real world, which neatly sidesteps the offence whilst making people think about the politics. To quote Sir Terry Pratchett:

Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because — what with trolls and dwarfs and so on — speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green. ~ Witches Abroad

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Or blue… 

The Theory of Relativity: Time on Paper

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Okay, some notes on the use of time and compression in story structure. A lot of this stuff might sound really self-evident (in which case, I’m doing my job of explaining it right) but it took 11 pages of my lit crit text to explain. Which really tells you more about lit crit texts than about the complexity of the subject.

Represented vs Representational Time

Represented time is the time that passes in the story or, to put it another way, the in-story time it takes for events to unfold. Also called ‘perceptible time’.

Representational time is the time it takes to tell the story. You can tell a year in a paragraph, or half an hour in a chapter. Also called ‘intellectual’ or ‘narrative’ time.

Because here’s the thing – time is malleable. Even in life our experiences of it aren’t constant, even if the passage of it is. Hours drag, days fly past, etc etc. On paper, where writers have control over how fast it’s passing, it becomes even more so. This is important because it provides the writer with a really important tool: attentional prominence.

Fluctuations in the speed of narration along with manipulations of frequency can be viewed as metrics of value or at least attentional prominence – David Herman, Time, Plot, Progression

This is pretty much the same idea as Chekhov’s Gun – if the description of a scene dwells on the gun over the mantlepiece, that gun is probably important to the plot. It’s a way of flagging it to the reader as something worth keeping track of. Similarly, if a lot of writing (representational time) is devoted to describing a short period of story (represented time) it implies that what’s going on in this scene is important. If several years of represented time are skipped over in a small amount of representational time, those years probably don’t matter so much. The writer can use the compression and extension of representational time to spotlight the points in the story that the reader should pay attention to.

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Dodge this…

Genette outlines the broad categories of attentional prominence as follows:

  •     Representational time < Represented time                = Summary
  •     Representational time = 0, Represented time > 0    = Ellipse (or skip)
  •     Representational time = Represented time                = Scene
  •     Representational time > Represented time                = Stretch
  •     Representational time > 0, Represented time = 0    = Pause

This relationship between the two, in whatever balance, is called duration. So, by working out the duration, you can take a guess at how important the passage is to the overall story.

Start At The Very Beginning

I’m going to leave aside the question of what constitutes a beginning, since I already tackled that in the discussion of causal chains, and simply say that for the purposes of this conversation it’s the first chronological event in the fabula.

Narrative exposition is, according to Wikipedia’s definition, ‘the insertion of important background information within a story’, generally talking about things that occurred or exist before the events of the story that are being narrated (fabula) took place. Which, obviously, comes at the beginning, right?

Au contraire. Remember what we talked about last week on A4-B5-C1 stuff and reordering events? So the beginning doesn’t necessarily come at the beginning, and the stuff before the beginning can crop up whenever it suits your structure. You can include it in flashbacks, recounted memories, or just mucking about with sujet (the order in which events are presented).

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Freytag’s Pyramid Story Structure

Some scholars seem to think this raises a question about 3-Act Structure, or Freytag’s Pyramid, or any of those basic story structures. Is it the structure of the fabula (events of the story) or the order in which those events are narrated (sujet)? But these structures are all focused around how the story is communicated – the sujet – not on the fabula. They’re calculated to control the tension levels of the reader, not the characters. So the fabula could have a very different structure and tension map than the sujet. That might be worth bearing in mind when thinking about your characters’ tension levels at any given point.

Structural Deception

The expositional information [may]… enrich, modify or even drastically change the reader’s understanding of it. ~ Meir Sternberg, ‘An Essay in Temporal Delimitation’

The most fantastic example I’ve seen of this is in the recently released film Arrival. If you haven’t seen it, skip the whole of the next paragraph because I’m about to spoiler massively.

The film opens with a fairly compressed montage of the protagonist’s daughter being born, growing into a teenager, falling ill, and dying in hospital. Then the opening credits roll. Because it was presented at the beginning, the audience naturally assumes that this is the protagonist’s background and therefore interpret all her subsequent behaviour in the light of a grieving mother. As the film unfolds, however, it gradually becomes clear through a sequence of memory flashes of that montage, that the protagonist is ‘remembering’ things that haven’t happened yet due to contact with aliens who experience circular or concurrent time, rather than linear time. That completely changes not only the understanding of the character’s actions to date, but also those of her decisions in the future – the fact she continues to act in a way that will take her into the future where her daughter dies fundamentally alters the audience’s perception of her interactions with the man she knows will become her daughter’s father.

For literary examples of fantastic non-linear literary construction, I’m going to refer you back to my old favourites: Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. If this is something you’re interested in playing with, it’s also worth doing some research into how different cultures view the passage of time. to get some ideas that might help you break out of linear time.

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Emplotment: Time Travelling Through Narrative

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Once you’ve sorted out your narrative structure, you need to decide on your temporal structure – that is, the order in which you narrate the events of the story, and in what style. This is massively important as it is responsible for pacing, tension, and basically just telling the story right. Inevitably there’s a whole load of theory around it, some bits of which are more useful than others.

Story vs Sequence

The chronological events of the story, and the order in which those events are told, are not the same thing. A dude called Viktor Shklovskii distinguished them by calling the events tabula, and the sequence sjuzhet or sujet. By giving them labels, it means we can more easily talk about them separately and in relation to each other.

There’s a bunch of different ways in which you can structure the sujet:

  1. Simultaneous – the action is taking place as the characters narrate it. e.g. commentators watching a sports match. The action is taking place at the same level as the narrators.
  2. Retrospective – the narrator is calling back to the events of the past. This is the most common structure.
  3. Prospective – the narrator is forecasting, predicting, or (if it’s an implied author) taking the reader forwards into the future. Example: He would remember, later, how she looked that night.
  4. Intercalated –  as in the epistolary novel, where the act of narration postdates
    some events but precedes others.
  5. Analepsis – more commonly known as ‘flashbacks’. Different from retrospective, in that that they take the reader temporarily even further back – another level of time down – from the level of the main narrative.
  6. Proleptic foreshadowing – sort of the opposite of flashbacks. Also called ‘anticipations in hindsight’, briefly forecasting a likely outcome of something, usually to create tension or highlight a recurring theme of the story.

Characters rarely have total knowledge of their environment or of other people’s histories, so at the most basic level there must be some recounting within the story of past events. With an understanding of different temporal constructions, the writer can do more interesting things to relay these and use them to build mystery or tension.

This ties in with Bal’s theory of narrative levels – the further from the action the character is in terms of narrator status, the less reliable they become. Similarly, the further from the action the narrator is in terms of temporal proximity, the less reliable they become. The manner in which events are being told – retrospective, simultaneous, etc. – will impact the privilege and bias of the players. 

Local Standard Time

The sequence of events locally to the characters may affect, and be affected, by what’s going on in the wider world. By using temporal construction carefully, the tabula can be mapped onto the wider environment within which it occurs, thus creating a more holistic constructed world and exploring the consequences of events. Again, you can narrate things in sequence, or you can play about with the sujet in order to create tension and bring out themes.

inmediasresGenette approached it by numbering the chronological events of the story, and lettering the order in which they were presented. So a story that presents the events in their natural chronological order would go A1-B2-C3, but a story that jumps around would go A4-B5-C3. Perhaps the most used plot temporality is that of in medea res, starting at a crucial sequence in the novel (such as the discovery of the body in a detective novel), which then fuels the narrative forwards (the procedure of detection) while also through interview and interrogation in the present, eliciting the suspects’ memories of the past before concluding with the denouement where the murderer is revealed. E.g. A3-B4-C2-D5-E1-F6.

The order in which events are presented in the story – the progression, to use Herman’s term – has vital impact on the reader. This is how pacing and tension are created, how the reader is brought into the story and compelled to continue reading. It’s also how particular themes are brought out, through duration (about which more next week), order and frequency. When you put all of this together it’s called emplotment. Which I think sounds like a ridiculous word, but there you go.

Take 2 – Rereading

“…rereading a narrative entails different modes of worldmaking than does reading it for the first time.” – David Herman,  Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is an excellent example of Herman’s point. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

If the tabula were presented in strict chronological order, there would be very little tension around the protagonist, Father Emilio Sandoz. He would be presented as a Jesuit scientist on the first manned flight to the distant planet of Rakhat. Instead the reader is initially presented with Sandoz as the only survivor of the mission, physically and psychologically mutilated, and described by those around him as a child-killer and whore. On first reading, the reader approaches Sandoz with suspicion and curiosity. On the second, knowing what he went through, with great pity and sympathy. On the first reading, the attitudes of those around him seem entirely reasonable; on the second, they are thrown into awful relief and the pathos of the character is heightened.

Similarly, you can structure your stories so that the reader learns late in the book about something which occurs early in the tabula, and which completely changes their understanding of everything they have already read about what, chronologically, came after.

A while back I mentioned a game called Microscope, in which players take it in turn to create events within the history of a world or era, but these can be submitted to any point within the timeline. I played a game in which the final event was placed about a quarter of the way along the timeline, and it completely changed the light in which all subsequent events (which had already been placed) were then viewed.

Having just watched the film Arrival, about which more next week, that’s also a fantastic example about how rereading with complete knowledge completely changes your interpretation of what’s going on. I’m going to spoiler it massively next week, so consider this your fair warning to go watch it now!

Bias & Belivability: the Point of Narrative Theory

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I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, after three weeks of wading through narrative theory. I’d been wondering, quietly, what the use of all these technical terms was to a writer. And then, with a cry of Eureka!, I worked out how to structure my book.

The thing is, there’s different levels of reliability when telling a tale. These ties into unreliable narrators but goes further. How much do you want to suck your reader in and, more importantly, in what way? Because the way you use the narrative voice is absolutely critical for achieving this, and all the technical terms are a way of making us break it down to work out how to use it.

Author vs Narrator

In my current book there are two narrators. One is a detective in the Metropolitan Police; the other is a dryad prince. One of these is more instantly believable as a real person than the other. Now, previously I was writing them both as 3POV homodiegetic (in the action) narrators. Having looked at all this theory stuff around levels and bias and believability, I have now changed that. The dryad prince will continue to be narrated as 3POV homodiegetic, but the detective will become a 1POV conversational narrator talking directly to an audience.

By doing this, I achieve something very important. The reality of the dryad prince becomes as a statement of fact by the person with the most authority in the reader’s eyes – the author. By contrast, the detective is consciously presenting her personal opinions and bias which the reader has room to doubt or disagree with. Just by changing the narrative structure, I give the magical side credibility and the ‘real’ side unreliability. This makes it easier for the reader to buy in to the fantastical quickly.

Narrator, Protagonist, Hero

I’ve talked in the past about how the narrator, the protagonist and the hero are not necessarily the same person. Well, this also comes back to narrative structure and Bal’s levels. And again, I’m going to use my current project as the example:

  • The narrator is the detective – the character through whom we see the story unfold. The story doesn’t happen to her, but she is responsible for uncovering it, for solving the murder.
  • The hero is the dryad prince – the character we want to win. The story pivots on his growth and desires.
  • The protagonist is the niece of the murder victim – the one who triggers the events of the story. She never narrates, but she interacts independently in very different styles with both the narrator and the hero.

The new structure gives the opinions of the narrator, the behaviour of the hero, and – through their eyes – the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. So the reader has an intimate relationship with the detective, a close relationship with the dryad prince, and a distant relationship with the niece. At no point are the niece’s thoughts or desires made known – she’s only ever seen through the focalization, or bias, of the detective and the dryad, both of whom come from radically different backgrounds to her. By using this structure, the three characters are given very difference emphasis, or weight, in the eyes of the reader.

Equally importantly, it also means that the reader has more privilege – more knowledge – about what’s going on than either of the narrator characters. The action of the plot is constantly driven by the niece, but neither the detective nor the dryad know all of what she’s doing. This creates tension for the reader when the detective or the dryad behaves in a way which is flawed because of their ignorance. That tension helps to drive the story.

I was already doing some of this, purely on instinct. By learning the theory, though, I am far more aware of the impact I’m trying to achieve and what techniques are available to achieve it. It was worth slogging through unreadable lit crit texts for.

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Antimimetic Metafiction: Showing the Red Thread

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This week we’re looking at postmodern fiction. I can hear you groaning from here but bear with me. Now that I’ve had the term explained to me, I’m pretty on board with the idea (although still not keen when the idea is translated onto paper).

Postmodernism, according to my Middlesex University course tutor, is a rejection of generalising definitions and concepts which – because they are so broad, and made by those in a dominant position – marginalise a lot of other opinions on the same subject:

Patriarchal culture silenced and marginalised women during the nineteenth century; nineteen-seventies feminism, initially positioning itself as speaking for all women, was soon designated as speaking for white, middle-class, heterosexual liberals whose assumptions of what women needed ignored the specific and alternative demands of race, class and sexuality. Any claim to be, or speak for, a social or public position inherently excludes or marginalises. – MA course notes

I’m totally happy with that as a concept. Generalisation is marginalising and can be dangerous, so postmodernism sounds good to me.

Postmodern writing is an attempt to show this up, either through narrative constructions that are so obviously flawed that they can’t speak for everyone (unreliable narrators would fall into this category, as would two narrators with opposing views), or by being self-reflexive, i.e. deliberately drawing attention to the fact that the story is an artificial construct. This demonstrates the author’s awareness of the dangers of copy-cat representation and stereotyping as potentially oppressive, and their wish to distance themselves from it.

Metafiction is a literary device used self-consciously and systematically to draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact. It poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. – Wikipedia

Antimimetic stories are those which challenge the idea that mimesis, or realism, is the main focus and refuses to follow the conventions of natural storytelling, instead ‘flaunting their artificiality’. Which is where most people go off them. We have a fairly ingrained notion of how a story is supposed to be structured, and expectations that all stories will follow those guidelines. Postmodern stories gleefully don’t and so it’s easy to stop recognising them as stories at all.

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It’s funny because it’s true.

The Author’s Voice

I’m not a fan of demonstrating my existence or cleverness to the reader within a story. It breaks their immersion, which I’m generally trying very hard to coax them into. I also tend to write in either 1POV or close 3POV, which means that I want the voice of the story to come across as the character-narrators rather than my own. The existence of an implied author is fine – someone has to write down the story, after all – but I don’t want to draw attention to it.

The concept of an implied author is especially important when discussing co-written, ghost-written, or anonymous works: political speechwriters all want to sound like the candidate who will speak their words; the multiple authors of a religious work, modern novel, or Hollywood movie want the material to sound as if it came from the same person. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

I also have no problem with what’s call mask narration, where the author puts their own personal views into the mouth of a character, so long as it’s done with some finesse. I think this is actually an important role of genre fiction – it allows us to debate sensitive issues such as gender or religion without quite so much real-life emotion attached because it’s a conversation between, say, an atheist elf-queen and a pangendered halfling missionary.

Transparent narration, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. That’s where the distinction between author and narrator-character breaks down, and nonfictional statements are made within the story. That’s breaking the fourth wall, essentially, with the author poking their head in the window and saying to the reader ‘I’m going to interrupt your consumption of this narrative for a second, and talk politics/morality/cooking at you’. It can be done well in exceptional cases, but generally speaking I’m not a fan.

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Conflating Storytellers

Traditionally, the storyteller is composed of three aspects: the actual real-life writer, the implied author (the person putting down the words of the Narrated, when not in 1POV), and the narrator-character. Postmodernism deliberately disrupts that triad.

Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers all have written works of fiction that include characters bearing the author’s name and some of his characteristics; they deliberately conflate these different versions of themselves. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

Someone on my course, however, made the point that even if those distinctions are pulled down by the author, there will always exist two storytellers – the one the author puts across, and the one the reader perceives, which will necessarily be different because the reader’s experiences (and therefore interpretations) are not the same as the author’s.

Postmodern Unreliability

Because postmodern authors are deliberately trying to do things differently, their narrators are a different kind of unreliable. Firstly, you’ve got the ‘real’ author themselves, trying to blur their identity with the fictional/implied author (and frequently the narrator). This blurring is a fictional construct, creating a fourth type of narrator – a new character masquerading as ‘real’. That masquerade is, by definition, unreliable. Vonnegut is one of the better examples of this, particularly Slaughterhouse Five.

Secondly, you’ve got antimimetic unreliability, where the author wants to break down the fourth wall and critiques their own reliability. They deliberately call into question the validity of their narrator’s (or even implied author’s) statements. Salman Rushdie did this with Saleem Sidai in Midnight’s Children.

Next, there’s the contradictory narrator, who tells a story that’s a mass of contradictions. This is a single implied narrator or narrator-character, rather than multiple narrator-characters who counter each other. The example in my text book is Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, which I haven’t read or even heard of before.

And finally a disframed narrator – a narrator-character who claims to have written other books which were actually written by the real-life author who created that character. Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files just about falls into this category. I’m quite a fan of this form, as it blurs the boundaries between the character’s fictional world and the reader’s real one, which I think increases the reader’s ease of immersion.

In antimimetic fiction, you can also have narrator-characters that aren’t people, such as a horse (John Fowles’ Sweet William) or machines (Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad). Which made me realise that, by definition, all SF&F is antimimetic.

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Harry Dresden has a Twitter account. That’s dedication to disframing.