I’m writing a scene in my story, in which a vagabond priest is speaking with the MC about his visions, and the tales he makes out of them (the book is called Tales of Uncle, so a large number of tales can be expected to figure into it). At this point, I became aware of a subtle sort of trap raising its ugly head, and moved to steer clear.
The trap is what I call the Echo Chamber, not that I claim any originality in the name. I first heard of it in a political context, referring to a group of apparently independent organizations that are in fact working together to repeat the same arguments, making them sound more plausible by the repetition.
In a literary context, the trap is framed as a set of characters who end up agreeing with each other on various topics. Character A says X, and character B nods his head and praises A for his wisdom. Then B starts talking and A is the one nodding his head. In a polemic, the role of B is to simply nod his head, and A gets to do all the talking. The echoes here are not spoken comments so much as the universal success enjoyed by everyone who agrees with A. Character C, who is opposed to A, is of course a venal boob, a callow fool, and easily outwitted.
I’m clearly not a fan of this technique, so I took great care to avoid it myself. It’s not hard to do, if you the author have made your characters correctly. A character will be a hunk of the author’s own soul, of course (unless you’re one of those authors who uses ‘characterization’ to construct a character to be the robot you need for your story to work), but not all of it by any means, and different characters will be different hunks. Since they will have in common about as much as your thoughts on Shakespeare and lemon pudding, it isn’t hard to have them agree on the basics but disagree on the details.
If you’re really schizophrenic you can have them disagree about the basics too, but an author who’s been paying any attention to his life at all (and they all should), would have a solider foundation than that. Writing a book ought not be an Echo Chamber so much as an Argument Clinic, with the author coming out of the experience of writing it a new and larger person. Writing a book that isn’t a piece of self-analysis on some level seems a great waste of time and energy to me.
Back when I was writing my many stories in the Chuck fanfiction realm, I often thought of it as great practice for any future writing I would end up doing. Having already written St.Martin’s Moon at that point, I knew that there were certain types of writing which I was not very good at, such as mystery, with its focus on pacing and plotting, and horror, with its focus on pacing and setting/ambiance. Chuck was a great mixture of light and dark, romance and comedy combined with spy action and some darker drama. My own strengths were in the romance and comedy areas, I thought at the time, where my ability to write strong dialog and characters was most important. The slow and methodical pacing of a spy story, mixed with the occasional burst of action, was what I needed work on.
I was mainly thinking of my more normal stories when I thought this, such as the stories of my Nine2five series, in which I rewrote the last three seasons of Chuck to be more of a piece with the first two. The third season, usually abbreviated as S3, was a very dramatic turn for the show, which the producers thought of as a Hero’s Journey type of story. Which may have been their vision, but if so, they were very poor story-tellers, since the first two seasons weren’t so strong on the Hero’s Journey and they were very strong on the romantic comedy spy adventure. (In fact, the show never did become a Hero’s Journey type of show, as nearly every step along that Journey was erased and forgotten by the end of the episode.) S4 and S5 were far worse, in terms of story-telling failures, so fixing the whole series was quite a lesson plan for a practicing writer. (I added the links to my stories in case anyone wants to read them, but they do assume you know the show, so a great deal of exposition is left out. You have been warned.)
That said, however, the story that is coming to my aid at this moment is not Nine2five but a much less ambitious and more experimental piece called ‘Not This Time‘. This story came between my more typical stories, such as ‘Hannah HISHE‘ and ‘Chuck vs the Epilog’, and Nine2five, and may have contributed to my development of the ideas for the latter story. What made ‘Not This Time’ (hold on while I save that title on my clipboard, just in case I need to write it a lot) experimental was the problem it was written to solve, as regards the finale.
In addition to the will-they-won’t-they trope that makes so many shows so painful to watch, the finale for some reason included the amnesia trope for one of the most popular characters, so all of the development that character had undergone over 5 years of show-time was completely erased. (The producers for some reason thought this was a good thing. I have my own theories on the matter, which I have written elsewhere.) As part of the ‘drama’ of the whole thing, she had occasional slight flashes of memory, to give us faithful viewers hope that our beloved character was not irretrievably lost, I guess.
‘Not This Time’ was written in that context. I wanted to do a story showing how the woman had been changed over the last five years and stayed changed, in spite of the loss of memory. I would do this by using several characters who were known to her before the show started, and show how her memories of those people had not changed, but her feelings about them had. I can’t say it was my most successful story, but it did take me to some very dark places, in addition to practicing different types of story, such as my first song-fic, which I don’t think I did quite right.
This is all coming out with my current novel, a story that is a compendium of stories being told about the main character, Tarkas, in the context of a real-time adventure that is slowly unfolding. The original idea was to have these stories told by Tarkas’ son Janosec, which they were, in the beginning. As the story went on, I found myself in a situation where Janosec had to go away for a bit, and I could either follow him and listen to a repeat of a story I’d already written, which I didn’t want to do, or find someone else to follow. Fortunately I’d already introduced such a fellow, so I followed him to a variety of places, where I was able to continue the story-telling motif, with different characters as the teller, sort of the inverse of the style I’d used in ‘Not This Time’. Rather than one person remembering several people, and seeing how she’d been changed, I had several people remembering one man, to show how he looked to their different perceptions.
It’s a very experimental idea for a novel, I think. Certainly if anyone trips across this post as they traverse the inter-web and can think of stories like this one, I’d love a heads-up about it.
I was just trying to read a YA novel my daughter got from the library a while back, far enough that I have overdue fees and one renewal on the damn thing, and tripped over yet another thing that really bothers me but not so much that I’ll necessarily pull up a computer and start ranting about it. I actually see it quite often, and it almost always puts me off reading the rest of the book. ‘It’ in this case is the use of internal monologue as a substitute for expository prose.
(Hmm, that’s weird. When I wrote ‘monolog’ the stupid spellchecker prompted me to write ‘monologue’, but when I wrote ‘dialog’ it didn’t prompt me to change anything. Stupid spellchecker.)
As anyone who’s read my posts knows, and hi, whichever one of you that is, I really don’t like expository prose. Expository prose, in a third-person POV context, is the author telling me what everything looks like in some static, how-clever-am-I sort of way, or at least it feels that way to me. Even leaving aside the imagined self-congratulation, it’s still static, a description of what the world looks like before some character comes along to muck it all up, and I don’t really care about any of that. Stories are characters in motion, and I care about what the character currently moving is currently moving through, which isn’t what expository prose describes. Since the character doesn’t see the state of the room before he enters it, I don’t want to know about it either, and I certainly don’t want to know about from the author. If and when the character sees the room, I want to know about it from the character, I want to know what he is seeing, not necessarily what’s there. (This is related to something known in philosophical circles as the noumenon-phenomenon distinction, a distinction between the thing-in-itself versus the thing as it is perceived by anybody. )
Another way to deal with this is to skip out on the third-person POV entirely and use a first-person POV instead. At first blush this looks like an ideal solution, as everything in the story is or should be described as the character is encountering it. This is where I had my little problem with the book I was reading. When writing in a first-person way, a person travelling alone would be perceiving and thinking instead of talking, and thought is a very tricky thing to render. In a first-person story, the character is both narrating and participating in the story. Narrative thought should be kept very distinct from real thought. Narrative thought is the character describing the scene as objectively as possible, as if they were the author. As long as the character is doing things they’ve never done before, or talking to people other than themselves, this is fine. But when this is not the case, I often see this problem.
Most people treat thought like speech no one hears, but that’s a mistake. Speech is a string of words for people who aren’t the speaker. Thought is direct. If I was writing a first-person story I’d be going from perception to reaction with barely a growl or a hmm to indicate whatever cogitation is needed. Putting thoughts into words is a lot of work, and no one goes to that much work when no one will hear it. Okay, maybe someone does habitually go to the trouble of putting their thoughts into words (who isn’t an author), but it feels very phony and artificial to me, i.e., like narrative thought. It gets even worse when it gets done for paragraphs at a time, since those paragraphs would likely be written in italics and who wants to read paragraphs of that?
There are ways to get around this issue in a third-person POV story. My personal favorite is to do all the description of the setting phenomenally, which in this case means ‘as the character perceives it’. (I also try to do it very well.) There may be a rosebush by the door, or seventeen panes of glass in his window, but psychologically normal people don’t notice those things after a while. They notice them when it matters, such as when the rose is in bloom and the scent is forcing its way into your nose, or when they’ve been kidnapped and put into a room that looks just like theirs except for the eighteen panes of glass, and something doesn’t feel quite right…So when I write a story, I write what my characters perceive, which is like seeing but it’s really seeing what they care about and not seeing the rest. The words I use are the words they use, so a person from a landlocked culture won’t use nautical terms or idioms casually, unless he goes to someplace nautical, and the change in his word choice would indicate a change in him. The story is about him, and the setting is part of the story.
I had another idea come to me about my query synopsis a few days ago. I was looking over my most recent version after the latest rejection, thinking of sending it out again, but wondering if something wasn’t quite right with it. The first section dealt with the larger context in which the story took place, with the following sections detailing the actual story, but somehow it just wasn’t quite working. The transition seemed a little jarring.
So I wrote another section after the first, intending to make the transition a little smoother, but once I wrote it, I wondered why I was bothering to make the transition at all. Well, the main reason is because the situation is just that, a situation, pretty static. It’s the people in the situation who are doing the things that make the story go. And once those actions have been performed, one of the big reveals of the story is what effect they have on the situation, to resolve it, all unknowing to any of the actors involved.
In other words, only from the perspective of the situation, do the totality of the actions taken make complete sense. So to describe the story with no more than a few players involved, the obvious place to tell it from is the perspective of the situation. Which is, to some extent, the authorial point of view, and we all know how much I hate telling the story from that place, which may be why it took me so long to think of it. Not to mention the fact that it’s the reveal, you know? It’s the story.
So I wrote a synopsis in which the Situation was the main character. What were its goals? To achieve a resolution. Why did it want them? Because all stories naturally desire resolution, i.e., to be reduced to the least unstable state. these goals were so obvious they could be taken for granted. The question was really how, or to put it another way, what constitutes the least unstable state.
A lot of actions could reduce the instability of the story, for example, killing all the characters in chapter one, but that’s hardly a satisfying resolution, or the least unstable state. What constitutes a satisfying resolution depends on the type of story it is, which of course means that the type of story it is depends on the resolution that works best. In a badly done story, no resolution works best. A romance that has an unhappy ending, a comedy that leaves you confused. One might achieve a greater degree of satisfaction by recasting the story in a form which makes the most total sense. In The Producers, a failed historical drama becomes a wildly successful comedy. Ex Machina looks like some form of romance until it becomes a horror story.
(Which is not to say that a properly resolved story has no defects. i just watched a nice little romantic comedy called The Rewrite, which despite the ending managed to miss a number of opportunities for minor story arcs to be resolved, for several characters. But these were all subplots, not para- or coplots, so the story didn’t suffer badly from them.)
So the takeaway from all this is that in order to properly describe stories of the sort I seem to end up writing on a regular basis, I have to abandon the reveal, at least as far as the query letter is concerned. The real trick is to do it in such a way that the ending is still a surprise.
I was talking to a librarian just yesterday, and I gave myself the idea of a story with no hero. The more I considered the idea, the more I wondered if I was not already writing such stories, even the short ones, where you’d think there wasn’t enough room for tangled skeins of story lines.
I started out writing fantasy novels, with the premise of a man who was an incarnation of the Holy Will being called on by the Gods to do the work they needed to have done. That first story, Unbinding the Stone, was mostly about him, my Hero, but even in that book he had companions who played a significant role in how the story played out, although they tried not to do everything. I think that first book was the last book where I had a hero.
I traded that role for a host of MCs, all of whom were necessary to the resolution of the story, none of whom were sufficient to the resolution of the story. While Tarkas, hero of the first book, played a dominant role in the sequel, A Warrior Made, I can’t say that the story would have been resolved without the efforts of all the other MCs, each on their own arcs that all came together at the end. I think that book was the last where I had a villain.
Instead I have situations, often fantastical or supernatural in nature, as in St. Martin’s Moon, in which people act according to their natures. Some, with a bad nature, act badly, but the main characteristic of the villain is lacking. They are not plotting, nor are any of my other MCs planning their reactions to what he does. They aren’t necessarily reacting to him at all. It’s the situation that matters. Simply defeating the bad-natured MCs won’t resolve the situation, which is what needs resolving if the story is to have a satisfactory conclusion.
I don’t know if there is a technical term for this type of story. Do you? Most genre fiction I’ve read has a villain, with henchmen and a plan, and a hero who works to stop that plan with the assistance of any number of lesser characters. I’ve never heard of a genre novel without a hero. Have you?
Here’s a trick question: When did Luke Skywalker become the hero of Star Wars? It wasn’t eight o’clock, Day One, that’s for sure. When introduced he’s an unhappy dreamer without any real spine whatsoever. He wants to leave the farm and do ‘something’ but he doesn’t know what exactly, so he never can muster the courage to leave his family and go after it, whatever ‘it’ is. When the fam gets wiped out, he immediately hitches his star to Old Ben’s wagon, following him into the first adventure that comes along. They get captured, Ben goes to arrange their escape, and that’s when it happens. When R2D2 discovers the princess is on the station, it’s Luke who says, “We have to save her.”
Luke Skywalker made the decision. That’s what leaders do. The ignore the usual causal relations and do what they choose to do in spite of them. And when that decision is in favor of something that he or she feels is the morally right course of action, that’s when they become heroes. Or villains. The Kingpin chooses to order evil acts performed which he genuinely regrets but regards as necessary to a cause which he believes is right.
It’s not a requirement to be a leader that you be the smartest or the strongest. Kirk is not smarter than Spock, but he is the captain. Nor is it enough to be out front, first among many. What gets all those CEOs constantly installed on one corporate board after another in spite of their many failures is their ability to decide, to select or even invent a course when circumstances don’t select one for you, or even push them in a different direction.
Jack Burton is a clown and a fool, but he is also a hero and a leader. Surrounded by an army of ninjas, led by a wizard, when the false wall is discovered, it’s Jack who says “F*ck it”, whips out his knife, and slices away, with all the others looking on in admiration. They had the skills, the powers, but he had the ability to inspire them to follow.
I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.
What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.
Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.
They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)
It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.