Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Verisimilitude VS Reality - Part 3 The Game, The Stakes, The Template

Last week we covered 3 "Clues" about how to integrate Multiple Point of View with Story Structure; Master Theme Structure,  The Camera,  Nesting Plots and Stories. 

This week we have 3 more "Clues" for the advanced writing student, and a homework assignment that should keep you busy a few years.

CLUE 4   The Tennis Match vs The Football Game

Your reader is reading your novel as if watching a tennis match, or a football game (depending on how many Point of View characters you have).

If you write a novel with only one point of view character, that character is the only thing in the novel that the reader is watching.  That character is the only thing that matters to the reader.  So if that character fails to capture affection or identification from the reader, the novel fails.  But it is much, much easier to write from a single point of view with one theme, one conflict, one resolution.  Do that in 1st person, and you may have a small readership, but you will glue those readers to the page.

When you have more than one point of view character, the reader ceases to be totally absorbed in one character. 

At least that's how it should work.  If a reader finds one POV character much more absorbing than the others, the reader is likely to skip the sections from the other POV and then not recommend the novel to friends.

So when you move from single POV to multiple POV, you shift what is important to the readership from the character of the person experiencing a story, to the PLOT rather than the STORY.

Consider the person who goes to a dance recital to see one dancer perform several pieces on stage, to demonstrate what they've learned, or how good a dancer they are.  Or Figure Skating championships where you have the single skater at a time, but several in a row to judge against each other. 

That's a single POV novel, or novel series where each novel has a different protagonist, POV character.

The typical Romance bounces the POV from the woman to the man and back, each of them most concerned about what's going on in the other's head and how to get the attention they want.

The typical Romance novel is more like a Tennis match where the audience watches two people volleying a ball back and forth.  It's pretty simple, the stakes and the feats required to prevail are clear.  But the viewer watches the ball, not the characters. 

Now move up to the football game. 

Yes, we cheer particular players or root for this team or that, but we go to THE GAME not a given player's performance.

The performance (the story) is secondary to the GAME and it's outcome. 

The viewer's attention is on the scoreboard, the referees' calls, the bench, the coach, the cheerleaders, and the concessionaire barker moving through the stands, maybe the TV cameras in the booth above.  And the viewer is having a great time.  People "go to the game" not for the players but to have a great time! 

The Camera mentioned in Clue 2 which was on the POV character's shoulder, and is on the shoulder of each of the POV characters in a more complex work, now is on the viewer's shoulder.

The writer of a 2 or 3 POV novel can inter-cut from all 2 or 3 cameras on character's shoulders, creating verisimilitude by following each POV character's story and plot within that character's "blinders." 

Use more than 3 characters and you don't "intercut" you "pan" the camera from one thread of a story to another.  The reader's attention is under the reader's control, not yours, and your success as a writer depends on anticipating where the reader's eye will light next, not on guiding it where you want it.

The technique of inter-cutting between cameras to get a different perspective on what's going on, becomes the technique of following The Game - following the ball when it's in play, following the bench when a player substitution goes on, following the TV cameras up above when something happens, following the cheerleaders when they take the field at half-time (yes, the 'beat' that belongs at the halfway point changes by how many POV characters there are).

The reader is no longer interested in the emotional reality of an individual character, or two, but is interested in the outcome of The Game.

That makes all the stories of all the characters of lesser import.

But it allows the writer to tackle bigger, more emphatically egregious themes, themes which violate all the reader's ideas of reality.

Such novels place the reader in the position of Observer, outside the action, above "all that."  The reader can feel superior to all the characters because the reader understands what's going on better than any given character on the field.

That makes it harder for the writer to get the reader to care about "the stakes" a given player is playing for.

The trick in Point of View Shifts is to follow The Ball, follow The Game, to follow the journey toward finding out whether the stakes are won or lost. 

So you come to a point where a character throws the ball, and shift point of view in a PAN not a CUT to the player who catches that ball, then follow what the player with the ball does with it until it leaves his/her hands, and you follow that ball not the character's story, across point of view shifts.  How the ball travels, where, to whom, who gets smeared and who carries it to the next touchdown all explicate and illustrate the theme without ever stating that theme. 

So in a multiple point of view novel, you don't shift point of view, you follow the ball that is describing the theme by the way it moves. 

So we're back to THEME. 

CLUE 5 The Stakes

The more points of view the writer presents, the more crucial it is to get the reader involved in The Stakes, and the harder it is for the writer to achieve that involvement.

When you have only one Point of View, "The Stakes" are just what that one person stands to gain, lose, or learn from resolving the conflict.

When you have 2 Points of View (as in a Romance) "The Stakes" are whether that couple will coalesce into a working Relationship that will last.  The rest is decoration.  The real goal is forming a stable Relationship.

When you have multiple Points of View, "The Stakes" is the outcome of "The Game." 

In the first two instances, the writer's job of getting the reader to care is fairly easy.  Show don't tell how the character is likeable and the rest falls into place.  That's the thesis of Blake Snyder's works on screenwriting, SAVE THE CAT.

To create a likeable character, show the character's very first action the reader sees as "saving a cat" -- doing something that displays a good heart, something the reader/viewer approves of that takes an effort or a risk on the part of the character, a risk beyond the ostensible reward.

So even in multiple point of view novels, you must create that likeable character trait.  What's "likeable" varies with target readership.

But one thing is always the same. 

The outcome of The Game is the important thing to the reader.

How The Game comes out will defy or validate the reader's sense of Reality, of Truth, Justice And The American Way, of Good vs. Evil, or whatever The Game is about.

The Game is always The Game Of Life.

And it is the reader's life at stake, not the writer's.

Hence the writer must learn to walk a mile in the reader's moccasins, must learn to espouse with vigor and sincere enthusiasm whatever philosophy the reader holds most dear but has no clue is inside them.

When the writer brings a subconscious value held dear by the reader to the surface, or just barely under the surface, at the end of the novel, the reader CRIES or LAUGHS or responds in a part of their being they didn't know was there.  In a way, the reader loses virginity in this process.  And the reader will always remember that book. 

That is the payload the writer lives to deliver.  It is the essence of the artform.  Punch.  Impact. Revelation.

So in the outcome of The Game the reader has been viewing from the 50-yard line, the reader will come to understand the theme of your novel.

But the reader's understanding of your theme will not be your understanding of it.

If you have "the good guys" win, the reader could conclude not, "justice prevails" but "might makes right."  Or possibly the reader won't "buy" the ending, and will feel it's "contrived" because they were rooting for the bad guys.

You can't make a reader understand life the way you do because their reality isn't yours.

But using verisimilitude, you can allow the reader to experience a reality that is not their own, even if it isn't yours either.

The more point of view characters you use, the more likely it is the reader will not even be aware of your theme.

But if you, as writer, are not very clear on why each element is emphasized in the novel just this amount, not more or less, then the reader won't feel verisimilitude or reality -- they will feel confused.

CLUE 6   Steal From The Best

One mistake many new writers make is to attempt to create or innovate a brand new, never before used, plot structure in order to be seen by publishers a "original" and thus get promoted big time.

But if you study some first-published works of very famous writers, you will find (and this is not an easy study) that their first novels, or breakout novels, all shared one characteristic.

They used an old, tried and true, done to death, plot structure.

They say there aren't any new plots.  Maybe not, but there are new plot structures popping up all the time -- just not as first sales by unknown writers.

Occasionally you'll see one that seems to be a first sale, but digging a little you'll find that writer has a professional track record under a different name. 

You might want to read my post on pen-names:
It has a link to part one.

If you have Microsoft Office, you may have found on the Microsoft website where they sell or give away "templates" for their more complicated programs.

You need such a template to attempt the leap from single POV to multiple POV novel structure.  It's what I used to structure MOLT BROTHER.

But they don't give away templates for novels.  The closest thing I've found is Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet, referenced so many times in the posts listed in Part 2 of this series.

Using a familiar Template for your multiple point of view novel gives you a leg up with inducing suspension of disbelief in your readers.

Snyder uses the 3-act screenplay template.

There is a 4-act screenplay structure favored by many.

The classic 100,000 word novel structure is 4-act.

But you can't really do more than 2 or possibly 3 points of view in 100,000 words of novel.

For real multiple point of view, a whole football game, you need 150,000 to 175,000 words, and few publishers would take a chance on a new writer at that expensive length, at least not if they hadn't won some prestigious awards in the same category with short stories.

So pick a word length you think you can sell, and figure how many points of view you'll need to cover your theme.  If there are too many points of view for the length you can sell, divide the work into a series of novels.

Today you can sell novel series provided the first novel stands alone well enough that it works if the second novel is not published because sales on the first didn't justify it.

I would suggest finishing, completely polishing, 3 novels in a series before presenting them to a publisher if you have no previous sales.

Now, find four or five novels in the general genre or subject area of your material, aimed at your market, that are all of the same length as what you think you can sell.  Choose novels which really twang your heartstrings just the way you want to reach your readers.  Be sure you choose novels that you find unutterably fascinating, re-readable, and moving.  Choose the best of the best of what you have read that represent the reason you want to write this story.  Eventually, your marketing materials will be based on these choices.  Editors will pitch your novel to their sales staff as "just like" or "appealing to lovers of" those 5 novel choices. 

By the time you get done with the following exercise, you may be bored to tears with those novels.

Study those novels for structure. 

Count how many pages between internal-climaxes (I don't mean sex scenes).

Count the length of the scenes (750 words is a great meter per narrative scene).

Count the points of view.  You want to choose novels that have the same number of points of view that you will be using.

Find the story and the plot-thread for each point of view.

Find the Beginning, Middle, End, and quarter-points for each story.

Find which story starts first and ends last.

Find which starts second and find where it ends.  And so on, until you've charted the emotional ups and downs, climaxes and suspense-lines of each of the points of view in all your samples.

Find the "ball" -- and name the Game -- in each novel.  What is the objective of the game?  Who's playing?  What are the stakes?  What is the meaning of it all? 

Read reviews, especially by other readers such as you find on amazon.com, to find what other readers found interesting or boring in these novels.

If I've guessed right, you will find the novel structure behind each of your choices is the same.

Yes, very likely, if you loved each of these chosen novels all that much, you will very likely find that all (or at least most) conform to the same structure.

Why is that?  Because what makes us love novels is not the characters but the structure.

Every single reader believes to the tips of their toenails that what they love is the character in this or that TV show or novel.

It isn't.  What evokes that fascination is the structure that displays the character.

It's like putting a classy, sparkling diamond on a glittery white background under flourescent lights, or putting that same diamond on clean, rich black velvet with one single, tiny spotlight of sunlight spectrum.  Do you love the sight of the diamond or the setting?  Unless you're a gem-buff, it's the setting that sparks the emotion.  That setting in the gem world is the same as the structure in the novel world.  The structure is the part the consumer, the buyer, never notices.  But the professional will fuss over it endlessly. 

Or as caterers will tell you, how delicious food is said to taste depends entirely on presentation not ingredients.  Ingredients count, of course, but presentation can ruin marvelous ingredients. 

Why is this presentation, or novel structure, really the heart-grabber?

Because that structure (like the football game and its rules) provides the element of verisimilitude.

The novel's structure reflects or echos our perception of reality.

In order to deal with reality, we cut it down to size by wearing philosophical "blinders" - like a racehorse wears so the horse won't spook at movement to the side or get flying mud in their eyes.

We try to understand reality.

We impose our own philosophical structure on our personal reality, just so we can deal.

Likewise, in entertainment or art, in the perception of beauty or deliciousness, or sexiness, we respond most strongly to that which fits into the structure we use to understand our reality.

Fiction seems realistic, and thus more satisfying, when its structure mimics our own perception of reality.

That structure of novel and our reality contains within its bones our most cherished, subconscious assumptions about reality, our values, our notion of what is right and what is wrong, of good and evil and whether such a thing actually exists.  The most fundamental axioms and postulates of our personal philosophy (you can't trust men/women; Big Business is the Enemy of the People), are encoded into that structure.

In my series on Astrology Just For Writers on this blog, I think I've explained how Saturn is structure -- it is referred to by some of the most prominent Astrologers as the Illusion that Reality is Real.

That's what I'm talking about here.  The structure of our fiction contains the skeleton that supports our cherished (and necessary for sanity, just as a racehorse's blinders are necessary for the horse's sanity) illusion that our reality is real.

Some people go to fiction for a challenge to that illusion, for a glimpse outside their daily blinders.

Others go to fiction for a validation of that illusion they need so much.

The same reader might have either or both purposes in mind when choosing a given novel to read.  Whatever your reader's purpose, thwart it at your own peril. 

Romance actually caters well to both purposes.

A writer's journey to craft mastery requires the cautious, gentle, shedding of those blinders, at least the cultural ones.

The first step on that journey is choosing the 5 novels that have impacted you the hardest and analyzing them for all these traits I've listed, and more that I've touched on in other posts.

But most especially analyze for the structure that validates your personal reality via theme.

The only place for theme in fiction (except for maybe one line of dialogue at the end, or possibly one line at the beginning, and rarely should that line be "on the nose.") - the only place for theme is inside the bone marrow of that skeleton of structure.

So find 5 novels, analyze them for their structure, and then extract that structure to be your TEMPLATE for this type of novel (chosen by number of POV characters).

If you work at it, you'll end up with several such templates, each for a different type of novel aimed at a different readership, different kinds of publishers, different number of points of view.

This same trick works for non-fiction too.  Structure is everything in fiction and non-fiction. 

Extract successful templates, shake off the clinging details, delete anything specific to other writer's styles, and use that template for your own fiction or non-fiction.

For MOLT BROTHER I used a template of converging plot-lines.

I took two main characters connected by a single huge Project (in this case an interstellar archeological pursuit of evidence of a forerunner civilization in the galaxy).  The two characters' lives were connected by secondary characters who were running the dig.

The weak spot in this novel is that the reader can't see clearly enough, right off the bat, what the connection between the two groups of characters will be.  You don't see the convergence of the plot lines until too deep into the novel. 

But the novel developes velocity as the two main POV characters are on a collision course, and finally meet.

Then both main characters and their secondary characters are furiously involved in the same big stakes game.

are about individual characters and their present lives, but what they are doing, why they do it, and what happens because they do it are all the result of karmic forces they let loose thousands of years ago, converging forces.  One of those forces is the invisible, unknown to exist, arch-enemy orchestrating dire events off stage - the evil puppet master. 

It's an enormously complex piece of worldbuilding with a deceptively simple reader-interface. 

The Converging Plot Lines structure is classic, but it's difficult to do. 

MOLT BROTHER has enough technical flaws in the facade to allow writers to deconstruct it and learn the template for their own use.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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