Depending on when this column goes up on the blog, it’ll either be a preview or rehash of the part I’m contributing to the Advanced Writing Panel at Bronycon [I made sure to schedule this post for before the convention, specifically so that the con would be ripping me off, and not vice-versa. Ball's in your court, Bronycon! -Chris]. But I don’t imagine there’s a ton of overlap; likely a small percentage of people who read this blog (quite possibly zero percent) will be at the panel, so it’ll still be new to most if not all of you! Yay for recycled content!
I want to talk about a segment of stories that I see even good writers mishandle from time to time. The main theme of the panel is perspectives, because getting character viewpoint is very important, and most errors result from the author just not making enough of an effort to put themselves in the character’s place and assessing exactly what the character would perceive and how, and what it’s reasonable for the character to do.
First, a little preamble. There are no absolute rules in writing, even really basic ones like “spell things right.” There are legitimate reasons to misspell words. Maybe the misspelling is deliberate because it’s imitating a pronunciation or because it’s overtly the character’s error, not the author’s. There can be legitimate reasons to break any rule, and authors often use examples from published fiction as justification. “Hemingway did it, so I can, too!”
Very few of us can claim to be on Hemingway’s level, though. He can get away with it because he’s Hemingway. Good writing can make up for a lot of rule breaking, and it can even make the story succeed, not despite breaking the rules, but because of it. That’s the trick: making sure rule-breaking is a net benefit for the story and done because the author understands the full effect of the choice he’s making, not because the author just wants to do it and has to carry the baggage of his choice without knowing what that baggage is.
So, gimmick stories. There are a few I won’t get into, since the only thing I can say about the subject is that an author really needs to get into the character’s mindset. These would be things with unusual perspectives, like that of a child, an animal, or an inanimate object. Plus the second-person perspective, which many people use just for the sake of using it. I’ll come back to this in a second.
The types I will be discussing, since they’re the most prevalent, are the ones told through something that one or more characters have written (letters, diaries, journals, reports, etc.), dialogue-only stories, and open endings.
That was probably about five seconds, but still, I’m already getting back to it. That really speaks to the heart of why authors shouldn’t undertake these stories lightly. It works out far better when you have a story concept in mind, then you realize it would lend itself well to a dialogue-only treatment, than to decide you want to write a dialogue-only story first, then try to craft a premise around it. The epistolary story is probably the easiest one to pull off, since it’s less about justifying why the format is used and more to sticking with it, yet it’s also the one that takes the most thought.
Let’s dive right in, then. First: the dialogue-only story. Like I said, this is the one that’s rarely justified, so authors want to write one just for the experience rather than having a story idea particularly suited for it. To be fair, it’s possible to do any of these as part of the story instead of the entire thing. During rapid back-and-forth exchanges, it’s common to go dialogue-only for a few paragraphs just to keep that feeling of quick pacing up. But if you want to retain it for the entire course of the story, really consider whether it fits what’s happening in the story. In short, consider why it’s not worth presenting anything other than dialogue.
Most stories deal only with the visual and auditory. It’s nice to add in touch, taste, and smell for an enriching experience, but those two are the primary focus. What reasons might there be to eliminate the visual? There are a few. Say two characters are conversing in the dark. Each one individually could still hear the other sigh or walk around or shift position. And each one would be aware of his own movements. But there’s still some reason why the visual is reduced, if not eliminated, especially where the visual part isn’t that germane to the character interaction. One character is speaking to another through a closed door, two characters are in adjacent prison cells such that they can’t see each other, the perspective character is blind. Those are good physical justifications. In an abstract sense, maybe they are actually floating around in a featureless void. In a figurative sense, maybe the perspective character is so stunned that only the sound of someone speaking to her gets through her mental block.
Keep in mind what this gimmick costs you: the ability to create a rich setting or communicate the subtleties of emotion that come through from what people don’t say. Is it worth it? Only you and the reader can decide for yourselves, but the point is that dialogue-only stories that never provide any kind of justification exist more as a curiosity than something enhanced by that choice.
Next up: open endings. Fortunately, this is a quick one to deal with. The biggest error that authors make with open endings is in thinking that making the course of future events ambiguous is enough. It isn’t. To illustrate, here’s a dumb story:
I walked up to the counter at Chick-Fil-A and had to decide. They only had two kinds of chicken: sandwiches or nuggets. But which one would I choose?
“May I take your order?” the cashier said.
You don’t know what I choose, but neither do you care. There’s zero gravity to the choice. The art of an open ending only begins (heh) with suggesting multiple possible outcomes. You have to demonstrate that the characters have an investment in those outcomes. If they don’t care about the options, why should the reader?
You can come up with a complex array of possibilities. Maybe the character has to choose between multiple positive things, maybe the lesser of two evils. That’s not always a compelling decision, though. If you leave it open whether a perfectly happy character should continue chopping vegetables or stab herself in the chest with the knife, it’s not effective. The character clearly has a stake in the choice, but not a motivation for both options. Unless the reader has a particular dark streak, he has no reason to imagine the character doing anything but continuing on with her cooking. So the next step is that the character must have some reason for making every one of the available choices. Like many real-life situations, it may be that all the available paths have both a benefit and a cost, so the character must weigh those. Or it may be that circumstances beyond the character’s control make one or more of the outcomes likelier. It really helps to have this create a conflict: take the good with the bad, pick between mutually exclusive yet desirable options, or what will probably happen versus what the character wants to happen.
In short, give the character a reason to care which path comes to pass, and make each option viable, because the character might either reasonably choose it or be unable to prevent it. And finally, even though the open ending keeps the story from having plot closure, it should still have thematic closure. It ought to wrap up the character growth that led to the decision and make whatever point it wanted.
The last gimmick story I want to cover is the one featuring something a character has written. This is similar to the dialogue-only story in that it limits the type of interaction that characters can have. In particular, it can be very difficult to honor the “show, don’t tell” adage through it, so it can make the emotions involved more detached. For this reason, similar to the dialogue-only story, authors often choose to adopt a hybrid approach, where they include both letters and standard live-action scenes. The trick with letters, journals, and diaries is to make them sound authentic, so I’ll go over the common ways that writers fail in this regard.
You don’t just write a normal story and slap a “dear diary” or “dear Princess Celestia” on the front. It doesn’t work that way.
So what are the things a normal story does that articles of writing don’t? First of all, there’s how they convey events. A normal story puts the narrative eye with events as they happen, unless something specific is done to change that. For instance, there may be a framing device of children sitting down to hear a story told. Then the narrative is understood to be this speaker, not a viewpoint witnessing the action in its original occurrence. The difference this makes is that memories fade.
Someone writing a letter or a journal isn’t doing so right as the events occur. They write it down well afterward. Hours later, if not longer, the writer isn’t going to remember many details about the setting. There may have been specific things that caught his eye, and such things can even be used to good effect; the fact that he noticed them may reveal things about his character. But cataloguing exhaustive detail about what everyone wore just does not ring true for the format. Neither does recalling entire conversations presented as word-for-word dialogue. He might recall single lines that stood out to him, but beyond that, he could only reliably jot down a summary of what was said.
That should make sense on a conceptual level, but consider it from an execution standpoint as well. Detach yourself from seeing this as a story. See it as the diary or letter you’re asking the reader to, and put yourself in the character-writer’s place. When have you ever written a letter, email, or diary entry where you went over nuanced descriptions of setting or wrote out a conversation instead of summing it up? People just don’t do that. It not only has to make for an entertaining story, but it has to convince the reader that this is a plausible example of the format.
What other kinds of things do authors put in diary and letter stories that don’t conform to the medium? By their nature, they’re limited narration, but that doesn’t mean other things typically used in limited narration would do well. This is because in a normal story, limited narration represents the character’s internal thought processes. An epistolary story represents what that character has cared to commit to writing. But there are things that are questionable as to whether someone would commit them to writing.
Think about things people do in their speech or thoughts that they typically wouldn’t in writing—things that are speech affectations. For one, trailing off. People do this when they speak, because they lose their train of thought, hadn’t finished formulating what they wanted to say, maybe walked off where the listener couldn’t hear them anymore. Namely, they’re things the speaker hasn’t done on purpose. They just crop up out of circumstance, and none of them would affect a written record. Now, some people still do. In a diary entry or a cutesy note, especially younger people will put an ellipsis here and there, so it’s not totally out of place, depending on the tone. But having a character deliberately write an ellipsis means that they want to convey something by it. For its main uses, however, they don’t apply. If a letter writer loses his train of thought, he can sit there as long as he likes before it comes back to him. If he’s not sure how he wants to finish the sentence, he can stew on it until he is sure.
The same goes for getting interrupted. If there’s an explosion nearby while someone is speaking, he’ll stop abruptly and divert his attention. If the same happens while he’s writing a letter, he doesn’t put a dash there; he just stops writing and resumes when he can devote his attention to it again. There are other uses for dashes, like asides, but cutoffs don’t often work in diaries or letters.
Strikethroughs can violate the spirit of these stories as well, unless they’re used carefully. For example, if a child writing a letter has to correct his spelling, that’s a plausible use. Too often, what authors do is strike through something as a way of showing what the letter writer decided he didn’t want to say anymore. However, the author must consider whether the letter writer would care if the recipient saw. Many times, careless authors use this as a cheat to let the reader know something that the recipient doesn’t. Again, with a hybrid story, it’s easy to get at such things in the narration, but when it’s letters only, it should represent what the recipient sees as accurately as possible, unless it’s explicitly indicated as a discarded rough draft, for example. Otherwise, it’s disingenuous to provide the reader with information the medium shouldn’t contain because the character writing it intended to render it illegible.
And the last thing I’ll mention is when the author doesn’t stay focused on what audience the writer intended. I’ve seen documents titled as technical reports that had precious little scientific discussion in them. Mostly, they rambled on about personal impressions, the kind of language more customary for a diary. I’ve seen journals vacillate between entries seemingly made for the writer’s own benefit and ones that more address some other specific person or unknown party who might find it in the future. It calls the journal’s purpose into question.
All of this falls under the same heading as many problems with writing: the author hasn’t put himself into the characters’ situations enough to know how to convey their experiences in the story. If you have a story idea that you think would fit well with one of these types, then take the time to see things from your character’s viewpoint. If you were writing the letter, how would you do it? Would you really try to reconstruct dialogue from two days ago? Would you really inscribe an ellipsis on the page? What decisions might you face where you had an investment in several disparate options? How would you communicate that investment to build up tension for the outcome? What situation might you be in that would cause you to focus on speech to the exclusion of everything else? If you can get into your character’s head, you’ll understand why these common mistakes don’t work, and you’ll find yourself in a much better position to come up with something that does.
Thanks again, Pascoite! Personally, I find few things more disappointing than poorly-realized epistolary writing, and there's some great advice here for avoiding the pitfalls of that particular gimmick.