What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part II)

Last time, I took some lessons from the first four volumes of The Unwritten. This time, I’m going to look at volumes 5-8. These volumes encompass some interesting turning points in the series. The heroes seem to have defeated the “bad guys,” even if it does come at a high cost. The mysteries deepen, a few new major characters are introduced, and some old characters come back.

What really makes these volumes great is that they don’t just continue the story that was started in the first four. They take it in new and unexpected directions. Each question that gets answered introduces yet more questions. All in all, it sets up the last three volumes so that you really have no idea what to expect as the story comes to its conclusion.

Moving the Goalposts Can Be Exciting

The first few volumes set up a shadowy cabal as the villains who cause all sorts of trouble for the protagonists, especially their chief henchman, Pullman. All of the bigwigs in the cabal are largely interchangeable and never characterized in much detail. It’s Pullman who is causing trouble on the ground for the heroes while the leaders of the cabal are safely hidden, and he’s the one they have to worry about. But Pullman is also the one villain who is given a back-story, revealed in drips and drops.

When the heroes actually have some success bringing the fight to the shadowy cabal, it might seem obvious that Pullman is just a Man in Front of the Man trope. But his motives turn out to be quite different from a “standard” villain. Almost exactly halfway through the story, the entire direction of the plot turns in a new direction.

Tropes are dangerous. If the reader thinks you’re just retelling a story they’ve heard before, they’ll quickly lose interest. However, tropes can be useful building blocks if you want to subvert expectations.

Tropes are just story elements that show up over and over again. They’re the canyons gouged by the flow of stories over the centuries, the comfortable shapes that stories like to fall into. A savvy reader will see parts of a trope and anticipate that the rest is forthcoming. However, you can make them a little less certain by including some elements that break the trope. Eventually, you can tear the trope apart in some unexpected plot twist, and it can be immensely satisfying. 

Sometimes these twists seem obvious in hindsight, but as a reader it’s very easy to get pulled into those deep currents that tropes provide. It’s a great way to disguise where the story is going.

Exposition Can Be a Reward

The Unwritten is great at introducing characters right in the middle of something. Tom Taylor’s dull life is turned upside down within the first few pages of the first volume. Lizzie sets those events in motion, but not in the way that she hoped. And Ritchie meets Tom in a French prison right before it explodes into chaos. The story forces the reader to hit the ground running. First, it shows you who the characters are and makes you care about them. Only then, and slowly, does it start to reveal their back-stories and the paths they took to get here.

By making you care about the characters first, the story makes exposition exciting. We want to know more about these people. How the heck did they get in these situations?

If these parts of the story were told in sequential order, they would be less interesting. They’re the lead-up to the exciting action that makes up the bulk of the story. But by withholding them for a while, they become a reward for the reader. Even better, they offer an opportunity to understand why the characters are the way they are. Learning about the events that shaped them provides new context to everything they’ve done so far in the story.

Epilogues Can Be Prologues Too

Almost every volume of The Unwritten, each major story arc, ends with a seemingly unrelated episode. After seeing the latest exploits of Tom, Lizzie and Ritchie, we might be transported to the Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired Willowbank Wood, to meet Pauly the lovable rabbit, who sounds a lot like a New Jersey mob thug and seems a bit out of place. We might be taken back a century or three to see the exploits of various famous storytellers and how they became entangled with the cabal. Or we might meet Daniel, a directionless young man with a degree in literature who finds himself taking a job that involves reading books all day with hundreds of other people in a featureless underground bunker.

Each of these little stories is an abrupt jump to a new time and place, with new characters. Each one eventually ties in to the main plot, but when the reader first encounters them, they seem like non-sequiturs. In this quiet lull at the end of an arc, when the story has just answered some questions and provided a small, satisfying conclusion, a brand-new big mystery is introduced. Namely, “who are these people and what the heck is going on?”

The next volume invariably jumps right back into the story of Tom et al., leaving these epilogues hanging unresolved for a while. Later on, when they tie back into the main story, there’s an “aha!” moment. These parts of the story are made more exciting simply by being told out of order. They’re also a great way of keeping up the tension in the parts of an episodic narrative where tension has just been relieved (at the end of an arc).

But Wait, There’s More…

The Unwritten is a big series, and I have one more post in me before we get to the end. Next time I’ll be covering the last few things I learned from the final volumes: 9-11. See you then.

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part I)

The Unwritten is a Vertigo comics series published from 2009 to 2015, written by Mike Carey. I picked up the first few trade paperbacks by sheer chance, when my wife found them at a garage sale and thought they looked interesting. After devouring those four, I bought the remaining seven books in the series.

The Unwritten takes place in a world similar to ours, and follows Tom Taylor, whose father published a massively best-selling series of books starring a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. Tom makes a meager living on the convention circuit by virtue of being the character’s namesake. Early in the story he becomes the target of a secret society that uses stories to manipulate and control the world, and finds out that his father was somehow involved with them as well.

The Unwritten is a modern comics masterpiece that intertwines its own original story with real history and dozens of famous works of fiction. It starts with the classic idea that stories have the power to change the world, and then asks what would happen if that were literally true.

This is a big series of books, so I’m going to cover it in a couple posts. First, volumes 1–4.

Everything is a Gun on the Mantle

Callbacks are powerful, and The Unwritten makes liberal use of them. Characters  are often introduced in short scenes where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The story steps away, only to revisit them later and explore them more deeply. Scenes from the Tommy Taylor novels and from other works of fiction are shown early in an episode and become relevant later on. And some ideas keep coming back again and again, like the vampire, Ambrosio, never quite being dead for good.

These callbacks use the principle of minimum necessary information to pull the reader along without bogging down the story. But they’re not just one-and-done. In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig calls this “echoing.” The gun on the mantle need not be thrown away as soon as it’s fired. It can be fired again and again. It can turn out to have historical significance and emotional significance. This layering of narrative makes the reader feel rewarded for simply paying attention, seeing these through-lines keep building and building.

The Unwritten covers a lot of history, back to the very first stories and ahead to the end of the world. But that history is doled out carefully, in small helpings. It takes most of the series for the reader to finally see the whole picture. Each new plot twist seems inevitable, because the groundwork was laid for it by the elements that came before.

Leave Breadcrumbs

I skimmed through the books again as I was writing this, and I immediately discovered several tiny references that I had missed the first time around. These were little clues about what was going on, and which mysteries would become important later. Missing them didn’t hurt my enjoyment of my first read-through, although I’m sure they’d add to the experience of a reader who caught them. Perhaps it’s even better to catch them on a re-read, and discover that I can still find new things in a story whose shape I already know.

Breadcrumbs like these also give the reader an important sense that the author knows where the story is going, which is particularly relevant in episodic media like TV and comics. Many of us have been burned by stories like Game of Thrones or LOST where the authors threw down exciting mysteries and conflicts, but couldn’t come up with commensurate payoffs because they didn’t have a clear plan for the end. Breadcrumbs and callbacks let the reader know that the author is leading them somewhere. It’s hard to enjoy a story until you trust that the author is going to bring you somewhere interesting.

Form Follows Function

The Unwritten plays with a variety of different forms. News broadcasts show up in several places as a series of small TV stills with a ticker along the bottom of the “screen” and the voice-over text just below. There are also times when the characters are browsing the web, and pages of various sizes and shapes are shown shuffled and overlapping, to give the sense of time passing in a jumble of scattered information.

Stories from ancient and recent times are interwoven into the narrative, and are illustrated in different ways. The medieval Song of Roland has washed-out colors and heavier line work. The Tommy Taylor books-within-the-book are slightly more cartoony. Dickens looks like woodcut. The Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired fictitious Willowbank Wood is all pastel watercolors. The Nazi propaganda Jud Süß is black and white, with the red of swastikas providing the only color.

Beyond the visual style, the prose itself changes between these different types of stories. Even more interesting are narrative jaunts, like the issue that reveals Lizzie Hexam’s past. Rather than give the reader a definitive version of events, we get a choose-your-own-adventure story, and different branches paint the characters as sinister or sympathetic, in their own control or manipulated by others. The result is a character whose back-story exists in a quantum superposition of different states.

Sometimes, the way the story is told is what makes the story worth listening to. Memento just isn’t a very interesting story if it’s told linearly. House of Leaves would lose its punch without the multiple frame stories and the parts where the text starts wandering around the page and turning back on itself. The ordering of the narrative and the presentation are the layers of the story that the reader directly interacts with. Even if they aren’t the “meat” of the story, they are responsible for a lot of the flavor.

More to Come

Next time, I’ll dig into volumes 5–8.

What I Learned From Scott Pilgrim

I recently re-read Scott Pilgrim, a six-part comic series by Canadian author Bryan Lee O’Malley. It’s a silly slice-of-life about video games and indie music and trying to figure out how to be an adult. I’m pretty squarely in the target market for this nerd-comedy masterpiece.

As usual, rather than do a traditional review, I’m going to look at what we can learn from the series to use in our own writing.

Tell Your Audience What They’re Getting Into Right Away

You can’t please everybody. If you’re writing something that hits home for you, chances are it will work for somebody else, but there will also be readers who just aren’t interested in what you’re putting on the page. The clearer you are up front about what the thing is going to be, the sooner your reader will know if it’s for them or not.

The first few quick scenes of Scott Pilgrim introduce nearly the entire (sizable) cast of the first book. The very first words encapsulate the inciting incident. It starts with dialogue that is pretty representative of the banter throughout the rest of the series.

Pretty soon, we get into running jokes, like labels when introducing people (“Scott Pilgrim, 23 Years Old, Rating: Awesome), labels introducing scene changes (“The Next Day or Something”). The band starts to play, and along with panels showing close-ups of instruments, there are tiny lyrics printed in the gutters and chords in case you want to play along.

It’s clear this is going to be a goofy story that isn’t afraid to be a little weird, about a bunch of young adults whose idea of a good time is hanging out and making fun of each other.

You Make the Rules

Scott and his friends live in Toronto. Nothing special. Except in school you learn weapon proficiencies. And snacks and soda don’t have nutrition facts, they have stat boosts. Of course, America is a little different too—Scott’s girlfriend has to explain to him the standard American practice of traveling via subspace bypass (conveniently marked by doors around town with little stars on them).

Why not have a story populated by poor, mid-twenties indie rockers where someone occasionally punches a hole in the moon, or gets into an impromptu anime battle where the loser explodes into fifteen dollars (Canadian) in coins, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an extra life or power-up.

A lot of ink is spilled to talk about careful, consistent world-building in fiction. The truth is that sometimes you might just want to write something crazy, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s not entirely internally consistent. Maybe it doesn’t make a ton of sense. If it’s fun and entertaining enough, people will love it anyway.

Write What You Know

These words get thrown around a lot, but I think Scott Pilgrim is a great example of how to do it right. It’s an absurd, unrealistic comedy that borrows liberally from video games and anime. It’s also set (mostly) in very real places near where the author grew up. In fact, the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie went out and filmed at a lot of the exact places shown in the comic.

Bryan Lee O’Malley pulled from those real settings, used real friends and acquaintances as templates for characters, and then threw in a heaping helping of his indie rock, anime, and video game influences.

It feels like a crazy, unique mish-mash, despite pretty much all the individual pieces being heavily inspired by other things. It works because it’s the crazy, unique mish-mash of things the author loved, and we all have our own unique collection of influences that we can impart into our own works.

How to Get It

Scott Pilgrim was originally a 6-part black-and-white series (with a tiny bonus episode for free comic book day). It has since been collected into multiple box sets, most of them now the colorized version, which I would recommend. They are not that easy to find these days, and a bit expensive if you’re not used to the prices for manga-style comics. They are also available in a pretty excellent e-book format for Kindle/Comixology, including a lot of bonus material that is apparently not even available in some of the newer box sets.

What I Learned From “Damn Fine Story”

Chuck Wendig is a silly, silly man, who has written a number of bestselling books. My first introduction to Wendig was his book of goofy morning Twitter affirmations, You Can Do Anything, Magic Skeleton.

I recently finished Damn Fine Story, his book about storytelling (and yes, he calls out storytelling as a distinct craft from writing). The book delights in silliness, a sort of gonzo absurdism that lends flavor to the underlying soup of writing craft.

Wendig uses a handful of pop culture references like Die Hard, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illustrate and embellish his points, making the book fairly approachable. He also uses stories from his own life to illustrate a few of his points, proving that terrorists and lightsabers aren’t strictly necessary to craft an interesting narrative.

Characters are the Nexus of Story Elements

If Wendig has a central thesis in Damn Fine Story, it is this: “Character is everything.” He makes a compelling argument that most of the elements of a story are derived or depend on the characters in that story.

The story starts with an interruption to the character’s status quo. Their main problem is this interruption, and it’s what drives the plot. Conflict and tension comes out of the character’s actions as they attempt to resolve that problem to their own satisfaction.

The plot should never control the characters. While unexpected things can, and should, happen to the characters, it’s how the characters act (and react) that makes the story. Characters must have some measure of agency, some ability to affect the world around them and fight for what they want. Characters fighting to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals is what makes plot happen.

The Inner Emotional Story Drives the External Action

One of the key ways characters drive the story is through their own arcs. But a character arc is inherently internal. In most stories, the world around the character may change. The character may physically change. What really pulls the reader in and keeps them invested is the character’s own emotional inner journey. The character may come to grips with their own deficiencies and improve themselves, or they may discover that they’re not as good and kind as they thought, once push comes to shove. By overcoming adversity, they may discover that they had the strength in them all along.

The bigger the external stakes are, the more important the internal stakes become. Huge problems like galaxy-spanning wars and terrorist attacks make for exciting action, but they’re not something familiar and relatable. On the other hand, feeling like an outsider or wanting a more fulfilling job might be things that hit close to home for a lot of people. The inner conflicts faced by characters are often “smaller,” but that’s also what makes them relatable. A relatable inner journey coupled with a thrilling and extravagant external conflict can make for compelling fiction.

Good Characters Are Relatable

Along those same lines, good characters must be relatable—not necessarily in every way, but in some way. None of us are space wizards (probably), so any space wizard you write needs to have some other aspect to their character or personality that feels more familiar to the reader. Maybe your space wizard is a young adult and eager to get away from the place they grew up. Maybe they’re unsure of themselves. Maybe they try a little too hard to be act cool, or to fit in with the cool space smugglers and furry aliens.

Relatability can come in the form of “good” characteristics, but it doesn’t have to. Foibles and weaknesses can be just as relatable. Each of us has a few weaknesses we’re all too aware of. Protagonists are often a mix of traits we can aspire to and less desirable traits we can recognize in ourselves. Even villains should be relatable, though they may take particular negative traits to extremes.

The craziest and wildest stories still need a core of understandable, relevant concepts that readers can map to their own lives in some way. When the story (and especially the characters) are too hard to understand, they’re impossible to care about. If the reader doesn’t care about them, then the story stops being interesting. The stakes don’t matter.

Questions Keep the Reader Reading

As Lemony Snicket said, always leave something out. Every open question is a string, tugging the reader along. Every answer is a small victory. Scenes that end with a question or unresolved conflict keep the reader turning pages.

Wendig says, “Tease satisfaction, but be hesitant to deliver it…Reveal too little and the audience will feel lost. Reveal too much and the audience will feel safe and bored.” You have to ride the razor’s edge. Start with plenty of questions, then progressively answer more and more of them as the story goes on, with the most answers and biggest answers coming at the end. When you run out of answers, you run out of story.

More Wendig

Damn Fine Story is one of several books Chuck Wendig has written on the craft of writing. I enjoyed this one, and I’ll probably be checking out some of the others. If you’d prefer to try Wendig in small doses, you can check out his twitter. For larger, less frequent, and possibly more writing-related content, try his blog, Terrible Minds.

Reblog: Conflict is Only One Way to Think About Stories —Lincoln Michel

Lincoln Michel always delights me with his thoughtful posts about writing. He occupies an interesting position as one of those rare authors who is deep into both literary and genre fiction. In this post, he continues his grand quest to convince Writing Twitter that there is no one true way to write a story.

In response to the question, “Do all stories have conflicts?” he takes us on a journey through Aristotle and Freytag, kishōtenketsu, Vonnegut’s “character fortunes,” and other ways to think about and model a story.

The point here is these are all different metaphors, different models, to think about stories. None of them are “right” or “wrong.” None of them are universally applicable to all types of text that one might call “a story.” At the same time, these models are frequently overlapping and a single story can be mapped onto a dozen different models.

Read the rest over at Lincoln’s Substack, Counter Craft…

Storytelling Class — Beats, Scenes, Chapters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was ways to divide up a story.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

I continued to read Dune to my oldest son at bedtime. I also finished The Unwritten, reading volumes 8-12. I really enjoyed this series, and I think I’d rate it as my second-favorite comic run of all time, after The Sandman. I need to process and unpack, but I’ll definitely have a post about it at some point.

Freya is nearly done with the Harry Potter series, currently reading the last book. She continues to read The One and Only Bob at school, and the Wildwood trilogy (now on book two) with my wife at bedtime.

What Did We Write?

I finished off Razor Mountain chapter 9. I’m also working on getting back in the habit of writing short stories and submitting them for publication. I sent out a story I’ve been holding on to for a while, called “Dr. Clipboard’s Miracle Wonder Drug.” I’ll be working on a new story next week.

Freya continues her epic, “Amber and Floria.” The two sisters are headed to the jungle to look for their lost parents! I’m pretty excited to read this one when it’s done.

Dividing Stories

This week’s topic was about different ways to divide a story into parts.

Story Beats

A “beat” is the smallest unit of story. Each beat moves the story, although this can be forward progress or backward progress from the viewpoint of a given character.

Some example story beats:

  • A character learns something
  • The reader learns something
  • A character makes progress toward a goal
  • A character achieves a goal
  • A new impediment blocks a character from their goal
  • A character fails at achieving their goal, or their goal becomes impossible
  • A character gains a new goal

It’s also worth noting that some books are less plot-heavy and character-heavy and are more interested in playing with language. Beats in these stories might be a little bit more abstract, like:

  • Make the reader feel something
  • Make the text challenging for the reader

(It might sound absurd to make the reading difficult for your reader, but books like House of Leaves do exactly that with the unusual formatting of the text, and books like Finnegan’s Wake use ordinary text, but obfuscate the meaning and structure. Some readers want a puzzle or a challenge or an extremely high level of density.)

Scenes

A scene is usually just a series of beats that happen in the same place, same linear time, and often with the same set of characters. Scenes are often separated by a simple line break or some little visual motif.

Occasionally, you can have more mixed up scenes, where two things happening at once or the story skips around in a non-linear way. This is a little more common in audio-visual media like TV and movies, where tricks like split-screen, voice-over, and cuts between locations make things a little easier to follow.

One of my favorite comic issues growing up was a fantastic example of this kind of “split screen” storytelling. It’s the 1996 Issue 102 of Wolverine, and it stars the title character shortly after he’s suffered severe trauma that’s left him in a state like a feral animal. There are no spoken words in this issue. The visuals of the comic follow Wolverine as he prowls around New York. The text is a story told by an unseen character, about things that happened to her as a child. Both of the stories, text and visual, are about violence, mercy, and redemption. These themes are pertinent at the end of the story, when it’s revealed that the storyteller is Elektra, another superhero, and she’s come to help Wolverine overcome his affliction and essentially become human again.

Chapters

Pretty much all stories are built out of the building blocks of beats and scenes. Once you zoom out into bigger structures than that, you have some choices. Some of these affect the structure and layout of your story, and some of them are more mental exercises of how you want to think of your story.

Some books have only one scene after another, with no larger delineations of structure. These books have a steady, continuous flow. Dune is an example of a book with scenes, but no chapters, and three “parts” that split the book into much larger sections. That said, the majority of books have chapters.

Chapters are the most common way to create a collection of scenes. A chapter may only have one scene, or multiple scenes. Chapters break the story into chunks in a very visible way. This gives them two properties:

  1. Scenes within a chapter have an implied connection.
  2. Chapter breaks imply a separation between scenes.

The implied separations can be just as important the implied connections. They provide what is probably the cleanest way to tell the reader that there is a break in time or space here.

A chapter can be:

  • A super-scene that collects related scenes together (time, place, characters)
  • A way to form a relationship between scenes that might otherwise seem separate
  • A thematic grouping of scenes
  • A clean way to denote separation of time and place between scenes

Parts, Books, and Bigger Structures

Some stories have even larger groupings, often called Parts or Books. These seem especially prevalent in fantasy, possibly because they’re the modern continuation of mythological and epic forms that are often split into similar parts.

These parts can be treated like super-chapters, collecting larger groups of scenes. They can also imply larger separations of time and place.

The split between books or parts will often want to follow your story’s multi-act structure and major events. The biggest, most important parts of the story tend to happen around the end of one act and the start of another, and these can be natural places to break. That said, books or parts don’t have to follow the story arc or act structure. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the last two books each have two parts that cover the exact same span of time from the point of view of two different groups of characters.

Next Time

We decided last week to alternate between story class and extra writing time, so next week will probably just be another brief read/write report.

Storytelling Class — Point of View and Tense

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topics were point of view and tense.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

Kids had Spring Break, and Freya was able to read through most of the sixth Harry Potter book. My wife continues to read Wildwood with her at bedtime.

I’ve been reading Dune with my oldest, along with the usual blogs. I also finally got around to finishing Chuck Wendig’s “Damn Fine Story.”

What Did We Write?

I played through A Visit to San Sibilia. Freya didn’t write anything this week.

Points of View

There are three points of view that you can write from. They are most easily identified by the pronouns used by the narrator to address the point of view character(s).

First Person

(Me, I)

In this perspective, the story is told by a character within it. The narrator is the same person as the point of view character, and the reader experiences the story as though they are that character.

“Poison for Breakfast” is an example that we’ve read recently, where the story is told by Lemony Snicket, who is also the protagonist.

Second Person

(You, We)

In the second-person perspective, the narrator tells the reader what they did. This puts the reader in the head of a character within the story, but the story itself is actually told by a different narrator.

The most prominent example for people my age are the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which make the reader the protagonist, but also give the reader choices that change the story. A book on my reading list, N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” is also written in this style.

This is the least commonly used of the three points of view.

Third Person

(He, She, They)

In third-person perspective, the narrator talks about what the characters did while being external to all of them. The Lord of the Rings and Dune are two examples of third-person perspectives in stories we’ve read recently.

Third-person perspective also exists along a spectrum of “distance,” which describes how closely it follows different characters. At one end is the omniscient third-person perspective, which isn’t particularly close to any specific characters.

In Dune, Herbert uses a style that’s less fashionable in modern stories, where his omniscient narrator jumps between different characters’ thoughts as it pleases, effectively taking the reader from one character’s head to another.

At the more distant end of the spectrum, the narrator may have no insight into the character’s thoughts. The third-person narrator may also follow a single character (for the whole book, or sections of the book) and only describe thoughts and feelings of that one character. This style keeps the narrator external to the character, but provides some of the closeness of a first-person perspective.

Tense

As with the different perspectives, there are three broad categories of tense to work with. These can be described by when the story is told, in relation to when the events happen.

Past Tense

“They went there. They did that.”

The story is told after it happened. This is probably the most common tense used in genre fiction.

Present Tense

“They go here. They do that.”

The story is told as it is happening. This is probably the most common tense used in literary fiction.

Future Tense

“They will go. They will do that.”

This is more of an experimental tense that is rarely used for an entire story.

There’s Always a Narrator

Along with tense and point of view, it’s worth considering who the narrator is in each story. This is obvious in first-person perspective, but often easy to overlook in the second- or third-person. In many of these stories, the narrator isn’t a character within the story. They are an unknown figure, or simply the author. But it’s still worth spending some time thinking about how you want the narrator to tell the story. Disassociating “the narrator” from yourself as the author can make it easier to think about the stylistic choices you want “them” to make in telling the story.

Mixing and Matching

As usual, when we talk about the tools in the author’s arsenal, we tend to talk about them as pure, distinct things in order to make each one clear. In real usage, however, a story can use multiple tenses and points of view.

Freya and I looked a childrens’ book we have: The Good Egg. This book encapsulates all three tenses in a few short pages. The first-person narrator, the good egg, spends the first half of the book telling us about himself and what happened to him (past tense). Then he says he’s made some important decisions (present tense). Then he describes how he’s going to change his viewpoint and his behavior (future tense). This was a simple encapsulation of how to use different tenses to good effect, and the story blends them together seamlessly.

As I’ve talked about before, The Martian is a great example of the usage of different points of view to achieve different effects throughout a single story.

These are tools in the writer’s toolbox. And even though we are likely to use some much more frequently than others, it pays to be familiar with all of them, and make purposeful decisions around when to use each one.

Storytelling Class — Writing Goals

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was a mini-class where we talked about writing goals.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

This week, I’ve been reading Dune to my eldest (who wasn’t terribly interested in the Wildwood trilogy that my wife is reading to Freya). I recently read The Lord of the Rings to the kids, and Tolkien’s verbose style is fresh in my mind. It stands in stark contrast to Herbert’s often terse style in Dune. Herbert loves to create compound sentences, but has an allergy to conjunctions. He tends to leave the “and” or “but” implied and just combine sentences with a simple comma or semicolon.

Continuing on my recent graphic novel kick, I also read volume 3 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I read the first couple volumes years ago, and I have to say, I was a little lost in this one. Volume 3 is titled “Century,” because it follows the nearly immortal characters over the course of a hundred years.

The premise is fun, but the story didn’t really grip me. The villain seemed almost accidental, and the end of the story was alltogether anticlimactic. The apocalypse was averted by a classic deus ex machina.

One of the big draws of the League stories is the wrangling together of other works of literature into something new, and there were some entertaining examples of that in this volume, including a rather famous wizard school and a magical nanny. Still, they didn’t have the same excitement as the original volume, with its Dracula; Invisible Man; 20,000 Leagues; and Dr. Jekyll references.

Freya has moved on to the sixth Harry Potter book, and continued to read The One and Only Bob at school, and Wildwood with mom at bedtime.

What Did We Write?

I finished off Chapter 8 of Razor Mountain. I’ve also been looking through some solo TTRPGs from the Itch.io Ukraine bundle.

Freya continued to work on her story, Amber and Floria.

Writing Goals

Rather than tackling a high-level writing topic this week, Freya and I sat down and talked a little bit about writing goals.

I used to think my own goals were pretty straightforward: writing stories and novels and trying to get them traditionally published. However, in recent years I’ve been doing more writing just for fun. And, of course, I’ve been writing Razor Mountain serially and posting it as I go, while documenting the whole process. Which lands me somewhere in-between “just for fun” and “actual publishing.”

Two quotes stand out to me when it comes to writing goals. The first is by Neil Gaiman, recorded in print in his little book, Art Matters.

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be…was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

This simple heuristic is perfect for writers. There are a lot of ways to improve at your craft, and no strict curriculum. You just have to set some long-term goals and keep asking yourself whether you’re still walking toward the mountain.

The other quote reminds me that you don’t have to have goals at all. It’s from a conversation about writing on Mike Birbiglia’s podcast, “Working It Out.” Carin Besser talks about writing poems for nobody but herself, taking them out once in a while and working on them without worrying about finishing, and with no real interest in publishing. This is “writing like knitting.” It’s a pass-time, a hobby, or a meditative act.

Sometimes goals can be incredibly stressful, and distract from the fact that we’re doing something we love. Even if you do have long-term goals, it’s worth stepping back periodically and just enjoying writing for its own sake.

Storytelling Class — Round and Flat Characters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was making characters.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

The family had a day this week where just about everyone wrote some poetry, so Freya read everyone’s poems. At school, they’re reading “The One and Only Bob.” My wife is reading her “Wildwood” at bedtimes, and she’s still working through Harry Potter in her free time at school.

I read the remaining pile of Vertigo comics that my wife snagged for me at a garage sale. Last week, I read the first two volumes of Y: The Last Man, a critically acclaimed series that I found pretty uninteresting. This week I delved into two other popular comics series and enjoyed them both quite a bit. They were:

  • Fables: Legends in Exile (Vol. 1)
  • Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake (a side series, I guess?)
  • Unwritten (Vols. 1-4)

Fables is all about fairy tales come to life and magically transported to modern day New York, forced to shlub it up with us mundane people while keeping their magical identities hidden. The first volume is a murder mystery, with the Big Bad Wolf as detective. It doesn’t end with the most shocking twist, but it serves as a great framework to introduce some of the main characters and the world they inhabit. Moreover, I appreciate a short, self-contained little arc, since comics are so often sprawling arcs and cross-series tie-ins (something Marvel has now inflicted upon films).

Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake is another self-contained arc, but completely separate from the New York fables. This one tells the story of a few fables who come together by chance and end up in the sights of an evil fairy queen.

While I enjoyed the Fables books, I really fell in love with Unwritten. Of the random selection of series in this pile ‘o garage sale books, these were my favorites by far.

Unwritten is about a sad man named Tom Taylor, who just happens to have the same name as the main character in a series of wildly successful Harry-Potter-esque novels written by his father. The story starts with Tom making a pittance attending conventions and signing his father’s books, but he quickly gets pulled into a strange conspiracy that threatens his life. Odd occurrences start to stack up, and it looks like he might actually be the boy wizard from the books, and that the worlds of stories might be just as real as our own.

I liked these enough that I’m going to buy the other 7 volumes, and at some point I’ll probably write a separate post about them.

What Did We Write?

This week I wrote my usual blog posts and finished the rough draft of Razor Mountain Chapter 8.

Freya wrote another chapter of her story, Amber and Floria. She also wrote a poem for the ad-hoc family poem-fest.

Characters

The topic for this week was characters, specifically flat and round characters. These, like so many writing terms, end up being talked about as a sort of binary, but they’re really two ends of a spectrum.

  • Round, deep or complex characters are those with extensive back-story, with many and subtle personality traits.
  • Flat, shallow or simple characters are those with minimal back-story and little personality.

It should be obvious just from these definitions that there is a spectrum here, where characters can be more or less complex.

It might feel desirable to make every character as complex as possible, and this is generally a good instinct. However, it’s important to note that there are only so many pages in a book. Some characters will necessarily take up more of the story, and others will be inherently less important. So even if every single character is equally complex, they cannot be shown with equal depth in the text itself.

Round Characters

To make characters more round, figure out more details about their

  • Background
  • Personality
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Conflict (what’s their problem, and how do they intend to solve it?)
  • Growth (how do they change over the course of the story?)

Again, it’s fine to know more things about a character than you actually end up using on the page. Sometimes having a deep back-story allows you to hint at bits of their personality that don’t show through clearly, but still give the character a sense of being a complicated, living person.

Flat Characters

The flattest characters are usually purpose-built. They do something specific for the story. The danger with these kind of characters is that they look too much like a plot device and not enough like a real person.

For these characters, having a personality, goals and conflict are less important. In fact, they only matter in that they’re useful to make the character feel real for the short time they’re on the page. Sometimes, flat characters can be defined with a shorthand or handle: specific, interesting traits. These might be something physical, or a mannerism, an unusual mode of speech, or other memorable attributes.

Flat Can Be Okay

There’s a school of thought that says no characters should be flat, and especially not ones that are important to the story, but that’s not necessarily true. While we usually want the characters in the spotlight to be complex and interesting, there are certain types of stories and certain genres where relatively flat characters can be effective, even in a starring role.

In some comedy, especially cartoons and sitcoms, it’s common to see characters that are mostly static from episode to episode. These shows typically feature a problem at the start of the episode that is resolved by the end, which means that over time, the status quo is maintained. This allows an audience to “pop-in” to the show at any time, as long as they’re familiar with the characters. They don’t have to catch up on the two or three episodes they missed. When this works, it’s because the characters are largely treated as vehicles for a steady stream of jokes.

Similarly, in certain mystery stories, the detective protagonist may undergo surprisingly little character development. These stories are focused on the mystery: the clues, the false leads, the clever inferences, and the eventual satisfying conclusion. Again, the detective character becomes a vehicle, this time, for the mystery.

Some superhero comics are superlative examples of characters that can remain static and flat. I have a pet theory that superhero origin stories are almost always the most compelling, because the character has an arc in the origin story, but oftentimes becomes much more static after that, enslaved by a serial format that wants to keep selling issues indefinitely. (Of course, this is a gross generalization, but there are certainly examples you can point to.)

Point of View

For POV characters and narrators, who are the reader’s window into the story, having a deep understanding of the character is vital for understanding their voice. When the character is the POV or the narrator, their voice is the voice of the book (or at least the parts they are involved in). It affects what the reader sees and how the reader interprets almost everything.

Examples

As an example of the flat <==> round spectrum in action, Freya and I talked about one of my half-finished stories.

It takes place in a steampunk world where everyone can wield a tiny amount of magic via totemic items, but a rare few (called “hexes”) can wield greater magical power. The protagonist, Edward, is a hex and a former soldier and spy who once worked for the crown. After committing terrible atrocities in a world war, he quit and vowed to never take another life. He’s an emotional wreck thanks to the horrible things he’s done and seen, and he is constantly balancing his natural inquisitiveness and propensity for getting into big, violent trouble with his vow of pacifism.

Early in the story, he gets involved in a mystery and meets a man who calls himself Vociferous. Vociferous is huge. He claims to be a Hex, wears slightly absurd robes and works in a factory, supposedly casting spells as a part of the highly secretive manufacturing process. We quickly find out that Vociferous is a fraud, and not a hex at all. We find this out because Edward is a real hex who knows all about it.

Vociferous is a relatively flat character. We don’t find out much about his personality or past, we just know he’s faking it for money. He has a handful of characteristics to make him more interesting: his distinct look and strange name. His ultimate purpose is to give Edward good reason within the story to explain the way magic works (to another character, and to the reader).

Edward is a much more rounded character. The story follows his point of view. He has a backstory and history with other characters. He has friends and enemies. He has flaws and goals and challenges to overcome.

Next Time: Setting Goals

Next week is going to be a light class. We’re going to talk about goal-setting and growing as a writer.

Dialogue For Lonely Characters

I’m currently working my way through my serial novel, Razor Mountain. One of the challenges in the first part of the book is that the main character, Christopher, is trapped in the wilderness and completely alone. This idea of a character completely cut off from everyone else is not a new one. Disconnected characters can show up in different genres and styles of work, from the classic shipwrecked sailor to the lost astronaut to the post-apocalyptic horror survivor.

Humans are social creatures. Characters interact with one another, and this is a vital part of most stories. So when a character winds up completely alone, certain storytelling tools are removed from our authorial arsenals. Dialogue is a great way to externalize the internal feelings and thought processes of the character, and when they have no one to talk to, those feelings and thoughts are harder to get across.

Something I’ve been considering lately, dealing with my own disconnected character, are the ways to achieve some of the same effects of dialogue, even when the character doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. Here are a few forms of dialogue for lonely characters.

Inner Thoughts

The simplest answer is to get directly into the character’s head and view their thoughts directly. The character’s thoughts may be rendered in italics and written out in much the same way you’d write dialogue.  That style can come off as pretty heavy-handed, and it isn’t as popular as it once was. Depending on your audience, your readers may or may not have much appetite for it.

A less in-your-face version of this is free indirect speech, where the character’s thoughts are described as a part of the narration. This can work in both a first-person and close third-person point of view, and gets the character’s thoughts across while giving the reader less of the feeling that they’re being internally verbalized within the character’s head.

Journals and Logs

I recently read The Martian, which is a master class in the use of many different viewpoints and narrative strategies. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is stranded alone on Mars and spends a large portion of the book with nobody to talk to.

The Martian makes liberal use of logs as a way for Watney to narrate these parts of the story (as well as a useful dramatic pacing device). Journals or formal logs are an opportunity for a character to describe what they’ve done, what they’re planning, and how they feel about it.

The obvious downside of journals and logs is that they have to make sense for the character and the story. For Watney, an astronaut, the use of logs make sense. However, he’s not going to stop and write a log entry in the middle of a frantic action sequence. If he’s going to describe that in a log, it will probably need to be after-the-fact.

Furry Friends and Mannequins

Humans are self-centered. We see ourselves in everything. We love to anthropomorphize animals, and will even anthropomorphize inanimate objects. A lonely character will often be all too happy to socialize with a dog, cat, or monkey if no human companions are available. Even if there isn’t a pet ready at hand, a character who is desperate enough may find an object to be their friend.

In the movie version of “I am Legend,” the protagonist, Robert Neville, has a dog that serves as his friend and companion. However, I thought the most interesting scenes in the movie are the ones involving the mannequins. Neville has posed them. He talks to them, and has even assigned them simple personalities. When he eventually finds them out of place, moved by some unknown person or force, he reacts as though they have betrayed him.

Similarly, the character Chuck Noland in Castaway is stranded on a desert island, where he eventually “befriends” a volleyball with a crude face painted on it. He names it Wilson, and is distraught when it is lost in an accident.

These strategies are interesting, but harder to pull off effectively. Most people are fairly understanding of a person who talks to their pets, but will start to wonder about the character when those conversations get serious, or the human seems to expect any meaningful communication back from the animal. A person who has too many serious conversations with inanimate objects will be seen as spiraling into delusion.

Sometimes, instead of looking outward for a conversational partner, we turn inward. Most of us have probably talked to ourselves here or there. Most of us don’t make a habit of it, however.

A character who talks to themselves now and then can seem relatively reasonable. A character who talks to themselves continuously tends to be seen similarly to the character who talks to the mannequins.

The Humor of the Situation

Injecting some levity into these conversations can help, as a way for the character to wink at the reader and say “Hey, I know this looks a little crazy…”

The fact of the matter is that humans are social. We need contact with other humans. A character who is completely alone for a significant amount of time, especially in a stressful situation, is reasonably likely to see their mental health deteriorate. That can be a dark place for the character to be, and a weight on the reader as well.

If the character can crack a joke here or there, do something silly or absurd, or even just blow off some steam as a way of acknowledging their frustrating situation, it can help to reset the mood, in a way that allows both character and reader to endure yet more suffering.

In The Martian, Mark Watney faces death on an almost daily basis, but he also complains about the bad TV shows and music left behind by his crew-mates. Those little jokes humanize him as much as his suffering and his ingenuity and determination.

Dialogue is Still King

It turns out your character doesn’t need friends to make compelling dialogue, but it sure does help. The options outlined here can help to fill the holes in the story when dialogue just isn’t possible for your disconnected character, but ultimately there’s no perfect substitute for the real thing.

Having to write a character who spends an extended amount of time alone has helped me to appreciate the powers of dialogue. Hopefully my protagonist, Christopher, will find his way back to civilization soon, if only so he’ll have someone to talk to.