Writing 101, a tutorial on fiction

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  • If the writer places himself in the role of a character -- for example, telling the story in the first person -- then he cannot know what others are thinking.

    Indeed. Especially if there's just is one central character, regardless of if there are many more who are almost always in the story.

     If the writer puts himself outside of the story, speaking as if he were a narrator, then he CAN tell us what everyone else is thinking.

    Not always. Unless the writer is also the narrator. But if they are not then no one would know what anyone is thinking. And often that is the case in some fiction.

     This is known as the Authorial-omniscient perspective.

    But it still bugs me if there's just one central character. Some writers even say what passing strangers are thinking.

    Many great writers use this,

    And some not so great.

     including, for example, Tolstoy. In one scene of War and Peace, he uses this technique to allow us to compare the same event (a card game) as seen by Nikolai Rustov and by the villianous Dolokhov.

    I will not bother reading it then. In one way it's cheating, because it's harder to describe facial expressions and body language.

    Authorial-omniscient viewpoint can be overdone. In that case, the results are sometimes derisively called head-hopping because the author seems to leap from one person's thoughts to another.

    Fat too many do that. I prefer 'real life' stories (odd I know for an SF writer) where if any one's thoughts are described, it's the main character's.

     The careful writer will draw himself out of one mind before leaping into another. For example, if we are hearing one character's internal dialog in real time, we need a transition through hearing her thoughts indirectly,

    Indirectly?

     then not hearing them at all, then moving to another mind.

    There are a few writers who do not describe anyone's thoughts. That's very common in films because, well, that's normal.

    If this were a scene in a movie, we would call it a slow pan instead of a jump cut.

    No, you have lost me there.

    Example, using the hitchhikers from the posts above:

    He looked down the long, narrow, black strip of macadam, tracing the white line with his eye. "How far to Omaha?" he asked.

    "'Bout another fifty miles, give or take," she replied. She looked up at him.

     *How on the green earth had she ever allowed him to talk her into a cross-country hitch-hiking trip? *

    * Is the above a thought? Or just narrative?

    "Any cars out there?"

    "Nothing," he replied. "You can see as well as I can."

    Smartass, she thought. See what happens next time you ask how far to Omaha again.

    Now that's obvious what it is

    "I'm short," she said. "You have a farther horizon."

    He looked at her, raising an eyebrow.

    I would split that like that.

    What?" she snapped. "I'm only five-three!" She shot him a look; the look of doom.

    And what does a look of doom look like?

    He returned her look with a blank face. What the hell is she so pissed about now?

    Again, is that him thinking, or is it narrative?

    He wondered if he would have been better off traveling alone.

    Note that we pull the camera out of her head, first giving her dialog to speak, then pulling out to her face, and expressing her thoughts through her expression. We go from intimate involvement in her thoughts, to less-intimate involvement in her speech, and less intimate still, interpreting her expressions. Then and only then can we peek into his thoughts.

    But they seem to be both speaking and thinking in turn.

    If we were telling the story in first person -- a limited perspective -- then we need her to express her thoughts verbally or by facial expression:

    Indeed. That is what I said in my other posts.


    So now then the hitchhiker can't see her thoughts, and we get the opacity of the communication. He can only guess from her expressions, and the author can't tell us what's wrong with her.

    Aye, you are just describing what I have already said. 

    There are authors, of course, who have blended Authorial Omniscient with First Person. Kurt Vonnegut used to do it often; Galapagos is a great example. He is speaking as the ghost of a man killed during the construction of the ship, but he knows what the various characters are thinking. As we said earlier, Vonnegut is an anomaly.

    I doubt he is. It's a common method. 

    (WTF is wrong with this Draft Saved thing?!! It has a 3 second lag that freezes me!)

  • I have not read Rama II, but thank you for the invitation. While I disagree with your interpretation, I will defer to your experience in having read it.

    Unless you read it, you cannot really have an opinion on it.

    Youngblood Hawke is not a Who-Dun-It? It is a novel about a heavy equipment operator, a Sea-Bee from West Virginia, a mountain of a man, who aspires to be a writer.

    That's indeed what it sounds like.

     It tells of his successes, his pitfalls, his failures, and his eventual -- well, don't want to spoil it. It's a fine novel, and great literature, by the author who brought us The Caine Mutiny.

    You wouldn't like it.

    Indeed not. They are not SF  :) And The Caine Mutiny sounds like a derivative of Mutiny on the Bounty.

  • I assure you that The Caine Mutiny owes nothing to the Bounty. It is set in WW2, not the 19th century, and the central event is technically not a mutiny but an act of sedition. It has been called one of the finest descriptions of naval seaboard life in the 20th century, and I will agree, as many times during my naval days I recalled lines from The Caine Mutiny.

    You definitely wouldn't like it, not even the movie version with Humphrey Bogart.
  • This brings us to another important point about writing: He writes well who reads well.

    First, reading often and much leads us to understand the flow of a story and the meter and rhythm of the English language.  For example, when I wrote the sentence above, "He writes well who reads well," I immediately thought of the Coleridge poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the fourth-last stanza:

    Farewell, farewell; but this I tell,
    To thee, thou wedding guest:
    He prayeth well who loveth well
    Both man and bird and beast.

    We cannot overstate the importance of reading. First, it informs your knowledge -- you learn when you read -- Second, it informs your style -- you learn how writers convey their thoughts, and you empirically learn which styles are most effective. Third, it informs your usage. I could have simply said, "Writing well requires that you read." But Coleridge informs my writing, so "He writeth well who readeth well / both book and tome and screed."

    That's not to say that you should imitate the style of other writers, but rather, that you can learn your technique by studying their techniques.
  • I assure you that The Caine Mutiny owes nothing to the Bounty. It is set in WW2, not the 19th century,

    What has that got to do with it? Westside Story is not set in the 1500s.

     and the central event is technically not a mutiny but an act of sedition.

    There's little difference in the armed forces.

  • This brings us to another important point about writing: He writes well who reads well.

    Are you aware that you go in to Lecture Mode?

  • I assure you that The Caine Mutiny owes nothing to the Bounty. It is set in WW2, not the 19th century,

    What has that got to do with it? Westside Story is not set in the 1500s.

     and the central event is technically not a mutiny but an act of sedition.

    There's little difference in the armed forces.

    Mutiny on the Bounty is set in the 1789 (okay, 18th century, so sue me), and is a recitation of actual history, detailing an actual historical event aboard a Royal Navy sailing vessel. The ship and crew were not at war, and were not taking part in any martial action. Part and parcel of the tale is the nature of the ship, that is, that it was a "tall ship" and required a large number of crew to operate. At issue in Bounty is the fact that the captain refused passage for the Tahitian "wives" taken by his crew during their long call there. As a result, the men seized control of the vessel and fled with their wives to Pitcairn Island, where their descendants live to this day.

    The Caine Mutiny is set from 1941 through 1946, covering a larger scope than Bounty. The story takes place over the course of World War II. Part and parcel of the story is that there is military action taking place at all times. The fact that Caine is an older ship, and that she handles poorly in stormy weather, is a critical factor. The Caine Mutiny is a work of fiction. It draws upon and is informed by Wouk's own experiences. At issue in Caine is whether the Captain is insane, and whether he poses a clear and present danger to the ship and crew. As a result, he is relieved of command and confined to quarters (not, as in Bounty, set adrift on the open seas). The "Turn of the Screw" (as James would say, a pun here) comes when Lt. Greenwald, having defended Lt. Merrill in the court martial, addresses the officers of the Caine and shifts the perspective of the entire story, showing at last who the heroes and the cowards were aboard Caine.

    Mutiny is the willful seizure of a vessel, and the overthrow of its Captain, by its crew without prior permission, and constitutes an act of piracy. It requires the seizure of the ship as an element of the act. Mutiny is typically followed by desertion and an effort to evade the lawful authorities, as in the case of the Pitcairn mutineers. Sedition is the organized refusal to follow the lawful orders of any officer or NCO. Persons committing sedition remain under the authority of the armed force to which they belong, and can sometimes justify their actions in a court martial by demonstrating the unfitness of the officer, and that clear and present danger necessitated the refusal.

    An example of sedition occurs in the book and television series "Band of Brothers" when the NCOs of Easy Company write letters to their General expressing their lack of confidence in their Lieutenant. No vessel is seized, and the NCOs do not desert, do not evade, and remain in their unit. While reprimanded severely and threatened with execution, they nonetheless go on to fight in the coming invasion, and follow their orders from that point forward. Thus, as you see, Sedition is very different from Mutiny.
  • This brings us to another important point about writing: He writes well who reads well.

    Are you aware that you go in to Lecture Mode?

    The stated purpose of this thread is to reveal writing techniques and information about writing for the stated purpose of helping those less experienced at writing. You are welcome to compose an essay of your own here, on that topic.
  • This post is a placeholder, to remind me to write an essay on the importance of research and fact-checking.
  • Skoob_ym said:
    That's the asparagus, right there. I can give you the asparagus straight up, raw, and it's going to taste like raw asparagus. Or I can cook it, add seasonings, provide a sauce or a garnish -- it'll taste okay. Or I can bake it into a casserole or roll it into a sushi, making it a small and potentially overlooked part of a tasty dish.

    So in a way, the casserole -- the story line that encompasses the exposition -- is a byproduct (to the goal of laying out the context) and at the same time the main point (because it moves the story forward). What we're trying to avoid is raw exposition.
    I like this metaphor a lot as a way to understand how 'flavor' matters for a story. Sure, some writers can get away with sparse and dry styles, but even those kinds of writers layer in sub-text that helps us realize what the casserole is all about.

    I don't want to get buried into the pedantic debate about showing versus telling, but I think the food metaphor might be helpful. If I just write out "there was a casserole. It had asparagus in it" that is pure exposition (telling). But if I can describe to you that casserole in such a way that it reminds you of Casserole (the idea in your mind that defines casserole for you), you're "seeing" the dish in your mind's eye and achieving the 'show' goal. 

    That kind of language skill is what paints the word-picture that makes a story truly compelling and makes me want to keep reading.
    Skoob_ym said:
    This post is a placeholder, to remind me to write an essay on the importance of research and fact-checking.
    Hey, if you're interested, our Blog is open to guest posts.
  • The stated purpose of this thread is to reveal writing techniques and information about writing for the stated purpose of helping those less experienced at writing. You are welcome to compose an essay of your own here, on that topic.

    Is it not to also answer comments on that subject? Point by point?

  • I would sincerely hope that most people do not require a description of a casserole.
  • "Word Picture." That's a great thought, Paul.

    Our goal as writers of fiction is to put a picture into the readers' heads. We want them to visualize the plot points and the scenes. Ideally, we want them to feel that they are riding along, taking part, even perhaps influencing the scene itself (though then we go into metafiction).

    Richard Feynman once had someone challenge him thus: "You know the shape of a crankshaft on an engine, right? Okay, now describe that shape without using the word 'crankshaft.' " -- I think that this illustrates what we're trying to do: To put a picture of a crankshaft into someone's mind without actually saying "crankshaft."
  • I would sincerely hope that most people do not require a description of a casserole.
    That depends... What kind of casserole?
  • I would sincerely hope that most people do not require a description of a casserole.
    It needn't be detailed, but it can provide depth and connection.

    Telling - "She served me casserole."

    Showing - "She served me casserole, hot out of the oven and latticed with perfectly cut vegetables, just like my mom used to make."

    The second might be over doing it, but it creates a connection between what's happening in the moment (eating casserole) and the narrators past. It also creates a reference point for the reader - do you have a memory of your mom's casserole? I do. That, to me, causes a deeper appreciation and connection to the story, while elevating the telling with a more sensory passage.
  • Engagement of the senses -- that's a perfect point.
  • LarikaLarika Bibliophile
    It was long but I found it interesting. Do a whole section on "Show not Tell" Skoob.
  • Indeed he should! It really is an important subject. The worst form that "telling" takes is the infamous "information dump," where the author is simply lecturing the reader to their face as it were.

    It is always much better to have details such as descriptions come naturally, especially if they can contribute something to the story beyond the mere facts themselves. 

    You could simply rattle off a list of qualities such as "Randolph Plankton was 35 years old, had red hair, blue eyes and wore a sweater." Or you could let details dribble in where they come naturally and where they might add something to the character or scene: "Randolph shivered. His thin sweater barely kept out the cold."
    __________________________________________
    Black Cat Studios http://www.black-cat-studios.com/
  • I agree with Paul's second example. When I used to read Luis Lamore's western novels, I remember being actually being able to sense the surroundings and feeling immersed into the story as it unfolded. To me as far as fiction goes I think that's the point to draw the reader into that world. Otherwise it's just a textbook. Another author I loved to read is Eric Vanlustbader. He writes a series of martial arts fiction. His writing really drew you into the character's emotions and experiences.
  • LarikaLarika Bibliophile
    That's right Ron. Some quotes by famous people Anton Chekhov
    Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 
    ― Anton Chekhov. "Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.” 
    ― Ernest Hemingway.  "Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book.” ― Pawan Mishra.   “Books. It's always easier to tell people that a character is funny rather than attempt to hit the punchline of a joke that character would've said. But if we all simply told, books would cease to exist. And so would empathy. And feeling.” ―    Joyce Rochelle,
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    Indeed, 'Descriptive Creative Writing.' That's all it need be called.
  • No comment :)
    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
  • Larika said:
    That's right Ron. Some quotes by famous people Anton Chekhov
    Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 
    ― Anton Chekhov.
    "Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.” 
    ― Ernest Hemingway. 
    "Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book.” ― Pawan Mishra.  
    Books. It's always easier to tell people that a character is funny rather than attempt to hit the punchline of a joke that character would've said. But if we all simply told, books would cease to exist. And so would empathy. And feeling.” ―    Joyce Rochelle,
    Excellent points, all of them. And here's the thing: Telling us that the character is funny, as in Joyce Rochelle's example, forces us to accept it as fact. But if the character tells a joke -- and maybe the characters laugh, or maybe they stare, deadpan, and think he's serious but stupid, as in [i]The Tragedy of Puddin'head Wilson[/i] -- we are permitted for ourselves to decide if the joke is funny, if the character is funny, and if the reactions of the other characters are appropriate.

    Incidentally, Puddin'head Wilson earns his nickname on his first day in a small town, when he hears an obnoxiously howling dog and says, "I wish I owned half that dog, because I'd kill my half."  The (wry) humor lies in the fact that this would kill the other half as well, but the other men take Puddin'head's remark at face value, and wonder why he wouldn't want to own the whole dog.

    By telling us this joke, Twain tells us far more. He shows us that Wilson is clever and has a dry wit, much more effectively than simply saying "Wilson was clever and had a dry wit." He also gives us an example of a remark that would be considered witty in the 1850s small towns of the Southern USA. And he also makes us feel sorry for Wilson, whose prospects in that town are effectively doomed by an offhand remark. There is the empathy that Rochelle remarked upon.

    To me, the joke is marginal at best, and I know many people who would absolutely shudder at the implied brutality. But that is not how people would react in that time and place. Twain tells us this without telling us; by giving us the joke he has metaphorically "shown" us.*

    [i]Puddin'head Wilson[/i] is an excellent example of showing versus telling, because Twain could never have said, outright, the things he wanted to express through this novel. Twain seemed, on the surface, to be documenting and fondly memorializing a time and place dear to his heart. But beneath the surface, through the things he shows us but could not ever have said aloud, he is screaming in protest against the inequities of his day. He is demanding that we examine the case at equity: Is Chambers (as he is supposed to be) truly inferior to Percy (as he is supposed to be)?

    Twain uses some clever subterfuge to disguise his point, and he finally reaches a conclusion that satisfies both his conscience and the sensibilities of his age and place. But even in that conclusion, as Twain explains why the story is a tragedy, we see him digging in, making his point, and pricking the sensitive consciences of readers.

    I encourage one and all to read the book, keeping in mind that the language is not suitable to the sensitive (Twain speaks as people of his day did, and uses the terms they used, without any apology, nor would he see a reason to think one needed).

    "Showing" in this metaphorical sense is thus a powerful way to make a powerful point, without ever stating that point in words.

    _____________
    * The same metaphor is implied when a speaker says, "Look, here are the facts: ..." He does not literally expect you to see his words. He is asking you to use your mind's eye to see the ideas that he is expressing through those words.
  • I agree with Paul's second example. When I used to read Luis Lamore's western novels, I remember being actually being able to sense the surroundings and feeling immersed into the story as it unfolded. To me as far as fiction goes I think that's the point to draw the reader into that world. Otherwise it's just a textbook. Another author I loved to read is Eric Vanlustbader. He writes a series of martial arts fiction. His writing really drew you into the character's emotions and experiences.
    If you liked Louis Lamour, you might also like Zane Grey. His books are more rare -- they were mostly written in the 30's and 40's -- but well worth searching out.
  • LarikaLarika Bibliophile
    Thanks Skoob, I'll read Twain's book Pudd'nhead Wilson. I did art before I came to writing and it's much easier to "show" in art. I find it more difficult to "show" in writing. I tend to try and do that through conversations. "I wish I owned half that dog, because I'd kill my half." That's a good example. However my husband is very skeptical when it comes to the phrase "show not tell". He thinks that "it's impossible to show something in writing without using words. Showing is for art and photography." 
  • Please tell me that you're not married to Kevin!

    I'm kidding. I think that part of the issue is to clearly express what we mean when we metaphorically advise someone to show a scene instead of telling it. It's a bit like the grade school admonition to "Show your work" in maths, that is, to make clear how you reached a conclusion.
  • LarikaLarika Bibliophile
    I'm too old for him lol.I first met Kevin in the forum when Ken Anderson was here. Do you remember Ken? Ken made sparks fly!! However like Kevin he knew a lot about Lulu and helped many people.
  • LarikaLarika Bibliophile
    I've downloaded Pudd'nhead and I see what you mean Skoob
    "I encourage one and all to read the book, keeping in mind that the language is not suitable to the sensitive. Twain speaks as people of his day did, and uses the terms they used, without any apology, nor would he see a reason to think one needed."     Some of Twain's language would certainly not be acceptable in today's politically correct world. However it was totally accepted in Twain's day. It has to be read with that in mind. 


  • Larika said:
    Thanks Skoob, I'll read Twain's book Pudd'nhead Wilson. I did art before I came to writing and it's much easier to "show" in art. I find it more difficult to "show" in writing. I tend to try and do that through conversations. "I wish I owned half that dog, because I'd kill my half." That's a good example. However my husband is very skeptical when it comes to the phrase "show not tell". He thinks that "it's impossible to show something in writing without using words. Showing is for art and photography." 

    I bet your husband wears "glasses" with plastic lenses. 
     ;) 
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    Black Cat Studios http://www.black-cat-studios.com/
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