Good Filtering, Bad Filtering

May 27, 2011 9:54 pm
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Something tells me someone did a blog post on this exact same thing once… but I cannot remember who, and I’m in need of blog content, so I’ll be rehashing it here.

When critiquing manuscripts, I often find myself leaving these comments: “I’d avoid filtering these things through your MC so much.”

Then, seconds later: “Can you filter this through your MC a little more?”

Which made me realize I probably ought to come up with a different term for one or the other. Instead, I’m going with the less obvious option, and just separating them into good filtering and bad filtering.

BAD FILTERING:

I saw the cup was empty.

I heard my brother’s screams echo through the hallway.

If you’re in third person, the same thing applies:

Peter felt the wind breeze over his skin.

The thing is, when you’re in close PoV — and in YA and SF/F, close PoV is very common — the only thing that makes it onto the page is what the MC hears, sees, smells, touches, feels, thinks, tastes. We can’t be privy to any information the MC isn’t. Saying “I felt” or “Peter thought” is therefore redundant, and will take the reader out of the MC’s head. It reminds them that this is an author describing this.

So why not rephrase the sentences instead, and keep us firmly anchored inside your MC’s head?

My brother’s screams echoed through the hallway.

The wind breezed over Peter’s skin.

GOOD FILTERING:

This means that everything you describe is filtered through your MC’s opinions, emotions, knowledge. Good filtering takes us deep into your MC’s head.

If you don’t do this, narrative risks being flat, uninteresting, and you miss out on an opportunity to show us more about your character.

The hallway was long, with bright lights. I couldn’t wait to get out of here.

vs.

I trudged through a hallway that seemed to go on forever. Those obnoxious lights didn’t help. My eyes ached from the glare. I couldn’t wait to get out of here.

As you can see, it’s closely tied in to telling vs. showing; the former is the author describing a scene, while the latter is a character experiencing a scene.

Unsurprisingly, Janice Hardy has a couple of fantastic posts on this same concept. Check out her posts “Write What You Don’t Know: PoV and Description” and “Room With a (Point of) View”.

Am I alone in confusing people with these terms? Do you call them something else? Please share! :)

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First Person PoV

Aug 12, 2010 10:36 am
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First off: Cate Gardner’s short story collection Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits is now up for pre-order. Which, if you ask me, is pretty badass.


Jodi Meadows talked about first person, present tense today, specifically the reason people frequently use this device: because then there’s more of a risk to the main character. You don’t know if they’ll die or not! I’ve heard this a lot. After all, if a story is in past tense and Suzie The Main Character dies at the end, how is she telling the story in past tense? From the afterlife?

This reasoning is kind of silly to me.

Warning: grouching ahead.

Whether you use present tense or past tense, the idea that Suzie is actually the character writing the book is pretty ridiculous, anyway. I never saw first person that way unless it’s meant as an epistolary device and the character outright tells me, “I am writing this book because of so-and-so.” Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, and a million other examples.

Otherwise, everyone knows it’s just an author pretending to be in a character’s head, not a character writing a book, or recording something, or talking to someone else, or any similar mechanism. Right? No character would tell a story the way a writer tells a story. Even when the character is talking to the reader, it doesn’t mean the character actually lugged around a notebook or tape recorder throughout the entire book.

(As a sidenote: I really enjoyed this in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, because it actually is written by the main character who, in one instance, has his book/diary taken away by his father. His father reads it, thus has all of the information we now have, and is angry at the main character as a result. The book we’re reading directly affects the plot within the book we’re reading.)

Basically, a first-person PoV is a literary device. We use these to tell a story the way we think it’ll be told best. Sometimes that means sticking the reader inside Suzie’s head and seeing, feeling, and thinking exactly what Suzie’s seeing, feeling, and thinking, and communicating this information the same way Suzie would.

This doesn’t mean Suzie’s got a thing to do with actually writing the book. The author is still the one who decides what gets told and how. The trick is to make it seem like Suzie is in charge — by restricting the information we have to the information Suzie has, by using her voice to tell the story, by never slipping up in terms of PoV, et cetera. We’re busy telling a convincing lie.

But really? The lie only goes so far. If you can accept that a Suzie is telling you something as it happens, even when Suzie is alone in a room or in the midst of a heated fight scene, why is it so hard to imagine a story told in past tense with Suzie ending up dead? (R.I.P. Suzie.) If the story is better told in past tense, I totally understand an author’s decision to tell the story in past tense no matter what happens at the end; are we really supposed to endure 379 pages of awkward storytelling because of something that happens on page 380?

Sometimes I wonder if these are the same people who will watch a musical and complain, “But why would they all burst out in song? And how do they all know what lyrics to sing if this is so spontaneous? And seriously, is this character supposed to be a dancer? Because they didn’t MENTION any of that. Am I supposed to believe everyone in this town just HAPPENS to be an amazing dancer and singer and know the exact choreography? And why would they be singing right now? They’re running for their lives!”

It’s a way of telling a story. Focus on the story.

All of this is coming from a fan of first person — all my books to date are first-person — who’s written several short stories and one novel in present tense. In other words, I have nothing against either device. I just get grouchy when I think people take books/PoV too literally.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this! I’m always eager to be proven wrong ;)

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Unreliable Narrators

Jul 24, 2010 4:41 pm
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Shockingly, I’m still alive. Between beta reading, short story editing, and plotting my next novel, I just haven’t had a heck of a lot to write about.

But then I read The Hunger Games the other day, and a lightbulb went off. Especially after my last WIP, The Hands of Cally Wu, I’m very intrigued by unreliable narrators. As far as I can see, there are three types:

  1. The narrator who lies to or purposefully omits information from the reader (see: Justine Larbastelier’s Liar, or any number of first-person detective novels who hide information only to info-dump later)

  2. The narrator who is somehow manipulated into thinking or acting a certain way
  3. The narrator who makes false assumptions/is biased in some way

The first type can be easier to pull off, because you don’t always have to read between the lines – though depending on the kind of lies, their reactions, etc. you can still make it plenty complex – but at the same time risks irritating the reader. Especially if it’s a first-person narrator, it can feel like a huge cheat to realize you’re not as 100% in the character’s head as you thought.

The second and third usually go over better with readers, but are tricky to pull off in different ways. If it’s too subtle, the full impact of the later revelation that they’re mistaken isn’t as strong as it could be. If it’s too on-the-nose, the reader can easily tell they’re being manipulated into thinking a certain way.

Take Katniss’s initial feelings about Peeta in The Hunger Games, for example. At some point these feelings are so strong (without enough action on his side to justify it) that the reader already knows they’re likely false. This can be intentional – and it’s fun to see narrators go off in entirely the wrong direction sometimes – but risks making the book predictable. Just like, in a heck of a lot of books, the characters who hate each other most will likely end up as love interests.

In another example, I finished an urban fantasy novel a few weeks ago wherein Our Heroine was convinced Character X was evil. The problem: she had very little evidence to base it on. Now, with personal entanglements (like Katniss/Peeta), it’s fun to see characters flounder. When it comes to plot – not so much. I was annoyed at Our Heroine for jumping to conclusions when she could be off chasing actual leads. Even more annoyed when she had Character X beaten savagely because of her suspicions. And even more annoyed when she didn’t really seem to feel all that guilty after she was proven wrong.

I love flawed characters, but, er, there are limits.

Anyway, there were also moments in The Hunger Games when I truly didn’t know if Katniss’s suspicions about some characters were correct. This worked on multiple levels – characterization and plot – which, IMO, was a great way to keep the reader guessing and intrigued.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the topic, as well, if you have any to share!

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Point of View, Tense, and Self-Censoring

May 17, 2010 2:02 pm
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You know, avoiding–

a) blatant telling instead of showing

and

b) straight-up exposition

–is really hard when your character is, you know, actually telling the reader what’s happening and straight-up explaining things. It means I get to be subtle in a different way – yum, unreliable narrators – but still. This is probably going to be one of those books that either works or is an abominable train wreck. Excellent!

I’ve spoken before of my reasons to go with first person, present tense, speaking directly to the reader before: intimacy, directness, and immediacy are the big ones, of course, but I’ve been thinking about it more and I have a number of other reasons that I’m only discovering as I write the book.

Cally, my main character, has to witness and do some very nasty things over the course of this book. Some of them I describe; some, I don’t. Since she’s ‘telling’ the reader what’s happening as they happen, what she does and doesn’t share tells us a lot about her mental state and priorities. Present tense doesn’t give her the time to censor herself afterward–which means that when she skips over vital scenes, she’s censoring herself in the moment. She’ll tell the reader, in one line or paragraph, “this is what I’m doing” and then move on. Doing so in past tense could give the impression that the scene just wasn’t all that important, or that she doesn’t want to talk about it; if the book were in past tense, in fact, it’s very likely she would describe the scene, because she’ll have had time to think about it, to give it a place.

Skipping scenes in present tense creates an entirely different effect – one I might be able to emulate by having her just be extraordinarily detached. With most characters, that would work, and it might even result in some very powerful scenes. The thing is, Cally is detached for 95% of the book, so for these kinds of scenes, I’d need to take it a step further. She’s not just detached, she’s tuning out. She’s on auto-pilot.

Plus: if a murder is summarized in one line and her son’s basketball tryouts immediately afterward get several paragraphs… well, it might piss off some readers – I know I’d prefer to read about a murder than basketball tryouts – but man, does it tell you about how fucked up she is or what?

(Oh man, I hope it’s the former. *g*)

So this is me, attempting to justify my use of a commonly misused storytelling mechanism. Whether it works in the book is something I’ll have to wait and see, but it’s probably a good thing to spell out my intentions so I can figure out later if it worked, yeah?

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First Person vs. Third Person vs. Why Must You Make Life So Difficult, New Book Of Mine?

Feb 22, 2010 1:57 pm
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Though I only started with this whole novel thingymajig back in 2007/2008, I’ve been writing for a lot longer than that. 95% of that writing was done in third person.

So if any of you can explain why just about every friggin’ novel that pops up in my head insists on being told in first person, I’d really appreciate it.

Part of me understands why: voice and character are huge priorities for me as a writer, and first person allows those aspects to shine. That’s been my rationalisation for all the books I’ve written so far and most of the ones I’m still planning; the thing is, though there’s nothing inherently wrong with first person, I don’t want it to become a crutch, either. I’ve spent years writing in third person, so why can’t I seem to write a danged novel that way?

So I figured I’d have to give that a try at some point. Maybe I could do Heirs in third person — except notsomuch, because the MC is recently deafened and hasn’t yet learned ASL or lip-reading. First person would be much more effective at getting across his immense sense of isolation.

Other novels, I told myself, would need to have a similarly good reason for needing first person. So when a new novel and MC presented themselves the other day, adamant on first person, I figured I could live with it. The MC’s situation is unique enough to warrant it.

Except then a first line popped up in my head. First person. Present tense. Talking directly to the reader. And I kinda felt like smacking this stupid book, because you need to be damned skilled to pull something like that off, and I’m not remotely sure I can handle it.

The thing is, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. This MC is quite possibly the most closed-off, least sympathetic character I have floating around my head – and I have a lot of them, believe me. In order to make her sympathetic, in order to make people understand her, I’ll need to dig deep. Present tense, talking to the reader, would make her voice so direct, so confrontational, so arresting that I hope it’d get the reader sucked in even while she’s doing some really atrocious things. It’d drag them along in a watching-a-trainwreck, can’t-avert-your-eyes kind of way.

All of that would only work if it’s done right, of course, and I’m not saying I’ll be able to. But, well, the book has explained itself and turns out to have pretty good reasons for wanting to be told this way. I figure I should suck it up and give it a shot.

If nothing else, it’ll be a challenge, and those can only be good.

(Er, at least until they start causing mental breakdowns, but that’s a concern for later. Right?)

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