Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Verisimilitude VS Reality-Part 2: Master Theme Structure, The Camera, Nesting Plots and Stories

Part 1 of this series can be found here:

And now we're going to tackle an advanced topic, integrating two whole sets of writing techniques into a more complex composition.  I'll highlight 3 major clues this week, and three more next week, a lot to digest.

But first, review these previous posts that we'll build on here.  They contain the components of integrating multiple point of view with story structure. 

Related posts:






(that you can't do in a Movie)

Oddly enough that last one has the structural trick of multiple Points Of View explained in the best way I've managed, but I've been asked to revisit the topic of integrating multiple-point-of-view stories with Plot Structure.

Last week I told you about my first attempt at the 2-POV plot structure.

So this week's focus on multiple point of view and plot structure will make a good lead-in to a much deeper exploration of THEME and how to work with it, because that's the core of the integration technique.  Theme  holds a story and plot together.  Theme is what makes it possible to switch points of view without losing the reader's interest.

Integrating Point of View with Plot is a juggling act, for sure, and an advanced craft technique newly published writers may need to master swiftly after their first sale, both because long series require it, and because editors are seeing sales statistics that make them lean hard on writers to do it, even though the editor doesn't know how to teach it.

I can't honestly say I've mastered it myself.

My first attempt was my novel Molt Brother, newly available in a very wide variety of e-book formats. 

Now here's the thing.  The readership at the time Molt Brother was first published in Mass Market (I'm assuming you've read it because I've discussed it here before) was not conditioned to reading SF novels with a plot structured for two different points of view.  Worse than that, actually using both a male and female point of view, or a human and non-human point of view, was just not done in the action genres.  Yet I did both male/female and human/non-human in the same novel. 

So Molt  Brother was both an experimental piece and my first attempt at this structure.

Molt Brother has recently been picked up for audiobook, and you will find it on audible.com, iTunes, and Amazon in audiobook.  I'm hoping the direct sequel, City of a Million Legends will be out in audiobook soon. 

I tried Molt Brother out on a Historical writer I admire, Carol Buchanan, and she has praised it several times on twitter.  I told you a little about that last week.  See the link above. 

From the readers at the time of first publication, I got a lot of blowback about how readers really couldn't tolerate one of the point of view characters, an alien female named Arshel.  More recent readers don't seem to be having the same problem (others maybe, but not the same ones). 

Arshel was a character pretty much invented by my editor and the dual point of view was required, not something I had originally intended for telling this interstellar archeology story.

So I can sympathize with the new writer, recently breaking into publishing, who is now wrestling with this problem.

The lesson is basically, don't try to do too many new techniques in one novel.  Master them one at a time, but keep adding techniques.

You don't "master" a "technique" by paying close attention and concentrating, rewriting until you get the manuscript "right." 

The object of these doing writing lessons is not to  produce one perfect novel.  The object is to master the process of producing novels so you don't have to think about craft and can fully concentrate on your art. 

You master a technique by doing 5 or 10 manuscripts with it, until you can do it without knowing you've done it.  When you can write it while minding the kids and talking on the phone, timing dinner in the oven, and jotting down notes for your next novel, then you've "mastered" the technique. 

But first you do have to do it on purpose, one tiny step, one line and one paragraph, one bit of dialogue at a time, rewriting and rewriting one manuscript until it's the best you can do.  Then do another story, then another, work against distractions and against the clock. 

The hallmark of professional mastery in any field, particularly a performing art like writing, is that you meet your deadlines.  "The Show Must Go On" is the main adage of the writer.  Get the manuscript out of your hands, go on to the next.  

So let's break this down into components that can be added one at a time to the writer's toolbox.

CLUE 1   Master Theme Structure

From my post: http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2008/09/what-you-can-do-in-novel-that-you-cant.html

I was delighted when a student writer asked me (and then reminded me) to explain the structure of very long novels, with emphasis on how to structure a novel for 3 viewpoint characters, even if they're all protagonists.

It's really very simple to do, but infernally difficult to explain.

In order to understand how to craft such a long novel that doesn't sag in the middle or peter out at the end, you have to have a firm grasp of the basics of structure that I've discussed previously.

Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, beginning, middle, end, and THEME.

And the most important structural component in a long piece is THEME.

A short story (under 7,500 words) can have one theme, and only ONE. It must be something very clear, starkly simple, mostly concrete -- something you can say in 3 to 10 words. "Life is Just A Bowl Of Cherries" -- "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" -- a bumper sticker.

A novelette (to 17,500 words) can have a DOMINANT THEME and 1 SUB-THEME (and only one).

A novella (17,500 to 40,000) can have a DOMINANT THEME and 2 SUB-THEMES (only 2).

A NOVEL (40,000 words and up) (up to any length) can (but doesn't have to have) a DOMINANT THEME and UP TO 3 SUB-THEMES and no more than 3.

I did not make this up. I learned it in the Famous Writer's Course (a correspondence course on how to write fiction which I completed in the 1970's).

I've been a professional reviewer since the 1980's and a paid reviewer for The Monthly Aspectarian since 1993. I've read a lot of books in addition to the books I read just because I want to. I have NEVER seen this above paradigm of thematic relationships successfully violated.

If you want to see how it works in practice, read the early draft of my Sime~Gen Novel, UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER which is titled SIME SURGEON and posted for free reading at
http://www.simegen.com/sgfandom/rimonslibrary/surgeon/SURGEON1.html Then read UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER (which had a HC edition and a paperback edition so you might find a copy somewhere).

The difference is the thematic structure paradigm strictly enforced, rigidly applied -- because my editor at Doubleday insisted or no publication. Her favorite mantra "It isn't clear" -- comes from how she searches for that thematic structure and the inner relationships between the sub-themes. But she, like most writers, does that subconsciously.
----------END QUOTE------------

You can find all the Sime~Gen novels here:
http://astore.amazon.com/simegen-20  (that's an Amazon "store" with links to paper and ebook editions)

Look on the right, find Jacqueline Lichtenberg, click, and find Molt Brother, City of a Million Legends, the Dushau Trilogy, and other books including 2 short story collections by me.  Many of Jean Lorrah's novels are there too.

So, the first CLUE is to master THEME STRUCTURE.   And to understand the use of the Master Theme, or the main theme.  We'll have to discuss that in later posts, slicing and dicing philosophy, psychology, religion and other really discomforting topics.  To be able to extract the most Romance Writing Craft clues out of those future posts, you will need to foster a clinical distance from your own personal belief system and subconscious assumptions about reality. 

Most writers have probably been fostering that clinical distance from about age 5 already, simply because writers, like actors, just adore studying people --- other people with different points of view.

So now --

CLUE 2   The Camera

I don't think I've used this Camera analogy before, but again, as with the thematic structure clue, I didn't make it up.  I learned it.

And it isn't something that the e-book revolution will change, destroy, wipe-out or even modify.

That's because this is how the basic human brain is hard-wired.

In "Reality" from the title of this piece, humans (the majority of your readership will be human, probably) view their lives, and the world through one, single, narrow point of view with "blinders" (like race horses) on the sides of their philophical vision to narrow and concentrate their vision of reality.

It's disturbing to glimpse what's outside those blinders.

Your personal philosophy is probably outside the blinders of the majority of your intended readership.

People used to publish books because they were "important" -- because they would "disturb" readers -- because they said something most readers hadn't thought of.  That was before publishing was thrust onto a "profit or die" platform, when readers were only the highly educated, vastly intelligent 5% of humanity looking for new ideas.

Today, that 5% is gravitating toward the ebook and indie-publishing market, and everyone else is buying from Barnes&Noble, often on Nook but really just looking for "the same but different" as Hollywood puts it.  You can be successful with strange, different things in the indie market that won't fly in Mass Market.

That shift is maybe half done, and there could be a sea change before you finish your latest novel, so stay in touch with what's succeeding and what is not.

So if you're aiming at Mass Market (or an "opens everywhere" screenplay, not an indie screenplay) you must create verisimilitude -- the illusion of reality.

To do that, you have to have a good grasp of what your readership sees as reality, then you must frame your information feed (oh, do read those posts listed above) to cast the illusion of reality around your characters and their world.

Lately, many Action-Fantasy and Fantasy-Romance novels are being publishing using First Person narrative because it is easy for a writer who can't handle point of view to cast that illusion of reality if the narrative is all about "I did this, I thought this, I wanted that, I changed my mind" -- it's a cheap trick, and not literarily valid all the time, but it works and it's very easy to do.

The success of the First Person narrative in today's market may reflect our modern young culture's obsession with Self.  It often seems as if in our reality, we are very concerned about "I think about others all the time," or "I can't let the helpless starve," or whatever idealistic value is in focus.  It's about how I practice this value in my life. 

So First Person narratives have verisimilitude for those who, in reality, think inside their own minds "I - I - I"

So if you choose a Third Person narrative, or Omniscient Narrator, you have to work harder at verisimilitude.

What exactly do you do in your mind to create verisimilitude in a Third Person narrative?

Here's how I learned it.

You set a video camera on the shoulder of your character and show the reader what it records.

The camera is not inside the character's head.  You can discuss his "I" narrative only by inference. 

The camera analogy automatically sets those "blinders" around the edges of the character's peripheral vision -- this works wonders for writing Mystery or Mystery-Romance. 

The writer will be tempted to talk about (in those dreaded expository lumps) all the things going on that the writer knows about (must know about) but that the character doesn't know about, doesn't see, isn't aware of.  The CAMERA POINT OF VIEW will prevent the writer from spilling the beans to the reader, or make it easy for the editor to slash out the expository paragraphs and send the manuscript back for rewrite.

What the character does not (yet) know is the single, easiest, way to create a "suspense line" right alongside the "because line" that I've discussed in those posts listed above.

When the character finds out what was happening outside their camera angle, outside their blinders, the reader will experience the emotional shock right along with the character -- so you have created empathy and character identification in your reader, all by leaving out the exposition.

Now, using the Camera On the Shoulder, you can insert a character's thoughts on ocasion when the "beats" (oh, do read the posts listed above) require the information be fed to the reader.  You do that by setting the character's thoughts in a different "grammatical voice" and using a different verb tense than in the narrative.  And you set those "worded thoughts" in italics, not for emphasis but because they are not spoken.  So you don't use quotes on worded thoughts. 

The character's inner-story is revealed, only one sparse hint at a time, in those worded thoughts.   Be very VERY careful to get the verb tense right because that's what carries the emotional impact, the shift from third to first person brings a loud shout of immediacy and personal contact.  A lot of Mass Market novels today are too loosely edited and very often the italics are omitted or the verb tense and person of the pronouns aren't changed properly in the worded thought.  For good examples, see Marion Zimmer Bradley's novels.  Studying her work for the source of the effects she creates is where I learned the worded-thought technique.

CLUE 3   Nesting Plots and Stories

In a very long novel with multiple points of view, you need to have a complete story for each character, but only one plot for all the characters.

No two writers do this breakdown in the same sequence, and any given writer will do this exact breakdown in different ways for different projects.  How it's accomplished is never the same twice.  But every really great novel or film with wide readerships/ viewerships displays the exact same results as I'm about to describe.

As you outline before writing, during writing, and after finishing the first draft, look for and impose this structure on the work, ruthlessly.  After the structure is in place, go back and polish up the "art" that was your original intent.

1) MAIN THEME - nail a single main philosophical theme that dominates the work

2) MAIN CHARACTER - the main theme is the lesson the main character learns.  Don't let the supporting players overshadow or upstage the main character.  Count the main character's pages of "face-time" and dialogue lines just like an actor's agent would.  The FIRST CHARACTER intro'd on page 1 is the MAIN CHARACTER, and his/her conflict resolves on the LAST PAGE.  This is the envelope surrounding all the internal commentary.

3) 1st SUPPORTING PLAYER  -- that character's complete story explicates the 1st sub-dominant theme, and the lesson of that sub-dominant (fraction of the main theme) theme is the lesson driven home to the supporting player at the single climax of the novel.  The 1st supporting player is intro'd second, and his/her sub-plot conflict resolves just before the Main Character's story resolves.  The 1st supporting character's plot-conflict resolution CAUSES the Main Character's conflict to resolve.

4) 2nd SUPPORTING PLAYER - exactly the same as 1st Supporting Player except this one is intro'd third, has a plot conflict that resolves before the 1st Supporting Player's conflict resolves, and CAUSES the 1st Supporting Player's conflict to resolve. 

See the pattern?  NESTED STORIES, one inside the other like Russian dolls.

That's enough to chew on for a while, especially if you re-read the posts linked at the top of this entry.

I'll give you 3 more CLUES next week.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Fascinating, as always. I do have a reservation about the main character being the first one introduced, though, because a lot of successful fiction seems to do otherwise. The main character is sometimes held back to "make an entrance" the way the star of a movie or play is. (I was once told that the leading actor never wants to be onstage when the curtain opens.) I'm thinking mainly of mystery novels. The victim of a murder is often introduced and killed off in the opening scene, before the detective protagonist appears. How does this apparent exception fit in?

  2. Margaret:

    Oh, yes, the sequence of introduction of characters is very genre dependent, and woe to the writer who does it "wrong."

    Romance genre publishers likewise have a set way of doing it, a formula.

    The exciting thing though is that the advent of the Indie publisher and the Indie market is changing all those set ways.

    However, the reasons the ways got set in a certain pattern in each genre still pertain. The wider the audience the writer wants, the closer to the 'set ways' they must stay.

    The writer who's just learning this craft should learn each and every one of those set ways, master them by practicing, invent some new ways and try them out in the marketplace, listen to reader feedback, perfect and experiment.

    A professional in any field is a person who takes the time and makes the effort to master all the tools of the craft. Then when tasked with doing some particular job, that professional simply does it, delivers the goods on time and in usable order, without letting them see any beads of sweat.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. "A lot of Mass Market novels today are too loosely edited and very often the italics are omitted or the verb tense and person of the pronouns aren't changed properly in the worded thought. "

    Jacqueline, do you think this is done purposely for a better 'blended' effect, or that it's just plain sloppiness?

  4. Miss Sharp:

    It's not sloppiness per-se any more than the lack of caps in a text message is really sloppiness.

    It's that the technology fights your will until you give up.

    Italics simply WILL NOT PERSIST properly across platforms. When you turn in a Word document, and they put it in a desktop publisher ALL THE ITALICS DISAPPEAR, and have to be re-flagged.

    So eventually, a new standard, a less expensive standard, is adopted, i.e. forget it, nobody knows how to read it or gives a flip about it, so it's not worth the MONEY it costs to hire someone to do it.

    Hiring someone is harder because, with all the novels sans "proper" old fashioned italics, the "eye" of readers has just plain gone away.

    Readers no longer know what should or should not be italics, because they've seen it done this way, that way, another way, sometimes this way, sometimes that way.

    It isn't taught in school -- and I can't recall that it ever was. People read and pick up these expectations. It's a case of custom makes law.

    That's OK with me, except that I did learn how to do "internal thoughts" italics simply because I totally adore the dramatic effect it produces when I read.

    It's like an intimate "voice over" in a TV show that lets you compare what you think is going on to what the character thinks is going on.

    We are in a transition though where technology dictates what the new customs will be, and those customs are becoming law.

    Bottom line, the cheapest way will be chosen.

    I have to talk more about the potentials of technology in our favor, if our mission is to gain general respect for the Romance genre in all its varieties.

    Stick with me through December at least for a lot more about that, but first a deep exploration of the subtle complexities of thematic structures.

    I will return to thematic structure exploration again and again because it's the foundation of good storytelling.

    I'm not as sure as others that the text medium will survive at all, so the issue of italics may become moot in oh, 5 or 10 years!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. And we are not supposed to rely on "she thought" or "he knew" to cue the reader, either, or so I've been told.

    Thank you for this fascinating and very helpful discussion :)

  6. Miss Sharp:

    Oh, very correct. Do not "rely on" any one thing, speech tags, no tags, repeated tags.

    And any other wordsmithing tool!

    The mark of professionalism in any field is complete mastery of an entire toolbox full of tools, and the ability to select and apply the most efficient tool to the task before you.

    A character's dialogue response to a stimulus (an event or another character's utterance) is a "task" that is before you. Select the correct tool and apply it so quickly and smoothly that the reader never notices it's been done.

    That's why it's so hard to learn writing by reading the great masters of the field! Their craft is invisible.

    Make your craft invisible.

    We'll be discussing that principle all the way to the end of this year, what to do and how to do it.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg