Number 101 — September 8, 2006
Perspective Revisited

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During my recent trip to South Carolina, I took part in a writer's discussion group consisting of self-published and unpublished authors. I happened to mention the word "perspective" two or three times, which led to a question seeking an explanation of my meaning. I was surprised when none of those present had considered how they might use the idea.
     You may recall I mentioned the subject in Articles 11 and 17, but I wonder now if my exploration was enough. Hence, this revisit.


     Two observers opposite each other look at the same object. A's position on the left allows him to see three sides of the suspended object. B's position on the right is such that he sees only the other three sides. When asked the color of the object, A will not only respond, "red," but perhaps would fervently defend his statement despite the fact he can only see fifty percent of the surfaces. If the other three surfaces are a different color, say green, then B could present an equally strenuous argument in favor of his observation. But they are both looking at the same object, or in the case of creative writing, at the same set of conditions or circumstances. Thus, what they see depends on the vantage point from which they observe it. This is perspective.
     To translate this to creative writing, let's revisit the welder and his wife introduced in Article 11. He wants to leave the turmoil of his job to start his own business; she sees nothing but problems if he gives up steady employment. But they are both considering the same problem. Novels are centered on this simple idea, which, in fact, is an ordinary event in daily lives. Parent/child relationships; romantic relationships; whodunit relationships; and so on.
     So here is a tool available to develop stories. How does character A see the situation as opposed to character B? Using this technique, we set up the argument. Using our creative minds, we develop the counter argument. And we group the characters into teams. I am fond of Ronald Tobias' analogy presented in his book 20 Master Plots (and How To Develop Them).

     "In a sense, you build a corral for your characters to run around in … but where they run inside the corral is a function of each character's freedom to be what or who he/she wants within the confines of the plot itself."

     A negative result I have seen develop from the idea of letting characters speak for themselves is overwriting authorial comments as if the spoken words are so simplistic the author tends towards unnecessary enlightenment, sometimes in polysyllabic words or cute, but inappropriate, metaphors. (A recent one that came to my attention was a reference to "the bowels of the ocean.") This is like parents who, on hearing their child tell a story, feel compelled to offer an explanation in words the child would never use and probably wouldn't understand.
     Perspective has another common meaning represented by the converging rail lines as we look off into the distance. I'm not aware that this connotation has a meaningful application in creative writing.

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Number102 — September 15, 2006
Ronald B. Tobias on Plot

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Mr. Tobias' introductory paragraphs in 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them lead to this statement: " … (plot) is one of two strong forces—character being the other—that affects everything else in turn." He rejects the notion that plot is structure and substitutes: Plot is a process, not an object.
     He begins by asking what steps an author can take to avoid realizing halfway through a novel that it isn't right? He answers with the comment that there are no guarantees, "but it helps to know where your journey will take you. This doesn't mean you will know every step of the way, because writing is always full of surprises … . But most writers I know have a destination in mind. … . What I'm talking about is understanding the nature of the materials you'll deal with, specifically plot. If you strike out without any idea of destination, you'll wander aimlessly. But if you understand something about the kind of plot you're trying to write, you'll have supplied yourself with a compass that will know when you're wandering and warn you to get back on track. … By having a clear understanding of what your plot is and how the force works in your fiction, you'll have a reliable compass to guide you through the work."
     Mr. Tobias goes on to divide plots into two broad general categories that he calls Action Plots—those which rely on doing—and Mind Plots—those which examine life instead of portraying it in an unrealistic way.
     "Once you've made the decision to write a novel or a screenplay, your next decision should be to decide which of the two plots your story will follow, because that shapes everything else you do.
     "Will your story be plot driven? If so, the mechanism of the story is more important than the specific characters themselves. The characters are there to make the plot happen. The novels of Agatha Christie are plot driven. So are the novels of Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, although their styles are entirely different. Each of those authors knew going in what kind of book they would write.
     "If your story is character driven, the mechanism of the plot is less important than the people themselves. Films such as Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes are about people, and while they certainly have plots, those plots aren't center stage front. We're more intrigued by the characters. We're more intrigued by Kafka's Gregor Samsa than the unexplained reason he turns into a noxious bug. We're more interested in Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary and Huckleberry Finn and Jay Gatsby than we are in the plots behind them.
     "Know from the beginning where your focus will be. Will it be on the action? Or the people? Once you decide, you'll know what the strong force in your book will be. You'll eventually form a balance between the action and character, but you'll have a focus that will keep you from flip-flopping around. If you choose a plot of action, that will be your strong force; the aspects of your work that fall under the category of the mind will be your weak force. And vice versa: A plot of the mind can be the strong force, and its subsidiary qualities that deal with action will be the weak force. It can work either way, in any proportion you see fit, with one force dominating.
     "By choosing your strong and weak forces, your story will have proportion and consistency. You'll achieve proportion by establishing the relationship of one force to the other, and you'll achieve consistency by maintaining that relationship through the entire work.
     "Decide, and you'll have a starting place."

     Mr. Tobias' purpose, which he accomplishes with flair, is to show how to develop plot in fiction and to apply it so the resulting story develops smoothly along the planned path to the desired end.

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Number103 — September 22, 2006
Action and Character

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Last week I quoted Ronald Tobias who divides plots into two broad general categories—Action and Character. This article defines those terms as I see them in the context of creative writing.

     ACTION is decision and response.
     CHARACTER is reaction and decision.

     "A gross oversimplification," you say. Perhaps, but bear with me a moment while I explore the universality of my definitions. To do so, I ask you to consider your own behavior starting at this exact moment. I want you to keep reading this article until something else happens; let's suppose the telephone rings. Whether you realize it or not, you make a decision. You have several choices from simple to extreme: answer; not answer; ask somebody else to answer; disconnect the instrument; or ultimately cancel your telephone service and sue the company for disturbing your reading. So what do you do first? You make a DECISION and then you ACT.
     In creative writing, the author must explain characters' decisions in such a way that the reader understands the decision and hence the subsequent action. In my ludicrous example, the first choice—to answer—may be inferred; a normal decision without conscious thought. But what if the character doesn't answer? Then the reader should be made aware of the emotional reaction that led to the decision because it is unusual, unexpected, or abnormal. Suppose robbers burst out of the bank on their way to an apparent successful getaway. The sheriff will have an emotional reaction before he makes a decision. Goldarnit, he left his gun belt in the office: can't shoot 'em. Drat; his horse is lame: can't ride it. Oh! Oh! Two women with a baby stand in the road, gossiping at the other end of town: does he have time to warn them? Only after he reacts mentally and emotionally to the situation in which he finds himself, can he act. The point is when the author explores and explains the thinking before the decision to act, the reader will accept the character—whether he acts in good faith or not—and the story will be better because the reader, who may or may not agree with the decision, will identify with the character. That is not to say readers like the character, but rather they understand characters they can identify with.
     "I hate you," Sam said, glaring at Ellen. Now, what does Ellen do? She reacts emotionally. The reaction may take many forms, but it is emotional and should be described in emotional terms, not physical. Much harder for the author who, in many cases, skips over the emotional reactions because of not knowing how to describe them. My advice: STOP and figure them out. Initially, something goes on inside Ellen's head; Did he really say that? Is she dreaming? Is this the same man who took an oath to love and protect her? Next, come the irrepressible emotional reactions: shock; blood draining from her face, tears coming to her eyes, her hands beginning to tremble. Only after all this can a decision be made that will lead to action, which may be impulsive—she throws a plate at him—or may be rational—telling him to get out, or leaving the room herself. The point is Ellen's decision will be triggered by her emotional response, meaning what goes on inside her head that, in real time, may have taken only a second or two, but the author's exposure of her emotions could be sentences or paragraphs. After the emotion, and maybe days later, she makes her decision, which could demand more paragraphs or even pages of creative writing full of emotion to carry her from Sam's brash words through REACTION to DECISION to ACTION. Authors who cover such episodes in one sentence—she burst into tears and left the room—do an injustice to creative writing, to their characters, to the readers, and to themselves.
     The moral is: make your characters' emotions identifiable and everybody will say; "The characters in your story are truly memorable." In terms of delivering reader enjoyment and appreciation, characters' beauty, grace, dignity, immorality, or any other good or bad attribute are less important than the emotions they experience. The important issue is the internal struggle your characters experience explains their decision, which, in turn, explains their action. Readers may or may not have experienced the same trauma as your characters, but when they can identify it, they will love your story. Therefore, the author must show mental torment to the readers. In doing so, the author often suffers mental torment, which is exactly what he tries to get on paper.

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Number104 — September 29, 2006
Above All Else

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As I look back over two years of my articles on creative writing, I'm amazed how they developed and progressed. I began Article 1 inauspiciously with a few introductory words that launched my favorite topic; story planning through characterization. Today, I sit down to write my last article in this series, and I ask myself two questions:

  1. Have I written anything worthwhile?
  2. What have I omitted?

     It is not my right to answer the first. To respond to the second, I reread all the articles from beginning to end. I found some obvious space fillers, I suppose written when my muse was asleep and left me on my own. On the other hand, I found some stuff—I hesitate to grade my own work—that had some merit. In particular, I noted the following I judged to be of particular importance for further study:

  1. No. 11 — Action and Character;
  2. Nos. 71, 72 & 77 — Punctuation and Grammar;
  3. Nos. 89 to 95 – Infusing Emotion; and in particular 94 & 95 defining external & internal conflict.
  4. No. 103 – Action and Character.

     My review revealed two omissions. I noted references to several books I found useful in my study, but found one significant exclusion. I did not mention Immediate Fiction — A Complete Writing Course by Jerry Cleaver. I cannot possibly rate books, but I can safely say here is one from which every author will benefit. Buy it, read it, and when finished, read it again. It's crammed with practical, no-nonsense statements and instruction. Mr. Cleaver is a writing instructor in Chicago. If ever you should happen to have the opportunity to attend his course and you do not grab it, you'll be sorry forever after.
     The other omission is the subject of this article, Above All Else. For six years, I delivered countless free four-hour seminars on creative writing throughout Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In my talks, I suggested authors should set aside a specific time to write every day; a quiet period without interruption and diversions. If becoming a successful author is your goal, then the only answer is to dedicate yourself to the task. Even, if you can only devote twenty or thirty minutes to writing, do it every day.
     Writing longhand, a person could easily fill a page in twenty minutes; say 200 words; more if you use a computer and are a good typist. In thirty days, that would be 6,000 words. In a year, 72,000 words; a reasonable sized novel. Long before the year ends, however, you will find your writing minutes have increased to hours and other activities have dwindled, until eventually you reach the wonderful years of independence and writing becomes your job. The moral: Above all else, success comes when you discipline yourself to make it happen.
     The Book Doctor Series has been a rewarding experience for me. Before I say goodbye, I want to express my thanks to Jay Johnson. I'm sure you know him as owner and publisher of the Banyon Network and associated web sites. He invited me into his fold on the strength of a two-line testimonial I wrote for a Florida author about five years ago. What a fortuitous endorsement it turned out to be. I would not have missed writing the Book Doctor series for the world.
     And now, as they say in my native land, "Il est fait. Merci, au revoir, et la bonne chance dans le monde de lettres."

Mission Accomplished

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