Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 6: Only Name Important Characters

When we start “A Game of Thrones”, we’re quickly overwhelmed with names. Why does Ned have to take twenty riders with him out to chop off this man’s head? Couldn’t he have taken six? And a lot of them get names and some dialogue, even though we’ll never hear from again:

  • “Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,” muttered Hullen, the master of horse. “I like it not.”
  • And later: “You cannot do that, boy,” said Harwin, who was Hullen’s son.

Couldn’t he have just given that second line to Hullen? Why does the horse master’s son, who we’ll never see again, have to be in this chapter?

Well, don’t worry, if you get confused as to who everybody is, you can simply turn to the appendix at the back, right? If you do, you’ll find yourself buried in hundreds of names. At times, the sprawling story resembles Gabriel Marcia Marquez, but at least Marquez kept his cheat-sheet down to one page. Like Marquez, Martin is already repeating names in the first chapter (Robert and Robb)

This breaks the rules. As I say here, you want to keep the character list down as low as possible: by limiting the number of characters, limiting the number of speakers, and using a naming convention that makes it clear who’s important (he could have just said, “said Ned’s master of horse” without giving a name.)

Does it get away with it? Yes and no. I’m notorious bad at keeping up with these sorts of things, and I suspect that the only reason I was able to follow the book was because I’d seen the TV show first. I’ll never know if this would have been a dealbreaker with me or not.

But I can see that Martin does everything in his power (short of, you know, telling a simpler story) to help us keep track of everybody. He does this through an old trick that goes all the way back to grey-eyed Athena: He uses consistent descriptive language over and over. Let’s look at Theon: He’s introduced with “Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing.” That’s a great character description we haven’t heard a million times before. Then after that we get:

  • He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away
  • Greyjoy was laughing and joking as he rode
  • …Theon Greyjoy said with wry amusement

Each character is strongly characterized. The important characters are well-distinguished from each other and come alive.

Once he’s done the gargantuan task of getting us to understand who everybody is, the number of characters becomes a strength, not a weakness. This world feels real and lived in. It sprawls, but that means that we enjoy sprawling out in it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 5: Commit to your Genre

Martin has an odd relationship to his genre. We begin with a raid north of the Wall where our rangers are killed by zombies, who are pretty clearly supernatural (with maybe a 1% chance that it’s not supernatural.) Much later, we get another zombie attack, this one more clearly supernatural. Finally, we end with dragon eggs hatching. But that’s only 3 out of a whopping 72 chapters. In the other 69 the drama is mostly socio-political. Occasionally magic beasts will come up in conversation, but they always seem to have the status of dubious legends. Every time someone mentions fairy folk or giants existing years ago, there’s another character to ridicule the whole idea.

So who is Martin’s ideal reader? Is he writing for those who prefers the realistic push and pull of historical fiction, or does he truly want to be the American Tolkien and fully embrace his fantasy setting? Is his biggest influence not Tolkien but, as he has intimated, the French author Maurice Druon, author of the “Accursed Kings” historical fiction series?

You’re supposed to establish a genre in the opening pages and then consistently deliver the familiar pleasures of that genre. You’re supposed to assure one type of reader that you will satisfy them and then pay off that promise.  That first scene breaks the rules.

Does he get away with it? Pretty much yes. I know that there are some readers who put the book aside when they realize that they’ve been falsely led into reading a socio-political book, saying, “Eh, not enough magic.” But for most readers, it’s actually kind of cool: Yes, he’ll give us some magic, but he’s also confident in his ability to make the intrigue just as interesting while we’re waiting, and we enjoy those 69 chapters just as much as the other 3. We get just enough genre thrills, but spend most of the book feeling like we’re maybe smart and sophisticated enough that we don’t need them.

But there’s definitely a tension: Martin sets up a situation in which zombies and dragons are on the very fringes of the narrative, literally and figuratively, but he also tells us that he comes to sing to us of ice and fire. Much is made of the fact that the zombies and dragons will play a bigger and bigger role in later books, even though they’re barely glimpsed here.

Yesterday, I proposed one reason Martin has been slow to turn out more books. Here’s another: Maybe he never really wanted to write about these magical creatures, and included them only to sell his fictionalized history to the fantasy crowd, but he’s set up a situation where he’ll have to write that stuff more and more, and he’s just not interested in doing that. Let HBO handle that stuff.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 4: Love Your Characters

As I said yesterday, Martin grew up as a very powerless kid, yet he’s writing about the rich and powerful. Does that affect his ability to feel empathy for them? Let me be clear: Martin is a master at getting us to love his characters, even characters working at cross purposes. Ned wants to put Stannis on the throne, Tyrion is willing to prop up Joffrey, and Daenerys wants the throne for herself, but we fall in love with all three characters, as well as at least four more.

In this post, I said that the only one of the eight POV characters that it was hard to love was Sansa, but I got good pushback in the comments, so let’s focus on different examples: Ned and Daenerys.  In these cases, Martin definitely gets us to love them, but does he do so by loving them himself? Is it possible to create empathy for a character without feeling empathy for the character? This gets back to an old-post: Be a Good God. A good God is not just all-knowing and all-powerful, but also all-loving. Is Martin all-loving?

The second half of this book is all about suffering. Specifically, the good suffer and evil triumphs (except the capture of Jamie, which feels inconsequential, and indeed will turn out to be in future books). What is Martin’s point here?

  • Is he just trying to be realistic? To show the way the world works? It doesn’t seem so to me, because if he was, good and evil wouldn’t be so clearly demarcated. Jamie, Cercei, and Tywin, at least in this book, seem like the sort of exaggerated mustache twirling villains one does not associate with realistic fiction.
  • Or is he trying to make a moral point? Is he saying the good deserve to suffer? Is he harshly punishing naïveté and idealism because he wants us to know that these things are wrong?

In this and subsequent books, the good don’t suffer because they’re the victims of fate, they suffer because of their naïve decisions, because of their belief in goodness. Ned trusts Cercei to leave, then he doesn’t want to upset Robert before he dies, then he trusts Littlefinger to help oust Cercei. Daenerys tries to stand up for the women being raped, only to have one of them turn her husband into a zombie and her baby into a dead demon. In later books, Robb will lose everything, first by trusting Theon and then by trusting Walder Frey.

When we watch Ned getting his head chopped off from Arya’s POV or when Joffrey later taunts Sansa with that severed head, it’s hard not to use the word sadism, but is it merely the victimizers’ sadism to their victims, or Martin’s sadism to his readers? Do the readers feel masochism, and is that masochism part of the appeal of the book? (Masochism was certainly pleasurable for Masoch.)

May I indulge in some armchair psychology and speculate that Martin’s disadvantaged childhood might have caused him to be dubious of the noblesse oblige of the well-to-do? He loved Stan Lee comics, but did he come to believe that Lee’s good-triumphs-over-evil narratives were naïve and didn’t match his own put-upon experience? Did he come to posit himself as the anti-Lee, rewarding evil and punishing goodness? In the opening chapter, Martin repeatedly uses “lordling” contemptuously. Growing up did he see the other kids as lordlings, and resent the “good” ones even more than the self-interested ones?

(Some of you will say I’m being ridiculous. Martin is able to create a lot of love for his characters, so surely he must love them, and punish them with a heavy heart. This is possible.)

Does the book get away with it? Yes and no. This gets back to readers’ frustration with Martin for never finishing the series. One reason some readers are desperate to finish the series is that some continue to believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil, despite the fact that nothing we’ve read so far has prepared us for that. It’s possible to reject the obvious moral if we can believe all will turn out for the best in the end.

And this is perhaps why he hasn’t finished, why he’s left Jon Snow bleeding out on the floor all these years. He wants to let his readers have it both ways. He will let some believe that Jon is going to pop back up and win the day, but the rest will suspect that, even if Jon survives, all will be for naught.

Some readers remain idealists, even after all that’s happened, and believe that Martin will eventually reward them and his remaining good characters. Others accept their own masochism, and warily crave more, even though they know that things will only get worse. Perhaps Martin can’t bring himself to let either side down.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Book that Breaks Every Rule, Part #3: Write What You Know

This is maybe the best known of all writing rules. Anyone who has merely dabbled in writing in high school has been told this by their teacher. But this book blows this rule out of the water. Let us examine the ways:

  • It’s set in a fantasy world, but it’s based very closely on medieval Britain, and Martin is American (New Jersey born and raised, primarily of Italian and Irish heritage.)
  • It’s about war and armies, and Martin was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He volunteered for Vista instead.
  • It’s about power and wealth. There are no peasant characters here. Even in the army setting, which is mainly working class, the only three characters we get to know are from lordly families. Almost every character in the book is a lord or related to one. Martin, on the other hand, grew up in a housing project.

Does the Book Get Away With It? As to the first two bullet points, the answer is very much yes. How? Massive amounts of research. I’ve always said that you can write about anything if you’re ready to do years of research, and Martin’s understanding of medieval life could not be deeper or more convincing. As opposed to Tolkien, who was celebrating his own country and heritage, Martin is playing in a sandbox not his own, but he clearly loves it. Even the military, which Martin specifically rejected in his own life, is lovingly and precisely rendered.

(I should point out here that two of my own major projects were set in England, despite the fact that I am not English, nor even much of an Anglophile. I just found great true stories that happened to be set there and did a ton of research about those eras in that place. It can be done.)

But what about the third bullet point? Well you might recall that though this is one of the best-known writing rules, it’s not my rule. Rather, I’ve recommended that you don’t have to write the details of your life, but you do have to write the emotions you know. So is Martin doing that? Yes and no.

The original writing guru, Aristotle, said that all tragedies should be written about royalty, not because those are the only important people, but because they have farther to fall. Readers like stories that are big. If this book was about jockeying to be on the town council, it might have all the intrigue, but not the pathos.

So you could argue that Martin’s just following Aristotle’s rule, and by extension, mine: The book is emotionally convincing, so clearly Martin has found a way to tap into real emotions he knows well, then made them bigger by projecting them onto royalty.

But are there any downsides to a kid who grew up so working-class writing about the rich and powerful? The danger is that he might have resentment towards such characters that might show through. We’ll pick up there next time.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Book that Breaks Every Rule, Part 2: End the First Book in a Series in a Satisfactory Way

(Big spoiler for the later books!)
This was a recent rule of mine. It was based on manuscripts I’d been reading that ended on cliffhangers, without providing any sort of satisfactory conclusions to the events of the novel. But what about “A Game of Thrones”? Our POV characters never come together. One dies, but the other seven are all spinning off in different directions when the book ends.

Does the book get away with it? Yes and no. The reader is definitely left frustrated and unsatisfied. There’s a reason that the very first edition (pictured below) prominently said “Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire”. They’re saying, “No, this won’t wrap up satisfactorily, or really at all, but don’t worry, more are coming.”

So why was the book a success? In this case, I would say it’s a special dispensation of the genre. And I would argue that it’s only this very specific genre: epic fantasy. They get away with it because Tolkien got away with it (though he wanted to publish “Lord of the Rings” all at once.) I don’t think any similar genres, not even epic science fiction, can really get away with this.

Of course, the frustration has only grown over the ensuing twenty-two years. Book after book ending in cliffhangers, with the characters and storylines getting more and more diffuse, no Stark child ever again meeting up with any other Stark child four books later. Now we’ve had six years without a new book and an aging, physically unfit author in no hurry to finish. Never before has there been a case where the biggest fans were more furious with their favorite author.

But let’s stick with this book: Are there more satisfactory ways this installment could have wrapped up? Obviously, the good guys could have definitively beaten the bad guys, or vice versa, but clearly that’s not the story Martin wanted to tell. Given that this was intended to be the first book in a long series, was there a way to end it more satisfactorily?

  • The books ends neither at the beginning nor the end of the war. There have been two major battles and each side has won one. The good guys have Jamie Lannister captive, but they’ve backed off and hunkered down. The ending may have been more satisfying if it had ended with the very outbreak of war. That would have said, “Okay, this was the pre-war book, and next we’ll have the war book.” Ending a few battles into the war feels odd.
  • The main mystery that drives the book is who killed Jon Arryn. By the end, we think we’ve solved it (Cercei doesn’t deny it), but many books later, we’ll find out that it was actually Littlefinger and Lyssa. I think the most satisfactory ending would be to have Littlefinger admit that to someone and gloat that he had manipulated all the events of this book to create a Civil War. It would definitively wrap up this book’s storyline with a big shocking ending. This would also be good because Littlefinger’s actions aiding both sides, which are so key to the plot, are pretty baffling in this book. Martin owed it to us to let us know what Littlefinger was doing and why, and it would have potentially made for a great ending.
  • The great injustice of the book is that Cercei gets away with putting her bastard incest-born son on the throne because she seems to lop off the head of the only person who knows. But then, a hundred pages into the next book, Stannis reveals that he knows too and sends ravens all over the kingdom announcing it. I think that should have happened at the end of this book: Ironically, all Cercei’s work was for naught, and now the shit has really hit the fan, really escalating things for the next book.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Book that Breaks Every Rule, Part 1: Have One Hero

I have a lot to say about “A Game of Thrones” (so much so that I’ll go back to 5-times-a-week for a while). One series that I have is “Straying from the Party Line”, where I look at works that break writing “rules” and whether they get away with it. This is an extreme case, as this book crosses more third rails than anything else I’ve looked at. So let’s start with a six-part series based on that.

Rule #1: Have One Hero

One of the primarily rules in my book (In fact, I elevate it to the status of “Law”,) is that, even if you’re writing an ensemble story, you have to accept that readers will always choose one character to be their hero, and invest their hopes and dreams in that one character. And I still believe that, despite the striking counterexample of this book, which has eight roughly-equal points of view characters, many of whom have a claim to being “the” hero of the book.

Does it get away with it? Yes, it does. How? Well, I make it clear in my book that any rule can be broken, but you have to know you’re breaking it and accept that you’re going to frustrate your audience. My rules are just warnings about expectations your audience will have, some conscious, some unconscious. As a writer, you need to be aware that your audience will seek to identify the one hero of your story, and they’ll be frustrated with you if they can’t do that.

“A Game of Thrones” is the ultimate example of the oft-misunderstood phrase, “The exception proves the rule.” We are acutely aware of this rule as we read because he’s breaking it. Martin knows that we want one hero, and toys with that expectation for a long time before he finally denies it utterly.

Our identification is indeed split. Martin creates empathy for seven of his eight POV characters, (All except Sansa. Even when we’re in her head, we’re just looking down on her) and each of those is the hero of his or her own story, and potentially the hero of the whole series, but for most of this book, we do settle our hopes on one hero: Ned. He is the one trying to solve the book’s biggest mystery, and he is the glue that holds the other heroes together.

In addition to his own chapters, four of the other POV characters are his children, and one is his wife. That just leaves Tyrion and Daenerys, who complicate things. Tyrion is brother to Ned’s nemeses, and we have complicated emotions toward him. We know he’s not our hero, but we can’t help but like him, and we’re even tempted to trust him. When he goes to fight alongside his brother, we feel betrayed that this likable character is siding with evil. Even then, we root for him not to get killed, and at the end when he’s sent to King’s Landing to be the Hand of the King, we’re hoping he will mitigate Joffrey’s evil.

Daenerys is the most audacious break with audience expectations, in that her heroic storyline is almost totally separate from the others. She is the best argument that this is a book with more than one hero.  But it’s essential that, at key points, Ned acts the save the lives of both Tyrion and Daenerys. Unlike the next two books, in which Daenerys’s storyline will be totally divorced from the rest of the book, a key turning point in this book is when Ned throws away his job in an attempt to save the life of this would-be queen halfway around the world. Likewise, Ned sends word to his wife at one point to release Tyrion when she has him prisoner in a deadly situation.

So we readers, as I say in my book, are indeed desperately searching around for one hero to invest our hopes in, and we find one, despite the fact that we have so many options to choose from.

Then he gets his head chopped off.

But the whole power of this moment is that it’s so shocking, and it’s so shocking because we’re sure he’s our one hero. That is the whole trick of this book. Martin knows that he’s breaking the law. He’s intentionally creating cognitive dissonance. He’s being puckish. He’s being audacious. He’s blowing our minds.

Of course, after this happens, we’re lost. We’ve never had a book chop off the head of the hero and just keep going before. So once again, we desperately search around for a hero, and don’t know where to turn. (Ironically, I think that most readers will land on Robb, even though he’s not one of the eight POV characters, and won’t be in any subsequent books either.)

Martin is toying with our genre expectations. He seems to think that fantasy readers have too simplistic a sense of moral complexity, and he’s using that to trap us. He knows that we’ll look for the one right hero, and settle on Ned, rather than, say, Jon or Daenerys, then he’ll force us to rewrite our sense of right and wrong and look for heroes in places we may not have looked for them before. That’s his whole point.

If you break a law, you will frustrate your reader. If that’s your whole goal, then go right ahead!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Before We Begin: A Full Accounting of My History with “Game of Thrones”

Before we get into an examination of how the beginning of book “A Game of Thrones” works, I thought I’d better come clean about my rocky history with the series.

To begin, let’s go back to before the TV show was made. Like a lot of people, I had that one friend who kept insisting I read the books. “But I don’t like fantasy novels much,” I’d say, at which point he’d insist that this was fantasy for non-fantasy fans, and everybody should check them out. I still resisted, and it was for a rather silly reason: I took umbrage at the “R. R.” initials. I correctly guessed that wasn’t his real name (he added the second “R”) and it seemed so presumptuous that this author who was going to posit himself as an American Tolkien had also adopted his initials. So I never read the books.

But then the show came out and people went crazy for it. I watched the pilot and decided not to continue with it because it ended with Bran being pushed out the window, and I was afraid that the show would ask us, as many HBO shows do, to sympathize more with the victimizer than the victim, which I didn’t want to do.

But people kept going crazy for it, so I went ahead and gave it another try when it came out on DVD, and I found that my fears were, at least initially, unfounded. Unlike many HBO shows, this was a show with a refreshing sense of good and evil. The show made no attempt, in that first season, to justify the Lannisters’ behavior. I had managed to avoid spoilers and I was, of course, shocked by Ned’s death, but that didn’t impact my enjoyment of the show. I admired its gutsiness and shifted my hopes for a happy ending onto Robb.

The second season I found more disturbing than the first. It did indeed seek to redeem Jamie Lannister a bit, which annoyed me. More troubling, the razing (and presumably raping) of Winterfell was played as a jokey scene. I was also beginning to sense a pattern: Ned’s mercy towards Cercei led to his death, now Robb’s mercy towards Theon led to the holocaust of his home. The show was very well made, but it was starting to seem too harsh for me.

Then came the third season. There was a storyline that stretched the entire season that consisted of nothing but Theon being tortured, episode after episode. That pushed me to the breaking point. Then I got to the Red Wedding. I could no longer deny the politics of the series: The naïve goodness of the Starks was simply there to be punished, and the sadistic savvy of the Lannisters looked good by comparison. I decided I was done with it.

But I also knew that I was addicted. I had to know what happened next, so I simply went to Wikipedia and read the in depth plot descriptions of the rest of book 3 and books 4 and 5. Now I knew what was coming (I took some comfort in the upcoming deaths of Joffrey and Tywin, but not much) so I didn’t have to watch it. Once the show moved on past book 5, I no longer knew what was happening, so I started reading occasional episode recaps to slake my curiosity. I was frequently tempted to dive back in and catch up, but the endless litany of rapes I was reading about squelched that impulse.

That brings us to this blog series. I’m looking to cover books that everybody has read, and “A Game of Thrones” was an obvious candidate. I had already watched a 10-hour adaptation of the first book, so I figured it held few surprises. In fact, I could maybe read just the first twenty pages that I marked up. So I started reading the book (listening to the audiobook, actually). As my friend had told me all those years ago, it was very well written. So well written, in fact, that I got totally sucked in.

Even though I’m not a fan of long books, I found a joy in reading this that I hadn’t felt in a while, and I never wanted it to stop. The one scene that almost stopped me was Joffrey taunting Sansa with her father’s severed head. Why was I reading something so sadistic? And why couldn’t I stop? Was I a masochist? Even when I finally got to the end, I realized that I would go through withdrawal symptoms if I stopped there. I loaded up Book 2 and started that.

But then I got to the scene where Robb sends Theon off, and that finally broke me free. Once again, Martin was about to harshly punish a Stark’s mercy, and I of course knew it would only get worse, so I stopped listening and moved on to other books. I then read more online about the rest of the book series and how they varied from the TV show.

So here we are. For the next few weeks, I’ll break down what I read and why it has such strong effects on me, both positive and negative. Sorry I can’t come to it having read every book or seen every episode, but those who have are free to call me out if I get anything wrong.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Annotation Project: A Game of Thrones

Permission to treat this book as hostile?  Like Festivus, these annotations turn into a bit of an airing of grievances, even though there’s a lot to like about this book and this series.  I’ll get into my history with the series next time.  You can download these notes as a Word file here.  As always, apologies that this series doesn’t work very well on phones. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Establish the Worst Things That Could Happen

“Holes” uses a classic trick: it establishes the two worst things that could happen, then those things of course happen. First, after the two “usually”s I mentioned last time, we get an “Always”
  • But you don’t want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard. That’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death.
  • Always.
Then we’re told that there are no fences at the camp because anyone attempting to run away is guaranteed to die in the desert. Of course, before the book is over, Stanley will survive both getting swarmed by lizards and attempting to run away from camp.

This is an area where you can benefit from your reader’s ability to guess where you’re going based on other books they’ve read. Sachar could tease us in his narration and say, “Little did Stanley suspect that soon he would do just that,” but he doesn’t have to. He knows that we’ve read books before and we know that if it gets an “Always”, then we’re about to see an amazing exception. That “Always” is all the foreshadowing he needs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Writing for Reluctant Readers

“Holes” is a great book for girls, men and women, but it’s especially valuable as a rare book that you can use to get reluctant boys to read something. And of course that’s great, because, on a certain level, we’re all reluctant readers. Even full-time readers who get paid to read books are always looking for excuses to dump one and move on to the next. Anything that can suck readers and rivet them to the page is going to help you tremendously in the marketplace and in finding a place in people’s hearts. So how does the book do that? It uses some classic tricks:

  • Short chapters. Chapter 1 is one page. Chapter 2 is just eight sentences. Short chapters give the reader a sense of accomplishment.
  • Simple sentences. Let’s look at that beautiful first sentence: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” No adjectives, no adverbs, one specific detail, and an ironic contradiction. That’s perfect.
  • Short paragraphs, which create a great voice.

Let’s look at four paragraphs:

  • Here’s a good rule to remember about rattlesnakes and scorpions: If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
  • Usually.
  • Being bitten by a scorpion or even a rattlesnake is not the worst thing that can happen to you. You won’t die.
  • Usually.

You can’t help but hear Sam Elliot reading that. It’s charming. It’s bad-ass. It tells us that Sachar cares about our reading experience. We trust him to entertain us and we want more.

If these pages are all you’ve read, you might think, “So what? He’s telling a simple story with simple words, so of course it won’t be challenging to readers.” Those of you who have read the whole book, on the other hand, know how complex and rich the book will become. Sachar isn’t dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator, he’s easing entry into an ultimately very ambitious book.

Every children’s author dreams of writing the book that will make a child fall in love with reading for the first time. For many, this will be that book, then they can revisit at an older age and more fully realize how much meaning was packed into it, and how skillfully it drew them in.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: The Power of Mixing Information Superior, Information Inferior, and Equal Information Positions

We’ve talked before about information superior, information inferior, and equal information positions. Let’s look at how “Holes” uses all three effectively.

The book begins with a great example of information inferior. The first line is “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” This isn’t Stanley talking to us, it’s an omniscient narrator telling us something he doesn’t know. Only when we’ve been told omnisciently about the camp for a page do we meet our hero and switch to somewhat-limited third person narration. Once we’re privy to his thoughts, one of the first we hear is this: “Now Stanley tried to pretend he was going to Camp Fun and Games. Maybe he’d make some friends, he thought. At least he’d get to swim in the lake.”

Ouch! We care so much when we read this! We know a horrible fact that he doesn’t know, and we feel anguish to anticipate the pain that we know he’s about to have. Our information superior position adds emotional impact. We wish we could tell him what we know.

But we’re also in an information inferior position to Stanley in some ways. As I said before, he’s stoic, so he’s not stewing in thoughts of his false conviction, and the narrator isn’t in a hurry to reveal all either. I had to include six chapters in my sample to get the crime in there.

What effect does that have? If it had been poorly done, we would have gotten annoyed, but instead we’re intrigued. Bits of info are parceled out steadily enough to keep our interested whetted. At one point it seems the narrator is about to tell us before he gets distracted. Here are two one-sentence paragraphs:

  • It was this latest project that led to Stanley’s arrest.
  • The bus ride became increasingly bumpy because the road was no longer paved.

The narrator is jostled out of his train of thought, forcing us to wait for two more chapters. We enjoy this. We want to know, and we enjoy craving it, at least for a while. We would get annoyed if we had to wait ten chapters, though.

But of course, for most of these pages, we’re in an information equal position. We are given some details of the camp before Stanley gets there but we still meet Mr. Sir and the other campers perched right on Stanley’s shoulder. This should always be the default unless you’re looking to create an effect like the two listed above. It would alienate and annoy us to be introduced to everybody by the narrator before Stanley met them, or to be denied too much access to Stanley’s thoughts.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: How to Write a Great Villain Introduction

Last time we looked at how we came to believe in, care about, and invest in Stanley, the hero of “Holes.” Now let’s look at how we end up doing the same thing for a villain, all in one paragraph.

Stanley has been driven out to a desert prison camp by a bus driver and guard and he’s being dropped off with a warden. Then the guard notices something:

  • ‘That’s a lot of sunflower seeds,’ the bus guard said.
  • Stanley noticed a burlap sack filled with sunflower seeds on the floor next to the desk.
  • ‘I quit smoking last month,’ said the man in the cowboy hat. He had a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm, and as he signed his name, the snake’s rattle seemed to wiggle. ‘I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I eat a sack of these every week.’

So right away, we…

  • Believe: Specificity of the sunflower seeds, which is not a detail that I’ve seen in a lot of books.
  • Care: Trying to quit smoking and dealing with cravings.
  • We even “invest,” though that’s a tricky word for a villain: He’s badass: He’s got a cowboy hat and a rattlesnake tattoo.

With a hero, obviously, we invest our hopes for a happy ending. But with a villain, we also have to “root” for him to be a good villain, and the hat and tattoo do that. Sure enough, further down the page, Stanley gets to know him:

  • The man in the cowboy hat spit sunflower seed shells into a wastepaper basket. Then he walked around the desk to Stanley. ‘My name is Mr. Sir,’ he said. ‘Whenever you speak to me you must call me by my name, is that clear?’
  • Stanley hesitated. ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Sir,’ he said, though he couldn’t imagine that was really the man’s name.
  • ‘You’re not in the Girl Scouts anymore,’ Mr. Sir said.

He then denies Stanley badly-needed water, we’re going to primarily boo-hiss him, but our enmity will be strengthened, not lessened, by our belief in him as a human being and our understanding of his one weakness. This is a real villain, not a fake one, and he’s all the scarier for that.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: Why Do We Like Stanley in “Holes”?

(I’ll be illustrating these with still from the movie, for lack of a better option, but it’s less than ideal, partially because skinny Shia is miscast.  Still, it would be too much to ask of a teen actor to lose all that weight, so it was probably the best solution.)
In my book, I talk about how the first three jobs of a writer are to get the reader to believe in, care about and invest in the hero, so let’s look at how “Holes” does this, which is somewhat tricky for a few reasons:

The best way to get us to believe is though specificity and unique details that sound more like real life than fiction. But this book has a tricky genre, the tall tale, so Sachar is never going to ask us to fully believe in Stanley Yelnats as a non-fictional character. He has a silly name. His father is an inventor (which is common in kids books but not in real life). He was sent to prison because stolen shoes fell out of the sky and hit him in the head (though that is later explained). We’ll always see Stanley more as a fictional character than a real character. So in service of his genre, Sachar has to stint on believability, but he makes up for it with caring and investing.

On the other hand, it’s easy to care about Stanley: He’s going to a brutal prison camp for a crime he didn’t commit, and, what’s worse, he’s poor. He’s never been to camp and hopes this will be fun, which breaks our hearts.

Investing is also tricky, but the book pulls it off nicely. The easiest way to get us to invest is to have a hero be badass or defiant, but Stanley doesn’t try to escape and he doesn’t sass back. Nevertheless, he’s got something we love: secret honor. He’s stoic about what’s happened to him, and he never insists he’s innocent in these pages, either when dealing with his jailers or his campmates. Even the thoughts we’re privy to through limited third-person narration don’t complain about it. He’s accepted his unfair sentence and he’s prepared to serve it without complaint, and that, in its own way, is a type of defiance: He’s not going to show any weakness.

He also tells us that it’s a family trait to be hopeful, so we sense that we’ve got the right hero to help us survive this prison camp. If he was depressive, we wouldn’t want to go to this miserable place with him.

Next time, we’ll look at a villain introduction and how it also hits believe, care and invest.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Annotation Project: Holes

So let’s keep going with some books. At this point I fear that, without diving into the high school canon, I’ve covered all three recent books that everybody has read. I’m trying to stick to the kind of books that publishers are actually buying today, rather than the classics we’ve all read, but I’ll go back and do some of those, too. For now, let’s meet halfway and do Louis Sachar’s modern classic “Holes”. This is my favorite non-Rowling kids novel: very simple on the surface but deeply complex and meaningful underneath. Of course, most of that complexity hasn’t become evident yet in these pages, but we’ll look at the foreshadowing.  You can click on the pages below or download the doc here.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Gone Girl: The Archive

Before we get back into books, let me do an archive for my “Gone Girl” pieces. Around the movie came out I did some “Meddler” posts where I attempted to fix some plot holes in the book and movie:

Later I did a post about using different voices, and used a still from the movie to illustrate it, but didn’t really examine the book or movie at the time:

Finally, I did an Annotation Project breakdown of the first ten pages, followed by some follow-up posts, including two more in-depth pieces about different voices: