Thursday, November 30, 2017

Storyteller's Rulebook: Coin Unique Similes

People read “Gone Girl” for the crackerjack thriller plot, but there are dozens of clever thrillers published every year. Why did this become such a phenomenon? Because the actual writing is also pretty great. The book makes great use of language.

It’s hard to write unique similes. In our actual lives we fall back on familiar similes as much as possible, so it’s believable enough when your characters do that, but your readers don’t want to read that. Familiar similes are stultifying to readers. They’re a waste of space. Readers crave unique similes, even if it’s not entirely realistic that your narrator would be coining them.

  • Nick begins the book by rhapsodizing about Amy’s head, which is “Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil”
  • He says of Amy and his mother: “Their few meetings had left them both baffled. Amy would dissect the conversations for days after – ‘And what did she mean by …,’ – as if my mother were some ancient peasant tribeswoman arriving from the tundra with an armful of raw yak meat and some buttons for bartering, trying to get something from Amy that wasn’t on offer.”
  • He mentions “an Eisenhower-era linoleum floor, the edges turned up like burnt toast”

Is it entirely believable that Nick would come up with such unique similes? He is, after all, a writer. Granted, he’s a retired “Entertainment Weekly” writer, but so is Flynn. If she can come up with these, so could he.

Last time, I praised how different their voices are, well here’s another example: Her similes aren’t as good. She was, after all, a personality quiz author, not a reviewer. She says things like “Like some sort of feral love jackal”. One of her better attempts is “adopted orphan smile”, but then she brags about how good it is, ruining the goodwill that she built up.

(The book also does a great job with unique adjectives, like “thick afternoon naps” and “fish-white feet”)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: Different POVs with Different Voices in “Gone Girl”

I talked last time about how I’m not a fan of including lots of third-person POV characters, so it’ll be no surprise that I’m not generally a fan of multiple first-person POVs. You know that I’ve always been a fan of having one hero for the audience to totally bond with.

If Suzy is wondering what’s going on in Bob’s head, then I want to stay with Suzy and bond with her as she tries to figure Bob out, I don’t want to briefly jump into Bob’s head to find out what Suzy will never know.

But if you have to do it, “Gone Girl” is a beautiful example of a multiple first-person POV novel done right:
  • It has a reason to exist: This is the story of a poisonous marriage, viewed though two radically different points of view with radically different facts. Either POV would be insufficient to tell this story. It’s richer for having both. This isn’t a case where we have the hero and an additional POV, the two are given equal weight. The interplay of the two POVs is more interesting than either on its own.
  • It’s careful to let us know exactly where we are at all times, beginning each chapter with the name of the narrator and where we are in the timeline.
  • It actually gives Nick and Amy genuinely different voices. The biggest risk in having multiple POVs is that the reader won’t be reading closely and miss the jump entirely. There’s no risk of that here. After six pages of his bitter, wistful, depressed, regretful, self-lacerating voice, looking back on their wreckage of a relationship, we jump to her chirpy, manic, needy, optimistic voice, looking forward to the sure-to-be-great relationship to come. Her first line is something he would never say “Tra and la!” 
  • And yet both voices are sympathetic, albeit in very different ways. We bond with both, to a certain extent, though we also look down on each (he for being a loser, her for being na├»ve)
Next we’ll talk about how even their similes are different...

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Annotation Project: Gone Girl

Alright, Harry Potter worked well, so let’s do an adult book this time. Obviously, I’m trying to stick to books everybody has read (or at least seen the movie). If you’ve done neither, be warned that I will spoil the story here. As usual, I’ll have a lot more to say about these pages over the next two weeks.  Once again, I apologize for the less than ideal presentation here, making you click on each of these (in a way that doesn't really work on phones).  It’s bizarre that Blogger doesn’t offer the option of images the same size as their column size.  Any ideas for a better way to present these?  (I offered a Word download last week.  Should I do that again?  Did anybody actually do that? UPDATE: Here it is.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Harry Potter: The Archive

I’m all ready to go with the next book, but it’s Thanksgiving week, so I figured I would just wrap up for this week with a review of all the Harry Potter pieces I’ve written over the years.
Last week I annotated the first twenty pages of Harry Potter and wrote a series of posts about what we can learn from those pages:

But Ive written a lot about Harry over the years.  Most infamously, I did my Harry Potter Meddler Week:
But Ive also written lots of other posts about Harry over the years:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Value of Rowling’s Omniscient Third Person

It’s my opinion that readers crave as few points of view as possible. I prefer either first person or third person that’s strictly limited to one head. But writers love to skip from head to head, because it’s more convenient to tell a story that way, and Rowling is no exception. The first chapter begins in Mr. Dursley’s POV, then switches to McGonagall’s, then to Dumbledore, and only in Chapter 2 do we switch to Harry, where we will remain for most of the rest of the book.

But there’s also a fourth POV here, and it’s the one that makes all the others work: Rowling’s own. The very first time we leave a POV, as Mr. Dursley goes to sleep, on our way out the window to McGonagall, we pause for a one sentence paragraph where Rowling inserts her own voice.

The POV isn’t just idly wandering from one character to the next, our goddess is plucking it away from one character, commenting directly to us about what a fool he is, and then safely setting us back down in the POV of McGonagall.

In the above excerpt, “How very wrong he was,” makes all the difference. It establishes that we have omniscient third-person narration, and that our omniscient third-person narrator might sometimes, very rarely, have something to say directly to us. This isn’t Harry’s book, it’s J. K. Rowling’s, and she’s going to show some character herself.

Even before this, Mr. Dursley’s thoughts aren’t necessarily summarized in the way he would summarize his own thoughts, but rather in the way that Rowling would:
  • Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren’t young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak!
That “why” is key. It diminishes Mr. Dursley. It’s also a subtle hint that we’re reading a children’s book, despite the adult characters. It sounds like the narrative voice of a picture book. Even when narrating our POV character’s thoughts, Rowling’s omniscient narration is making itself heard.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: To Prologue or Not to Prologue?

Should you start your book with a prologue or chapter one? Declaring your opening pages to be a prologue can have its uses.

When we begin to read a book, we’re desperate for a hero. We want to find one character we can believe in, care about, and invest in, then settle in comfortably to that character’s POV as we launch into this book. But sometimes it’s not convenient to begin your book that way. Sometimes you have a good reason to begin your book away from your hero’s POV.

Maybe you want to begin with a scene featuring the eventual villain, or one of the victims of that villain. Maybe you want to begin in the past before your hero had his or her current personality.  In each of those cases, you have a problem: You’re not presenting the audience with what they want, a fully-realized hero in the story’s modern-day to start the story with. The danger is that they’ll try to bond with whatever character you’re giving them, only to find them woefully insufficient, because of course this isn’t your hero yet.

One solution is to tip off your audience that this isn’t your hero yet by declaring those opening pages to be a prologue, not chapter one. This is a way to buy yourself some time. You’re assuring your reader: Don’t be alarmed if you can’t find anybody to care about yet, the book hasn’t really begun yet, this is just to establish plot or tone or whatever. Character will have to wait.

This way, you can maybe get a few more pages out of your gatekeeper as well.You can’t put it down after five pages if you haven’t even gotten to chapter one yet! You at least have to give me that long.

So all of these are reasons that the opening pages of Harry Potter book 1 could have been identified as a prologue. We begin in the POV of Mr. Dursley, of all people, for five pages, then jump briefly to a cat, then Dumbledore, then meet our hero as a baby. It’s only in the next chapter that we’ll jump ahead ten years and the real narrative begins.

But Rowling calls her opening Chapter One. Is it possible that this hurt her with the twelve publishers that rejected her? Would they have kept reading longer if they had been reassured that Mr. Dursley wasn’t going to be the hero of the book?

Would there have been any downside to declaring it to be a prologue? Would it seem too fussy? Would kids be less likely to pick it up if it didn’t seem like it would get going right away? Or is there some fear that they would simply skip those pages?

Ultimately, the book sold, and caught on like wildfire, and now it’s the first book that many kids read on their own, so clearly it did something right. Maybe we should do away with prologues altogether? What do you think: Is this intro better off as a prologue or chapter one?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: Harry Potter Goes From Hero to Zero

It’s the greatest paradox of writing: Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.

But Harry Potter does come off as sort of a loser in the first chapter of his first book:
  • Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.
Harry then takes a lot of abuse, without much pushback.  He’s really downtrodden.  Rowling is totally playing up the underdog aspect. We fear for him more than we cheer for him.

Why does this work? Because of the first chapter, when we saw Harry at age 1, having defeated the scariest wizard of all time. We don’t find out until book 4 (in a moment that I think should have gotten more emphasis) that Harry did not defeat Voldemort due to any inherent powers, but simply because of a spell his mom cast to bounce Voldemort’s spell off the baby. Until that reveal, we assume that Harry has some sort of special superpower that leaves all the greatest wizards in his world in awe. He’s the great hero they were all waiting for, right from the start.

So we’re more willing to put up with loserish qualities in Harry when we meet him again at age 11. He’s allowed to go from zero to hero, because he’s already gone from hero to zero. He’s secretly the ultimate bad-ass, so it’s ironic that he seems so weak now. If we didn’t know better, and we had the sense that he really was simply a weakling, we might be put off and quit reading.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Value of the Baby in a Basket in Harry Potter

One of the basic story archetypes is the baby in the basket: A baby is destined for a glorious life, but then, usually to save his life, he is taken away from his parents, who often die, and he’s sent to live in more modest circumstances, where he is raised humbly, believing himself to be a commoner. When he gets old enough, he finds out about his glorious legacy and rises to become a hero.

Oedipus is a baby in a basket. So is Achilles. So is Superman. One variation on the theme is Moses, who is sent to less modest circumstances, but even there, he’s separated from the source of his future super-powers until he discovers his birth parents.

And of course Harry Potter is a classic “baby in a basket” hero.

Why does this archetype work so well? Because there are two competing human impulses: the inclination to admire those of great birth, and the contradictory inclination to admire those who learned from rough circumstances. The magic of the “baby in a basket” is that he gets to be both at the same time, ensuring that everyone will like him

These stories also speak to us because they reflect our universal sense of being misunderstood. We all feel like we are destined for greatness and mistreated by a world that insists on treating us like ordinary people, and we long to read about characters for whom that’s really true. The moment where the hero finds out that he was born to be great is the ultimate wish fulfillment for the reader.

Rowling also taps into another universal feeling, as least for anybody with a sibling. Every sibling feels, at one time or another, that they’re being slighted in favor of another sibling. Rowling takes that universal sense of injustice and magnifies it a thousand-fold, creating deep identification.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: Harry Potter and the First Five Pages Test

Update: This post originally said that Rowling had no agent, which is what I was told by my wife, but my mother-in-law has now corrected me, so I’ve rewritten appropriately.
So we all know that J. K. Rowling had a hard time selling Harry Potter.  Her packet with the first few chapters and a synopsis got turned down by twelve publishers before a Bloomsbury editor decided to take a chance on it.

It’s entirely possible that those twelve publishers never even took a look at it before they rejected it, but what if they did? It’s well known that most gatekeepers will only read five pages before they give up on a manuscript that hasn’t grabbed them. So you’ve got to subject your work to the five-page test. How would you feel if you stopped reading there?

If I just read the first five pages of this book, would I buy it? Nope.

This is now one of the most of the most beloved books of all time, so it’s easy to see the greatness in those opening pages. They’re funny. They’re a good entry into this world. But those pages are a big risk, and they could easily have kept the book from ever being published.

Rowling chooses to start with what I would call an anti-POV character: We’re seeing hints of amazing things, but we’re stuck in the head of a buffoonish character who refuses to look at them. Because Rowling is a great writer, she makes this POV very entertaining anyway: We enjoy laughing at his buffoonery and we enjoy peeking over his shoulder to see the things he’s trying not to see.

But if you’re a reader for those first twelve companies, then rejecting this is a no-brainer: We’re reading about an unlikeable character! There’s virtually no dialogue! The title character doesn’t appear! We’ve been promised a fantasy book by the pitch but we’re in a world that’s mostly mundane.

Rowling took a huge risk. She starts us off in an unlikeable head, then introduces our hero as a baby with a huge info dump, then jumps ten years ahead in chapter two, only belatedly letting us get to know our hero then. It’s all well-written, but it’s no surprise that twelve publishers rejected it. The patience of that thirteenth editor was a miracle. He stuck with it and discovered gold.

If Rowling had been more concerned with the rules, this classic novel would have had a very different beginning, for good or ill. Instead, we have this odd beginning that has gone on to enchant so many readers.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The Annotation Project: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

So let’s try something new: I’m thinking it would be fun to annotate famous books with my thoughts as to why the writing works. I wish I could post these bigger so they were actually readable here, but instead you have to click on every one (and it’s not going to be very readable on people’s phones.) I’ll also include all twenty pages as a downloadable word document if that’s easier. We’ll start with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (Actually, the only version I could find for download was the American-ized version, so I guess we should say Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

We’ll do this like the checklists, with a big document dump on the first day, followed by follow-up pieces for the next two to three weeks. See you then!