Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Two Deaths of Andrew Dolbeck

There are two types of character death in fiction. (No, actually there are probably thousands. But there is a division of two that I would like to discuss. And while we are being parenthetical, today’s writing lesson can apply to more than death – feel free to substitute any dramatic plot event.) Let us call them the story-driven death and the reality emulating death.

The story-driven death suits the story. No surprise there. The deadly event occurs at just the right point in the plot, it fits the themes of the work, it advances the progression of the surviving characters.

There are many classic examples – the person who has done wrong, seeking redemption, dies saving the lives of others. Or, for a twist, the pure and good hero dies saving the person who has done wrong, adding value to their redemption quest. And let us not forget the mentor figure who dies in the middle of the classic Hero’s Journey. Or the passing of the sword from one generation to the next. In horror movies, the character that invents or unleashes the evil force is typically on the to-be-killed list.

You’ve seen these stories before – you know the drill.  And that’s part of the problem. Story-driven deaths can be effective and moving, but they can also be predictable.

I personally favor action genres, with cops and detectives and space pilots and characters who, for no reason, wear bright spandex costumes while fighting crime. These characters operate in dangerous worlds. In such worlds, death should strike unexpectedly. It should not be predictable.

Which brings us to the reality emulating death. The argument here is simple: people die. In real life, no one dies to suit the plot. Death occurs on its own time. 

There are benefits to having this kind of death in your story. In most fiction, a certain degree of willing suspension of disbelief is required. Having people dodge bullets all day without consequence doesn’t exactly make that suspension any easier.

The reality emulating death also makes a statement about hazardous environments. In war people die. People die unfairly and unexpectedly in space, in unsanitary conditions, and in the bad part of town.

And once a well loved character dies unexpectedly, outside what we believe to be the rhythm and structure of the plot, all bets are off. No one is safe. Anything can happen.  And that’s a fun place for the author to have the reader.

On the other hand, we don’t always want our fictions to be as haphazard and meaningless as our real lives. Character deaths that do not sync with the story may seem arbitrary and forced. Or, depending on the story, too harsh.

Of course, every reader will have a different opinion. In the end, as always, you need to weigh carefully what suits your story.

Because your readers certainly will.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Meaning of It All

The first advice writers are often given is: just do it. Write. Get the words down on paper or the electronic media of your choice. Good advice, but it leads directly to the more difficult questions, like what do I want to write?

In my time I’ve written poetry, research papers, novels, non-fiction, stage plays, and even, Heaven forgive me, a small amount of advertising copy. And for all of these things, there are techniques and structures available that have stood the test of time.

My personal preference, in whatever format, is to tell a story. And if you go back and look at some of my earliest posts on this blog, you’ll see I’ve given a lot of thought to the elements of story – characters, plot, resolution, stuff like that. But lately I’ve had another concern:

Do I actually have anything to say?

That is, do I , as the artist, have anything to convey about life, society, or the human condition? It’s not required, of course. I’m an unashamed escapist with a preference for action, adventure, and the occasional mindless explosion.

And it’s not that I think my works are devoid of artistic merit. I’ve examined themes of sexual identity, power and responsibility, and the concerns of mortality, just to name a few.

But I never start with the message. I’m a language guy – I tend to start with the tone and feel of the piece. With how I want the words to sound. And I start with story. With the likeable characters and the conflict and plot.

I don’t have an axe to grind. I don’t have an agenda.

And sometimes I can’t help thinking that maybe my works would be stronger if I did.

Or maybe not. Maybe it is better to expect readers to want to be entertained (and maybe take home a little message with their fun) than to expect readers to want a message disguised as their entertainment.

But still, at the end of the day, I hope my works will somehow stand up as art.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Getting Tense

A writing friend asked me the other day about whether she should continue to write her novel in the present tense. Since I put a bit of thought into my answer, I’m going to recycle it here for the benefit of my readers.

First, let me start by acknowledging that the past tense is the standard default setting. I suspect it dates back to oral tradition – stories recount events that have already occurred, so we tell them in the past tense. It sounds natural to the ear, where the present tense may stand out and be distracting.

It is also not necessary to use the present tense to convey urgency or immediacy. Many can’t-put-‘em-down page turners have been written in the past tense.

This doesn’t mean the present tense is inherently wrong. But like any tool in the writer’s kit, it should be used to build a better story. Is there a reason for the present tense? My third novel has two running timelines, one past and one current, so I use both the present and past tenses to keep them clear to the reader.

Another trick might be to use the present tense for dream sequences or for when the narrative is told from the perspective of an animal, a space alien, or some other notably unusual point of view.

Nothing is wrong if it makes the story better, but there is a balancing act.  Any deviation, any trick, any clever bit of writing, needs to be judged carefully, weighing the benefit it brings to the work against any confusion or distraction it may bring the reader.

I have read more than one well-written, professionally published novel written entirely in second person narration, which just goes to show that weird stuff can be done and done well.

So my advice on using the present tense is: Know why you are using it and check occasionally to be sure it’s really working for you.